Frozen pellets of sleet carried by the icy March winds stung Lieutenant Margaret Peterson's face. The late snowstorm wasn't uncommon.
Welcome to Warfield, Ohio.
With one gloved hand Margo held her coat closed at her throat. The other hand, ungloved, remained in her pocket as she hurried to her new car parked in the lot across from the bar. At 1:00 a.m. the streets were dark with minimal traffic. A lone streetlamp lent an angelic glow to the beautiful pearl color of her Lexus.
Closing out a bar wasn't new for her; usually at times like these, in the quiet of the night after hours of being sized up by hungry men, she felt like Margo, not Margaret, a woman instead of a lieutenant. Despite her reasons for being at the bar this time, playing the game left her feeling sexier, softer, more vulnerable—the opposite of her kick-ass cop persona.
But right now, she was both soft woman and commanding lieutenant, balancing the image she needed to convey with the ability she'd honed.
For months she'd been unofficially undercover, hoping to glean information on the bastards who ensnared women, forcing them into seedy porn movies that included bondage, domination and some sick, sexually inspired discipline.
If the women had been willing, well then, she'd leave them to it. Who was she to judge? She wasn't a hypocrite; she believed in consenting adults doing as they pleased.
But abducted women? Abused women?
The first young lady who'd come to them had been disoriented, confused and so incredibly scared. The bastards had grabbed her, blindfolded her and taken her to a vacant building, where they'd forced her to star in an underground porno. Maybe they'd let her go because they knew they'd be cleared out by the time anyone would find their location.
And maybe, just maybe, they had planned to only do one video. But like most sick fucks, once they got a taste of their perversion, they wanted more.
Margaret detested all bullies, took great pleasure in bringing down criminals, but she had a very special, deep-rooted red-hot hatred for men who sexually mistreated women. It was the worst type of degradation, the most demoralizing thing that could happen to a female.
Her heart beat harder, faster, just thinking of it. Fury rivaled the cold, heating her from the inside out with molten hatred.
Eventually, one way or another, she would crack this case and annihilate the ones responsible—or die trying.
Hanging in local bars—the very locations where the women were often targeted—had seemed an ideal setup. For too many months, right through the holidays, she had spent several nights a week on the prowl ... without a single nibble.
Others had given up. The captain believed the bastards had either shut down or moved their enterprise elsewhere. In her bones, Margo sensed they were still around. And then, just last week, a woman showed up at the station. Bruised, traumatized, hysterical, she had barely escaped.
That made four instances now, two of them fatal. Margaret was determined to get to the bottom of it, so on top of the reignited but routine investigation, she kept her eyes and ears open while trolling the "less respectable" bars.
Nothing new in that, really.
Being a female lieutenant with tough-as-nails notoriety complicated dating. And with her particular tastes ...
"You shouldn't be out here alone."
Before she could register that deep voice as someone she recognized, Margo had her coat open, her loaded Glock in her hand.
The weapon didn't faze him.
Tall and handsome and far too carefree, he stared into her eyes. Even in the dim light through the neverending sleet, she saw his crooked smile and she felt his anticipation.
Well, hell. Spending hours in a classless bar amid nasty drunks had less impact on her tension than Dashiel Riske's half smile.
She didn't lower the gun, but she did keep her finger off the trigger. "Stupid move, Dash."
"Approaching you in the dark?" He stepped closer and, moving her gun hand aside, put his fists in the lapels of her coat and pulled it closed against the blustering wind. The position had his hands near her breasts—and caused her heartbeat to stall. "Would you shoot me?"
"No." She was trained enough to discern a threat before firing. "But I might slug you."
Taking liberties, he slid his hands up and under her collar to draw her closer. "Is that forthcoming?" He angled his face down to hers. "Should I duck for cover?"
"No." If he weren't so warm, she'd have pushed him away. Maybe.
Dash was such a player, never taking anything seriously—most especially not women. Where other men hesitated, he forged on with sensual confidence born from success.
For a while there he'd hung at the bars with her, specifically Rowdy's bar, Getting Rowdy, the closest to where the women had been grabbed. He'd adequately allowed her to use him as a prop in her scam. With Dash, she could pretend to be an easy drunk and easier prey.
Even though she'd sometimes sat on his lap, kissed his neck or ear—even felt him up—other women had come on to him. She didn't like to think he'd done without during their ruse.
But she hated even more to think of him hooking up.
When she'd started to feel jealous, she knew she had to cut him free.
At first he'd objected, but then the holidays had come and the department had given up on finding the sick fucks responsible....
"What are you doing here, Margo?"
After a glance around, she tucked the Glock .40 back into the specially designed inside pocket of her coat, where she also kept another fully loaded magazine. "What are you doing here?"
"I vote we sit in your car out of this ice storm and then I'll tell you."
It beat freezing to death, so Margo turned and, with a touch of her hand to the driver's-side handle, released the autolock. Sliding into the leather seat, she pushed the keyless ignition button. Dash walked around the hood and folded his big body into the passenger seat. The small, sleek car fit her perfectly. But Dash's muscular frame looked a little squashed, making her almost smile.
"You can move the seat back," she told him.
"Thanks." He adjusted it, which allowed him to stretch out his jean-covered legs a few inches.
The interior felt like a meat locker from having been in the dark, bitter cold. She turned up the heater, set the climate control for both heated seats and relocked the doors.
"A gift to myself." But she didn't want to talk to Dash about that. She'd spent too many months blocking him from all personal thoughts.
He studied her in silence. "How long were you at the bar?"
Far too long considering it had turned out to be a waste of time. "Why?"
"Just wondering if you might have had a little too much to drink."
"Of course I didn't." He'd done this routine with her enough times to know she never let herself get tipsy. She had the slightest buzz—but was as rock-steady as ever. "A few beers, that's all."
"Beer, huh? Longnecks?"
"Of course." She varied her routine from one bar to the other, just in case her drinking habits factored in to the minds of the psychopaths preying on their victims. She showed up at each bar pretending to be already drunk and then added to that perception by her loose behavior.
"I suppose you're as good at holding your liquor as you are at everything else?"
Was that a condescending tone she heard? "I know my limit." Anything she did, she did well. It was sort of family law—if you weren't going to excel, don't bother.
Tapping her fingers on the steering wheel, she said, "Well? Let's hear it. Were you following me or will you claim this is happenstance?"
"I didn't follow you, but I was looking for you."
"Scouring bars?" And why now? Months had passed without him seeking her out, when she'd been almost positive that he would.
Not that she was bitter about it or anything. She'd ended things for a reason—a reason that still existed.
Dash gave an infuriating shrug. "Before you gave up, this is the night we would have met at Rowdy's."
"Call me sentimental, but I miss it." After the slightest pause, he added, "I miss you."
"Really?" She refused to be sucked back in by his charm. The holidays had been almost intolerable—in part because she'd spent too much time thinking about him. Spring was upon them, and with it came a renewed sense of purpose, a purpose that didn't include Dashiel Riske.
In that warm, teasing voice of his, he said, "Miss me." He shifted, sending electrical awareness into the air. "Just a little maybe?"
Fond memories made her fight a smile. "We did have some fun." Rowdy's bar had quickly become her favorite hangout. Getting Rowdy was a clean but comfortable place that served simple meals, good drinks and fun entertainment, like pool and darts, and a dance floor.
Best of all, badass Rowdy Yates stayed around to run the place himself. That was incentive enough to turn the staunchest teetotaler into a booze hound.
Though Rowdy and his bartender, Avery, had married over Christmas, he was still a sinfully gorgeous hunk surrounded by an aura of danger and sensual menace, more than worth a fantasy or two.
"Admit it," Dash murmured, watching her with probing intent. "Admit that you missed me."
She reluctantly gave her attention back to Dash—and wanted to groan. A lonely streetlamp gave faint illumination to his features, but she knew every nuance of his gorgeous face. No, he didn't have Rowdy's bad-boy rep, but his razor-sharp sensuality and construction-worker physique churned up a different type of fantasy.
Too bad she knew they'd never suit.
"Maybe," she agreed. "Just a little."
"I'm wounded—especially considering I wasn't your first pick."
No, he wasn't. She'd initially wanted Rowdy to play her counterpart in the role of bar trollop, but Avery Mul-lins, now Yates, had already staked a rock-solid claim. Not a big deal because she knew she never would have gotten involved with Rowdy anyway, not beyond a one-night stand.
"As I recall, you offered."
"More like insisted."
She inclined her head in agreement. As second choice, she'd accepted Dash's help with her cover, help she needed to give her a reason to hang around the bar without getting hit on by every lonely sap alive. She wanted to look the part of helpless, vulnerable, female boozer, but she didn't want to appear too pathetic.
The first woman who'd escaped had initially been at the bar with a boyfriend. They'd parted ways at the door, and she'd gotten snatched right off the street.
So Margo set herself up as easy prey by following the same scenario—with Dash.
"I'd love to know what you're thinking." Dash looked her over in a way that felt far too physical.
That I missed you so much, too. Blocking that response, she asked, "What are we doing here, Dash? It's getting late and I've had a full day."
His gaze narrowed, proving she'd hit a nerve. "If you wanted to start back at the bar scene, you should have given me a call."
"I'm a big girl. I can handle it alone."
His gaze moved over her face. "Do Logan and Reese know what you're doing?"
Oh, now that just pissed her off. She settled into the corner of the seat, getting comfortable for this long-overdue confrontation. She would have preferred somewhere less ... confined, maybe a location where his presence didn't fill every inch of her space, where she didn't breathe in his scent, where his tall, ripped body wasn't so temptingly close.
But all she had was the here and now, so she'd make her point and then send him on his way. "You're confusing yourself, Dash. My detectives answer to me, not the other way around."
He disregarded her commanding tone and clear umbrage to say, "So they don't know?"
"I don't answer to anyone, especially not you."
As if finally realizing her mood, he raised his brows. "You know it's dangerous."
"I can handle danger." Hadn't she spent too many nights being dangerously attracted to him?
"What if your ploy works and someone grabs you?"
"That's the plan." And yes, it was dangerous. Deep down, she knew it wasn't right. But deep down, she had so damn many issues....
"You need backup." Before she could say anything, Dash whispered, "Let me be your backup."
"You and I have different objectives."
"I want to sleep with you," he admitted without reserve. "You want to catch some creeps—so sure, our main objectives are miles apart."
Plainspoken Dash. Margo shook her head, denying what he wanted and how his brazen words affected her.
"But," Dash said with emphasis, "the two aren't mutually exclusive. I'd like to see the creeps caught, same as you."
He'd like to see them caught. No sign of outrage or disgust at what happened, at what the men did—or what the women suffered.
Margo blew out a breath. If she involved Rowdy Yates, he would go after the bastards with single-minded intent.
Dash's brother, Detective Logan Riske, one of the most honest, honorable, driven men she knew, always attacked injustice. He was seriousness personified.
Funny how the two brothers were so dissimilar in personality.
Logan saw her as a sexless superior, not a woman. But Dash had been making his interest known almost from the moment they'd met. Unlike Logan, he played at life and enjoyed every moment.
In many ways, Margo was just like the rest of her family. Being a cop was in her blood.
But other things ... other genetic ties.
"I'm pretty sure," Dash went on, interrupting her disturbing thoughts, "that you want to sleep with me, too."
A denial would be pointless. Dash knew women. Instead, she gave him the truth. "It won't happen."
"For one thing, I'm the lieutenant at a station previously plagued by corruption. I spent a lot of time and made a lot of enemies clearing out the trash." More than one bad cop had lost his job. Other, less conscientious cops resented her for turning out their friends.
Logan and Reese were two of only a handful of good cops who had backed her 100 percent.
With anything work-related, she trusted them both. Away from the station ... she preferred they stay out of her business.
Sleeping with the brother of a lead detective would definitely blur the lines.
"It's important that I keep my personal life completely separate from work." Few would understand her personal life, and too many others would use it against her.
"You think I'd gossip with Logan?"
"Probably Reese, too." Logan and Detective Reese had been buddies forever; Logan and Dash were as close as two brothers could be. They all hung out together.
That made the circle far too close for her peace of mind.
"Seriously?" Dash angled his broad shoulders into the corner of the car to better face her. "You think guys sit around and share conquests?"
"Conquests?" Margo smirked. "Is that what you call it?"
"I might if I was the pathetic type to brag about how and when and with whom I had sex." Getting comfortable, he unzipped his coat, showing a black thermal crew-neck shirt beneath. "But here's a news flash for you—I don't screw and tell. At least, not since I was seventeen. And trust me, even if I was the type—and again, I'm not—do you really think Logan or Reese wants to hear about us doing the nasty?"
Curiosity finally got her attention off his throat and up to his dark brown eyes. She tipped her head. "Would it be nasty?"
Dash watched her for several seconds before replying. "Entirely up to you." His voice went deep and dark. "It can go any way you want—as long as it goes."
She imagined sex with Dash would be ... fine. Satisfying, sure. The man exuded testosterone and confidence. But it'd be the same old run-of-the-mill bang-for-fun encounter. He'd be polite, a gentleman. Considerate. It'd take the edge off, but there'd be no real depth. No risk.
Unfortunately, that just didn't do it for her.