A Taste of... Autumn's Prize

Chapter One

Lorna Mercer swiped at a strand of dark brown hair that refused to stay tucked into her ponytail before smacking her laptop shut. The stack of books and scratchpads to her left seemed to stare at her with quiet disapproval.

“Sorry, guys.” She pushed away from the white desk, one of the wheels on her chair squealing in protest as she slid across her bedroom floor. “Ten hours of study time with one break for Mom’s homemade chicken fettuccini is enough. More than enough.”

And now you’re talking to your school supplies. Awesome. This is how nervous breakdowns start.

Unlike the teens in one of those cheesy CW shows, no one ever struggled to convince Lorna that her education mattered. She’d taken her schooling seriously since kindergarten, preferring to practice her addition facts during recess while her friends played kickball or dodgeball or some other sports-ball activity.

This natural drive had stayed with her throughout her academic journey. Senior year of high school would commence in a month, and she doubted her dedication to learning would abate until she’d walked across a stage to accept her college diploma.

However, even she had limits.

Light flashed in Lorna’s peripheral vision. She leapt out of the chair and hurried over to the bedroom window to peer into their backyard. Shadows peered back.

After several moments, her shoulders slumped. Maybe she’d studied so long, her eyes were playing tricks on her. More proof that she needed a break.

As she started to turn away, the light flashed again. Once. Twice. Three times. No way had she imagined that.

Her pulse quickened a little, and she shook her head, smiling. Her boyfriend was almost certainly the cause of the impromptu light show. No doubt he was out there right now, crouching behind one of their big trees and waving his flashlight in his silly, primeval method of getting her to break away from the books.

“It’s your lucky night, Kev.” Lorna tossed her cell phone into her purse before slinging the strap over her shoulder. She pressed an ear to her bedroom door and held her breath.

No signs of life in the hallway. Red team, go!

After creeping into the second-floor hallway, she eased her door shut, flinching when it latched with a soft click.

Light glinted from the television and illuminated the foyer’s high ceilings. Lorna tiptoed down the stairs, pausing on each step to make sure her parents hadn’t been alerted to her descent. Granted, an entire wall kept her safe from their field of vision, but the creak of one wooden plank was all it would take to draw their attention.

At the bottom of the stairs, she paused to exhale a silent sigh of relief. So far, so good. Halfway to the kitchen, the harsh bark of her father’s drunken laughter made her freeze.

Seven o’clock. That meant he was knee-deep into Saturday Night Live re-runs and probably his fifth or sixth beer.

Lorna would have bet money that her mom was sitting on the couch next to him, folding clothes and refilling his chip bowl every so often. Whatever it took to keep her father mollified.

A familiar wave of disgust rippled through her as she pictured the two of them. In their own separate ways, her parents had both given up on life a long time ago. Instead of actively pursuing happiness or taking any steps to improve their situation or marriage, her mom and dad kept acting out the same sad scenario, again and again.

Rather than letting that fact depress her, Lorna used their empty marriage to stoke her own motivation to free herself from this terrible play. She refused to end up like either of them.

She rounded the final corner and bolted past the kitchen toward the back door. Another fine-tuned, vigilant exit delivered her to the backyard, where she was finally free to sprint across the grass. In the fading evening sunlight, the stand of trees in the distance formed a shadowy marker of their property line.

Per tradition that dated back to freshman year, Kevin would be waiting for her in the grove. As long as she was back within half an hour or so, her parents would never detect her absence. Or at least, they hadn’t detected it the dozens of times she’d pulled this stunt before.

“Babe,” Kevin was all smiles as she entered the cover of towering pines, “that run was pretty kick-ass. You sure you don’t wanna reconsider your career options? I’m picturing Olympic gold.”

Lorna giggled at his mock-seriousness and gave him a playful pat to the arm. “Right. That’s so going to happen.” She grabbed his hand, letting him guide her deeper into the darkened woods with his phone’s flashlight.

“You can text me, ya know.”

He bumped her shoulder with his arm. “Signaling is more romantic.”

She grinned. He wasn’t wrong.

Reaching their usual spot, Kevin smoothed out the pine needles blanketing the dirt before spreading a soft blanket on the ground. The gesture released some of the pent-up tension cramping Lorna’s chest. At seventeen years of age, he was more of a gentleman than her father had ever been.

A sense of peace engulfed her as she dropped down beside him. How sad was it that she felt more at home here among the trees than in her actual house? “Athletic endeavors and I have never been friends.”

Kevin pulled her close and kissed her nose, his shaggy blond hair tickling her forehead. “True story. You’re a brainiac. Always have been, always will be. But even your big ole brain needs a break once in a while.” He fished a joint out of his pocket and presented it with a flourish, waving his hand and bowing his head. “M’lady. The first hit is for you alone.”

His dorky nature had reeled Lorna in when she was just fourteen. Kevin could make her—or anyone else for that matter—laugh their butt off. Lurking beneath that goofiness, though, was an intellect and drive to excel that rivaled her own. To top it off, he was a great kisser too. Not that she had anyone to compare him to. He’d been hers since her freshman year.

Lorna accepted his offering and the lighter that accompanied it. “It would be an honor, good sir.” She flicked the purple Bic until an orange flame sprang to life. After a few puffs to get the joint started, she inhaled a giant drag, the earthy smoke burning her windpipe on the way down like hot sand.

Kevin held up a finger. “Hold it. Hold it. Hooold it.”

Lorna made it exactly four seconds before her body rebelled. Eyes watering and lungs on fire, she sputtered out the smoke and plunged straight into an inevitable coughing fit. Kevin took his hit while she gasped and wheezed. Shoving a hand into her purse, she searched for the familiar shape of her inhaler.

“You took a big one.” He gently patted her on the back. “You all right?”

Remembering that the inhaler was still sitting on her desktop, Lorna waved a hand at Kevin, unbothered even as her shoulders racked with coughs. Her boyfriend was sweet, but he always worried too much about her asthma. She’d been dealing with the condition since her toddler days. At this point, she considered her illness more of a nuisance than anything else.

“Babe?” Kevin’s face was filled with concern. “If you can’t find your inhaler, maybe we should just call it a night so you can go back inside. I don’t want you choking to death. Jesus.”

Lorna’s breathing began to even out, allowing her to access her vocal cords once again. “I’m fine. I promise.” She laced her fingers through Kevin’s. “I’ll go back in soon, but not yet.” She stretched toward him and pressed her mouth to his. She needed this. Needed him. Even for a little while.

As Kevin’s warm lips moved over hers, Lorna closed her eyes and attempted to forget her studies, senior year, college, and the mounting pressure that accompanied this stage of life.

She tried, but she couldn’t.

Emitting a heavy sigh, she gently broke away. “Ugh. I swear all I can focus on right now is stressful academia bullcrap.” Since she was being honest, she might as well go all the way. “And my parents. They’re driving me crazy about the scholarship.”

Kevin groaned and fell back on the blanket. “Mine too. I’m beginning to think we should just shirk off all this college stuff and go backpack around Europe instead.”

Lorna grabbed the joint from Kevin’s fingers and took a much smaller, smoother hit. Leaning back on her elbows, she blew out the smoke. “The problem with that plan is that traveling costs money, and we don’t have any.”

“True. But all we have to do is get our parents to hand us our college funds, and we’ve got it made in the shade.” Knowing as well as she did how farfetched the notion was, he laughed, and Lorna joined him.

“I’m guessing Sean and Abby will never in a million years agree to that plan.” Lorna pictured her father slouched against the couch cushions, probably on his seventh beer by now, and her laughter died.

Calling her parents by their first names was an increasingly frequent occurrence these days. “Dad” and “Mom” no longer seemed applicable. Those were terms of affection, and Lorna harbored a different type of emotion for her parents.

They’d convinced her not to worry about getting a part-time job throughout high school, gloating about how their daughter would only have to focus on her studies. Back then, in her blissful ignorance, she’d counted herself lucky. Not all parents had both the means and desire to take care of their children’s material needs.

Her mouth twisted. Sean and Abby had stayed true to their word. Lorna never had to worry about cash for gas or mall runs or the movies. It wasn’t until she entered this final year of living in her parents’ home that she understood why they’d been so dismissive of her attempts to earn her own money…control.

Her parents had all the money. Lorna had nothing. That meant they retained all the power, even after she turned eighteen. Her dependency on their handouts had been cemented over a slow, quiet course of time without her knowledge.

She toed a hole in the pine needles and sighed before pulling her shoulders back in determination. Remember the plan.

After too many restless nights and days filled with helpless frustration, Lorna had finally accepted reality and come up with a plan. As long as her parents kept her dependent on them, she’d take full advantage of their money. She’d use their cash to get an Ivy League education, score a high-paying job, and launch a successful career. Once her own income was streaming in, she’d cut ties with them so fast their heads would spin.

When she’d made enough money, she’d travel the world. And two people who were never going to receive an invitation to accompany her on those trips were her mother and father.

Maybe then, Sean and Abby would finally understand how messed up it was to manipulate their kid.

Kevin touched her cheek. “How’s your dad been lately?”

“The same.” Lorna had no reason to sugarcoat her reply. She was done covering up what an asshole her father was. “He’s drunk or angry or both. Treats Mom like crap. And she still just takes it like a damn whipping horse.”

“Hey.” Kevin pulled her into his arms. “She’s probably doing that ‘cause she thinks it’s somehow best for you. She wants you to have a happy home life and all that stuff.”

Lorna rested her head against Kevin’s shoulder. “All that stuff is bullshit. I’m ready to start my own life. One that isn’t a big circus show.”

Kevin held her tight. “And you will. You’re almost there, Lorna. We both are. We’re gonna get the hell out of Dearborn and never look back.”

He spoke with such conviction that emotion welled in her chest. To stop herself from crying, she kissed him again. Losing herself in pleasant sensations, Lorna spent the next few minutes forgetting about the world that existed outside of their little pine-cove hideaway.

Crunch. Crunch.

She jerked away from Kevin so fast that her ponytail lashed him in the face. “Did you hear that?”

“No. What?”

“Footsteps, like someone was walking this way.” Lorna was sure the crackling noises had been real.

Her heart raced as they sat in silence. After seconds passed with only the normal chorus of forest life reaching their ears, Kevin busted into laughter. “Babe. I think you’re high.”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “I think you’re high.”

“Safe to say we both are. C’mon.” He leaned his face toward hers again. “You gotta go in soon.”

Despite the logic of his explanation, Lorna couldn’t quite shake the chill snaking down her back. “What if someone’s spying on us?” She scooted closer to him, attempting to scan the woods beyond their little den. Nothing there but shadows from trees and darkness.

Kevin locked his hands around her waist. “Well, if someone is spying on us, I’d say they’re getting a pretty PG show so far. Maybe we should give them their money’s worth?” He chuckled and ducked his head to steal another kiss.

Lorna met his lips, but even as she returned his kisses, part of her concentration remained attuned to the still summer air.

Crunch. Crunch.

This time, Kevin jumped along with her. “Okay. I heard that. What the hell?”

Too scared to speak, Lorna clung to his shirt.

“Um.” He stood, pulling her up beside him. “Maybe we should get you back to your house.”

Dry mouthed, Lorna nodded her frantic agreement. She wanted out of there. Now.

They weaved through the trees in the semi-darkness as quickly as possible, Lorna’s mind spinning through options. She wasn’t about to leave Kevin out here alone, but sneaking him past her dad could also lead to disaster.

Maybe if I act like he just showed up for a book or notes or study stuff, he can

She spotted the man a split second before he emerged from the shadows and whacked Kevin across the side of the head with a small, black object. Her scream was cut short when the assailant whirled and trained the object on her head.

Gun.

“You’ll wanna keep your mouth shut.” He knelt to the ground, sliding one hand beneath Kevin’s upper body while keeping the weapon pointed at her. “Drop your purse and pick up his feet. Now!”

Lorna’s muscles were cramping with fright, but his yell spurred her into action. Her hands shook so violently that she struggled to grip Kevin’s ankles.

“Up.” The man’s growl intensified. “Pick his damn feet up, or I’m gonna shoot you both right now.”

Holding back a whimper, Lorna hefted Kevin’s feet as high as she could, bracing them against her hips for support. Her arms burned from the effort. She wasn’t a small girl, and Kevin wasn’t a large boy, but their weight and strength differences were considerable.

It doesn’t matter. You drop him, you’re dead. We both are.

The stranger shoved his gun into the waistband of his jeans, grunting as he lifted Kevin under his shoulders. “You walk with me. It isn’t far. And don’t you think for a second I won’t grab that gun and shoot you both dead if you try anything. You scream, I shoot him. You run, I shoot him. And I’ll fucking shoot you one second after. Nod if you understand.”

Lorna’s head bobbed up and down, causing tears to drip from her chin. She prayed wherever they were going was farther than he’d estimated. This asshole only needed to trip or fall just once to give her an opportunity to escape.

She wasn’t naïve. Lorna didn’t believe for a minute that he planned to spare either of their lives. He wasn’t robbing them. He was trying to take them. Kidnap them.

If he pulled off the abduction, nothing good would happen after.

Her best bet would be to flee the second their attacker lost his footing. She could run for help and hope…hope that Kevin was still alive by the time assistance arrived.

This isn’t real. This can’t be happening.

Lorna’s skin turned to ice when she spotted the navy-blue sedan not fifty feet ahead. It was pulled off the road, past the turnabout at the end of Lorna’s street. Hidden in a thicket of shrubs that lined the far side of the forest.

Time was running out.

Lorna’s arm and back muscles burned as she stumbled along. She frantically scanned their surroundings, but there was no one there. No one to save them. And the man kept plodding along, as solid on his feet as a damn donkey. No tripping, no falling. No chance to flee. He only glanced away from her long enough to check that the path ahead was clear. If she tried to run, he’d shoot her dead before she made it more than a couple of steps.

Kevin would be next.

A sob gathered in her chest, but she choked the noise down, terrified he might mistake it for a scream and kill them both. When they reached the car, the trunk lid was already ajar. Their assailant nudged it open. “I’m going to count to three, and you’re going to help me dump him in there.”

The term “dump” struck Lorna as particularly brutal. Dumping was what you did with trash. Not humans. Goose bumps streaked across her flesh when she realized that garbage was exactly how this man viewed them.

Her body started to tremble. Maybe she could still make a run for it. Drop Kevin’s feet while the man’s back was turned and take off for the nearest house.

“I know what you’re thinking, and it won’t work.” The snarling voice yanked her from her desperate plan. “I’ll shoot him before I even attempt to shoot you. He’ll be dead, and then I’ll chase you down and shoot you too…along with anyone who tries to help. You want to be responsible for that, huh? You want your boyfriend’s brains all over the damn ground?”

Swallowing hard, Lorna gazed at Kevin’s handsome face. She shook her head. “Please don’t hurt him.” Her voice wobbled.

“I won’t…if you do as you’re told.” The man jerked his head toward the trunk. “On three. One. Two. Three.”

Lorna swung Kevin’s feet into the compartment, sentencing her boyfriend to a fate that might end up worse than a bullet to the head.

This way, there’s still a chance, though. How can you let him kill Kevin if there’s even a tiny chance you could both make it out alive?

She cringed when Kevin landed with a loud thump. Freed from his burden, the kidnapper aimed his gun at her once again. He stretched his other hand into the trunk and extracted a roll of duct tape. “Now, you’re going to wrap his ankles.”

Lorna’s horror trapped her in place. Was she supposed to dig Kevin’s grave and bury him too? She cowered as the man stepped toward her.

His hair seemed unnaturally dark against his pale complexion, and large glasses did little to hide the hate in his blue eyes. “I’m just kidding, you little dumbass. I’ll be doing that myself.”

She shivered, her mind whirling in an attempt to process everything that was happening. When he was distracted, maybe she could run or even attack. She could—

Air fanned her face an instant before the gun struck her temple.

Pain exploded in her skull, and she dropped to the ground, no longer terrified or torn with indecision.

No longer aware that the nightmare was just beginning.

Chapter Two

Special Agent Autumn Trent opened her eyes with a smile playing on her lips. The hum of her bedroom fan was as peaceful as always, but on this particular Sunday morning, there was a much sweeter sound to greet her.

She remained still for a moment, enjoying the soft rasp of Aiden Parrish’s breathing as he slept beside her. The picture his muscular body all tangled up in her sheets was soothing, his presence filling her with a novel type of joy.

She turned toward him and rested her cheek against the soft linen of her pillow. Messy brown hair jutted in haphazard protrusions above his relaxed brow. Thick lashes curtained the closed lids of his ever-intense, cool blue gaze. For once, the Supervisory Special Agent wasn’t preoccupied with a case or barking out orders to his Behavioral Analysis Unit at the Richmond Field Office.

Tucked away in her bed, Aiden appeared softer. Younger. Vulnerable, even. Autumn knew she’d been granted privileged access to a side of Aiden few ever encountered.

Never in a million years could you have predicted this happening…even if secretly, you’ve wanted it for a while now.

Before last night, she’d never allowed herself to dwell long on her developing feelings for Aiden or entertain the notion of a relationship with him. He was her superior and married to the job. There were simply too many complications for them to take unnecessary risks.

Until last night, when the spark between them erupted into an inferno.

Autumn stroked his bicep, reveling in the warmth of his skin. “And I guess now we just let it burn, huh?” Her body still hummed with the exhilaration of the last twelve hours, a sensation heightened by her unique power.

Her sixth sense ability to read another person’s emotions with a simple touch hadn’t always been a gift she could appreciate. Since suffering a severe head injury as a child at the hands of her biological father and undergoing emergency brain surgery, she’d often loathed the odd “gift” that had accompanied her recovery.

One night in Aiden’s arms left her treasuring her capability in a brand new way. The intimacy of experiencing both his physical and emotional desires had filled a void somewhere deep inside her. Already, her heart and body clamored for more.

Somewhere beneath the afterglow, a warning surfaced, cautioning her not to grow too hungry for that connection.

Stop worrying. You deserve to enjoy this for now.

Easier said than done.

She closed her eyes and sighed. After a childhood full of abuse, abandonment, and foster homes, her skeptical reaction to anything this good was to be expected.

A little time, that was all she needed. A chance to accept that this newfound bliss was real and not a trick or some kind of mirage.

“So.” Aiden’s eyes popped open as a languid grin spread across his rugged face. “Do you intend to be a ‘stare at you while you’re sleeping’ creeper indefinitely or just this morning, Agent Trent?”

Autumn sputtered into laughter, too amused to experience any actual shame or embarrassment. “I guess I’ve picked up a thing or two from all of these serial killers.”

Widening his eyes in mock terror, Aiden shook his head. “Terrible pillow talk skills.”

Toad chose that moment to make his Pomeranian presence known. Abandoning his previous spot of luxury stretched across Autumn’s feet, he wriggled his way between their bodies as though it was his official duty to separate them.

“Don’t worry.” Autumn patted Toad’s bouncing fur-butt as he bathed Aiden’s face with slobber-laced kisses. “The Toadster would never let anybody hurt you.”

Tough federal agent that he was, Aiden was still no match for Toad’s “so ugly he’s cute” snaggle-toothed charm. He scratched the tiny canine’s chin and snorted. “I’m sure he means well, but I don’t believe Toad is true guard dog material.”

Autumn wished her colleagues could behold their fearless leader now. There was a lot more to the unreadable SSA beneath the stone-faced guise he wore to work.

Yet, there was also a certain satisfaction in being the sole spectator of Aiden Parrish’s softer moments. He trusted her and only her enough to let his impenetrable walls down. The rarity made their connection all the more precious.

Autumn scanned the room for Peach’s ginger body, aware that Aiden would have a much harder time winning the vigilant feline over. She was confident he’d get there, though, as the tabby was all meow and no bite.

Mostly.

Aiden reached across Toad to caress Autumn’s cheek. “Please tell me you aren’t diving down the rabbit hole of overanalysis and regret.”

His tone was casual enough, but the sudden tension in his jaw betrayed his concern, even without the worry streaming through his touch.

Autumn’s heart softened with wonder. This big, tough man beside her was scared too. Not over a murderer or a terrorist threat, but over them. Her. He was frightened about whatever was happening here between them.

Running a finger across his brow, she captured his gaze. “No regrets. None. But asking a BAU agent and forensic psychologist to not overanalyze might be a bit of a stretch.”

“Fair enough.”

Relief pulsed from his palm to her cheek like a warm shower. She leaned over, planting a kiss on his forehead. “I’m more than happy to leave the days of miscommunication and angst behind.”

Aiden gave her a playful grin. “Good to know. I was beginning to think you enjoyed the constant state of emotional chaos.” He propped up on one elbow and stretched out to kiss her. The heat of his lips burned against her own, suggesting that perhaps they’d both benefit from a fresh round of nonverbal communication.

A wet, canine tongue lapped at her arm. She bit back a sigh. Before things got too hot and heavy, Toad needed to relinquish his throne between them.

Her phone buzzed, and Autumn grabbed the device from her bedside table. She groaned at the screen. “Doctor Philip Baldwin. Again.”

“I swear to god.” Aiden dropped back against his pillow, the growl in his voice not remotely contained.

Autumn sympathized. Her inner response was much the same, but she couldn’t forget the possible reason behind Philip’s early morning call. “I have to take it. He might have an update about his niece.”

“Yep.” Aiden pulled the pillow over his face.

She fought back her laughter, wondering what types of tantrums the toddler version of Aiden Parrish had thrown. The grown-up model certainly wasn’t shy about expressing his dislikes. His disdain for Philip had been apparent since they’d first met last January while working a case at Virginia State Hospital, where the doctor worked as the medical director.

Surly and arrogant to a fault, Philip had given Aiden, Autumn, and the rest of the team reason to develop an instant aversion. The doctor had hated Autumn just as much if not more than she’d despised him.

After surviving a near-death experience together, though, Autumn and Philip had formed a bond of sorts that eventually transformed into genuine friendship. It was only when Philip professed his romantic affections for Autumn and surprised her with an unwanted kiss that their relationship returned to an uncomfortable state.

Aiden didn’t know about that kiss, and she’d just as soon keep it that way. The knowledge would only drive an even bigger wedge between the two of them.

Tapping at her screen, she accepted the doctor’s call before it could go to voicemail. “Good morning, Philip.”

“I’m so sorry to bother you so early in the morning.” Philip spoke in an agitated rush. “Lorna never came home. Her bed was still empty when my sister got up.”

Autumn sat up straight in bed, jostling Toad from his happy repose. Philip had called Autumn last night after his sister, Abby Mercer, had phoned him in a panic over his seventeen-year-old niece, claiming Lorna wasn’t in her room or answering her phone. Worse still, she’d left her inhaler behind.

At that time, Philip had believed the concern a bit premature, considering the types of shenanigans teenagers were universally known for. Autumn had agreed. Even the best-behaved teens demonstrated unpredictable behavior upon occasion. She’d told Philip to call her should the situation grow more serious.

Apparently, it had.

She pushed a curl behind her ear and attempted to switch into federal-agent mode. “Has Abby called all of Lorna’s friends? Is Abby even sure she knows all of Lorna’s friends?”

“She’s called them. That’s what makes it worse, actually. Abby’s boyfriend disappeared last night as well. Yet both of their cars are still at their homes.”

Her stomach dropped. “Does Abby think there’s a chance they maybe ran off together?”

He sighed, and Autumn envisioned his face weary with concern. “They have no money of their own and no reason to do so. Both of them are successful students on the verge of their senior year. Squeaky clean kids. And…”

Autumn waited for him to finish his sentence but received only silence. “And what?”

“This seems like a nightmare.” A muffled moan followed the statement. “Lorna and her boyfriend aren’t the first teenagers to go missing in Dearborn. Two of Lorna’s classmates are also unaccounted for. One has been missing for a week. The other for three days.”

“Two?” Autumn glanced at Aiden, who had removed the pillow from his face. “Making the total of missing kids four. I understand her distress now.”

Aiden raised his brows as he mouthed the word “four.” Autumn dipped her chin in confirmation.

Philip’s breathing rasped into the earpiece, as though he were rushing about. “I’m going to head to Abby’s house to try and get a clearer picture of the situation. I promised her I’d be on the road to Connecticut as soon as possible.” He paused a moment, his tone hesitant. “Would you be willing to consider what we discussed last night? About letting Agent Parrish know what’s happening here?”

Autumn met Aiden’s gaze. “I’ll speak with him immediately and will call you back while you’re on the road to Connecticut.”

“Thank you.” Philip cleared his throat. “I have a deep sense of foreboding about this situation.”

Autumn agreed but kept her opinion to herself, not wanting to worry him even more. “I’m going to do everything I can to help get her home. Speak with you soon.”

She ended the call and sank back against her pillow. “Lorna didn’t end up coming home last night. Her boyfriend went missing as well. Their cars are still at their houses. Two of their classmates have also been missing, one for a week and one for three days.”

Aiden’s SSA expression slid back into place, rearranging his features into a somber mask. “That’s certainly cause for concern. One missing teen could mean anything. Four is a much more significant number.”

Autumn ran a hand through Toad’s soft fur. “Can we help him?” An odd sensation of two realities colliding flooded her brain. She was, unofficially, on the job with her boss while simultaneously under the blankets with her…whatever he was now.

Imagine the chaos once the team finds out.

As she contemplated their fate, Autumn’s stomach somersaulted. No doubt she and Aiden could expect an earful from every colleague within the BAU about their relationship. Following the Bureau’s rules wouldn’t save them from the explosion of opinions.

Or objections.

“Well,” Aiden’s voice snapped her back to attention, “I can’t very well send the entire team out of state based on the scant information we have so far or without an invitation from local law enforcement. But I could probably spare an agent for a couple of days to make an unofficial visit.”

Autumn cocked her head. “Just one?”

He lifted a shoulder, the tiniest of smiles on his lips. “One plus me equals two.” The mattress dipped as he scooted closer, earning himself a loud grunt of protest from Toad. “I’m probably last on the list of agents Philip Baldwin would pick to show up in Dearborn, but I do know someone who has an in with the local sheriff, if it comes to that. So, if you’ll have me…”

She met his lips with a happy kiss. “Excellent idea.”

Wishing there was time to show him just how much she approved of the plan, Autumn instead threw back the covers and scanned the room for her suitcase.

“I can fly out the rest of the team if we decide we need them.” Aiden sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. “For now, there’s plenty of paperwork from the D.C. case to keep everyone busy at the field office.”

Autumn wagged a finger at Aiden from across the room. “You’re not going to be very popular when you drop that assignment.”

Paperwork was, without a doubt, every agent’s least favorite task. She should be saddled down at a desk with the mundane chore just like the rest of them.

And Lorna Mercer should be at home eating her Sunday morning breakfast. Stop with the ridiculous self-reproach. You’re doing your job.

Aiden scoffed. “I’ve held this supervisory position for far too long to worry about being elected homecoming king.” He strode across the floor and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Now, before we get started on a new case, I believe it to be of utmost importance that we don’t neglect what we’re currently dealing with.”

Autumn bit her lip while Aiden delivered kisses to her neck. “Unfinished business is unacceptable. Debriefings are crucial.” Tingles ran down her spine while he slid his hand into her hair.

“Precisely.”

The worry flashed through her mind that perhaps life had altered too quickly. That they were setting themselves up for a swift crash and burn.

Hunger coursed through her body. As she succumbed to the rush, Autumn decided going out in a blaze of glory was preferable to coasting safely past the finish line.

If this thing between them ended in smoke and ash? So be it. At least they’d experience the burn.

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Autumn's Prize (Autumn Trent Series: Book Eight) by Mary Stone

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