Copyright © Samara King 2018. All Rights Reserved, Totally Entwined Group Limited, T/A Totally Bound Publishing.
Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…will be at my mercy!
Detective Larisa Vega gripped the evidence bag in her hand. Inside was a torn, half-sheet of notebook paper, wrinkled as if it’d been folded a hundred times. She tossed the plastic on her cramped desk, the sickening feeling arising again at the pit of her stomach.
She wanted this psycho behind bars. Four actresses had been stalked within the last eight months with sporadic phone calls—usually hang-ups—and strange deliveries from dead roses to a dead rat, and they’d all inevitably been raped during mysterious screen calls or production meetings.
Larisa sighed as she leaned back in her chair. This was LA. Everyone wanted to be a star. No one was heeding the blatant warnings the media had feverishly aired every night for the last two months on television. Her stint in the anti-stalking violent crime unit First Defense had shown her the crueler side of humanity, yet she couldn’t deny the adrenaline she felt whenever she took down a bad guy. First Defense allowed her entry into the upper crust of society. The truth was that members of the elite were no different from the average Joe, especially when someone wanted to do them harm. At the end of the day, everyone wanted to feel safe.
Larisa didn’t believe humans were basically good, just greedy. She gazed around the floor. Her special division was comprised of four other special agents—Elijah Grayson, Theodore “Teddy” Dubois, Martin Stubbs and herself. She watched Eli and Teddy joking around and rolled her eyes. Boys. She couldn't help thinking about her friend and ex-teammate Maya Easton, who’d left the division three years earlier. Her squad had become her family, no matter how much they got on her nerves. Now, as the only woman on the team, her job was even more difficult, especially when most of the department still saw her as daddy’s little girl.
Larisa gritted her teeth. Her father was gone, and there was nothing she could do to bring him back. She wished everyone would mind their own business and let her do her job, without checking on her feelings every five seconds. She’d never made it a secret that she wouldn’t bow down to the overwhelming testosterone that flowed in and out the doors of the LAPD.
Deep down, Larisa knew that she would never have chosen a different profession. Being a cop was all she knew. She’d walked in her late father’s footsteps, much to her mother’s chagrin. Janice Vega had wanted her daughter to be something more prominent—a doctor, a ballerina, a model. They had never agreed completely on her career, especially once she’d been promoted into First Defense two years before. Her mother believed that matters such as rape were not to be discussed, as her own hadn’t been. The subject had caused a well-tread trench between them.
Larisa glanced at the small frame on her desk, a picture of her parents taken during a trip to Hawaii several years ago. Her mother had gone to college then med school, where she’d been raped by another student. She’d never reported the incident, a fact that to this day caused Larisa to flinch. Personally, she would have rearranged the bastard’s anatomy.
She had learned over the years to steel her emotions from victims when they refused to prosecute their abusive boyfriends or husbands. She knew the depth of human pain varied for everyone, and processing that pain was handled as differently as the victims themselves.
“Plotting global domination, Vega?”
She looked up into the hazel eyes of Detective Martin Stubbs, fellow First Defense team member and long-ago lover. She used to get lost in those eyes, until they had decided to cool things when he’d wanted to get married and she hadn’t. Now they were friends…good ones.
Larisa chuckled. “Not quite.” She straightened in her chair. “Word is someone is going to be assigned to the Estes case. Any idea who that might be?”
“No. The debriefing is later this afternoon. I hear the mayor has been all over this.” Martin sat down at the desk opposite her, winked and said, “Be careful what you wish for.”
“Could that be because Estes and the mayor have been rumored to be fucking around?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Woman, you don’t hold anything back, do you?”
“Why should I? It’s a waste of damn time.”
“Vega! My office!” Captain Kellerman had stuck his head out of his office door, yelled for her and, within seconds, disappeared again.
Larisa met Martin’s questioning gaze. “Looks like you weren’t invited to the party.”
“Called into the principal’s office, Vega?” Eli smiled, walking up to them.
“As if you weren’t just in there thirty minutes ago, Grayson.” Larisa squinted her face at Eli. He smiled at her as she threw a ball of paper at his head. She swiped the evidence bag off her desk and turned toward the captain’s office.
Growing up as an only child, Larisa had never felt as much closeness as she did with her team members. Each day, she went home to the quietness of her apartment after having fought alongside men she considered brothers.
“Trouble follows you wherever you go, Larisa,” Teddy teased, hugging her shoulder.
Larisa couldn’t help but grin. Teddy Dubois’ southern charm had a way of putting everyone at ease. “That’s exactly what you said to me in your dreams last night, Dubois.”
“Yep, some of us get all the luck.” He shook his head, grinning. “See you when you come out the other side.”
“Don’t you have work to do?” Larisa tossed over her shoulder, before entering the captain’s office.
No sooner had she walked through the door than Curtis Kellerman started in on her. “I need you for a case.”
“Yes. We’re getting pressure to get the Starlight Rapist off the street.”
“One guess,” Larisa drawled, despite the excitement racing through her. She’d finally get out of the mountain of paperwork waiting on her desk. “Maxwell Warner has chosen this case to rally behind, just in time for re-election.”
“Don’t even get me started,” Captain Kellerman grunted, folding his hands on his desk. “Be that as it may, we’re getting this bastard. You’ve heard of Dara Estes, the actress?”
“Yes.” Larisa thought of the beauty who had starred in smaller-budgeted movies until she’d been nominated for an Academy Award the previous year. She hadn’t won, but her name was gaining recognition. On several occasions, Larisa had been told that she bore a striking resemblance to the woman.
“I need you to go undercover as Estes.”
“Excuse me?” How was she going to get away with acting like a celebrity? “For how long?”
Captain Kellerman glared. “As long as it takes. We’ve already moved Estes to a secured location.” He pushed a file toward her. “Familiarize yourself with this.”
Larisa picked up the folder and skimmed through it. She tried to keep her wits about her, aware that every move she made was being judged, from the moment she’d walked into the room. “Estes is the only victim who has escaped the rapist?”
“Yes, and just like the others, she was lured by the casting call. That tells us this animal will try again. I want us to take him down when he does. We’ve kept the press off the scent of the attempted rape, and it must stay that way or our advantage will be wasted when you infiltrate Estes’ life. Today’s press release is simply to toss the media a bone, so that this animal knows we’re taking his actions seriously.”
She looked up from the documents and raised her eyebrows. “What is it?”
The captain removed his tortoiseshell glasses, his pensive brown eyes zeroing in on her. “Are you ready for this?”
“Are you questioning my capabilities, Captain?” she asked, standing, her back rod-straight. “Why?
“Your father hasn’t been dead two months, and you’re back on active duty.”
Larisa folded her arms and gritted her teeth then said, “I hardly call paper-pushing active duty.”
He ignored her quip. “Look… I was there to see you grow up, and your old man happened to be my closest friend.” Kellerman sighed. “You’re like a daughter to me.” His stare bored into hers. “So, I’ll ask again. Can you handle this?”
“If you didn’t think I could handle it, I wouldn’t be standing here right now,” Larisa answered, tilting her chin defensively.
“True. But then, you didn’t answer my question.”
“My father is gone, and as much as I want him to be here, there’s nothing I can do to bring him back…” Despite the break in her voice, Larisa continued, “He would want me to get on with my life.”
“Are you?” Kellerman asked.
“Taking it one day at a time, just like everyone else.” She pursed her lips to keep from screaming. She appreciated the captain’s concern but she was tired of feeling like an invalid. “I can do my job, so let me.”
“The Estes case is yours.” He cleared his throat. “One more thing… I’ve called in a favor.”
Just when I think I’m one foot closer to victory, he calls in a babysitter. “A favor?”
“Yes.” Kellerman avoided her questioning gaze. “Nicolas Herrera will be joining you.”
Larisa tried to look unfazed and not display the contempt she had for the man. She was fully aware that any mention of her objection to Nic being on the case could be the captain’s way of testing her ability to put her personal issues aside. “I see.”
The man was a walking orgasm for any red-blooded woman other than Larisa, with his hard-body physique, rugged dark looks and smoldering eyes. He moved like a big cat—wild, fluid. Or at least, that’s what several other female co-workers had described to her, while she’d pretended not to listen to their preposterous claims of his moves in and out of the bedroom. All former victims of his, she guessed.
What the hell does Nic have going on? A user-satisfaction poll?
Larisa didn’t doubt that Dara Estes was another of his casualties.
She had never put a witness’ life at risk over her personal feelings, and she wouldn’t start now. She had a job to do…with or without him.
“Herrera knows Dara Estes personally, and he will be able to assist you on this case.” Kellerman tapped his fingers on his desk, watching her. “I know you think that he’s the reason Rodrigo is—”
Not think, know, Larisa screamed inwardly. Because of Nic’s carelessness, her father was dead. There was no getting around it. Now, they were to work together on a case.
“That’s beyond the point isn’t it?”
“Listen, Larisa. There is no way in hell I would let Nic in on this if I didn’t trust him. He loved your father. He would have given his life before letting any harm come to Rigo or you.”
Larisa gripped the file in her hand, clenching her teeth so hard she’d probably have to see the dentist for a chip. “What does good ole Nic think about having me on this case?”
“He recommended you, and frankly, I think it’s a good idea to have him onboard, seeing that this is a big task for… Well, I mean… It’s not like you have experience parading around as a celebrity.”
“What?” She felt her blood reach the boiling point. “Are you saying I don’t have the goods to double as Estes?”
A rap at the door made Larisa turn, her gaze colliding with a pair of wicked chocolate-brown eyes.
“Is this a bad time?” he asked, his powerful presence filling the doorframe, as he silently assessed her. His deep voice filtered through the room, demanding Larissa’s every nerve to come to attention.
She felt the chip on her shoulder slip firmly in place and grow another inch thick. “Perfeito! Meu knight no armor brilhando chegou!”
Her knight in shining armor? Saving her is the last thing I want to do, Nicolas Herrera reasoned silently, entering the office. His blood sizzled. He’d always walked a thin line when it came to Larisa Vega. Right now, he’d settle for deleting the image of licking her taut nipples with the tip of his tongue out of his mind. He didn’t doubt that her supple flesh would give easily under his skillful ministrations but only time would tell just how much.
Would she taste as sinful as she tried not to look? The woman had represented trouble since the moment he’d met her several years ago, when he’d joined her father in forming their private security company—Vega, Herrera and Associates. He’d wanted her then but not as much as he lusted after her now. She’d gotten underneath his skin and, somehow, she’d stayed there.
Larisa’s fluent Portuguese flew over Captain Kellerman’s head but not Nic’s. He stifled a chuckle as his gaze wandered again over every inch of her. She was fire and ice, a combination that he’d learned long ago not to mess with, yet he couldn’t avoid it when it came to the fierce woman in front of him.
Nic looked away from her then. “Nice to see you again, Captain.” He nodded. The haughtiness on her beautiful face only made him want to kiss her senseless as he turned back to her. “Larisa.”
“Great to have you aboard, Nic.” Kellerman stood and shook his hand. “I was just informing Vega of your involvement in the Estes case.”
Nic examined the impenetrable look on his new partner’s face. Any more excitement and he’d have to handcuff her. He ignored the thrill that having her at his complete mercy would render. Maybe he’d be able to break through the icy wall she’d perfected over the years. Then again, Larisa would likely rather walk through fire before she would let that happen.
“I’m sure we will be able to work together,” he replied.
“Are you?” She cut her eyes at him. “I’m not my father.”
Kellerman looked between the two and furrowed his brow. “This had better be a smooth transition.” He looked pointedly at Larisa. “If there is anything anyone needs to say before we get started, now is the time to do it.”
She was beautiful, but there was something about her that lured him in. Her features were exotic. Her heritage was a mixture of her Brazilian father and African-American mother.
“I think we are both committed to the task at hand, Captain.”
Mi Dios. Fortunately, Nic’s business relationship with the late Rodrigo Vega, Larisa’s father, had stopped him from ever crossing that delicate balance of wanting to touch every inch of her body and actually doing it.
That was just one of the words that flitted through Nic’s mind as he examined the stubborn angle of her chin and the don’t-fuck-with-me rigid line of her back. He knew she was a dancer and moved with the agility of a professional. What a contrast from the tense picture she presented before him now.
“I can assure you both that my only objective is to catch the Starlight Rapist,” Larisa declared, her jaw set.
“Good,” Kellerman said. “Now, let’s discuss specifics before the briefing this afternoon. Larisa, I want you to stay behind.”
Kellerman raised his hand. “We can’t take a chance of tipping off the press and the Starlight Rapist before you’ve even stepped in for Estes.”
Larisa folded her arms. “Understood.”
Although Nic listened to what the captain was saying, he privately assessed her.
He had never acted on his impulse to see just how out of control Rigo’s daughter could get, though he’d thought about it…often.
At five-foot-eight, Larisa stood about seven inches shorter than him. Her lithe body was covered in black body-fitting slacks and a bland white short-sleeve shirt. Her face was tawny brown, smooth, sweet like honey and natural. The slight gloss to her full lips made his gut clench and his dick stir. He knew he wouldn’t cross the trench between them, yet he longed to touch her silky, long black hair. Today it was bound in a tight knot. On other occasions, he knew the ebony strands looked luscious with the natural curls she usually favored. But he wouldn’t sift one tendril through his fingers.
If it were any other time or place, possibly Nic could forget that he was a man who’d been without the company of a woman, contrary to whatever rumors were out there, but they would be working on the Estes case together. If there was one thing he tried not to mess with, it was mixing his professional life and private one. He and Larisa would mix like oil and water. All he wanted was get this animal off the street and help Dara get on with her life. As he assessed Larisa’s body, he noted the differences between the two women.
Dara wore clothes to accentuate her sensual flare. He doubted Larisa cared much if anyone saw her sensual side, although it simmered underneath the surface, waiting to be tapped.
Dara loved the spotlight and attention that it afforded her, and Larisa would probably flick off the paparazzi any chance she got—after feeding a camera down a photographer’s throat. Both women had an independent spirit, cared about their communities and were stubborn as hell, only Larisa had a mouth sharper than a hollow-point bullet, and he wanted to kiss her lips until she whimpered for more.
Nic brought his attention back to the conversation.
“Estes’ townhouse has three levels. I will leave it up to you two to decide sleeping arrangements and shift detail. Estes also has a housekeeper, Juliana, who comes in once a week.”
“Who else is aware of my infiltration?” she asked.
“Dara’s agent, Dirk Sumner, and her publicist, Olivia Perkins,” Nic rattled off.
She tossed him an affronted gaze. “Need I ask how you know Estes—or do the rustled bedsheets speak loudly enough?”
Nic turned to face her. “Is that jealousy I hear, Vega?”
“Good, then understand this… My private life is just that—mine.”
“Well, at least we agree on something.”
Nicolas frowned. “There is a first time for many things.”
“Well, while we’re on such agreeable terms, let’s get something else straight.”
Larisa leaned toward him. “You won’t be calling the shots on this one. So, don’t even waste your time with your vigilante heroics.”
“Vega! That’s enough!” the captain barked then turned to Nicolas. “There’s work to do. The debriefing starts in fifteen minutes. Let’s go.”
Nic caught her hand, waiting just long enough to see that the mayor’s arrival held the captain’s attention. “You think you have me all figured out, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Larisa grimaced.
He resisted the urge to haul her in his arms, catch her off guard and taste her lips before she could whip out a sassy retort that would surely set his pulse to racing.
“This is my case. You were the one invited in. I don’t need you flying to my rescue, given your previous track record.”
“I’m not the cause of your father’s death, and you know it.”
“Do I?” Larisa glared. “All I know is that my father put his trust in you. I will not.”
Nic brushed past her. “A wiseass like you doesn’t need to be rescued. The poor soul who flies to your defense, on the other hand, does.”
* * * *
Larisa did everything in her power to stay out of sight and as far away as possible from Nicolas, though she was aware of everything about him—the smell of his spicy cologne, the way his dark, bluntly cut hair spiked into multiple directions. His dark gaze wandered about the room, obviously cataloguing the members of the press.
Larisa noted the irritating behavior of female press members who blatantly sent ravenous looks his way. She wasn’t blinded by his sexual aura. The man could have his pick of any woman in the crowd, married or not.
His face was more rugged than the pretty boys that graced a magazine cover. His Roman nose, sharp cheekbones and olive-toned skin were as distinctive as his accent. She tried to ignore the way his powerful muscles strained against the linen shirt and the charcoal suit pants he wore.
He was lethal in every sense of the word, but nothing defined that word more than the fierce pounding of her heart every time she snuck a glance in his direction. He made her body react with just one look. What would it feel like to have him deep inside of her?
Larisa shook her head. Now was not the time to daydream of ending her sexual dry spell with Herrera. His watchful gaze made her wary. To think that the Starlight Rapist would actually show his face here at the debriefing and the fact that she hadn’t thought of the possibility first, only made her angrier. She had better keep her eyes on what was important—the case. She knew there was no competition between them. She went on facts. Nic went by his gut. Emotions got people killed. If he truly cared about Dara Estes, he wouldn’t take such chances. Again, Larisa’s thoughts roamed to the starlet and the possible relationship Nicolas might have with her.
Is a celebrity the kind of woman he likes?
Larisa bristled at her wonderings. She was better off leaving well enough alone. She didn’t want to know anything more than she already did about Nicolas Herrera.
Now, if she could stop imaging him gyrating underneath her cotton sheets and above her writhing body, she’d be better off. A strange jolt swept over her. She shook it off.
As long as he stayed the hell out of her way and didn’t mess up the case, they would get along just fine.
“What are you doing back here?”
Larisa jumped at the sound of Teddy’s slow drawl. She kept her eyes on the crowd, whispering, “I’m canvassing.”
“Nic Herrera’s ass or—”
“Shut up, Teddy.”
“Oh, don’t go getting sore at me, Vega. You know that Eli and I got your back if things get out of control between you and Nic.”
“I don’t need the assist, Dubois, but thanks anyway.”
Teddy sighed. “I told Eli you’d say that.”
Larisa turned to face his blue-eyed gaze. “Thank you. I know you’re only looking out for me.”
“We take care of our own.” Teddy said, winking, and he walked back to the door.
Once the debriefing had concluded, Larisa raced back to her desk before Nic or the captain could witness her disobedience. She quickly dialed her mother’s cell phone. Janice Vega answered on the second ring.
“Hi, sweetheart, how are you? Coming over for Sunday dinner? You know, one of my colleagues has a son who is a lawyer and—”
“Mom, please don’t start.”
“Larisa, at the rate you’re going, I’ll be a grandmother in my second life.”
She shook her head at her mother’s antics. Or longer. “Actually, I won’t be able to have dinner with you on Sunday. I’m working a case.”
Larisa felt her mother’s discontentment in the looming silence. She braced herself, like always.
“Larisa Jeanette Vega! What mother wants her daughter going undercover to be put in dangerous situations?”
Larisa closed her eyes and willed the conversation to be over. It was the same argument every time. “It’s my job. What could be more dangerous than having someone’s life in your hands? Yet you take that same risk anytime you perform surgery. Someone depends on me, just like they do with you.”
“It’s not the same, young lady. I don’t have to worry about possibly being killed.”
“Mom, why can’t you see that my job is important to me?”
“Because that same job can take you away from me…just like it did your father,” Janice whispered into the receiver.
Larisa’s heart ached. Her mother still mourned her father and Larisa doubted she would ever stop. “I’m sorry, Mom, but I know Dad would want me to go on with my life. I can’t live in fear and neither can you.”
“And you can’t live your life for Rodrigo. He would want more for you.”
“I know you want the best for me, but helping those who cannot help themselves is the biggest lesson I learned from both of you. I cannot give up now, Mom. I hope one day you understand.”
“I’ll try,” Janice responded before saying, “When can we meet for dinner?”
“Soon. How about Oscar’s?”
“Oh, I love that place. Their omelets are divine.”
Larisa smiled. This was what she liked, her mother joyful over little things like a Western omelet. “I’ll give you a call later in the week so we can talk time. Love you, Mom.”
“I love you too.”
Larisa thought about her mother’s words long after she’d hung up the phone. She’d always wanted her father to be proud of her and her accomplishments.
She could be honest enough with herself to say she’d entered the police academy because of her dreamy-eyed dedication and admiration to her father’s decorated career, but things had changed. She’d forged her own way. She loved her job and putting away bad guys. She felt this was living her purpose better than performing in front of a crowd could ever make her feel. It wasn’t always easy, but it was the path she’d chosen, just the same.
Larisa pretended to organize some files on her desk just as Nicolas walked up. “Pow wow over already?”
Nic nodded. “Get your stuff. We have a lot to do in very little time.”
She balled her hands into fists, feeling anger bubble up inside of her. “I don’t take orders from you, Herrera.”
“You do now,” he responded. “Would you care to call the captain into this? I’m sure he wouldn’t mind straightening things out for you.”
She looked beyond Nic and saw Kellerman shake his head at them. She glanced into her new partner’s triumphant gaze. “Where are we going?”
“It’s time to make you a star.”