A Profiler's Case for Seduction
Author:Carla Cassidy

Chapter 1

He’d gone rogue.

At least that’s what his fellow FBI agents would think if they could see him now, entering one of the college theaters where a lecture was about to begin.

It had been years since FBI agent Mark Flynn had been in such a setting. As he opened the door to the room, heard the chattering of students eager to learn, saw the polished wooden lectern in the center of the stage, he remembered how much he’d loved college and soaking in the knowledge offered by each teacher and every class.

Brainiac, that’s what his fellow students had called him when he’d been at university, but it had been his high IQ and his thirst for knowledge that had made him not a trust-fund baby, but rather a think-tank subject for the FBI.

The seating was theater-style and most of the seats were already taken. Knowing he wasn’t going to sit through the entire lecture, he spied an empty spot in one of the last rows and slid into the chair.

He focused intently on the lectern where within minutes sociology professor Melinda Grayson would begin a lecture. He had no idea what the topic of the day might be, although he knew this course was about sociopaths. Still, he wasn’t here to listen to what she had to say. He was here to observe, to form impressions and follow through on a gut instinct that had him at odds with most of the other members of his team.

Darby College and the small town of Vengeance, Texas, located forty miles outside Dallas, had been lucky to get a professor as renowned as Melinda Grayson. With her stellar credentials she could have found employment at any college or university in the country.

He found it slightly odd that she had chosen Darby and the small town as her home, but he found most people rather odd in the choices they made and the forces that drove them through life. Certainly he recognized that he was considered more than a little bit odd by many of his friends and coworkers.

The room began to quiet and expectancy shimmered in the air as a young man and woman took two seats that had been left empty in the center of the front row. He instantly identified them as Amanda Burns and Ben Craig, graduate assistants to Melinda.

For a brief instant it was as if everyone in the room had stepped into a vacuum, so great was the silence that stole over the group of students. And then Melinda appeared. She walked with measured strides toward the lectern and began the lesson for the day.

Mark leaned forward, his gaze focused intently on the beautiful woman who commanded the room. Her long black hair flowed across her shoulders and he knew from her photos that her eyes were an intense green. She appeared slightly fragile, tall and almost too thin. The white cast on her left arm only emphasized the appearance of frailty and was a reminder that she was a victim of an alleged crime.

However, there was nothing weak or vulnerable in her strong, low voice or in the way she owned not just the lectern but every space of the stage. Clad in a pencil-thin black skirt, high heels and a red jacket, she was dressed for power, and she had it.

Innocent victim or wildly dangerous?

That was what he needed to figure out about the lovely professor. Right now all he knew was that on September 5, Melinda had been kidnapped. She’d resurfaced almost two and a half weeks later. During her captivity, she’d been beaten and videotaped then released by some unknown perpetrators and, during the time she’d been supposedly held in captivity, three men had been murdered.

To Mark, it all seemed so obvious. She had been “kidnapped” three days before the murders were discovered and all three men had been dead for twenty-four hours when they’d been found. Somehow he believed that she was intrinsically tied to the murders, but there was absolutely no evidence to prove or disprove his theory that she was involved.

She’d taught her first class since her ordeal on Friday, but Mark had been tied up and hadn’t been able to attend.

That was why he was here now, watching her, assessing her in an attempt to do what he did best...crawl into the dark mind of a killer. It was this unique ability that had made him a respected name in the bureau, and it was also this ability that had destroyed his marriage two years before and kept him from actively parenting his three-year-old daughter, Grace.

His heart clenched tight at thoughts of his daughter, with her mop of dark curly hair and bright blue eyes. Of all the things good that he’d done in his life, Grace was at the top of the list. The last thing he wanted to do was in any way taint her with the darkness that sometimes gripped his soul.

He jumped as a hand touched his arm. He blinked, tearing his thoughts from his daughter to the woman seated next to him. Long brown hair framed a pretty face with large gray eyes. She was older than the usual student, perhaps in her late thirties, and as she smiled at him a hint of unexpected warmth whispered through him. She had a beautiful smile.

She had a laptop open and held several pieces of paper and a pen toward him. “For taking notes,” she whispered, and then smiled again.

Rather than explain to her that he wasn’t here to take notes on the lecture, suddenly aware of the faint scent of wildflowers that drifted from her, he took the pen and paper and whispered a quick thank-you.

As he turned his attention back to Melinda he tried to stay focused on her, but his fellow classmate had definitely broken his concentration.

How long had it been since he’d noticed the beauty of a woman’s smile? How many years had it been since he’d paid any attention to the fragrance emanating from a particular female? Far too long.

Probably a wife and mother returning to college with her children in school or half-grown, he thought. But a quick glance showed him an unadorned ring finger on her left hand.

Maybe divorced and trying to find herself, get a career going after a few years of marriage. Mark admired anyone who sought education no matter what their age or their circumstances.

He frowned and tried to stay focused on the reason he was sitting here. He shouldn’t be so acutely aware of the woman next to him, frantically typing on her laptop as if attempting to memorialize every word of the lecture.

It vaguely irritated him that, suddenly, his concentration was divided between the outrageously gorgeous professor commanding the room and the quiet beauty seated next to him.

There was a small group of students at the front of the theater who appeared to be hanging on to every word that fell out of Melinda’s mouth. Groupies, he guessed.

Melinda’s power and beauty would automatically draw a band of devout followers, but now with the news of her recent kidnapping and beatings, she had risen in stature to rock-star celebrity.

Victim or killer?

He wouldn’t discover the answer to that question just by sitting here, and he felt a sudden need to escape from the scent of wildflowers and the two women who were sparring for attention inside his head.

He slid out of his chair and eased out the door and into the hallway that would take him outside the building and into the fresh September air.

Once outside he drew in a deep breath and sat on a nearby concrete bench beneath a large leafy tree. It was only then that he realized he still held the paper and pen that the woman seated next to him had handed him.

He settled back against the bench. The lecture would only last an hour. He didn’t mind waiting until the woman emerged from the building to give her back her pen.

The Darby College campus was a mix of brick-and-glass buildings amid a plethora of trees and meticulous landscaping.

Mondays were busy on the campus, and the students wore colorful clothing that competed with the autumn leaves on the trees popping with shades of orange and red.

September 25. It was hard to believe that it would soon be a month since Melinda’s “kidnapping.” Rumor had it that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but nothing of that condition had been evident in her today. She’d given off the aura of strength and control despite the cast on her arm and her willowy figure.

He twirled the pen between his fingers and fell into thoughts of the case. The news of the kidnapping of the esteemed Melinda Grayson had rocked the small town, but shock had shuddered through Vengeance over the three murdered men who’d been uncovered by a geology class that was exploring a nearby area for minerals.

Lost. He quickly became lost inside his head as he thought of all the intricacies of the various elements of the murders and Melinda’s kidnapping, beating and then inexplicable release from her captors.

A sudden flurry of students leaving the building jerked Mark back to the here and now. He was vaguely surprised that he’d been seated on the bench and zoned out for thirty minutes or so.

He quickly stood and watched the people walking by him, seeking the gray-eyed woman who had lent him the pen and paper and had captured his attention with her lovely smile and sweet fragrance.

Moments later she emerged from the building. Clad in black slacks and a white blouse with a black-and-gray lightweight sweater tossed around her shoulders, she definitely didn’t look like the customary jean-clad young kids who swirled around her.

She clutched her laptop case to her chest and her eyes widened in surprise as she saw him approaching her. At six feet four inches Mark was accustomed to towering over people, but this woman was taller than most women. The top of her head would have fit neatly beneath his chin if he’d pulled her into his arms.

This kind of thought was so alien to his brain that when he reached her he merely held out the pen toward her, momentarily speechless.

She took the pen, her eyes filled with surprise. “Oh, goodness, have you been waiting here all this time to give this back to me?” She had a deep, melodic but slightly husky, voice. “You didn’t have to do that. It’s just a cheap pen.”

“You loaned it to me,” he said, finally finding his own voice. “I just wanted to return it and thank you.” In truth he wondered if he’d just wanted to see her out here rather than in the dim theater. The overhead sunshine transformed her hair from plain brown to chestnut, with strands of cinnamon and gold sparking bright amid the soft strands.

“You should have stayed for the lecture. Today was really good,” she said as she tucked the pen inside her purse. “When it was announced that Professor Grayson was teaching a class on the sociopath in society, the classes filled up the very first day. But I haven’t seen you in any of her classes or in the lecture hall before.” A faint blush stained her cheeks, as if she suddenly became aware that she was doing all the talking.

“I’m not a student here, but you obviously enjoy Professor Grayson’s lectures.”

“I think she’s brilliant.” There was no question of the hero worship that laced her voice as she spoke of Melinda.

Mark’s brain once again began to work overtime, weighing possibilities and attempting to separate a personal attraction to the woman from his work. “I’m Mark Flynn,” he said. “And you are?”

“Dora. Dora Martin.” She pulled her laptop closer against her chest in a defensive gesture and yet her smile remained open and wide.

“It’s nice to meet you. Are you a local?”

She nodded. “At least for the last three years. I’ve been attending school and I work part-time in the bookstore. I’m studying to become a criminologist.” She raised her chin a notch as if to defy him to question her career choice.

“Actually, I’m an FBI agent,” he replied.

Her eyes widened once again. “So, you’re here about the murders.”

“I’m part of the team working on the case.” He felt his mouth curve into an unaccustomed smile as he realized he’d made up his mind. He needed a source, somebody who was familiar with the campus, somebody who might have inside information on the illustrious professor. Dora Martin might be just what he needed for a little insight into the professor she obviously worshipped.

“I noticed there’s a little coffee shop on campus. Can I buy you a cup of coffee, Dora Martin?” he asked.

She gazed at him for a long moment and once again she pulled her laptop tight against her body, as if forming a barrier between herself and the world...between herself and him.

His breath caught in his chest as he waited for her response, telling himself he could always find somebody else to use for information. Still, he was shocked by how much he wanted her to say yes.

“I only have a little while before I have to get to the bookstore,” she replied with a touch of hesitation. “But a cup of coffee sounds good.”

Mark released his breath and felt a natural smile curl his lips for the first time in a very long time. “Great,” he replied. Despite his instant attraction to her his only goal was to use her for information. Maybe he could glean a little more information on the woman at the center of the mystery and the crimes that had plagued this town. And if Dora couldn’t give him any insight, all that was lost was a few minutes drinking coffee.

* * *

Dora had found herself half-breathless when the tall, dark-haired man had sat next to her in the theater. Handsome and lean, he’d smelled faintly of minty soap and shaving cream. His dark hair had been slightly mussed, as if he had no idea how attractive he was and didn’t much care. Hot. The man was definitely a hottie, but Dora had quickly reminded herself that men were off-limits to her.

When she’d walked outside and seen him, the first thing she’d noticed was how the sun danced in his thick, slightly messy hair and that his brilliant blue eyes held a piercing quality that both drew her in and unsettled her.

He’d shocked her with his offer to buy her a cup of coffee and her initial instinct had been to turn him down, to run as far away from him as possible. No men allowed.

It’s just a cup of coffee, a little voice had whispered in the back of her head as she found herself accepting his offer. Now, as they fell into step side by side, her tongue was tied in knots.

He didn’t seem to mind the silence, as he didn’t offer any conversation to break it as they walked toward the nearby campus coffee shop.

“Nice day,” she finally said.

He looked at her, as if startled to see her by his side, then gazed around and looked back at her. “It is, isn’t it?” He smiled and a flutter of warmth whispered over her.

“Autumn is my favorite time of the year,” she said, hoping to keep the conversation flowing.

“It is nice,” he agreed.

It was ridiculous that a faint nervous jitter had played in her veins the moment he’d asked her to get coffee. She was a forty-year-old woman, not a teenager, and yet each time she looked at him she felt an evocative heat in the pit of her stomach, a tingle in her veins that she recognized as full-on attraction.

His facial features were chiseled, with angles and planes that created not only a handsome face but also a face with a slight edge, especially with the hint of dark stubble on his lower jaw.

She breathed a sigh of relief as they entered the busy coffee shop. He pointed toward an empty two-top table. “Grab us that place,” he said, “and I’ll order the coffees. You like it any special way?”

“Just black is fine,” she replied. She hurried to the empty table and sat with her laptop case and purse on the floor at her side.

FBI agent Mark Flynn was easy to spot at the counter since he was taller than the others who stood in line before and after him. Maybe she’d agreed to have coffee with him because he was working in the field that she wanted to make her career. He’d solve the crime and be gone.

Maybe her decision to make an exception to the rule she’d made about men had nothing to do with the depth in his blue eyes or the chiseled features of his handsome face, but rather because she knew he wouldn’t be around long enough to threaten her self-improvement drive.

Comforted by this thought, she decided to just enjoy this moment, assured that she wasn’t going back down the dark rabbit hole from where she’d been pulled over three years ago.

She smiled as he returned to the table with two steaming cups of coffee. He eased down into the chair across from her. “A criminologist,” he said, as if they’d been in the middle of a conversation before he’d retrieved the drinks. “I’d say right now you’re in a good place for a little beyond-the-books learning experience with everything that has happened here in the last couple of weeks.”

Her smile fell away when she thought of the murders and the kidnapping of Melinda. “It’s been a terrible time for everyone. First the kidnapping, and then those poor men strangled and left to be discovered by students. At least Professor Grayson wasn’t killed, as well. But you probably don’t want to talk about your work while you’re enjoying your coffee.”

He took a sip from his cup and then leaned forward. “So, tell me about Dora Martin. Married? Divorced? What were you doing before you landed here in Vengeance?”

His gaze seemed to pierce through her, as if he could ferret out secrets by merely looking deep into her eyes. And she had a lifetime of secrets about who she had been, about where she had come from, secrets that she wasn’t about to share with anyone ever.

“Divorced a long time ago,” she replied. “And before I moved here and began my higher education, I was working as a waitress and going nowhere fast.”

“It’s admirable that you decided to make a change,” he said encouragingly.

“Thanks.” She looked down at the tabletop and tried not to remember that it hadn’t really been her who had made the decision that she needed to make a change, but rather two people who cared about her.

She gazed at him once again. “What about you? Married? Single?”

“Single and divorced,” he replied with a quicksilver frown that danced across his forehead and then quickly disappeared. “This kind of job isn’t conducive to relationships. During my brief marriage I saw more of my team members than my wife, Sarah.”

“That’s too bad.”

He smiled. “Actually, we parted as good friends. I have my work and she has hers as a journalist in Dallas, and we share a three-year-old daughter.” His smile faded and the focus in his eyes grew hazy.

“What’s her name?” Dora asked.

He didn’t reply. It was as if he were lost to the here and now, lost to place and time. “Agent Flynn?”

His eyes regained focus and he straightened in his chair. “Sorry about that. I tend to get lost in my head sometimes, and please, make it Mark.”

“I asked about your daughter’s name,” Dora said.

“Grace. Her name is Grace.”

“That’s nice. So, you’re from Dallas?”

He nodded. “A little apartment in Dallas is my legal address, but I’m not there very much. I’ll only be here in Vengeance until we wrap up these murders by getting the guilty in custody.”

She’d understood that the moment he’d identified himself as an FBI agent. In town to do a job and then he’d get back to his life in Dallas, a life that had nothing to do with hers here in Vengeance. Once again she recognized that this was safe...he was safe and wouldn’t screw her up with a single cup of coffee.

No matter how attracted she was to him, he wouldn’t be around to tempt her into old, bad habits that would derail her. She could never allow that to happen.

“So, are you also investigating Professor Grayson’s kidnapping?” she asked.

“We’re all working to seek answers both in the murders and kidnapping case.”

“Why were you at the lecture this morning?” she asked, curious about his presence in the theater.

“The topic of sociopaths always grabs my attention. I just stopped in on a whim, but a phone call vibrated my phone and I had to leave to take the call.”

“Would you like my notes from the lecture?”

He smiled at her, the smile that wove heat through her entire body. “I suddenly feel like I’m nineteen again and sharing notes with the sharpest mind in the class.”

Dora laughed. “Sharpest mind. Wow, I definitely have you fooled.”

“I doubt it,” he countered easily. “I saw how diligently you were taking notes and it’s not the slackers who take a lecture so seriously.”

A blush rose into her cheeks as she saw the approval in his eyes. “I take my education very seriously.”

“As you should,” he agreed, and took another sip of his coffee.

Dora checked her watch. “I also take my job at the bookstore very seriously since it is part of what pays the tuition, and unfortunately, I’ve got to go.” Although she still had a few minutes to spare she felt the need to escape his disconcerting and gorgeous blue gaze and the sexy curl of his smile.

She stood and grabbed her laptop and her purse and then lifted the foam cup of the remainder of her drink. “Thanks for the coffee.”

He also got to his feet. “Thanks for the company,” he replied. “This has been a pleasant break from business as usual.”

“But it’s time to get back to business as usual,” Dora said briskly. He followed her outside the coffee shop and they stood for a moment on the sidewalk.

“I’ll guess I’ll see you around campus,” she said. “Thanks again for the coffee.”

“You’re welcome.” He murmured a goodbye as she turned to head in the direction of the bookstore. She could swear she felt his gaze burning in the center of her back until she turned left on the sidewalk that would take her out of his view.

Silly, she told herself, gripping her laptop against her chest. She was just being silly because for over three years she’d scarcely noticed the male population around her. Somehow FBI agent Mark Flynn had managed to sneak beneath her antimale radar.

No harm, no foul, she thought as she stopped beside a trash container. She finished the last of the coffee and then tossed the foam cup into the trash and continued her walk to the bookstore, her thoughts still consumed by the handsome Mark Flynn.

She hoped his team could not only solve the murders but also find out who had kidnapped and beaten Melinda and then had released her. It made no sense, and to date, nobody had come up with a reasonable motive for what had happened to the professor.

So far the investigation into the murders had spilled secrets left and right about the three male victims, tawdry tales of bribery and betrayal. They were ugly secrets that had everyone gossiping about who the victims had presented themselves to be and who, in truth, they had been.

Dora wanted the FBI to get to the bottom of the crimes, but she certainly didn’t want anyone digging around into her life, past or present.

Her past was filled with shame and regret, a place she tried not to visit in her dreams or thoughts. Her present was still filled with a secret she didn’t want known. Not because it would embarrass her, but rather because it would embarrass one of the two people who had plucked her up from the stinking back alley of her existence and given her a reason to live.

Professor Melinda Grayson was not only her teacher but also her older sister and her salvation. Dora would turn herself inside out to keep people from knowing that she was related to the esteemed, intelligent professor. She would never want Melinda’s reputation to be tainted by her own past.

Still, it had been nice for those few minutes to sit across from Mark and feel the stir of chemistry, knowing that it was an attraction that would go nowhere, knowing that she couldn’t afford any more mistakes in her lifetime. She was like a cat who had already misspent eight of the nine lives she’d been given. She wasn’t going to do anything to mess up this final chance.