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J. Kenner

  By J. Kenner

  Most Wanted Series



  The Stark Trilogy

  Complete Me

  Claim Me

  Release Me

  Take Me (e-novella)

  Heated is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  A Bantam Books Trade Paperback Original Copyright (c) 2014 by Julie Kenner Excerpt from Ignited by J. Kenner copyright (c) 2014 by Julie Kenner "Take Me" by J. Kenner copyright (c) 2013 by Julie Kenner All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

  BANTAM BOOKS and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

  This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book Ignited by J. Kenner. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.

  ISBN 978-0-8041-7668-2

  eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-7669-9


  I want to say a huge shout-out to everyone I've met across the social media community, some only in 140 character increments on Twitter, others flashing across my Facebook pages and profile. (I mean, it's an amazing world when you actually meet and interact with folks who will later become friends, beta readers, and more only through 140 character flybys.)

  Every one of you makes me laugh and smile, and the support and enthusiasm I've received is both thrilling and humbling. So here's to all of you: #YouGuysAreTheBest

  I also owe special shout-outs to Neil Orme, whom I found on Google when I needed a research fact (sorry--spoilers abound!) and he answered my out-of-the-blue email in less than an hour; to Dana for the reads, the enthusiasm, and the Chicago advice; and to Elle and Christie for the hashtag, emoticon, and teaser-image luv. #YouKnowYouRock

  Most of all I have to thank the fabulous folks at Bantam, who really do go above and beyond. #MyPublisherIsAwesomeSauce



  eBook Information

  By J. Kenner

  Title Page

  Copyright Page


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Excerpt from Ignited

  Take Me (e-novella)

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  About the Author

  Chapter One

  Right and wrong.

  Good and evil.

  Black and white.

  These are the parameters of the world in which we live, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise--who argues that nothing is absolute, and that there are always shades of gray--is either a fool or trying to con you.

  At least that is what I used to believe.

  But that was before I met him. Before I looked into his eyes. Before I gave him my trust.

  Maybe I'm a fool. Maybe I've lost my balance and my edge.

  I don't know.

  All I know is that from the moment I met him, everything changed. One look, and I feared that I was in trouble.

  One touch, and I knew that I should run.

  One kiss, and I was lost.

  Now the only question is, will I find my way back to who I was? And more important, do I want to?

  Nothing is ever as easy as it should be.

  My dad taught me that. He served as a special agent with the FBI for twenty years before leaving that post to become the chief of police in Galveston, Texas, an island community with enough crime to keep his life interesting, and enough sunshine and warm weather to keep him happy.

  During the years I was growing up, I'd watch as he spent hours, days, weeks, even months putting together a kick-ass case against some of the vilest criminals that ever walked this earth. Thousands of man hours. Hundreds of pieces of evidence. All those little ducks lined up just the way they should be--and it didn't make one bit of difference. The defense would spout some technicality, the judge would cave, and poof, all that work went down the drain.

  Like I said, nothing is ever easy. That's the first truism upon which I base my life.

  The second is a corollary: No one is what they seem.

  My stepfather taught me that. He was a fast-rising major league baseball player that the press took a liking to. They called him the golden boy, predicted he'd spearhead his team to the World Series, and did everything but genuflect when he entered a room. What they didn't report was the way he beat my mother. The way he forced me to watch, threatening that my turn was coming. His hands, his fists, a broken beer bottle. Whatever was handy. I'd flinch with every blow, and when her bones snapped, I'd feel it too, and my scream would blend with hers in some horrific, discordant melody.

  Somehow none of those hospital visits were ever reported in the local paper, and on the rare occasions when the cops showed up at our house, nothing ever came of it. Harvey Grier had the face of a prince and the smile of a homecoming king, and if his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter called the cops one night with a bullshit story that could ruin his reputation and queer his lucrative deals, it must be because she was your typical bored teenager. Certainly it couldn't be that she lived with the monster day in and day out, and saw all too clearly under the pretty boy disguise.

  My stepfather is dead now. As far as I was concerned, that was a good thing. The man wasn't worth anything except driving that second lesson home: there are monsters hiding under the most innocent of countenances, and if you don't keep your guard up, they will bite you. And hard.

  The lesson? Don't take anything for granted. And don't trust anyone.

  I guess that makes me cynical. But it also makes me a damn good cop.

  I sipped champagne and thought about my job and those two axioms as I leaned against one of the white draped pillars in The Drake hotel's cloyingly elegant Palm Court restaurant. I didn't know a soul there, primarily because I'd crashed the party, and I was doing my best to blend with that pillar so that I could simply sit back and watch the world--and the people--go by. I was looking for one face in particular, because I'd come here with a plan. And I intended to stay in my little corner, holding this pillar, until I spied my mark.

  I'd been standing there for an hour, and was beginning to think that I had a long night ahead. But I'd survived worse stakeouts, and I am nothing if not determined.

  I'd been to the Palm Court once before when my dad had me for a weekend and we decided to have an adventure. But tonight most of the familiar tables had been moved out, giving the guests room to mingle around the elegant
fountain and massive floral arrangement. As far as I could tell, the dress code for the evening was anything that had premiered during Fashion Week, and the only reason no one was pointing a finger at me and snickering was that my off-the-clearance-rack dress was so utterly pedestrian that it rendered me invisible.

  Flowing strains of classical music filled the room, provided by an orchestra tucked into the corner, but no one was dancing. Instead they were mingling. Talking, laughing. It was all very proper. Very elegant. Very festive.

  And I was very much out of my element.

  My natural habitat is Indiana, where I'm actually a bit of a celebrity within the force as the youngest female ever to make detective with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. I'd come to Chicago because I'd been going out of my mind while I rode out a stint on medical leave, and when one of my confidential informants, Candy, asked me to track down her former roommate who'd fallen off the planet, I'd decided to do a little off-the-books investigation.

  According to Candy, Amy had been working as an exotic dancer at an upscale Chicago gentleman's club called Destiny until about two weeks ago. "She'd been there almost a month and was jamming on the tips. She even liked the other girls. And I'm pretty sure she was banging one of the owners. So it wasn't like she had a reason to just split."

  To my way of thinking, banging the boss might be reason enough, especially if the boss is the one who told you to move on.

  "Yeah, but she would have told me," Candy said, when I suggested as much. "She might take another job or even move, but she'd call once she got settled. Something happened."

  Normally, I wouldn't worry. After all, twenty-two-year-old exotic dancers pull up stakes and disappear all the time. Maybe they're just trying to shake off the old life. Or maybe they're following a guy. Amy had been on her own since she was fifteen and knew how to handle herself. She was clean, so I didn't expect that she was laid out in a heroin den somewhere. Plus, I knew she fantasized about Prince Charming riding in and whisking her off into the sunset, so maybe she'd realized that banging the owner wasn't going to stick, and she'd set out for New York or Vegas or someplace else with a surfeit of rich, horny men.

  But I didn't believe any of that. Candy had been more than seven months pregnant when Amy moved to Chicago, full of promises to come back loaded down with presents for the baby and, most important, to be there for the birth. Assuming the kid came on schedule, that was just over two weeks away.

  I hoped to hell she'd just gotten carried away with a guy and would surface any day now with stories of hot nights and wild sex. But I worked homicide, and it was in my nature to fear the worst.

  While I was making the drive from Indiana to Chicago, I'd put in a call to a friend in the Chicago PD, and he'd confirmed that she wasn't cooling her heels in a Cook County cage. I was somewhat relieved to know she was either staying clean or playing it smart, but I'd secretly hoped that she'd gotten arrested for shoplifting and was too proud to call Candy for bail.

  I'd rolled into Chicago just after seven on a Wednesday night, and I'd made Destiny my first stop. The place was clean and classy, with drinks that weren't watered down, girls who looked happy to be there and not at all used up, and a clientele that skewed heavily toward the professional end of the spectrum. The place had a full bar, including Guinness on tap, and a decent menu that included some rather delicious cheese fries.

  I'd certainly seen worse places, and as I sat at the bar and looked the joint over with a cop's eye, nothing wonky popped for me.

  Enter the Second Truism: No one is what they seem. Or, in this case, no place is what it seems.

  I learned that when I met Agent Kevin Warner, an FBI buddy, for breakfast the next morning and he laid out a whole list of bad-ass shit that he thought was going down in that club. He tossed allegations around like candy. And when he hit the Mann Act charges--prostitution, white slavery, and other nasty felonies--my ears perked up.

  "Slow down, cowboy," I'd said. "They got busted for that shit?"

  "Fucking immunity," Kevin said. "They helped shut down a white slavery ring that was working off the West Coast and spreading all the way toward our fair city."

  "They?" I repeated.

  "Black, August, and Sharp," he said, naming off Destiny's three owners--three celebrated businessmen who were the toast of Chicago. I mean, hell. I'm not even from Chicago, and I knew all about those guys. "They're slick, those three," Kevin continued. "Slick and smart and as dangerous as sharks in dark water. Got the immunity deal to hide behind, and that cut my investigation off at the knees."

  I nodded. Immunity was part of the game. The whole point was to protect a suspect from prosecution. If there wasn't guilt there in the first place, that protection really wasn't necessary. In other words, it was a rare suspect who was given immunity without being dirty.

  Frankly, the whole idea of giving a suspect immunity irritated me, but I knew it was a necessary evil. Besides, I figured that justice would find a way. At least that was what my dad always said when one of his defendants pulled a technicality out of their ass and shot the finger at the law.

  Karma really could be a raving bitch, and I wondered if she was baring her teeth in the direction of Black, August, and Sharp. Were they as dirty as Kevin said? Were they simply good citizens who shared their knowledge with the Feds? Or were they somewhere in the middle?

  I didn't know, but I figured the odds ran toward the first or the last. "How broad's the immunity?" I'd asked.

  "If I have my way, they'll wish it was broader. I'm dead certain they're neck deep in all sorts of shit. Gambling, smuggling, money laundering. Bribery, kickbacks, fraud. You name it, they're in it. But they've got powerful friends, and I'm not authorized to officially pursue any of it."

  I heard the frustration in his voice. He wanted these guys--wanted them bad. I got that. There were a lot of reasons I'd become a cop, but in the end it all boiled down to protecting the innocent and stopping the bad guys. To making sure the system worked and that those who crossed that line paid for the breach.

  I lived and breathed my job. It was both my redemption and my salvation. And I was very good at what I did.

  "I can't push on this," he'd said. "But you can."

  He was right. My mind was already turning over options, trying to figure the best way to slide my pretty ass into Destiny, chat up the girls, and get a line on Amy. Once I was in and poking around for information, there was no reason I couldn't poke around for more.

  Frankly, that would be my pleasure. Immunity might be a necessary evil in the world of jurisprudence, but I was more than happy to give Karma a little push. And if I found out that those guys were into other shit, bringing them down would be a damn good way to balance the scales of justice.

  All of which explained how my mission to get one missing dancer back to Indiana had morphed into a full-fledged, albeit off-the-books, undercover operation. At one point I might have considered waltzing into Destiny and boldly announcing that I was looking for a friend, but once I knew that the owners could be dirty, that plan went right out the window. I wanted to know what they were up to--and if the white slavery allegations turned out to be true, I wanted to kick a little ass.

  It was that whole "undercover" thing that was my current sticking point. You'd think it would be easy for a genuinely pretty woman--that would be me--to get a job as a cocktail waitress in a Chicago-based gentleman's club, but you'd be wrong. Despite my camera-ready face, nice tits, and tight ass, the application I'd submitted yesterday had been politely declined. And that despite the fact that I have honest-to-goodness waitressing skills.

  Thus illustrating that First Truism: Nothing is ever as easy as it should be.

  And that brings us right back to the Second Truism: no one is what they seem.

  Take Evan Black, for example. This was his party that I'd crashed. A formal affair to celebrate his engagement to Angelina Raine, the daughter of vice presidential hopeful Senator Thomas Raine.

I saw him standing across the room, a movie-star gorgeous man with his arm around an equally stunning brunette that had to be Angelina. She was leaning against him, looking giddy with happiness, as they chatted with two other couples. All clean and shiny and polished. But if Kevin was right, Black wasn't the man he appeared to be.

  Or what about Cole August, Black's business partner, who received so much adulation from the press and the public for the way he'd pulled himself up out of the muck of his Chicago South Side heritage to become one of the most respected and influential businessmen in the city? He might look positively drool-worthy as he stalked the far side of the room with a cell phone pressed against his ear, the very picture of the entrenched businessman.

  But I happened to know that August hadn't left that shady heritage as far behind as he liked to pretend.

  And then there was Tyler Sharp.

  "That's the one," Candy had said when I ran the name by her. "Amy was head over heels for the guy."

  "He feel the same?"

  "Don't know."

  "But she was fucking him?"

  "Yeah. At least, I think so. I mean, wasn't like she was posting pictures on Facebook. But no way would she have walked away from that, and from what you're saying ..."

  We might have been talking on the phone, but I could still picture the way Candy shrugged as she trailed off. I knew what she meant. I'd done additional homework on Tyler Sharp, much of which I'd relayed to Candy. To bottom line it, he had a weakness for women, and I fully intended to capitalize on his womanizing ways. If I couldn't get into Destiny through my stellar waitressing skills, I'd get in close through the man.

  In other words, I was planning a seduction.

  All things considered, that was a better approach than my first plan. Waitressing only gave me access to the club. But sex opened all sorts of doors. Pillow-talk. Computer access. Who knew what else. Play the game right, and I'd have a box seat to the best show in town, whether it was gambling, smuggling, or something much more heinous.

  And if it turned out that Tyler had gotten Amy involved with anything hinky, I'd castrate the son of a bitch.

  First, I had to find him.

  He'd been out of town for the last few weeks, so I had yet to see him in person, but I was certain I'd recognize him the moment he entered this room. Like I said, I'd done my homework, and where looking at photographs of Tyler Sharp was concerned, that wasn't exactly a hardship. The man definitely qualified as eye candy.