The Murder Between Us by Tal Bauer

Noah’s hands shook inside his pants pockets. One foot tapped silently against the carpet. It’s Vegas. You waited all year for this.

He’d chickened out for the past two nights, heading back to his room when everyone else did and pacing for an hour before watching the neon glow of the Strip from his window. Eventually, he’d turned on CNN and listened to the warble of the news anchors as he face-planted in bed, hoping the drone of their voices would force out the thoughts that kept circling around and around his mind. Coward. You’ll never know. You’ll never know if you don’t try.

The elevator started spitting everyone out at the eleventh, fourteenth, and seventeenth floors, until it was just James and him stepping off on the twentieth. Their rooms were across the hall from each other.

James leaned back against his door, key card in one hand, sport coat crumpled in his other. His holster was out and visible now—a violation, but it was midnight, and they were alone. Who was going to write him up?

“I’m telling you, man,” James said, in the languid drawl of the inebriated. “You should go back down there. Maybe she’s not the one for tonight, but she definitely would be willing to flirt with you if you happened to run into her again. How long has it been since a pretty woman smiled at you?”

Noah’s eyes fell to the carpet as he dug his shoe into the wool fibers.

“I know you’ve been focused on your career, and…” James trailed off with a sigh. “I know it’s been a while. That can eat at a man, you know? You deserve to be happy. God, out of all of us, you deserve to be happy.” James smiled, a lopsided, tipsy grin. Despite wolf whistling at the waitress, James was all set to pour himself into bed and call his wife, whisper sweet nothings to her as she recounted every moment of her day with their three young daughters. James had been texting her throughout dinner, sending her pics of the appetizer and then his entree, and of his ridiculous drink.

James was a man who had certainty. He had the love of a great woman, three amazing daughters, and the satisfaction that came from knowing his place in the world.

Jealousy seared through Noah. Certainty. What a thing to be jealous of. To know yourself and what you wanted.

“Breakfast tomorrow?” James pushed off and shoved his key in the lock. It beeped, and he shouldered open the door before tossing his jacket into the darkness.

“Meet you in the restaurant.” Noah nodded, waiting for James to head inside.

His friend, despite seeming to be the inebriated fool, was still a federal agent, and he could still put the clues together. He looked Noah up and down, eyes narrowing as his smile shifted, turned almost salacious. “Tell me ‘bout it in the morning,” he said, disappearing into his room. “Have fun!”

The door shut. Noah heard the deadbolt turn.

It’s Vegas. You’re supposed to do this in Vegas. You’re supposed to let loose. He tipped his head back. Sighed. Go down there. Just for a few minutes. Just look.

Yeah, okay. He could do that. He could look. Looking wasn’t anything permanent.

First things first. He pushed into his hotel room and unholstered his gun, locking it in the safe. If he was going to head back out, he might as well freshen up a bit. Change out of the clothes he’d worn all day. In the bottom of his suitcase were a pair of black jeans, snugger than he ever wore in Iowa, and a slim-fit button-down he’d accidentally bought along with the regular ones he preferred. It was way too tight to wear to the office, and he felt ridiculous when he put it on. In the slim cut, he felt like he was playing dress-up as Hollywood’s idea of a special agent. But he had to admit the shirt showed off his flat stomach and his broad shoulders, the taper he’d built in high school and college through intramural sports and kept up thanks to turning to the gym whenever his frustrations started to boil.

Might as well run his fingers through his hair, too. And brush his teeth. Should he shave? Why not.

Half an hour later, Noah stared at himself, eyeballing the tall, dark-haired, shit-scared man in the mirror. He was just a guy. Just a guy going down for a drink. Nothing more. “It’s Vegas,” he whispered. His fingers curled around the sink’s edge. “Let yourself look.”

He never had before.

Noah grabbed his wallet and his room key and forced himself to walk out the door. He left his badge and gun behind. He wasn’t a federal agent tonight—or at least, not for the next hour. Or, hell, the next ten minutes, if he was truthful with himself about how long his courage was likely to last. He’d rather be back at Quantico than let go of the hotel room door and go down the elevator.