Cold-Hearted Concept

Whitley Gray

Detective Beck Stryker has a lot to juggle: his long-distance relationship with FBI profiler Zach Littman, the family issues of cop widow Marybeth Halliday and her two boys, and the ups and downs of being out and proud. To top it ...
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Detective Beck Stryker has a lot to juggle: his long-distance relationship with FBI profiler Zach Littman, the family issues of cop widow Marybeth Halliday and her two boys, and the ups and downs of being out and proud. To top it off, Beck must work with his closeted ex-lover Van on the case of a skeleton discovered in the woods.

FBI profiler Dr. Zach Littman has been working on an exit strategy for months. Every time he’s on the brink of resigning, Minneapolis Unit Director Sands comes up with “one more case,” one that only Zach can manage. It’s a situation that frustrates Beck. Zach has promised he’ll leave the FBI and profiling behind—as soon as his Colorado medical license comes through. It may be easier said than done. Zach has reservations about uprooting his life and moving to Denver.

A killer leaves a grisly invitation insisting Zach participate in a deadly game, the rules of which are known only to the psychopath. It’s clear taking out Zach is on the killer’s to-do list, and he won’t stop until it’s done. Beck and Zach must capture the killer before the psychopath finds Zach and declares Game Over.

  • Note:
    Cold-Hearted Concept (Concepts, #2)
Excerpt
Beck sat in Friday night rush-hour traffic on I-25, sandwiched between an out-of-state RV and a pair of motorcycles. Despite the rolled-up windows, the cosmopolitan aroma of exhaust and hot asphalt slithered into the car. The usual commuter traffic had swelled with the addition of individuals headed somewhere for the weekend: out to the bars in LoDo, off to a mountain retreat, a trip to another town.

Ordinarily the delay wasn’t more than mildly frustrating, but tonight he wanted to get home. He had things to do.

It had been over a month since he’d seen Zach, and after three reschedules, they’d finally managed to set up a badly needed weekend together. Not that Beck had anything against the Twin Cities per se. Or the FBI. Or profiling. It was the logistics; all three meant literal distance. Phone calls instead of physical contact. Virtual visits.

Ever since he and Zach got together the past October during the Olivetti homicides case, Beck had been impatient to have Zach to himself. Seven months later, Olivetti was in jail and Zach was still based in Minneapolis, flying hither and yon working cases for the FBI. There had been too many aborted visits, too many interrupted phone calls. Nights alone hadn’t bothered Beck before he’d had the luxury of someone to spend them with. Now he craved Zach’s companionship.

The RV came to a halt and put on its right-hand blinker. Really? They were in the far-left lane. Three queues of vehicles sat between the camper and the highway exit a quarter of a mile down the road. Denverites weren’t likely to take pity on the tourist and let him cross.

“Damn it.” Beck hit the brakes as cars coasted by on his right. “Just ease over, guy.”

The RV continued to sit like a metallic beached whale. Beck snapped on the radio to Denver’s Eye in the Sky.

“—accident on southbound I-25 at Alameda blocking two lanes. Police and an ambulance at the site. Southbound Broadway off-ramp traffic is backed up into the I-25 exit lane.”

Beck hit Off. No point in getting mad. Zach’s flight wasn’t due until ten, and that left plenty of time to get things settled at home before leaving for the airport. Zach would walk off the train from the concourse, blond hair too long, golden scruff on his jaw. His blue eyes would light up, and he’d melt Beck with one of those heartbreaking smiles. They’d indulge in a one-armed bro hug in public, and a more intimate lovers’ kiss in the car.

His lover…yeah. He liked the sound of that. Beck grinned.

They had a lot of making up to do. Beck had anticipated this reunion all week. In front of him, the motionless RV’s taillights glowed like red eyes.

Enough. Beck flicked on the grill flashers, and the red-and-blue lights reflected off the RV’s silver skin. He nosed his unmarked into the next lane and stopped, motioning the RV over. After a confused second, the driver steered the beast to the right and managed two lanes before forward-rolling traffic swept it away.

Okay. He’d leave the flashers on and exit the highway. Perk of the job, right? Home for a shave, a shower, and clean sheets on the bed for his lover.

* * * *


“I’m not going to make it this weekend,” Zach said.

The pleasant expectation Beck had built all week collapsed into a black hole of disappointment. Not again, damn it.

A month of relative solitary confinement—thirty days without a visit. Beck stalked through the warren of packed boxes cluttering the house. Damn it to hell. He struggled to keep the accusatory tone out of his voice. “This is the fourth weekend in a row you’ve canceled.”

“I know.” Instead of an explanation, there was silence.

This could only be… Aw, fuck. “Don’t tell me it’s a callout case.”

“ViCAP got a hit matching one of my assignments.” The words were filled with apology.

Beck felt the need to punch something. He tried to avoid sounding pissed off. “Christ, they’ve got other profilers. Can’t Ruskin handle it?”

Zach heaved a sigh. “Look, I’m sorry. I did the original profile, and Sands is insisting. It’s just one more case.”

One more case. The same refrain, fracturing their time together.

In the first four months of their relationship, Sands had canceled Zach’s leave half a dozen times; a handful of stolen weekends was all they’d managed. Zach had discussed leaving with Sands but decided to continue with the FBI until his Colorado medical license came through—and it was taking forever. No letting Beck support him, uh-uh, no way. Damn bullheaded shrink.

In response to Zach’s announced plans to leave the bureau, Director Sands had come up with a strategy Beck called “one more.” One more profile. One more case. One more murder that no one but Zach could manage. “One more” had now added up to six.

It was always one…more…fucking…case.

It had worn on Beck. He was lonely, irritable, and horny, not to mention tired of making do with phone sex. Hell, they’d spent more time together on the notorious Olivetti murder case than they had since.

Beck held back the urge to spill that into the conversation. Instead he adopted a reasonable tone. “Why don’t you say no? You quit. End of story. If you keep giving in, he’ll never let you go.”

“I’m obligated to work on any of my previous cases while I’m still with the bureau.”

“That’s a load right there. I know at least two of those cases had never involved you originally. He dragged you in to help and then used that ‘previous case’ bullshit to keep you tied up.”

“I can’t practice in Colorado—”

“Without a medical license. I know. Quit anyway and enjoy some time off. God knows you’ve got enough unused leave built up.”

“We’re shorthanded.”

“What law enforcement agency isn’t? They’ll manage.”

“Sands needs me.”

Jesus Christ. For a psychiatrist, Zach sucked at self-examination. Couldn’t he see the manipulation at work here? “Fuck him. I need you.”

“I know. I need you too.”

Beck was tired of diplomacy. “Then don’t put up with this bullshit. Just walk away, damn it. Please.”

The silence said everything Zach didn’t. All the usual gibberish about I owe him and continuity of case had already been said when they discussed the previous delays. Yeah, the FBI had their claws in deep.

But underneath it all, Beck wondered if the real issue might be that Zach couldn’t give up profiling. “Your Colorado medical license should come through anytime. You can start work here as soon as it does. And Jay is counting on you to be here by June first.”

Jay Armentrout was a twenty-five-year veteran of the DPD who had gotten a PhD in psychology. For the past three years, he’d spent his days as the department’s sole mental-health provider, counseling Denver’s finest. Through his efforts, DPD had a better retention rate and a reduction in job-related divorce and disability. Zach had committed months ago to cover all psych duties while Jay attended a two-week forensic psychiatry seminar in London.

“I’ll be there.” Zach’s promise sounded heartfelt.

“I wish I could believe that.”

“Sweetheart…”

A garbled mix of anger, disappointment, and longing churned in Beck’s gut. “Please. I miss you. I need you here. Just get on the plane and fly to Denver.”

“This should wrap up over the weekend,” Zach said. “I’ll disengage, fly to Denver, and stay for good. I swear, no more cases after this.”

The promise was as tangible as the breath that formed the words. Zach sounded sincere. Hell, he was sincere. Beck was the cynic. For once, he wanted Zach to tell Sands where to stick it.

Heading down the hall to the bedroom they were supposed to be sharing, Beck said, “After the case you can come straight here. Don’t tell Sands you’re leaving, or he’ll dredge up something. When I get my hands on you, I ain’t letting go. Possession is nine-tenths, Littman.”

Springs squeaked, and Zach chuckled. “Trust me, I’m not going to jeopardize my escape. I’m sick of sleeping on a mattress that feels like cement.”

“You have options other than that boardinghouse for wayward boys.” In Beck’s opinion, the FBI’s so-called temporary housing sucked. It was more like a series of dorm rooms with a common bath and kitchen. The place was a health hazard.

“I don’t want to impose on Dean.”

In mid-February, Zach had rented his Minneapolis house to his ex-boyfriend Dean, who was a cute blond nurse. In a way, Beck was pleased Zach had refused Dean’s houseguest invitation. Beck felt uneasy just contemplating Zach sleeping under the same roof as Dean.

“There’s a perfectly comfortable bed waiting right here for you. Comes equipped with a hot guy and everything.” Beck leaned against the doorjamb and pinched the bridge of his nose. Evening sunlight fell in blocks of brightness across the king-size bed, rumpled on one side. Only on one side.

“I’m frustrated too,” Zach said, voice full of sympathy. “I know it’s been a long haul.”

Long? Spring had sprung. April showers had brought May flowers but not Zach. Beck still rattled around the half-unpacked house on his own. Zach had wanted this, and he wasn’t here.

Beck had pictured camaraderie over yard work, cozy dinners for two discussing their days, and nights full of marathon sex. All the perks of partnership.

Instead, they’d become mired in a long-term long-distance relationship, minus any of that. Beck had unpacked most of his stuff, but Zach hadn’t. There was no feeling of permanency here. He rubbed at the scar on his left shoulder. “I’ll come out there this weekend.”

“The case is a callout.”

The words dropped like rocks on Beck’s already precarious mood. Wasn’t it always? Sands never assigned Zach a case requiring only a profile—no, that would mean Zach could work the case from Minneapolis. The director knew if Beck had Zach in person, the FBI would lose him for good. It was like playing a game of chess. Did Zach even want the move to Denver? “What is it this time?”

“A body with an MO matching one of my open cases. I can’t—”

“Talk about it. Protocol and all that.” Beck couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his tone. “Yeah, I know.”

“I realize this has been tough, but it’s almost over. I can’t wait to get to Denver and settle in.” Softly Zach said, “I miss you so damn much.”

That bedroom-rough voice made Beck’s heart give an optimistic surge. Another part of him gave a hopeful twitch as well. He crossed the room and sat on the end of the bed. If he squeezed his eyes shut, he could pretend Zach was here in person. “Just get it over with and come home.”

“I love you, Beck.”

“Love you too.”

Copyright © Whitley Gray

Reviews

Customer Reviews

a detailed murder mystery with a lot of psychological aspects Review by Christy
Quality
I apologize profusely to the author for taking so long to read this second installment in the 'Concepts' series. Considering how much I loved the first book and that, at the time, Whitley Gray was a new-to-me author, I have been waiting for this next story with Beck and Zach. I couldn't wait to dig in to more homicide, hot sex, and fabulous characters! So if I forget to say it when I'm done, thank you, Whitley.

There was no longer any reason not to leave the behavioral unit. Other than Zach’s reluctance. If it weren’t for that niggling feeling that no one else could manage Zach’s cases as well as he had, it would be easy to leave the unit. Maybe his ego was the main roadblock here. Maybe loss of control was.

It was tough to see Zach struggling with leaving the FBI. Even though Beck understands it's not him who is giving up his cases, stuff that he worked hard on, and that are still not resolved. Now it seems a second killer is taunting Zach and he gets dragged back into profiling for the FBI even though he is on leave before resigning. The new killer has tied it into Denver and Beck is so not happy about this turn of events. Beck's insecurities are riding him, afraid that Zach is going to go back to the FBI and he'll lose him completely.

As the killer intensifies, the stress and tension between Zach and Beck escalates. I could have told Beck that keeping information from Zach, even if Beck feels he's protecting him, is not a good start to a living-together relationship that's already a wee bit precarious. Communication guys, that's what you need to be doing. Well, that and compromising… at least from Beck since it appears that Zach has given everything up, so far. When Zach's boss at the FBI calls him back onboard for this case (oh yeah, Zach forgot to tell Beck he hadn't resigned, he's on paid leave) the tension ratchets up higher than ever. Luckily for them they figure out how to communicate and work together again to solve the case.

I did not enjoy 'Cold-Hearted Concept' as much as I did the first book in the series. The mystery, suspense, and thrill ride were definitely there, but that portion of the storyline was a little too convoluted for me. There were several plots occurring at the same time and, in my opinion, the book wasn't as streamlined with the plot or with the characters and some of my enjoyment was lost because of this.

Definitely bone-chilling looking into the minds of these serial killers and I think the author did a great job with the psychological aspects. I definitely got a little frustrated a few times at the back and forth between Zach and Beck in regards to their relationship. However, I'm definitely willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt because she didn't wrap this case up quickly like it's done on TV in an hour. 'Cold-Hearted Concept' certainly showed the time, the manpower, and the frustration that must occur for law enforcement on these cases that last months or even years.

If you enjoy a detailed murder mystery with a lot of psychological aspects, a homicide detective and a profiler who can't seem to communicate worth a darn (except in bed), and a grisly unsub then this is definitely the read for you and I can highly recommend it.

NOTE: This book was provided by Loose Id for the purpose of a review on Rainbow Book Reviews
(Posted on 9/14/2016)
Quality Page Turner Review by Karen
Quality
This one picks up short after the end of High Concept with Zach still in Minneapolis and Beck in Denver. A Xav D copycat is a work and has Zach in his sights. from the first page readers are drawn into both their relationship and its issues and trying to discover the identity of the Follower. It is a wild ride. I could not put it down. I would love to see a third book in this series.

The characters are well=developed, complex men who struggle with their jobs. egos, and what makes a realtionship last.
(Posted on 3/13/2016)
Spellbinding, suspenseful, surprising, sexy Review by Dianne
Quality
A resounding five stars for this page turning thriller - Cold-Hearted Concept has made it on to my top ten list for 2015.

This is a sequel I've been highly anticipating, and wow, did the author ever deliver. Big time!
FBI profiler Zach and Denver homicide detective Beck are back several months following the events of 'High Concept'. These are two wonderfully portrayed characters. Both men are intelligent, intuitive, respected, compassionate, cool under pressure and very much in love with one another. There are only a few things keeping them from building a happy new life together. Things like: a serial killer who has Zach in their sights, the needy family of Beck's killed in the line of duty partner, an ex lover, the allure of an FBI promotion, and the weight of past abandonment.

In deftly weaving together all of these elements, the author has created a nail biting page turner. I relish how long this story is. It's meaty, it's meaningful - not a single word is superfluous. I found the investigative angles of the detailed day by day, hour by hour, step by step, multi-jurisdictional murder investigation entirely fascinating. And also fairly creepy. If you stay up late reading this like I did - and I bet you will - be sure to leave some lights on! The building of the romance dynamic between Zach and Beck while they are up to their eyeballs in a major - and personal - investigation is one of the most extremely genuine I've ever read. I love these two strong, yet vulnerable men for their individual merits. Together they rock not only the sheets, but their badges as well. Spellbinding, suspenseful, surprising, sexy. This story is all that and more. Such an extremely satisfying read. I'm already geared up for more Zach and Beck!
(Posted on 1/2/2016)

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