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Tybee Island, Georgia
Cameron Cochran lounged on the deck of the Lucky Duck, his thirty-one-foot Morgan powerboat. Café Loco looked too busy for him to go over there for beer, and he was down to his last one.
He propped his bare feet on the rail and rubbed the surviving cold bottle of Dos Equis across the middle of his chest to cool off. It was damned hot for early October, even for Georgia.
In another few weeks he planned to knock off for the year. The fishing business was slow anyway. He hadn't had the boat out of the creek and in open water for three days. A good many of the neighboring slips were empty today, but most of them advertised, did tours, catered to tourists. He took only small groups of two or three who seriously liked to fish.
Tomorrow's client was late in coming by with the deposit, and he had a good mind to go ahead and leave. Might as well finish the beer. He took a swig and sighed.
Life was good here. He still had that feeling something was missing, though. Maybe the high he got when all his senses were revved and the safety was off. Maybe a little passion for what he was doing. Maybe a little passion, period.
Cameron grunted at the maudlin thought and took another swallow, enjoying the cool brew. He had it made. What fool wouldn't love to be doing what he was doing, bunking on a sweet little craft and fishing for a living?
Most nights he didn't even bother going to the house. It was just a place to keep the stuff he didn't have room for on the Duck.
A tapping sound caught his attention. Ah, that must be tomorrow's fare, strutting down the dock in high heels and a skirt. He'd bet this one wouldn't be baitingany hooks. She looked cute, though, in a tightly wound, bean-counter kind of way. The bigger outfits must be sending him the ones they didn't want to fool with.
She had her little beige suit coat draped over one arm, and perspiration molded her bright blue slip top to her skin. Damp strands of dark blond hair had escaped the prim little bun and clung to her temples.
"Are you Cameron Cochran?" she asked, shielding her brow with her hand.
"Ms. Bradshaw." He knew who she was. He recognized her voice from the phone call a few hours earlier. She had left a message, asking to meet with him at 2:00 p.m. It was almost three-thirty. "You're late."
"My flight was delayed. Weather," she explained with an impatient shake of her head. "May I, uh, come on the boat?" She stood near the edge of the dock, eyeing the gentle lap of waves against the pilings. She looked worried.
"Take your shoes off," he ordered. Reluctantly, he set down his beer and got up to help her board. Probably couldn't make it by herself since her skirt was so slim-fitting. He finally just grabbed her by the waist and hefted her over and onto the deck.
She brushed his hands off as if he'd been handling fish. Cameron smiled down at her, enjoying himself. She was a pretty little thing and obviously way out of her comfort zone.
He stood back, hands on his hips. "Okay, here's the deal. We'll leave around six in the morning and go out about twenty miles. Depending on what we find, we should get a few sea bass, flounder, snapper or mackerel. If you feel adventurous, we could try for barracuda."
"I didn't come to fish," she announced, straightening her skirt.
He glanced pointedly around the marina and back at her. "Well, honey, this is a fishing boat, and that's about all I do. You want a tour, there're boats for that."
She held out her hand for him to shake. "I'm Agent Tess Bradshaw, and I work for SEXTANT. Our director, Special Agent Jack Mercier, sent me to offer you a position with our team. I know you worked for the CIA, so I'm sure you know who we are."
Cameron froze, pinning her with a glare. She drew up to her full height of about five-four and glared back. "Look, I know that was direct, but I saw no point in engaging in a lot of small talk before delivering the offer. The pay is good, and you'll have a chance to get at that hacker again. No interference this time and Mercier will have your file completely wiped of all the accusations made against you before you left the Company."
"Get off my boat," Cameron growled. All the bitterness he thought he'd conquered flooded back.
"For what? I'm done."
She cleared her throat and stepped away when he would have lifted her back onto the dock. "I could lose my job if you say no."
"Good. You'll be better off." He reached for her again, but she dodged him.
"Listen to me, will you?" Wide-eyed, probably afraid of him, she backed up to the far rail, dropped her shoes and held on with both hands. "We need you. Your country needs you. There's another threat to the B.P.S. The mitigating effort's not working. They want money, or they'll strike."
He so didn't want to get into this again. "One more hour and I would have had the man. The Company rushed in, screwed my mission, then blamed me when it failed."
"Mercier knows that."
Cameron didn't care. "If they need a standby scapegoat this time, they can damn well find somebody else."
"You got a raw deal. Mercier will rectify that if you'll only help us out with this one mission. It's one you worked on for nearly a year! Here's your opportunity to make it happen your way. Take it, Cochran."
"Tell him to fix my record, get me an official apology in writing and I'll think about it." Cameron would think, as promised, but he wouldn't do. Her expression said she guessed as much. Smart cookie.
He sat back down in his chair and picked up his beer.
The persistent little devil didn't budge. "We know where he is. He has been traced to a general area but has moved too much within it to be pinpointed precisely," she told him. "Intel says he's contacted the Department of Energy with a demand for millions. You know the government policy on extortion, so it's only a matter of time…."
Cameron swiped his forehead with the side of his bottle, now too warm to do any good. "You have a location, so go in and throw a wide net."
He hated the prickle of anticipation he was feeling. And the itch to participate, damn it. He wanted to so badly, he could taste it, despite the bitterness. Or maybe because of that. Would he ever have another chance like this to clear his name?
She held his gaze, probably knew she had him already, even as she spoke. "The evidence would disappear in a blink if we used a traditional approach. That's what happened last time, right? Mercier says you'd be lead on the mission and we do things your way. And if you want employment with our team after we succeed, he will seriously consider it."
Was it possible somebody actually believed he was innocent? Enough to hire him? In any case, they sure
knew how to tempt him. "What's with the we? Who else is on it?"
She dropped her gaze to her feet, then looked up at him through her lashes and frowned. "Me."
Cameron laughed out loud. He stopped suddenly and sighed. "Who goes if I refuse? Just you?"
She shrugged and nodded.
Okay, there was his justification for sticking his head back in the noose. Damn it, he couldn't let her try to handle this on her own. Young as she looked, she couldn't have much experience.
This could prove really dangerous if it involved a serious criminal element and not just some greedy hacker testing his skills.
Her carefully blank expression and lack of any telling body language indicated she could be lying about taking this on by herself. But what if she wasn't? Intel personnel had to be stretched pretty thin across the board these days with so many cuts in funding. They might send her out alone, thinking there would be little chance of physical danger involved.
"Please reconsider," she said. "I know how much that last op cost you. Think about it, Cochran. Here's your chance to turn that around."
She couldn't know all he had lost. That wouldn't be in his record for her to read. Some things couldn't be turned around no matter what he did. Like Brenda.
She had deserted him the minute she found out he'd been forced to leave the Company. Losing her was probably the only stroke of good fortune associated with his fall from grace, but at the time he hadn't seen it that way. He had needed love and support. He had gotten a halfhearted apology and his ring back.
Even that was more than his family had offered. His dad, still disgruntled about Cameron's career choice, had muttered a pointed "I told you so" and extended a grudging job offer. Cameron's polite refusal had nearly cut all ties with his parents, but he could not see himself as an accountant making his bones in order to inherit Daddy's firm eventually. This was his life, damn it.
Now even his mother thought he was a bum and wore a look of despair every time he visited. They lived less than ten miles away, and he, an only child and the black sheep, rarely saw either of them. His weekly call to check on their health and say hello was both bittersweet and excruciating.
Yeah, he had lost, all right, but he still had his self-respect and his independence. He made a fair living and answered to nobody. Could he give that up on the off chance he could prove he was a good agent? Even if he succeeded, who was left to care?
Who was he kidding? He cared. He damn well cared.
The sudden leap of hope made him furious with himself. And with her, for causing it. He hated the reminder of what he had once been and what he was now. How many times had he dreamed of being called back, being needed to do what no other agent could, and of saying a nonchalant "no thanks" to the ones who had betrayed him?
Now he faced a decision, welcome revenge or a chance at redemption. What if he took the chance and failed? What if, again, they engineered his failure?
She watched him, her expression hopeful.
Even if he wanted to say yes, what could he do with his hands tied? "I can't leave the country. The authorities lifted my papers and warned me not to."
"Taken care of. Passport, badge and credentials, Everything you'll need. You also get your CRYPTO clearance back. C'mon, you get carte blanche."
Cameron put down the warm beer again and stood up. So much for his sense of self-preservation. He needed to ditch his pride and do this. Had to, and not just to keep her out of trouble, he admitted. There might never be another opportunity for him to set things straight. "I'll need a few days to make arrangements for my business here."
"I'm sorry, but this has a short fuse. We have to leave today. I'll do whatever I can to help you get ready." She was obviously grateful and relieved he was in, but the offer sounded a little stiff in spite of that. He suspected she hadn't agreed with her boss's orders to recruit him. She sure deserved a solid A for effort, though. She had set the hook and reeled him in.
That uptight attitude had to loosen up a little if they were going to get along at all. He grabbed the shirt hanging over the arm of his chair and pulled it on, then stepped into his deck shoes. "My car's up at the café. Let's go."
"Where?" she asked. "You're not planning to drive anywhere, are you?" She glanced pointedly at the discarded beer bottle. "You've been drinking."
"Half a beer doesn't affect me." He beckoned her to his side of the deck and lifted her onto the dock. She yelped a little when he almost dropped her on purpose.
"I'm driving!" she declared when he joined her.
He led the way up to the parking lot and waited for her as she paid her fare and sent the waiting cab on its way back to town. When she rejoined him, he ushered her into the café and hailed Bobby Ray, who was sitting at the bar, sucking down a draft. "Hey, take over for me for a couple of weeks, will you?"
"Yeah, sure, no problem," Bobby Ray muttered.
Cameron tossed him the keys to the boat. "Hire a mate. Don't take her out by yourself. Tomorrow's still open. Take care of the Duck for me, or I'll wring your skinny neck."
Bobby Ray nodded and pocketed the keys. He never said much. Clients probably didn't enjoy his company, but he was careful on the water and damn good at finding fish.
"Are you sure you can trust him?" she asked as they were leaving the café. "He looks sort of… disreputable."
He did at that. Scrawny, dressed like a bum, rarely shaved, missing a few teeth. But he was a good man. Cameron inclined his head and took her arm to guide the little agent to his car. "We're a disreputable lot, and that's a fact, ma'am, but we look out for each other. And I have really good insurance."
"Don't call me ma'am."
"It's a Southern thing, sign of respect."
"You don't know me. How do you know I deserve respect?" she snapped.
"Call me an optimist." He stopped beside the Chevy, opened the passenger door and got in. The window was already down, so he reached out and handed her the key. "Here you go."
She took the key ring and stared at it, frowning.
"So, you driving or what?" he asked, prompting her to get a move on. If they had a short fuse on this like she said, they needed to get busy.
She hurried around the rust-spotted hood and got in. After a cursory assessment of the interior, she remarked, "There aren't any seat belts."
"Or air-conditioning. She's an old car. We have to go only about two miles, though. You'll be safe enough."
She stuck the key in the ignition and twisted it. Cameron smiled at the deafening rumble. Who needed a muffler to go two miles? He rarely drove anywhere but to the house and back.
"Hit the main drag and hang a right."
There were no more comments about his ride, and he gave her points for that. He had bought the clunker from Bobby Ray for a couple of hundred when the boy had needed money.
"Are we going to your house?" she asked, shifting gears rather expertly.
"Yep. Turn right here. Third house on the left." He pointed to a small clapboard cottage with blue shutters.