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"You're too close to this one, Julia."
Rachel Brennan didn't even bother to look up as she sat behind the large glass-and-chrome desk. Because she was the head of Miami Confidential, her word should have been final.
Julia didn't see it that way. She was so angry and worried and frustrated she wasn't seeing much of anything. But she knew her only hope of changing Rachel's mind lay in convincing her boss that she was capable of working the Botero case without letting her personal feelings interfere. They'd been through this more than once since the kidnapping of Sonya Botero a couple of weeks ago. Rachel kept insisting Julia help out, but from behind the scenes. Julia wanted a more active role and refused to settle for anything less.
The three chunky, brightly colored, acrylic bracelets on Julia's right wrist clanked loudly as she braced her fingertips against the edge of the desk.
Rachel grudgingly lifted her clear blue eyes. "Was there a particular letter in the word no you didn't understand?"
Julia didn't so much as blink at the caution in the other woman's tone. "I'm not a liability, I'm an asset. I've known the Botero family since I was a kid. C'mon, Rachel, I lived with Sonya my last year of high school. Mr. Botero trusts me. I'm like a daughter to him."
"Which is why you need to take a seat. Look..." Rachel paused to put her pen down next to a neat stack of folders. "Getting Sonya Botero back from her kidnappers is our top priority. I won't have the job compromised because you've got a personal connection to the victim and her family."
"How will I compromise the assignment?" Julia argued. "If anything, my affection for the Boteros only makes me more determined to find Sonya and bring her home safely."
Rachel leaned back in the deep red, glove-leather executive chair, stroking the tip of one perfectly manicured fingernail across her chin. The woman looked more like a pageant contestant than the head of a group of highly trained Confidential agents. Her ebony hair was piled loosely on top of her head, secured with a lapis clip that matched the color of her eyes. In spite of the legendary south Florida heat and humidity, Rachel's makeup was fashion-model perfect. But looks were deceiving. Julia knew that Rachel was a legend in the business.
"You're one of the best agents I've ever worked with, Julia," Rachel said. "You've got a great future ahead of you. I don't want to see that derailed because you let your personal feelings prevent you from —"
"They won't," Julia interrupted. "Have I ever been anything but completely professional?"
"No," her boss answered with complete candor.
"Then trust me, Rachel. Trust that I'm a team player who is capable of keeping my focus."
"You're a frustrated team player," Rachel replied pointedly.
Julia refused to let her shoulders slump. So we're going to beat this dead horse again. "I came to Miami Confidential because I wanted more responsibility and more autonomy than I had with the DEA."
"Which you will get," Rachel repeated.
Julia bit back the urge to ask how many more gowns she'd have to sew or tuxedos she'd have to alter before that became a reality. She wanted to be a full-time agent, not a seamstress. "And I appreciate your faith in me. I'm just asking you to extend that faith to include me in the Botero case. I swear you won't be disappointed, Rachel. Have I ever let you down? Let the team down? Even once? I'm practically a member of the Botero family. You don't have anyone else as close to them. I'm an asset," she repeated, to make her point.
Reluctantly, Rachel shook her head. "I don't think this is a good idea, Julia."
Julia held both her breath and her tongue; it sounded as if her boss was waffling. "But against my better judgment I'm finally going to say yes, because you're right about being an asset. You're not going to be the primary," she told her flatly.
"But your connection to the Botero family might be useful. Just don't let any personal feelings for the victim blind you to what has to be done. I expect you to do your job, and remain professional and focused at all times."
"I will." Julia's heart rate increased. "Thank you," she said, exhaling the breath she'd been holding as she began backing out of the well-camouflaged offices.
"You won't regret this."
Rachel tossed out a stern look. "See that I don't." Nodding, Julia felt behind the bookcase and found the keypad that opened the secret door. Half afraid that Rachel would change her mind, she decided a hasty exit was the best option.
Using the back stairway, she entered the public area of Weddings Your Way. The scent of coffee mingled with the fragrance of freshly cut flowers as she moved across the polished tile floor toward her office.
No one would ever have guessed that the upscale Miami business was actually a front for one of the most specialized agencies in the country. Confidential agents worked out of branch offices all over the United States. Because of her sewing skills, Julia had been assigned to Weddings Your Way.
The obvious benefit was the location. Miami was her home, and after four years of moving all over the place at the whim of the DEA, she was all too ready to return to the warm, tropical, familiar surroundings of her childhood.
Julia's office was a large space that occupied the northwest corner of the second story of the converted Spanish-style home on the shore of Biscayne Bay. A wide partition separated her desk from the actual sewing area.
Sidestepping two bolts of fabric leaning against the wall, she slipped behind her cluttered desk, sat down and began flipping through her Rolodex.
Though she and Sonya had been as close as sisters, Julia's work as an undercover agent had created a distance between them. She felt a pang of guilt now, regretting every opportunity lost to fix the breach in their relationship, as she hunted for Sonya's exact address and the code that would get her past the building's security and into Sonya's condo.
Regret was tempered by the resurgence of anger as she remembered the way Sonya had been snatched, right out front of Weddings Your Way. The Botero family was very, very rich. Uncle Carlos had his fingers in all sorts of pies, so the possibilities of who was behind the kidnapping of his only daughter were pretty much endless. Added to that, Sonya's fiancé, Juan DeLeon, was a prominent and controversial politician in Ladera. Politics and kidnapping — particularly in struggling, corrupt South American countries — went hand in hand.
A preliminary investigation on the Laderan angle was already being investigated by Isabelle and Rafe, two other Confidential agents. So Julia decided she should focus, at least for now, on the home front.
Scribbling down the address, she glanced over and saw the message light blinking. She thought about ignoring it, but knew better. No one was more persistent and demanding than a frazzled bride, and the last thing she needed was to compromise the Weddings Your Way front by allowing a bride to suffer a psychotic break.
The first two messages were from suppliers; the beads she'd ordered were finally on their way via overnight express, and the company in Ireland would ship the lace she'd been waiting on by the end of the week.
The last call was from Carmen Lopez, whose wedding was the following week. Julia smiled when she heard her say, "I hate to be a bother, but..." Carmen was a sweet woman who apologized with every other breath.
"My brother will be in your area this afternoon. I told him it would be okay if he stopped in for his fitting around three. If that's a problem, you can call his cell phone." Julia jotted the telephone number on her calendar. "Thank you and I'm sorry to do this on such short notice."
Maybe something had been overlooked at Sonya's place. Checking her watch, Julia decided she had just enough time to go over to the condo, do a second search and be back to meet Carmen's brother for his fitting.
Grabbing up her bulky leather satchel, she dashed out of the building. In no time, she was behind the wheel of her Jeep, the wind blowing through her hair as she crossed the Rickenbacker Causeway and headed toward the oceanfront high-rise Uncle Carlos had given Sonya as a graduation present.
Carlos Botero was a generous man when it came to his daughter. Those qualities had extended to Julia, as well. Thanks to him, when her own father died, the Botero family had given her a home, paid her tuition at St. Francis de Salles High and then sent her to University of Miami. Had it not been for the kindness of Uncle Carlos, Julia was fairly sure she'd be working in a factory for minimum wage, sewing decorations on straw bags for the throngs of tourists roaming the streets of Little Havana.
Images of Sonya's kidnapping flashed in her brain as she navigated the perfectly groomed street that ran parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. The air was heavy, building toward the inevitable midafternoon thunderstorm. The scent of freshly mowed grass filled her nostrils as she made a left into the secured entrance of the condominium. She would find Sonya, and somehow pay back a little of that kindness.
Pulling the scrap of paper from her purse, she pressed the four-digit code and listened as the metal gates creaked open in a wide, sweeping arc. Julia pulled into the first-floor garage and shoved her sunglasses up on her head, allowing her eyes to adjust to the shadowy interior.
Sonya's cherry-red Porsche was parked in the spot where her unit number was stenciled on the wall. Julia pulled into one of the guest spots and cut the engine.
The heat was oppressive in spite of large fans mounted near the elevators. The garage smelled dank, and occasional patches of beach sand crunched beneath her shoes as she walked to the entrance.
Stepping into the elevator was like stepping into the past, and it had nothing to do with Sonya. It was the smell. The faint scent of men's cologne that brought a vivid and immediate image to mind.
Luke Young. The scent was woods and citrus, and a single whiff was all it took for Julia to flash back to when she'd last been in his embrace. Shivering, she rubbed her bared arms. She liked to think that the only reason Luke continued to haunt her after all this time was because of the way things had ended six years ago. Or rather, not ended.
After the arrest of Esterhaus in the middle of what should have been their wedding, she'd been a total wimp. And a rude one at that. She'd never returned any of his calls. It wasn't as if she could tell him the truth. The DEA had strictly forbidden her from revealing her role in the sting. Not even to Luke. As far as he knew, she'd just vanished. A jittery almost-bride who had come to her senses. Why did she still care what he might think of her?
A ding sounded, jarring her back to reality as the elevator doors slid open, revealing a beautifully decorated hallway. Sonya's condo, if she remembered correctly, was at the far end of the corridor. She pulled a small zippered pouch from her purse as she approached. By the time she was at the door, she had two small jimmies at the ready.