Drew Fields pulled to the curb and parked in front of his former home. He hated the bland, midsize sedan the Agency insisted he drive as part of his mind-numbingly dull, assigned cover life. A marketing director for a microbrewery? Really? At least there’d be free beer. He hoped.
That was the Central Intelligence Agency for you. The government sanitized everything. Even his official title—National Clandestine Services core collector. He was a spy, a secret agent. What kid wanted to grow up to be a core collector? Sounded more like nuclear reactor work.
Which, come to think of it, pretty nearly described his mission to reconcile with his estranged wife and stop her stepfather from selling vital satellite secrets to the Revolutionary International Organization of Terrorists, RIOT. If Staci ever found out what he was up to, there would be fallout. Plenty of it.
He shut off the ignition. Next time he was going to insist on an Aston Martin DB5. A sexy car made up for a lot of crap.
He took a deep breath. How was he going to convince Staci to take him back? Especially after he’d agreed to the divorce without a fight. And why now?
They had an anniversary coming up a week from Friday. Maybe he could play off that? Claim to be sentimental?
He was something of a phenom when it came to lying, a natural talent. His inborn gift had gotten him out of more than a few scrapes when he was a kid, and even more as an adult. But there were limits to even his ability.
Drew had tried to convince his boss, NCS chief and head spook Emmett Nelson, to send another agent on this mission to bring down Staci’s stepdad, Sam Deeds, aka the Fisherman. Drew had no desire to infiltrate Staci’s life. But Emmett did what he did best—used emotional blackmail.
RIOT was notorious for taking out family members of their business associates on a whim. It kept everyone in line and on task.
With Staci’s stepfather involved in nefarious, traitorous business dealings with RIOT, Staci and her mother were in danger. With a little ingenuity, Drew would be perfectly placed to guard Staci day and night, keep an eye on her mother, and spy on Sam, all without arousing anyone’s suspicions. It had to be him.
Stalling, and hoping to be clobbered by a stunning blow of inspiration, Drew studied the two-story house he still owned half of, looking for security lapses. Staci kept the bushes in front of the windows well trimmed and away from the house, and the sidewalk, driveway, and front entry clear of any hiding places.
She’d resisted her natural botanical urge to plant flowers and trees over every square inch of property and columns of junipers on each side of the door. Open spaces made for less stealth and more safety.
Before their marriage went sour, he’d picked this gated neighborhood for Staci because of its low crime rate and excellent security measures. A spy’s family was never 100 percent safe.
The Redmond chief of police lived here; a senator made her home away from the nation’s capital here. At least two state legislators and several high-profile entrepreneurs lived in the pricier part of the development.
Drew hated what he was about to do to Staci. The sooner he completed this mission and found an assignment overseas, disappearing deep undercover, the better for both of them. In the meantime, his Farsi was getting rusty.
He never should have married Staci in the first place. What had possessed him to think a girl who couldn’t lie to save her life would make a good wife for a spy like him? She had a tell as obvious as Alaska. The woman couldn’t even keep from giving herself away when she played Clue.
Ironically, that’s what he’d loved about her—she was the one person he could believe, the one honest thing in his life. A little slice of black and white shining through an otherwise gray gloom. When she told him she loved him, he knew she did. When she said she wanted a divorce, she shattered his world.
And now here he was, at her insistence, stopping by the old homestead to pick up a box of odds and ends from their former life. A box Emmett had planted to give him an excuse to see her.
Drew glanced at his watch. Ten thirty. Right on time. He got out of the car, wondering exactly how he was going to convince Staci to give him another chance. He still hadn’t figured out exactly where he’d gone wrong in the first place. Other than being a secret agent and lying to her about it to get her to marry him.
He couldn’t believe he was undercover as himself, dressed in Staci’s favorite shirt, wearing his good-guy, boy-next-door persona on his sleeve. He’d rather be in Hawaii, working undercover as a tour guide, like he had last year.
He’d just recently returned from a minor follow-up assignment in Maui and hoped Staci didn’t notice his tan. But how could she miss it? In May, most Seattleites, and that included the residents of Redmond, were still a pasty shade of pale. She’d give him hell over it.
He slammed the car door shut to give her fair warning he’d arrived. The weather was pleasant—clear skies, temperatures in the low sixties. He left his jacket in the car. As he approached the door, he half expected her to open it and throw his stuff at him. He resisted the urge to shield himself with his arm. The woman had laser-beam aim. Instead of mounting a frontal assault, she made him ring the doorbell.
Her voice didn’t sound like hell’s fury, but he didn’t drop his guard. He never dropped his guard. He wondered if she’d suddenly decided they were going to be one of those couples, the ones who seem so cordial you wonder why they ever got divorced in the first place or how they even got up the gumption to file.
She opened the door partway and stood before him, just slightly breathless.
The sight of her gave him an unexpected jolt of desire and regret. Old habits die hard, he told himself. This was just the automatic reaction of a frustrated, celibate male spy to a beautiful woman with snapping brown eyes and slightly parted, highly kissable lips. Lips he was used to possessing.
The smell of freshly baked cookies drifted out from the house, diverting his thoughts. Chocolate chip, his favorite. He hoped his stomach didn’t growl. He hadn’t had a home-baked chocolate chip cookie since they’d separated.
Hot woman. Hot cookies. This is torture.
Staci’s hands were empty. He’d expected her to thrust a box in his arms and shove him on his way.
Evidently, whatever had possessed him to fix himself up had also gotten hold of her. She looked like great sex on a rainy day. Her dark brown hair was recently highlighted with streaks of auburn and flatironed shiny and straight. She wore skinny jeans, black pumps with three-inch heels, and a tight, low-cut, ruffled magenta blouse, belted with a wide black belt just below her eye-catching breasts. The belt made her waist look about two inches wide, her hips curvy, and her breasts double-D.
The heels might have been her idea of a power trip. She’d never liked being so much shorter than he was. Maybe she was hoping the heels would make them see eye-to-eye. Personally, he was having a hard time seeing anything above her breasts, but he forced himself.
“Drew.” She smiled and opened the door wide to let him in.
Right away his defenses went up. He couldn’t act too eager and happy to see her. She’d never buy that. “Where’s my stuff?”
“On the kitchen table.”
To his surprise, she remained pleasant despite his gruffness. What was up with her?
“It’s heavy. You’ll have to get it yourself.” She stood aside to let him in.
He surveyed her outfit again. “Going out?”
She stared straight into his eyes, still smiling. “No. Why?”
He looked her up and down. “No reason.”
Just that she usually wore jeans, T-shirts, and Converse tennis shoes around the house. No way she’d dressed up for him, had she? Maybe there was hope for this mission yet.
* * *
Staci kept her smile plastered on, thinking positive thoughts and going to her happy place so the smile would reach her eyes. She couldn’t believe she’d missed this last box of Drew’s junk. His stuff seemed to be multiplying like the hairs that appeared when she cleaned the tub. But she was determined to be civil now that their marriage was almost over. It was just unfortunate the divorce would be final so close to their anniversary. Drew probably didn’t even remember it.
He walked past her so closely, he brushed against her pushed-up-and-out breasts. She got a whiff of his delectable cologne. Her breath caught. Involuntary reaction on her part. Intentional foul on his, she was sure.
He wore the navy-blue shirt she so loved on him, the one that made his eyes look even bluer than normal. It hugged and showed off his broad shoulders and every arm and chest muscle he owned. The man looked hot enough to eat. And tan for this time of year. His sandy-blond hair light and sun-bleached. Should a woman be so physically attracted to her husband mere weeks before their divorce became final? Shouldn’t her hurt feelings take him down a peg or two on the attractiveness meter?
Maybe not. She reminded herself Drew was exactly like his boss Emmett. He could throw on the invisibility cloak or devastate you with charm and good looks. All without the aid of makeup or stage paint.
Just why Drew was putting on this persona confounded her. Last time she’d seen him, at her lawyer’s office over a month ago, he’d been impassive and quiet, a study in calmly ignoring her.
She’d wounded his pride. She knew that. Andrew Collin Fields never failed at anything. Losing her was a slap at his James Bond spy machismo.
She took a deep breath, subtly. Already, she had doubts about the outfit she’d chosen to wear. Judging from the way Drew gawked at her, it screamed Woman on the make instead of her intended Look what you gave up.
Yes, she wanted to spark jealousy and remorse that he’d chosen his career over her. In the name of her pride, though, she was also determined to be pleasant. But she didn’t want him getting any other ideas, something crazy like she was regretting her decision to divorce him. Life apart was safer. For both of them.
“You look tan,” she said to make conversation. “Been on a mission someplace sunny?”
He hesitated, looking as if he didn’t want to answer. “I was back in Hawaii this past month. Following up.” He had the good grace to appear sheepish and almost apologetic.
He’d been promising to take her to Hawaii for a second honeymoon for years. Well, up until this latest unpleasant divorce business. Soon she’d be free to take herself. When she found another job and got a little cash ahead. She forced herself to smile. “Tough life.”
He cleared his throat. “In the kitchen? Something smells good in there.”
She nodded, surprised he was being so pleasant. “After you.”
She followed him in, nearly colliding with his backside as he abruptly stopped just inside the kitchen door.
“Whoa! Give me a little warning before you brake,” she snapped, without thinking. He hated it when she used that irritated tone on him.
Fortunately, he didn’t seem to notice. He was too busy scanning the racks of cooling cookies that lined the counters and the island.
“Why, Scarlett, you’ve been baking!” He pointed to the racks as if counting. “There must be ten dozen cookies, at least.” He turned and stared into her eyes.
Her heart did an involuntary little flip. “Baking calms me. You know that.”
Oops! She’d slipped up again. Now he’d think she was nervous about seeing him. Which, of course, she was.
“What are you going to do with all these cookies?” His gaze flicked to her midsection.
“Eat them all myself,” she said, deadpan. No she wasn’t going to eat herself into oblivion and a spot at Weight Watchers over him, if that’s what he thought. He could just dash any fantasies about her being an old, fat broad he was lucky to have ditched. She stared back at him, trying to keep her lips from twitching at the thought of disappointing him.
He must have seen her trying hard not to laugh. He broke into a smile himself. “Seriously, who are they for?”
“Little Jessica next door. Her class is having a bake sale. Her mom’s out of town and her dad can’t bake. I offered to help her out.” She shrugged as if to say No big deal.
In front of her, he was almost salivating. Oh, yeah, he loved her baking. One more thing he should have thought of before putting NCS, the spying arm of the CIA, before her.
She took pity on him anyway. Though she’d intentionally made cookies so the house would smell of tempting vanilla and chocolate, in the end no one could call her a hard woman. “How about taking a few off my hands? I think I overdid it.”
She headed to the pantry for a plastic bag without waiting for an answer. “Your box is on the table if you want to take a look. Are you staying with your parents while you’re here? I imagine your mom won’t be happy about fitting another box into the garage—”
An explosion cut her off midsentence as she reached for the pantry door. Behind her, she heard the tinkling rain of shattering glass. Something whizzed past her head, buzzing like a bee about to sting. She reached instinctively to swat it away.
“Get down!” Drew tackled her from behind with all the finesse of a quarterback sack.
Her breath left her body with an unflattering oomph as her ribs hit unyielding ash. Her cheek smacked the cold floor and throbbed on impact. Wood flooring wasn’t exactly cuddly and soft like her microfleece sheets.
Neither was Drew as he covered her with his hard body. Her heart pounded wildly in her ears over the hum of a lawn mower somewhere outside. She couldn’t catch her breath.
Another gunshot sliced through the door above her.
Much as she wanted to blame her difficulty breathing on the wide, tight belt she wore, it accounted for only a small part of her problem. Fear, the weight of the man on top of her, and her physical attraction to that particular 180 pounds of maleness accounted for the rest. She needed a nice, safe, boring boyfriend. Maybe an accountant or an engineer—one with no enemies.
As the nerve-racking silence stretched out, Drew remained in place longer than strictly necessary.
“Off!” she finally managed to mutter, fighting panic. Another minute of this intimate position and she’d do something she’d regret.
He rolled off, next to her. “You okay?” He covered her hand with his and squeezed it in a tender gesture that reminded her of better times between them.
Did he have to do that, try to comfort her? His compassion and concern made it even harder for her catch her breath.
She pulled her hand from his and inhaled deeply, still reeling from the attack and Drew’s touch. Her cheek began to throb again, along with her ribs, wrists, and elbows. She’d be bruised, but she’d live.
“I’m fine. Thanks for making me a part of this.” She was trying to be brave and make light, but inside, she was trembling.
She started to push up on all fours, feeling as wobbly as a partially filled water balloon.
Drew shoved her back down, none too gently. “Stay down.”
She glanced up at the pantry and the newly splintered bullet holes at head height. Not the conversation piece she dreamed of for her kitchen. Too Bonnie and Clyde for her tastes.
Still stunned, she looked at Drew. “Two to the head. Someone wants you dead, execution-style.” She used her What else is new tone, because it was better than screaming like a panicked maniac. “You owe me a new door and window.”
Drew peered back at her and shook his head, obviously thinking she was deranged. He pointed up at the holes. “Me? You’re crazy. I wasn’t standing next to the pantry.”
He’s right. She went so cold, she felt almost numb. The men he played with wouldn’t make a dumb mistake like shooting at the wrong person.
She flashed back to Paraguay and drug lord Beto Bevilacqua, the Brazilian Bevil, as Drew called him. Beto had tortured Drew’s location from her and sent his death squad after Drew and his fellow agent Jack Pierce while Beto stayed to finish her off.
Emmett’s team had burst in just in time to save her from Beto’s knife. After they subdued him, Beto looked her in the eye and smiled. “I’ll get you yet, bitch. Pray you die now. This was mercy compared with what I’ll do to you next time.”
Then she blacked out. The next thing she knew she woke up in an American hospital.
She hadn’t believed the Bevil’s reach was this long or that she was important enough to come after. Until now. But who else would want her dead? Another of Drew’s enemies?
Next to her, Drew watched her closely, compassion and worry in his eyes. “You sure you’re okay? You’re pale.”
She took a deep breath to steady her nerves and nodded. “As well as can be expected after being used for target practice, yeah.”
“Take your time. Breathe deeply. You’ll feel better once you get over the shock.” He gave her a lopsided grin that was probably meant to cheer her up. “The pale feeling will pass. And then you’ll get mad. Anger is better, believe me.”
Drew pulled his cell phone from his pocket. She couldn’t believe it—he was actually dialing for help? In the spy world, that was practically like asking for directions. Taboo even in a spur-of-the-moment danger situation.
If Drew was calling for help, she probably should panic. “Who are you calling? Spook central or the cops?”
“Neither.” He showed her the screen of his phone.
A security feed of her house, inside and out, and the surrounding area scrolled past.
“The bastard’s good at hiding,” Drew said, studying the screen again. “He’ll have left a clue. He can’t have gone far. We’ll get him.”
“You promised me you’d never look at the security camera feeds again. I changed the security code.”
He shrugged. “As if that could keep me out.”
“Hey!” Her anger rose out of nowhere, just as he’d predicted. She smacked him in the shoulder, hard.
“What?” He rubbed his shoulder, looking surprised her outburst was directed toward him.
Good. Domestic fury felt better than fear. Drew was right about that, too.
“You promised,” she said, realizing as she spoke how lame she sounded.
“I lied.” He didn’t wince or look sorry in the slightest. “What? I was supposed to leave you to the mercy of my enemies?”
She glared at him. “What about the cameras in my bedroom?”
He grinned. “Of course I watch those. Enemies love pouncing on sleeping victims.”
“Damn it, Drew. Exes don’t have peep-show privileges.” Her voice had gone hard and icy, veering way off from her Make him sorry plan.
She didn’t believe him.
Drew pushed to a squat, carefully avoiding glass splinters. “Stay put while I investigate.”
Not being the brave, charge-into-danger type, she wasn’t going to argue with him. “Be careful. What if it’s Bevil or one of his contacts?”
Drew stared at her. “I can handle myself.”
“It’s dangerous weather out there. Take a weapon with you.”
He flashed her a glimpse of his handgun.
She should have known. “And what am I supposed to do for protection?”
He handed her a razor-sharp butcher knife from the block on the counter.
“Brave man, handing me this after telling me you’ve been watching me sleep. You’re taking your life in your own hands, buster.” She stared at the knife in her hand, then up at him. “What if I turn out to be a backstabber?”
He looked her right in the eye and laughed. “I like to live on the edge. Besides, cutting up raw chicken gives you the willies.” He lowered his voice into the sultry range. “Tell me, could you really stick a knife into the hot flesh of a man who’s given you so much pleasure over the years?”
Stupid, smart-ass nearly ex-husbands.
She swallowed hard, hoping he hadn’t noticed her reaction to his words. She lifted her chin. “Don’t tempt me. Just because I prefer ready-roasted fryers doesn’t mean I don’t know how to use a knife.”
He smiled and shook his head.
“If that’s what you really believe,” she said, “you’re leaving me with a weapon that’s about as useful as if it were made of rubber.”
“You’ll get over it if it’s your life or his.” Then he laughed and sneaked out with all the stealth and confidence of a commando on the prowl.
“Y’all come back now, you hear?” she called after him, trying to sound braver than she felt.
* * *
Every sense on alert, Drew slipped outside, careful to take cover. All quiet on the intruder front. Not a footstep, not a breath that wasn’t his. Not another shot. Nothing but a gentle breeze, the sound of his neighbor mowing his lawn, and the pleasant call of a robin.
There were no curious neighbors out. The sound of the lawn mower had masked the sound of the gunshot and the window exploding. Only the two of them, who’d been in the same room as the window, seemed to have heard it.
Drew doubted the sniper had lingered once he and Staci dropped out of sight. Still, he had to check. He pulled a tiny pair of spy-grade high-powered binoculars he kept on his key chain from his jean pocket and surveyed the area.
Damn! He’d lost the bastard.
On his own, he would have traced the path of the bullet and surveyed the area where the sniper had been hidden. But he was concerned the sucker would double back. He couldn’t leave Staci unprotected. Not with a RIOT assassin—SMASH, as they called themselves—on the prowl.
He cursed beneath his breath, trying to calm his anger. He hadn’t really expected RIOT to go after Staci at all, let alone this soon. He’d been her bodyguard all of what? Ten minutes, maybe fifteen?
At least this time, I protected her.
Small comfort. How in the hell was he going to explain this to Staci? He couldn’t tell her about Sam. He’d have to let her believe the drug lords were after her and take the blame for her life being in danger. Again.
Isn’t danger what killed my marriage in the first place?
He tucked the binoculars into his pant pocket and returned to the kitchen.
Staci sat huddled on the floor with her knees held tightly against her chest. She looked so pale and vulnerable, he had to resist his first instinct to scoop her up, hold her tightly against his chest, and comfort her. Just hold her and shoot anyone who came too near.
She only made it harder for him, staring up at him as if begging to be rescued and reassured.
“He got away,” he said, hardening his heart. “Until we know what this is about and who’s responsible, if it’s Bevil or someone else, it’s not safe to stay here.” He sighed. Heavily. “Come on. You’ll have to stay with me until we figure out what’s going on.” He held a hand out to her.
She frowned up at him and pushed his hand away, looking at him as if he’d gone mad. “Stay with you? That’s pushing the civil-divorce thing too far. Even for me.”
Even for me? What the hell does she mean by that? That civility hasn’t exactly reigned supreme with me, too?
In his opinion he’d been so damn civil he verged on looking like a wimp.
She shook her head. “I’ll call Mandy.”
Drew crossed his arms and frowned back at her, reminding himself he was a man on a mission. A spy on a mission.
“Mandy’s trained in how to stop assassins now, is she? Must be a newly acquired skill. Last time I saw her she couldn’t fend off a drunk hitting on her at the bar.”
Staci’s frown turned into a glare. “She’s taken self-defense since then. She knows how to use a Kubotan.”
“Do you know how lame that sounds?” he said, trying not to laugh at her.
“Not a good choice?” Her stare was all ice and defiance. “Fine. I’ll stay with Mom and Sam then.”
Nearer to Sam was the last place she needed to be.
He fought hard not to swear beneath his breath. He could not let her get away. And no way he’d send her to stay with the enemy—of both the state and his marriage. Instead he simply stared at Staci, hoping she’d see reason.
Staci blinked first. She should have learned—she couldn’t out-stare him.
She growled and clenched her fists. “No. I’m not staying with you at your parents’! Your mom drives me nutso.”
He rolled his eyes, but couldn’t argue with her logic. His mom drove everyone nutso.
“I’m not staying with my parents.” He tried not to sound as insulted as he felt. He couldn’t live with his mother, either.
Staci arched a brow. “You aren’t with them? Who are you staying with?”
He helped her up. “No one. I have a condo.”
“You what?” She pulled free of his grip and gaped at him. “Where? Here? In town? Like a timeshare?” Her voice pitched higher.
“More like a semi-permanent arrangement.”
He’d obviously stunned her. It took her a minute to find her voice. “Since when?”
“Since two days ago when the Agency moved me in and set up my cover for this mission.”
She shook her head as if trying to digest the news. “You’re here—”
“A few miles away, actually.”
“—on a mission.”
Drew shrugged. “Yeah.”
Staci hugged herself and shivered. He stifled any instinct to comfort her and tried not to stare at her breasts as they budded up and poked through her blouse.
“I can’t believe this! Most of our marriage you were on foreign assignment. And since we’ve separated you were in Hawaii and now here?”
He should have known this was coming. He braced himself.
“You finally get a home assignment. Now, of all times.” She hugged herself tighter and rubbed her arms, looking as if she was either about to break into tears or ram him with her shoulder. “What’s your cover while you’re here?” Her eyes narrowed. “Won’t bringing me home blow it?”
“Not at all. I’m undercover as myself.” He took her arm again.
She released herself from her hug and stared at him as if he were crazy. And maybe he was. But it was the Agency’s plan, not his.
“Undercover as yourself—that’s … that’s insane.”
He sighed, inwardly agreeing with her. “I’m in my hometown, Stace. I grew up and went to high school here. My parents live here. Your parents live here. We lived here together. Trying to carry out a mission in the area while pretending to be someone else is just too damn risky. Someone’s bound to recognize me.
“I have to be me, Drew Fields—a salesman who’s spent too much time on the road and is losing his marriage because of it.” He laughed a little too bitterly. “A guy who’s finally found a job that allows him to stay home for more than a day or two at a time and is trying to pull his life back together.”
He swallowed hard and went for gold. “A man who’s trying to reconcile with his wife. Nothing more normal than that, is there?” He didn’t mean to sound so testy, but he hated explaining himself.
“Reconcile?” She sounded breathless with shock.
“A fake reconciliation, why not?” He gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “It fits with the rest of my cover story.”
She shook her head. “Did you just think up this great reconciliation plan now, on the fly?”
“Of course I did.” What a liar he was.
She looked as if she was wavering. Now was the time to convince her.
“Look, Stace, I’ve done a lot of crappy things in my life. A lot of it to you.” He lowered his voice, trying to sound contrite. Which he was. He’d given her a shitty deal in life. He hadn’t been either the husband he should have been, or the one she expected. “But I am not leaving you alone and defenseless for someone, possibly a mad drug lord, to pick off. You can either come willingly or I’ll carry you out of here, kicking and screaming if you choose. But you’re coming with me.”
Her lips quivered. Her eyes sparkled, on the edge of tears.
“Hey,” he said more gently. “Cheer up. This isn’t a life sentence. It’s just for a few days, a few weeks at most, until we catch this bastard and my mission’s over.”
“Then we go back to the divorce as scheduled?”
Damn, she knew how to slice his heart in two. “Back to our regularly scheduled divorce, absolutely.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
“Come on,” he said. “I’m getting jumpy. Time to pack a bag and get out of here.”
Copyright © 2012 by Gina Robinson