The First Mistake

The First Mistake

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by Merline Lovelace

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Ten years ago, former special agent Cleo North ignored her gut instinct—and a young sergeant wound up brutally murdered. Finally she is in a position to find out what went wrong.

Cleo is certain the official story—a murder-suicide—is wrong. Now she has a new assignment working with Major Jack Donovan and the Air Force Office of Special

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Ten years ago, former special agent Cleo North ignored her gut instinct—and a young sergeant wound up brutally murdered. Finally she is in a position to find out what went wrong.

Cleo is certain the official story—a murder-suicide—is wrong. Now she has a new assignment working with Major Jack Donovan and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, offering security to a pampered celebrity as a front for a terrorism factfinding mission. At last she has access to the one man she's sure is involved in the decade-old murder.

But as Cleo is plunged into a tangle of violence and lies, she must quickly decide who the real victims are. And who's covering up a first deadly mistake.

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Cleo North Trilogy
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The First Mistake

By Merline Lovelace

Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.

Copyright © 2005 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7783-2164-9

Chapter One

Cleo North was just escorting a twenty-year-old megamillionaire software wizard into the Las Vegas Convention Center when someone pumped out three quick rounds from a semiautomatic.

The first bullet scattered the crowd streaming into the center. The second dug into the wall a few inches from her client's head. Cleo didn't wait to see where the third hit. Whipping her 10 mm Glock from the holster at the small of her back, she launched herself through the dry November heat.

"Get down!"

Her client hit the sidewalk. Cleo's well-toned one hundred and twenty-six pounds smacked down on top of him. The software guru's glasses flew off. Air exploded from his flattened lungs. Bug-eyed, he squirmed frantically.

"I ... can't ... breathe!"

She ignored his wheeze but couldn't ignore the fact that he was now in as much danger from the panicked mob as from the shooter. When a knee landed square in her back and a sneakered foot whacked her in the ribs, Cleo decided it was time to get the hell out of Dodge.

Making like Moses, she used arms and elbows to part the sea of terrified humanity, and fought her way into a crouch. The blue steel Glock helped considerably. When the crowd caught sight of the semiautomatic, more shrieks split the air and the stampeding horde swerved enough for Cleo to get a grip on her client's collar. Pumping pure adrenaline, she dragged him nose-to-the-ground around the corner of the building and into a narrow alley.

The alley led to the convention center's loading docks. The rolling bay doors at the end were down and locked, but Cleo's preliminary security sweep had ascertained that at least three other doors opened onto the passageway. Two had panic bars on the inside and couldn't be opened from without. Service personnel and caterers gained access to the convention center through the third, which fire codes required remain unlocked during business hours.

Yanking her client to his feet, Cleo aimed him at the dock steps and spun around to cover his retreat. He made a dash for the service door and twisted the knob with both hands. By the time Cleo reached him, he was pounding on the panel with his fists.

"It's locked!"

Well, hell! So much for fire codes!

She threw a glance back down the alley and nixed the idea of taking her client out that way. The shooter was still out there, and the first rule of personal security was to hustle the protectee away from danger, not propel him back into it.

"Get behind that Dumpster," she ordered, shoving him toward the container perched at the edge of the loading dock.

His Adam's apple bobbed like a turbo-charged yo-yo. "Why? What are you going to do?"

"Shoot the lock off the door."

That was the plan, anyway. Cleo had picked, kicked or drilled into a considerable number of locks. She'd never fired at one embedded in a fireproof steel door a good six inches thick, though. Angling to the side to avoid a possible ricochet, she took aim. Before she could squeeze off a shot, footsteps pounded into the alley and stopped.

The good news was the newcomer couldn't see Cleo or her client with the Dumpster shielding them. The bad news was she couldn't see him, either.

With a smothered curse, she put a finger to her lips. Her client got the message. His Adam's apple bobbled again as he clamped his mouth shut. Scrunching down, he tried to make himself disappear while Cleo hooked the toe of her boot on the Dumpster's lift arm. Her cushioned soles didn't so much as squeak - thank God and the devious minds at Oakley!

Designed to provide maximum stealth, Oakley assault boots were the footwear of choice among U.S. Special Forces. Cleo and the military had parted ways years ago. Still, she recognized a good thing when the tattooed ex-Special Ops type who served as her personal trainer thumped her with it.

Being blind, however, was definitely not a good thing. Confirming that her client was concealed, she hoisted herself atop the Dumpster. Heat shimmered in iridescent waves above the closed half of the lid. The open half emitted a stink. When Cleo shimmied forward on her belly, it also emitted a swarm of pesky little gnats, one of which went straight up her nose. Resisting the violent urge to sneeze it out, she raised her head an inch.

There he was. A dark figure silhouetted against the dazzling sunlight at the far end of the alley. She couldn't make out his face. She didn't need to. The weapon clutched in his right fist was sufficient ID.

He stood unmoving for a long moment, as if sniffing the air for the scent of his prey. When he started down the alley, Cleo's heart thumped against her ribs. The desert heat trapped in the tunnel had sweat stinging her eyes. The gnat trapped in her left nostril had her grinding her teeth against the frantic need to blow the damn thing out.

Trying not to suck it in deeper, she waited until the shadowy figure drew even with the Dumpster. A half second later, she landed on the balls of her squeakless Oakleys, right behind him.


Excerpted from The First Mistake by Merline Lovelace Copyright © 2005 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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