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The month of April had definitely lived up to its reputation. For a solid week, it rained in every variety from bad-hair-day mist to outright downpours complete with thunder and lightning.
Ashley Temple sent up a prayer of thanks as she pulled back her bedroom curtains to usher in the first rays of sun in a week. She stretched catlike, raising her face to the warm rays that beamed through the window.
The previous week had been difficult for more reasons than bad weather. She'd recently finished up an assignment where she'd had to pose as a college coed to break up a drug-trafficking operation on campus. She developed friendships with some of the girls that she ultimately had to turn in. She could still see their faces, the looks of betrayal, the hurt and terror in their eyes.
She sighed heavily and turned away from the new day. There were times when she wished that The Cartel was not part of her life. As a member of the secret organization, she could never have a real life, because part of who she was and what she did could never be revealed to anyone outside of The Cartel's inner circle. That fact alone limited forming any long-lasting intimate relationships. And as she crept past the age of thirty, the desire to find someone and something permanent was beginning to fill her thoughts more each day.
However, there were some wonderful benefits. She'd met some of the most incredible women through The Cartel and forged unbreakable friendships. Savannah, Mia, Danielle and more recently Traci, were the savviest sisters she'd ever met. Somehow they'd all man aged to maintain the man in their lives, get married or engaged, have kids and still kick major butt when duty called. So there was definitely hope for her at the end of the "espionage rainbow."
She was closest to Mia, having worked as her as-sis tant at MT Management—Mia's event-planning firm—for the past year and being a shadow on Mia's last assignment that involved an elite illegal escort service. That assignment had been harrowing at best, testing the ladies on many levels, but it had been nothing compared to MT Management's crème de la crème affair, the coordination of the triple wedding ceremony for three of The Cartel members: Claudia and Bernard, Mia and Steven and Danielle and Nick. Although they'd all returned back to work, they were still gooey-eyed and bubbly. If she didn't like them all so much, it might just turn her stomach.
Ashley turned away from the window, sat down on the side of the bed and put on her sneakers. She wasn't expected at the office until ten, and she wanted to get in her morning run before the streets grew too crowded with the mad dashers en route to work in bustling Manhattan.
She loved the city, she thought, stepping outside and taking a deep breath of rain-washed air, particularly the eclectic atmosphere of lower Manhattan where she'd lived for the past five years. It was a mixture of young and old, exciting and sublime, from mom-and-pop stops to reservations-only restaurants. The aroma of foods from around the world wafted through the air, giving the city its own unique, and often mouth-watering scent.
Ashley did a few stretches on the front steps of her four-story apartment building before slowly taking off down Avenue A. She waved to Herbie as she jogged by his newsstand, making a mental note to pick up a paper on her way back and a lottery ticket. She was no more than three blocks from her apartment when the vibration went off on her hip. She glanced down at the illuminated screen of her BlackBerry. "Anonymous." She knew exactly who it was.
Ashley circled the block in her tan 2000 Honda Accord before finding a parking space on 126th Street, across the intersection from TLC's headquarters.
As she walked down the street, she was continually amazed at the gentrification that had taken place in Harlem over the last decade and even more so in the past two years. It was almost unrecognizable except for the tree-lined blocks that still embraced the stately brownstones, many of which had been restored to their former glory, when Harlem was in vogue and the salons were frequented by Langston Hughes, Adam Clayton Powell and the like discussing the "Negro condition."
Ashley reached her destination and spotted several well-toned guys entering a brownstone, which was actually the Pause for Men Day Spa, owned by four women. She'd had the opportunity to meet them and visit the spa on several occasions and was totally impressed with what they had accomplished. And with The Ladies Cartel headquarters tucked unobtrusively across the street, it was a testament to the power of women on this stretch of street in Harlem.
Ashley approached the brownstone. To the casual observer, TLC headquarters was simply another restored brownstone that ran the Tender Loving Care body products business, which would account for the traffic of women and the often large, all-female gatherings. However, it was anything but that.
She rang the bell and moments later Claudia answered the door. Claudia was Jean's right hand and long-time TLC operative. What was most intriguing was that she was Savannah's mother, and it had been Claudia who recruited her own daughter into the organization, and in turn Savannah brought in Mia and Danielle.
"Hello, sweetheart," Claudia greeted, clasping Ashley's shoulders and kissing her cheek. "You look stunning and stylish as always," she said, taking in Ashley's wild, spiral afro, knee-high brown suede boots over a pair of very tight jeans, layered T-shirts and a thick, brown leather belt hanging low on her slender hips.
Ashley grinned. "Thanks." She stepped in. "How's married life?"
Claudia beamed. "Wouldn't have it any other way."
"Don't wear Bernard out with your bad self," Ashley teased.
Claudia made a face. "Now where's the fun in that?"
They both laughed.
"Jean is waiting for you," she said as they approached the stairs. "You should be very proud of yourself."
Ashley looked at Claudia over her shoulder. Her brow creased. "Proud of myself? Why?"
"Jean rarely picks the same operative for assignments back-to-back." She smiled slowly. "She thinks very highly of you."
For an instant Ashley's stomach tensed. The corner of her mouth flickered. "I guess that's a good thing. Huh?"
Claudia merely smiled and turned away.
Ashley drew in a breath, turned and headed up the stairs to Jean's office on the second floor. As she went up she passed the Hall of Fame that held the pictures of many of the TLC operatives on the wall, hers included. She made a mental note to give them an updated photo. One of the most recent additions was Brenda's picture— the prodigal daughter—who'd returned to the fold during Mia's last assignment.
She went up the next flight and down the hall, tapped lightly on Jean's partially opened door.
Ashley stepped inside and was surprised to see Bernard sitting in the office, as well. Bernard Hassell, Claudia's husband, was Jean's connection to Homeland Security, the FBI and CIA. Bernard's influence ran so deep into that side of government that it was a little scary. None of the TLC members wanted to know what he really did. It was simply better not to. Other than that, he was a great guy and a dead ringer for Billie Dee Williams.
"Please have a seat," Jean instructed as she took off her signature red-framed glasses.
Jean Wallington-Armstrong—although she rarely used her married name—was at that magic point in her life where she could have been thirty or fifty. She was
in excellent physical shape, known to jog four miles a day and workout in the gym three times a week. Her skin was still smooth with a light sprinkle of freckles across her nose. Her arresting green eyes didn't miss a trick and her lustrous red hair glowed with vitality. She could easily be mistaken for the actress that played Addison on Grey's Anatomy before moving on to star in Private Practice. But most of all it was the power that Jean exuded, from her commanding presence to her no-nonsense attitude that mesmerized everyone who met her, which was why it was so hard to believe that any man could have gotten away with hurting her emotionally—like her ex-husband did. At least that was the urban legend that circulated around The Cartel. No one spoke about it outright, but there were whisperings, especially when Brenda returned. But that was another story.
"Bernard, good to see you."
He nodded his head. "You, too. Congratulations on the high school case. Great job."
"Thanks," she murmured. She took a seat opposite Jean.
Jean opened a folder then looked across the wide oak desk at Ashley. "The reason I asked Bernard to join us is that he is going to be involved from the beginning."
Ashley rested her oversized purse on her lap, crossed her ankles and waited. That was an interesting twist, she thought. Bernard usually brought up the rear or came on board when things got a bit dicey. So to have him involved from day one put her on alert.
"There has been a rash of children that have gone missing. Babies, infants. Some of them from their homes or right from the hospital never to be seen again. The government is keenly aware of this." She flashed Bernard a look.
"But with a war on two fronts, the weak economy and a host of other national and world issues, they don't have the manpower to tackle this the way it needs to be tackled," Bernard said.
As they talked, explaining her assignment, Ashley fought down the nausea that brewed in her stomach. Her temples pounded and she felt the beads of perspiration lining her forehead and trickling down the center of her spine. She took in short breaths to steady her stomach as her heart thundered in her chest. Why her? Why did they pick her for this? Oh, God. Her throat clenched.
"We will need you to infiltrate several of these agencies," Jean was saying, cutting into Ashley's twisting emotions. "We think that is the best starting place. These agencies serve as the conduit from the places of abduction to the buyers. We're just hoping that these children have not been taken out of the country."
Ashley rubbed her damp palms along her thighs.
"Are you all right, Ashley?" Jean asked.
Ashley's gaze snapped toward Jean. She swallowed. "Yes. I'm fine. Just thinking…how horrible it must be for the parents."
Jean looked at her for a moment before continuing. "We decided that the best cover for this assignment is for you to have a partner."
"A partner?" she echoed.
Bernard cleared his throat. He turned to Jean. "May I?" Jean nodded for him to go ahead. He leaned backward and folded his arms. "We need to ensure from the onset that your cover is tight. To do that we decided that it was best that you be part of a couple."
"A couple?" she repeated for lack of something concrete to say.
Jean opened a folder and adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her aquiline nose. "The FBI is part of this operation. I asked Bernard to go through the files and select the agent that would be best suited for this. His name is Elliot Morgan. He's just returned from an operation overseas."
"I've already briefed him on what needs to be done," Bernard added. "And he's agreed."
Ashley adjusted herself in her seat.
"He should be here shortly, but we wanted to speak with you first. So if you have any reservations, now is the time to let me know," Jean said.
Ashley cleared her throat. "I've just never worked with a male operative before," she said, looking from one to the other.
"Under normal circumstances we try to tailor all of our assignments for Cartel members only. But this is a highly sensitive case. In addition to which, the FBI wants to be involved."
Ashley nodded. The knot of tension tightened in her stomach. Did Jean know about that dark, painful part of her life? Is that why she was selected for this assignment?
There was a light knock on the door.
"Come in," Jean called out.
All heads turned in the direction of the opening door.