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Secret And Lies
By Maggie Shayne
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Look, it's not going to be all that tough for you to impersonate Thomas Barde. He's only important by marriage, and he's rarely seen publicly. Especially here in the U.S." The man Alex Stone trusted most in the world, Mick Flyte, took a pause to rub his chin thoughtfully. "The tough part is going to be finding a woman who can impersonate her. Everyone knows what Princess Katerina looks like."
Alex leaned back in his comfortable ergonomic chair, looking at the men who sat around the long, narrow table. "Everyone but me, I guess. Until just now, I'd never even heard of any island nation called Tortilla."
"Tantilla, Alex," Flyte said with a scowl. "And she's not a princess, in truth. She's the first daughter. `Princess Katerina' is just what the people have nicknamed her. They adore the girl."
"Whatever. Look, I'm not working for the government anymore. Didn't you guys hear? I'm an independent now."
"That's why we need you to do this, Alex. It's important. It's vital. And it's not gonna be that big a challenge."
The second voice belonged to one of Alex's best friends, Caleb Montgomery. He'd been called to Tulsa from Big Falls, Oklahoma, for this meeting. Apparently the powers-that-be thought he could help convince Alex to go along with this harebrained scheme. Some of the most well-known political figures in the nation, most of them retired now, were gathered in this conference room within the heart of the Federal Building on a Sunday, when it should have been closed. The doors were guarded by armed soldiers. Mick Flyte had been Alex's superior during his Secret Service days. Caleb was the son of one of Oklahoma's former U.S. senators and a powerful attorney in his own right, though he spent most of his time in his small-town office since settling down with that Brand girl, Maya.
That thought led to another - of Maya's hellcat sister, Mel. He'd thought of her several times since his recent visit to Big Falls, each time with a shiver of dread at the thought of ever having to see the woman again. She was crude, tactless, violent and she had a mouth on her like a sailor. He suppressed a shudder as her face flashed through his mind. Tiny and elfin, capped in short jet-black hair, and deceptively innocent. Those jewel-blue, almond-shaped eyes sparkled with trouble and hellfire.
"Alex?" He shook away his thoughts, glanced at Caleb and nodded as if he'd been listening the entire time. "Look, I'll listen to your pitch, okay? That's all I can promise."
There was a sigh of relief among the men in the room. One gave a nod to another, who dimmed the lights and flicked on a slide projector. Alex rolled his eyes, feeling as if he had fallen into a scene from Mission Impossible. Good God, could they get any more cloak-and-dagger?
A tall, slender, nice-looking man in a very expensive suit filled the screen. He wore sunglasses and a full beard. "This is Thomas Antony Barde," Mick Flyte said. "He married President Belisle's daughter, Katerina, six months ago in a secret wedding designed to keep the press away. It worked. I've never seen him in public without the glasses and beard."
"His height and build look about right," Caleb volunteered, glancing from the image on the screen to Alex and back again.
"Yeah, yeah. Let's cut to the chase, shall we? Why is it you want me to impersonate him?"
The men all sighed. It was Caleb's aging father, Cain, retired U.S. senator, who rose and spoke. "Thomas and Katerina are guests of the U.S. They came as representatives of Tantilla, because President Belisle was unable to make it himself. This has been set up for months. All pomp and ceremony, really. Tantilla is small, and its government none too stable. They want U.S. aid."
"And what's in it for us?" Alex asked. When the men frowned at him, he only smiled. "Oh, come on, there's always something. We don't give aid to just anyone."
Mick Flyte cleared his throat. "Tantilla is sitting on a veritable ocean of crude oil, most of it still untapped."
Alex nodded slowly. "So the little princess and her new hubby come tour the U.S., get a few photo ops, make nice with the White House, and ...?"
"And spend a week in Austin as guests of the governor of Texas. Barde was supposed to meet with some of our leading oilmen there, get advice and input on future drilling and so on," Cain Montgomery said.
Alex listened, tried to get to the truth beneath the words. "Was supposed to meet with them? Has something happened to prevent it?"
"Uh ... well, we're not sure," Flyte said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Mick Flyte cleared his throat. "The couple arrived in Austin from D.C. as scheduled, and were taken by limousine to the house where they were to be spending a week as guests of the state. But shortly after arriving at the house, they, uh, well, they vanished."
"Vanished?" Flyte nodded. "Did someone get to them?" Alex asked, alarmed. "Does this government have enemies out to -"
"All governments have enemies, Alex, but that's not what happened. These two are ... well, they're notorious for this kind of thing," Flyte explained.
"What kind of thing?"
Caleb cleared his throat. "They're still newlyweds. They seem to be madly in love with each other, and they have a habit of taking off without warning anyone, shaking their security teams and going off on some romantic lark, just the two of them."
Alex frowned. "Isn't that kind of stupid of them?"
Caleb shrugged. "You do stupid things when you're in love. But, it's not exactly safe for them, considering who they are. They always turn up in a couple of days. Either their security team finds them holed up in a love nest somewhere or they come back on their own."
"So, then, what's the big deal?" Alex asked.
"The big deal is that we don't want anyone to know they were ever gone. President Belisle trusted us with the safety and security of his only daughter. It would look very bad for us to admit we lost her," Cain Montgomery explained. "We have the FBI and the CIA on this. We have no doubt we'll locate the couple within forty-eight hours at the most, and once we know they're safe and sound, things can continue as planned."
"That's not the only reason. Come on, Dad, he deserves the truth," Caleb said.
Sighing, Cain went on. "Tantilla does have enemies. Small groups, unorganized for the most part. Still, they're likely paying close attention to this visit. We feel that if it became public knowledge that Katerina and her husband were missing, those groups might attempt to find them before we do."
Alex nodded. "So the plan is ...?"
"The plan is to go ahead just as if everything is normal. Put a couple in place to impersonate them at various functions, buy us the time we need to find the real couple and get them back here," Mick Flyte said. "Meanwhile, all you need to do is pose as Thomas Barde, attend a few dinners and social events, and basically be treated like royalty for a few days, all on Uncle Sam's nickel."
"Yeah, but aren't you forgetting one very important factor in all this?" Alex asked. "You have to find a woman who looks and acts enough like this Katerina Barde to fool the who's who of U.S. political and social circles. That's not gonna be easy. Do we even have an agent who resembles her?"
Excerpted from Secret And Lies by Maggie Shayne Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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