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The October sun peeked through the slats in the vertical blinds, throwing a soft glow across the state-of-the-art kitchen. Mia Turner loved to cook and considered herself something of a gourmet chef, always willing to try new recipes. And she firmly believed that a good meal opened and soothed the soul. The best conversations, confessions and gossip could be had over a good meal.
With her piping-hot mug of imported Turkish coffee on the left, her sparkling pearl-handle .22 on the right, she snapped open the Daily News and immediately turned to Page Six. She circled several high-profile items about celebs and business tycoons spotted in and around the Big Apple as she sipped her coffee. The smooth blend had been a gift from one of her grateful clients. She made a note on the pad next to her saucer to call Paul Han and thank him for his "thank you."
Page Six aside, she turned her attention to the egg-white omelet that she painstakingly prepared every morning. It was stuffed with mushrooms, tomatoes, green peppers and cheddar cheese. She took a forkful and sighed with pleasure.
There were two things that were paramount in Mia's life: great food and paying clients. Well, three thingsorder, too. No, make that fourSteven.
The last item on her must-have list made her smile and she thought about the incredible lovemaking session they'd had just that morning, in this very chair. She wiggled her plump bottom as images of her and Steven played behind her partially closed lids.
Her best friends, Savannah Fields and Danielle Holloway, teased her about her neurotic obsessions, but they had to agree that Steven Long was certainly worth being obsessed about.
Mia was the last of the trio to find someone special in her life. Savannah and Blake had been married for seven years and had just had their first childMikaylathe most gorgeous baby girl the world had ever seen. And Danielle had finally allowed her heart to open and let Nick Mateo in, and they were now living together and engaged!
For a while Mia believed she'd always be the fifth wheel, until she actually took a second look at Steven Long.
They'd known each other casually for years: Blake and Steven were best friends and business partners at their architecture and development company.
But it wasn't until Mia had hosted a party at her house about ten months earlier that they actually saw each other as more than "the best friend of their best friend."
Since that night, Mia and Steven had been pretty much inseparable, only allowing the pressing business of their respective livelihoods to keep them apart.
Mia closed her paper, finished off her omelet and washed it down with the last of her coffee.
She took her dishes to the sink, rinsed then placed them in the dishwasher.
This part of her morning ritual completed, she took her gun from the table and walked the short hallway that led from the front of the two-bedroom condo to the back where the master bedroom and reconverted second bedroom were located.
She and Steven used that second bedroom as their combined office, so she would never risk him discovering the contents of her "kit," as Danielle's lover Nick had done.
A minor disaster like that would take more explaining than she was willing to do. So being the orderly and forward-thinking type-A personality that she was, Mia had cut out a little panel behind the top shelf of her clothes closet, hidden behind boxes of very expensive shoes.
She removed the panel and pulled out her TLC "beauty kit." Mia smiled as she ran her hand across the smooth pink leather carrying case with the TLC logo emblazoned across the front.
Taking the case to the bed, she turned the latch to review the contents: burglary tools, computer-scanning disk, listening and recording devices, chloroform and a fingerprint dusting kit and, of course, the container that held the bath beads that were actually specially designed tranquilizer bullets for her .22. All the contents were ingeniously camouflaged as bath oil, body lotions, eye shadows, blush, perfumes and lipsticks. She smiled.
Reassured that everything was in order and accounted for, she lifted the top tray and replaced the gun in its cutout compartment below. She knew it was risky to take the gun out each morning after Steven had left for work, but the thrill of seeing it right next to her, where she could admire and stroke iteven though it only held tranquilizer bulletsstill gave her a rush.
Mia had become an official member of the Cartel seven months earlier, although she'd been a fringe member since Savannah's first case a little more than a year ago, which turned up an ugly land deal that would have destroyed an ancient African burial ground right in downtown Brooklyn.
As the owner and CEO of MT Management, Mia's schedule, though hectic, was her own. That flexibility lent itself to her sideline as an undercover operative for TLC.
Mia returned her kit to its hiding place and checked the time. Jean Wallington-Armstrong, the head of the Cartel, had asked Mia to come to the Harlem brownstone to discuss a new assignment that Jean felt Mia was perfect for.
From there it would be off to her real jobthe one she could tell everyone about, she thought with a smile.
Event management was the perfect occupation for Mia. It gave her the opportunity to arrange every aspect of an event, down to the most mundane detail, and she loved every minute of it.
Ever since she was a little girl, growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, she'd had a knack for arranging things. As a preschooler she had a precise time and location for all her doll tea parties and all the accessories had to match and be placed "just so" on the tiny pink plastic table.
The most traumatic incident in her young life was when she went to place the teacups on the saucers and discovered that one of the handles was broken and there were no more in her collection that matched. "You see, the tablecloth, paper napkins and the dolls' outfits were all color-coordinated," she'd explained to Savannah and Danielle many years later, who'd both given her sympathetic looks.
She'd become so hysterical that her mother had to promise to replace the entire set the following day. Mia was only five at the time, and her obsession with detail and order only grew and crystallized as she got older.
Of course, now she didn't collapse into tears and fits when things went awry, but her entire demeanor would become one tightly wound band of tension that was terribly uncomfortable to be around.
That aside, Mia Turner was your everyday, ordinary kind of woman unless, of course, you counted her other life.
She squinted at her appearance in the oval hall mirror. Her smooth, shoulder-length hair haloed her face in soft waves. The slight touches of makeupbronze lip gloss, mascara and a little powder to keep the shine off her nosekept her lovely features from being overshadowed. She cinched the belt on her knee-length dress, took her coat and purse and headed out, checking the locks three times before she felt comfortable.
Twenty minutes later she pulled onto 135th Street in Harlem. She parked her midnight-blue Lexus two doors down from the brownstone. The luxury car was a recent present to herself for having achieved a stellar year of profits from her business. In these tight economic times, everyone was cutting back, but her business continued to flourish. Big business, celebrities and the well-off were always having conventions or hosting parties to sell something, impress others or remind everyone else how important they were, and MT Management was the one they invariably called.
Mia slid off her glasses and tucked them into her purse. She was terribly nearsighted but refused to wear her glasses in public and was adamant against "sticking something in her eyes" as she put it, referring to contact lenses. So vanity won out and she went through life squinting, which often gave her a severe appearance that was totally contrary to her open and warm personality. In business, however, it often worked to her advantage: in her dealings and negotiations, her steely gaze gave the impression of a no-nonsense businesswoman.
She gathered her purse and hopped out, her chocolate-colored Milano ankle boots hitting the pavement with a soft pop.
She grabbed her ecru-colored swing coat from the hook in the back of the car and quickly slipped it on. Although it was early October and the sun was high in the sky, the weather had already begun to grow cool.
Setting the alarm on the car, she headed to the brownstone and rang the bottom bell.
Within moments, Claudia, Savannah's mother, came to the door.
"Hello, darling," Claudia greeted her, enveloping Mia in a warm hug. The soft scent of Chanel floated around her.
Claudia Martin was in her early sixties, but she didn't look a day over forty-five. Class and style always exuded from Claudia. She kept her auburn-tinted hair in a fierce cut that mimicked the early Halle Berry look. Her cinnamon complexion was flawless and she rarely wore much makeup, save for a dash of lipstick and mascara to accentuate her incredible hazel eyes. St. John was her designer of choice and she wore it well.
Claudia had been a member of TLC for several years and had recruited her daughter, Savannah. And all those years that Mia, Savannah and Danielle had seen Claudia toting around her TLC carryall and saying she was going to meetings, they'd always believed what she told them: that she was selling beauty products. Ha!
The joke between them, now that Savannah had a daughter of her own, would be that she would recruit little Mikayla when she came of age. Knowing her already feisty infant, Savannah had said Mikayla would probably launch her own division of TLC Tots!
"Looking good as always, Claudia. Bernard must be treating you well. You're glowing."
Claudia laughed lightly. "That he does, my dear. Nothing like a good man to get the kinks out." She winked at Mia and walked inside.
"Have you two finally set a date?"
"Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that." She clasped Mia's arm and her diamond ring flashed in the late-morning light. "Now that Savannah had the baby and can fit into something 'fabulous,' as she said, we wanted a December wedding. Do you think you can put something together in time?"
Mia stopped short, propped her hand on her hip and gave Claudia a look of mild reprimand. "Claudia, this is me. If you said your wedding was this afternoon and you wanted it in Paris, I would make it happen. It's what I do."
Claudia laughed in response. "Chile, what was I thinking? Go on," she said, still chuckling. "Jean is upstairs in her office."
"We'll make an appointment to talk," she promised before heading off.
Mia went up the stairs and down the "hall of fame" as it had been dubbed. The walls on either side were lined with portraits of all the Cartel members who had been affiliated for at least a year and had successfully completed their assignments. She smiled as she spotted Savannah's photo and then two photos down was one of Danielle. Claudia's was at the beginning of the row, right next to Jean. Mia drew in a breath of resolve. One day soon her photo would grace the hall of fame, too.
Mia knocked lightly on the closed door.
"Come in." Jean looked up from her computer screen when Mia entered. "Have a seat. I'll be right with you."
Mia did as instructed, taking in the room while she waited. As with all of the brownstones in Harlem and in Brooklyn which had not been cut up or convertedthe rooms were enormous; grand would be a better word. Vaulted ceilings, crystal chandeliers, parquet floors, mahogany sliding doors, massive mantelpieces, stained-glass windows and working fireplaces. Some even had the claw-foot bathtubs and original porcelain sconces.
She'd grown up in a brownstone on Putnam Avenue in Brooklyn. Not quite as big as this one, but large enough. So any time she came here she felt right at home.
Mia crossed her legs.
"Thank you for coming," Jean began, bypassing any pleasantries.
Mia merely nodded, knowing from experience that Jean wasn't one for chitchat.
"I have an assignment that is perfect for you, especially with the business that you're in."
Jean took a sealed manila envelope from her desk drawer. "All the details are inside. I'll briefly give you some background. This was handed to me from a personal contact at the FBI. There are some extremely high-profile individuals involved and before the lid gets blown off, they need to be absolutely sure." She cleared her throat and removed her red-framed glasses, setting them gently down on the desktop. "There is a major, very elite, very exclusive escort service operating in New York City. Although that's nothing new, what is new is that it appears to be run by Avante Enterprises. You need to find a way to get inside the organization, and get the evidence that the Feds need to shut it down."
For an instant, Mia couldn't move. She hoped that Jean couldn't read the distress on her face, or hear the escalated pounding of her heart. Avante Enterprises had been one of her clients, and several years ago she'd broken a cardinal rule and had a short but fiery affair with its CEO, Michael Burke.
Mia managed to get through the rest of the briefing without screaming. When she got behind the wheel of her Lexus, she wasn't quite certain she'd heard anything Jean had said after she'd dropped her Michael Burke bombshell.
By rote she turned the key in the ignition. The engine purred to life, along with the sounds of Marvin Gaye's classic, "What's Going On?"
That was the question of the day, she mused. She put on her glasses, drew in a long steadying breath and slowly pulled off in the early-afternoon traffic.
In the privacy of her business office, a ground-floor rental in SoHo, Mia closed and locked the door on the off chance that her new assistant, Ashley Temple, might decide to burst inas she was prone to doto update her on the latest TMZ news (a celebrity online and off-line news outlet). She was relieved that Ashley wasn't up front when she came in and she was able to get to her office undetected, at least for the time being.
Mia depressed the Do Not Disturb button on her phone, then removed the manila envelope from her purse.
She placed it on the desk and stared at the innocuous-looking envelope. It looked like millions of others, but she knew better. The contents had the potential to turn her life inside out.
The affair between her and Michael had been discreet. No one knew about it, especially within the business circles they traveled in. Not even Savannah or Danielle had any idea that anything had transpired. They'd always believed that she simply hadn't found the right man and, until she'd met Michael, she hadn't.