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The town house halfway down a side street just off Massachusetts Avenue, in the heart of Washington, D.C.'s embassy district, looked much like its neighbors. It boasted an elegant, federal-style facade and tall windows framed by black shutters. A short flight of steps led to an oak door painted in gleaming vermilion.
A bronze plaque beside the door identified the town house as home to the offices of the president's Special Envoy. The position was one of those jobs created to reward rich campaign contributors with a yen for a Washington office and a taste of power politics. Only a handful of insiders knew the Special Envoy also served as Director of OMEGA, a supersecret government agency with an elite cadre of operatives activated only in extreme emergencies.
It wasn't an emergency that had brought a small legion of agents in from the various ventures that provided cover in their civilian lives, however. They were gathered in the director's office to welcome back one of their own.
Elizabeth Wells had served as executive assistant to OMEGA's director for almost two decades. The silver-haired grandmother had fallen while doing a foxtrot on a big-band cruise of the Potomac with her latest beau. After hip-replacement surgery and months of rehab, Elizabeth was ready to resume her duties.
Three of her bosses were present for the homecoming. Adam Ridgeway, code name Thunder, had hired Elizabeth all those years ago. Tall and broad-shouldered, Thunder stood with one hand in the pocket of his hand-tailored slacks and a pained expression on his face while his wifealso a former operative and one-time OMEGA directorrelated the latest exploits of their youngest.
"Tank insistsit wasn't his idea." With a rueful grin, Maggie Sinclair, code name Chameleon, continued her description of her son's assault on the hallowed halls of Harvard. "He also insists he did not position Terence atop the bust of John Adams, at the perfect angle to spit into the face of the dean of the Business School."
Terence, as the assembled operatives all knew, was the orange-and-purple-striped iguana Maggie had brought back from a mission in Central America years ago. The evil-tempered creature was the bane of Adam's existence. He'd been looking forward to its demise for as long as anyone could remember, but his wife and three children adored the damned thing. So much so that Adam Jr.known to his family and friends as Tank had carted off the lizard with him to enjoy the delights of his freshman year at Harvard.
Tank's sister took up the tale at that point. "You should have seen Dad's face when the dean called."
Laughter sparkled in Gillian Ridgeway's vivid blue eyes. She had her father's gleaming black hair and aristocratic features. From her mother, she'd inherited a flair for languages and an irrepressible sense of humor. On extended leave from her job with the State Department, Gillian had filled in as executive assistant to OMEGA's director during Elizabeth Wells's convalescence.
"Dad won't say what it cost to keep both Tank and Terence on the student rolls, but I suspect Harvard got a hefty endowment out of it."
"I suspect they'll get several endowments before Tank graduates."
That came from Nick Jensen, code name Lightning, OMEGA's current director. Lightning had headed the agency through three successive presidential administrations. Although he hadn't made a formal announcement, the betting was he'd resign the directorship after the upcoming election. When his wife, Mackenzie, surprised herself and everyone else by turning up pregnant with their first child, the bet had become a sure thing.
"There she is!"
Alerted by a glimpse through the window of a sleek limo gliding to a halt at the curb, Lightning strode out to greet his executive assistant. A few moments later he escorted the slender, gray-haired grandmother into his office.
Agents with code names such as Slash, Rogue, Cowboy, Diamond and Cyrene welcomed her with warm hugs. Elizabeth had tears in her eyes when Maggie gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze and Adam dropped an affectionate kiss on her cheek. While the champagne corks popped, Elizabeth dabbed her eyes with a lace-trimmed handkerchief before proceeding to stun the entire gathering.
"I have an announcement. I'm afraid my return is only temporary."
Instant concern replaced the smiles and good wishes. Lightning's voice went taut. "What's happened? Did you experience complications you didn't tell me about during my last visit?"
"As a matter of fact, I did." Her pale blue eyes filled with a combination of chagrin and delight. "I'm getting married next month. Next week, if Daniel has his way."
After a few seconds of stunned silence, Lightning recovered. "Daniel? Who the hell is this character, and why didn't you let us check him out?"
"You did. Very thoroughly, as I recall. It's Daniel Foster. Dr. Daniel Foster."
"One and the same." A hint of red crept into Elizabeth's cheeks. "Apparently he thinks I have rather elegant hips, before and after the surgery. Ithink he just wants to admire his handiwork."
Whoops erupted throughout the room. When they subsided and champagne flutes made their way into everyone's hands, Lightning lifted his glass.
"To you and Dr. Dan. He'd better make you very happy or some extremely lethal undercover agents will show up on his doorstep."
Several similar toasts later, Elizabeth brought up the subject of her successor. Her expression was as warm as her voice when she turned to Gillian.
"Lightning says you did a magnificent job covering for me, Jilly. Will you stay on, dear, until you decide whether you want to go back to the State Department?"
Lowering her lashes, Gillian twirled the stem of her champagne flute between her fingers. She'd planned to wait to make her own announcement. Since Elizabeth had set the stage, however
"Actually, I am staying on. As an agent."
"The hell you are!"
The explosive remark surprised everyone, including the operative it burst from. Red surged above the collar of Mike Callahan's shirt collar as all heads turned in his direction, but the frown he directed at Gillian was fierce and unapologetic.
She answered the thunderous scowl with one of her quick smiles. "It's a done deal. Uncle Nick gave his stamp of approval yesterday."
"Not without considerable arm twisting," her honorary uncle muttered under his breath.
Mike Callahan, code name Hawkeye, tightened his jaw. "You're not trained for this kind of work, Jilly."
"I'll get the training."
Gillian's smile took on an edge that either of her siblings would have recognized in a heartbeat. "I held my own in Scotland. Didn't I, Rogue?"
The tall, slender blonde she addressed nodded. "That you did, girlfriend."
Yeah, Callahan thought savagely. And he hadn't drawn a full breath until he'd put her on a plane for home.
A former military cop, he was a dead shot with every weapon in the government's arsenal and a good number that weren't. Hence his code name, Hawkeye, which most of his fellow agents shortened to Hawk. In his civilian life he was a marksmanship instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Academy at Quantico, Virginia. He'd also taught all three of the Ridgeway offspring to shoot.
Gillian-with-a-J had been the first. The J was a standing joke that went back to their initial meeting. All arms and long, long legs, the teenager had grinned up at him and introduced herself as Gillian, pronounced with a soft G, like in Jillian.
Hawk had lost part of his heart to the gangly teen right then and there. In the years since, he'd come damned close to losing the rest of it. Like most of the male agents at OMEGA, he was seriously in lust with the stunning, sensual creature Gillian Ridgeway had become. The woman could set off a firestorm in his belly with a single glance from those electric blue eyes.
He'd kept the fire in check, however. Despite the hints she'd been throwing his way recently, he knew damned well he was too old for her, too rough around the edges. He also knew that undercover work could be dangerous not only for him but for anyone who went into the field with him.
He looked at her now, his insides twisting as another face superimposed itself on Gillian's classic features. He could hear the splat of bullets tearing through the vines. Feel the vicious downwash of the chopper hovering above the canopy. See the sprawled, lifeless body of the woman he'd gone into the jungle with.
Slamming the door on the searing memory, he swung toward Gillian's parents. "You've both been field agents. You know what it's like. You're good with this?"
"Yes," Maggie said instantly, then flashed an annoyed look when her husband gave a less enthusiastic response.
"I'll admit I'm not particularly thrilled with the idea," Adam said coolly, "but I trust Gillian's instincts."
Christ! Hawk's gut kinked again. Couldn't they see she lacked the killer instinct? She was too refined, too educated, too damned beautiful to
The sudden buzz of the phone on Lightning's desk sliced into Hawk's chaotic thoughts. The blinking red light that accompanied the buzz stiffened his shoulders.
He and everyone else in the room knew that blinking light was the direct line to the White House and that they should clear out of the director's office, fast. Depositing their champagne glasses, they made for the door.
Maggie and Adam could have stayed. They'd both taken direct calls from past presidents and were still cleared at the highest levels. But Lightning now shouldered responsibility for OMEGA. Unwilling to intrude on his turf, they joined the general exodus.
The operatives headed for the elevator that would whisk them to the ultra-high-tech Operations Center on the third floor of the town house. Hawk hesitated several seconds before he, too, strode toward the elevator.
Adam's eyes were narrowed as he followed the man's progress. Maggie's were thoughtful. Hooking her chin, she signaled for Jilly to accompany her to the ladies' room just off the first-floor foyer.
"Okay, daughter of mine." Leaning her hips against the marble counter, Maggie crossed her arms. "Tell me again, no frills, no fuss. How much of your decision to join OMEGA's ranks stems from a real desire to work undercover and how much from a determination to prove to Mike Callahan that you're all grown up?"
Jilly didn't blink. "I'm one hundred percent on both counts."
Maggie eyed her daughter for long moments. She knew Hawk's paternalistic and overly protective attitude irritated Jilly no end. The irritation had increased exponentially since their trip to Scotland. Maggie thought of all the advice she could offer and reduced it to one caution.
"Don't push him too hard, Jilly. You might not like it when he pushes back."
Her daughter's jet-black brows snapped together. She looked so much like her father when he was annoyed that Maggie's heart kicked over.
"You and Dad have known Hawk for years. This is the first time you've ever hinted that you have a problem with him."
"We don't. We would trust him with our lives."
"But not with your daughter. What do you know about him that I don't?"
Maggie hooked a strand of golden-brown hair behind one ear, considering her answer. She'd cheerfully rip out the heart of anyone who threatened her husband orchildren. But she had to weigh that fierce, primal love against her loyalty to the men and women she'd lived, worked and sweated blood with for so many years.
"I don't know the details," she said slowly. "No one does. Hawk has never talked about why he left the military, but "
"Your father ran into his former commanding officer at some function or another. The general didn't go into specifics, but he did say Hawk hung up his uniform after a botched mission in Central America. Hawk went in with two other operatives. One of them didn't make it out. The general didn't say so but the implication was he buried his heart with her there in that steamy jungle."
"Her?" Jilly echoed softly. "That explains a lot."
"I thought it might. Tread carefully, sweetheart."
Maggie couldn't resist giving her daughter's silky black hair a gentle yank. Where was the wide-eyed toddler who'd pulled up the just-planted pansies to decorate her mudpies? What happened to the mischievous little girl who loved to dress an ungainly iguana in doll clothes, deposit him in her baby sister's buggy and stroll nonchalantly around the block? When had the giggling teen with braces grown into this smart, self-assured woman?
With a silent sigh, Maggie gave her daughter's hair another tug and shooed her out of the ladies' room. "You'd better go see what that call was about, Special Agent-in-Training Ridgeway."
She tried to contain her emotion as she watched Jilly make for the elevator, but her husband knew her too well.
"She'll be okay."
Adam forced a smile as he looked down into his wife's face, but acid rolled around in his stomach at the thought of what lay ahead of his darling, his little princess. He'd been out there. So had Maggie. Her exploits in the field had aged Adam well beyond his years. Remembering those turbulent times, his smile relaxed into a rueful grin.
"She'll be okay," he repeated. "She's her mother's daughter."
The atmosphere inside OMEGA's third-floor Control Center left no doubt in Jilly's mind. Something was up. Something big.
She'd been up to the busy Control Center any number of times while filling in for Elizabeth. But the realization that one of those amber lights on the digitized world map that took up an entire wall would soon represent her sent a shiver of excitement down her spine.
Most of the agents had already dispersed, some to milk OMEGA's computers, some to work the phones. Lightning stood at the main console with Hawk, their eyes glued to the data scrolling across a monitor.
They couldn't be more different, Jilly thought as she approached the two men. With his tawny hair, deep tan and sartorial elegance, Lightning looked very much like the sophisticated jet-setter he now was.
Mike Callahan, on the other hand, looked very much like the man he was. Tough, uncompromising, no nonsense. He was more rugged than handsome, with a square chin and a mouth that rarely smiled. He wore his dark brown hair cut military short. His gold-flecked hazel eyes missed little. So little that Jilly had always believed that's how he'd come by his code name of Hawkeye.