Part of a series, but a stand-alone novel with its own conclusion. No cliff-hangers.
Undercover...Shrapnel damage to DARK Officer Matt Leoni's eye could cost him his vision and the only family he has, his colleagues. Chafing at desk duty, he jumps at a gig to find a traitor in the U.S. embassy of a small Mediterranean country. But Matt's undercover role means working with Nadia Parker, a documentary filmmaker who believes he betrayed her five years ago to get evidence on her father. Worse, Matt still wants her and has orders to spy on her.
On the run...Despite Nadia's anger at having Matt in her film crew, she can't deny her renewed attraction to him. When rebels set off an explosion in the crown princess's office, embassy security believe Nadia and Matt are the bombers. In the smoke and confusion, Matt pulls Nadia to safety and they flee into the streets of Washington.
He'll risk everything for her.Unable to rely on DARK or the authorities, Matt is determined to protect Nadia, clear her name and find answers. As they work together, trust grows between them and leads to passion, but both harbor secrets that could tear them apart. A bold plan to foil the traitor's assassination plot could place Nadia in the crosshairs, and time is running out.
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THE SIGHT OF her slammed Matt in the chest.
When Nadia Parker climbed into the limo, he slid from the backseat to the rear-facing one, just catching a whiff of flowers, like the lilacs his mom used to fill bowls with. He stretched out and crossed his ankles. He'd steeled himself for this first meeting, but with every muscle tensed, it was a hell of a hard job looking like he didn't give a shit.
The hip-clinging top and skinny pants she wore showcased her long, curvy body. The rust color brought out the highlights in her dark-gold hair. Reminded him how her fire and beauty had sidetracked him five years ago.
As if he needed reminding.
She took the seat beside Princess Sarika. When she saw him, her high-boned cheeks paled and hurt flashed in her green eyes. Like on the day he'd arrested her father for treason.
Her hand trembled as she stowed her go cup — black, no sugar if he remembered — in the holder. A vigorous shake of her head flicked hair onto her cheeks and across her shoulders. Longer than he remembered. Touchable. Sexy.
She was fiddling with her collar pin, an autumn leaf, so his one-eyed once-over shook her. Or maybe the fidgeting was just her. A bright-eyed dynamo, she was never still. Once she learned the reason for his presence, she'd be more than rattled. He couldn't let their past distract him. A life hung in the balance. Probably more than one. He couldn't fail, not again.
"Nadia," Sarika began, "I believe you know Matt Leoni."
"Yes. We've ... met." Nadia wouldn't meet his gaze. No surprise. Her father's downfall had been a shock. She resented Matt for his part in the case, thought the worst of him. "What is he doing here?" Her voice, honey-over-velvet with a trace of Virginia southern, ignited a slow burn inside him.
Her green gaze flickered to his eye patch, then away. Having his vision limited pissed him off, even if the damage was temporary. Even if it wasn't. He sure as hell wanted no pity. Not from Nadia. Not from anybody.
"I'm here at Her Highness's request." That should be enough. He'd rather not explain that the Domestic Antiterrorism Risk Corps, better known as DARK, had a deeper role in his mission. He schooled his features into a noncommittal expression, with eyes that gave away nothing. His G-Man face, she'd once called it.
He clicked the intercom on the panel beside him. "Take us north for a while."
The Embassy of Modena's limo rolled away from Nadia's small Bethesda, Maryland, hotel and turned onto Massachusetts Avenue, where buildings reflected the October morning sun. Encased in well-upholstered silence and the aroma of fine leather, they tooled past banks and posh businesses and cross streets that led to ritzier neighborhoods in this D.C. suburb.
A few of Matt's missions, like the one Sarika was bound to mention, had dumped him in with the ritzy crowd, but he preferred blue jeans to black ties. And this sure wasn't his kind of neighborhood. Or his kind of ride. No, give him the rumble of a bike beneath his butt and the freedom of the open road.
Shaking off his thoughts, he checked the windows. Normal shopper and business traffic.
The princess had vouched for her long-time chauffeur's loyalty and sealed mouth, but the jockey-size guy couldn't be much protection. Matt would beef up security. Give old Stefan a vacation until the princess's safety was assured.
"Matt is here because I know I can trust him," Sarika said, her upper-class British accent infusing the statement with gravitas.
Nadia huffed. "Trust is relative."
Apparently ignoring the bitter tone, the princess continued, "Matt's unfortunate injury is the reason we are lucky to have his services. Stopping a terrorist plot in Belgium, a successful mission, was it not, Matt?" Successful, but at too high a price. "That particular reign of terror ended permanently." At Nadia's slight shudder, he mentally kicked himself. His harsh tone must've conveyed the violence of the outcome.
"But your poor eye." The princess clucked her distress. "Three months on and you're still not healed."
"I'll be fine. And the eye patch gets me lots of female attention." He kept his expression guarded as he stowed his chewing gum in his cheek. "The DARK assistant director assigned me to light duty until my eye heals. I owe the princess and her father for unchaining me from a desk. Even with half of twenty-twenty, I'm good to go."
Apart from Nadia's resentment of his very presence, the adrenaline rush and challenge of an op was what he needed. He'd have the rebel traitor in the bag in a few days. After this, the AD would see it his way and put him back in the field. Freedom. His soul needed to be back out there. The tightness in his chest was merely due to his need to protect the princess.
Sarika laughed, then turned to Nadia. "Let me explain why my father specifically requested Matt's help. Three years ago during a rebel uprising, this brave and resourceful man saved my life."
Nadia's lips stretched into a tight smile.
Odd, but at that moment the two women looked similar. Some resemblance between them, yeah. Had to be the blonde effect. "Just lucky we made it." He looked away, rubbed knuckles across his jaw.
Crossing her ankles, she jiggled one foot. "You must tell me about the rescue sometime, Sari."
"The rebels have regrouped. You may have read about their recent skirmishes with our garda patrols. I need your cooperation while Matt's undercover in the embassy."
He added, "The rebels intend to overthrow Modena's parliamentary government and install their own leader, likely Sandor Cardona, an ousted member of parliament."
Nadia's smile vanished as the impact sank in. "As what, a dictatorship?" "That's our assumption. They've spread propaganda about repression and embezzlement. Apparently they intend to stage a coup by assassinating the royal family as well as the prime minister. Attempts against King Bernard came close. Two members of parliament died in the latest attack. His majesty fears for his only daughter's life."
"The rebels are here, in Washington?" Nadia said. "Sari, we'll postpone the film. You can go somewhere safe."
The princess shook her head and smoothed her skirt. "I'll not concede to these vermin who want to destroy my island. Your film will show the truth about Modena."
Now they were getting to the reason for this meeting — his role in Nadia's documentary about the royal family. When Matt had first met her, she'd only just begun her filmmaking career. Now as a producer-director, she had three indie documentaries under her belt. Damned good ones. He'd made a point of streaming them.
"Someone in the embassy is plotting with the rebels," he continued. "No one there is above suspicion, the reason for our meeting in the limo and not in an embassy office. My job is to identify the traitor. Sarika's life is at stake." He checked out the rear window when they stopped for a traffic light.
What he saw put an end to his explanation and sent his blood pressure skyrocketing . A black Escalade. The behemoth's wide metal grill loomed close enough to bite the limo's bumper. The saber-tooth-tiger growl of its 420-horsepower engine suggested more than tailgating.
"It's probably nothing," Sarika said, oblivious to the SUV. "My father tends to be overprotective."
A jolt from behind jerked the two women forward into their shoulder harnesses. Sarika gasped and Nadia emitted a small shriek.CHAPTER 2
MATT'S HEAD BOUNCED into the padding below the privacy panel. The impact threw the limo toward the car ahead. The chauffeur slammed on the brakes and avoided a collision.
"The idiot needs a driving lesson," Nadia blurted, settling again. "The one on courtesy of the road."
"I don't think courtesy's the issue." Matt's mouth tightened. Were the Escalade guys Modena rebels? Or just jerks having some fun after downing their breakfast brewskis? "We're about to find out if His Majesty's overprotective or right on target."
A big man, tall and wide, a tank like his vehicle, sat with both hands on the steering wheel. Another man, not as big, filled the passenger seat. Both smiled. Not friendly smiles, more the smirks of predators closing in on their prey.
Nadia had twisted around, so she saw the thugs. Her frightened gaze now found Matt's.
As much as she must hate the idea, she would have to rely on him. "Hang on."
He pushed the button for the intercom. "Stefan, are you a good enough driver to lose the Escalade crawling up our ass?"
"I used to be, sir, but my reactions are not what they once were." The old man's voice quavered and broke.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
The fuckers were shooting at them. Not just your average street punks but the rebels. Or worse.
Sarika's eyes widened, clearly shaken by a sound too reminiscent of the last time she was under fire. Nadia sucked in a breath and gripped the armrest.
Matt couldn't see the gun. Probably a suppressor-equipped semi-auto. Anything bigger would be too obvious in public. He had to get off these slow suburban streets. No time to stow the chewing gum, so he swallowed it. He pushed a button. The privacy panel slid down out of sight between the rear-facing seat and the driver compartment. "You two get down on the floor."
"But —" Nadia began.
"Do it now."
The light changed. The Escalade's engine revved. The delivery van ahead barely moved as gears ground and acrid smoke billowed. The limo and the SUV pulled out as if linked by a short chain.
The women slid to the floor, Nadia behind the passenger seat, the princess beside her.
"We'll be all right," Sarika said, her voice abnormally high pitched. "Matt will handle things. Trust him."
In this case, Nadia had no choice. He stripped off his sport coat. Wrenched away the driver's headrest and tossed it over her head onto the backseat. "I'm taking the wheel." He directed Stefan to move out of the way.
He held onto the support handle as he drew up his legs. Then he twisted and slid through to the driver compartment. The smaller man scooted across the console, damned fast for an old guy. Matt dropped into the seat and took the wheel.
More bullets rammed into the rear end.
Plastic shattered. Tail light.
The entrance to Cabin John Creek Park appeared on the right, then the sign for I-495. The Capital Beltway, exactly what he needed. This engine had about the same power as the Escalade but the limo — not a stretch, grazie — should have more maneuverability.
At the beltway entrance, he hung a right and sped onto the north ramp. Because of his blind left side, he had to turn his head farther and rely more on the mirrors. He glanced in the left outside mirror with his right eye, then turned to see forward. He whipped out into the flow of traffic, heavy as usual but not rush-hour jammed at mid-morning.
Other drivers blasted him with their horns but he stomped on the gas.
The women huddled behind him. Their movements and hushed words told him they were hanging in there. Beside him Stefan perched upright and stiff. Matt could smell the sour odor of his fear. Or maybe he smelled his own.
The Escalade followed. It took the on-ramp, pulled into traffic two cars behind.
His adrenaline spiked as he accelerated with the traffic flow. He hoped vehicles packed into five lanes, like racers on a track, would shield them. He cranked the limo's eight cylinders.
When the space behind him opened up, the monstrous SUV swerved around and pulled up behind.
What the hell were they doing? Aiming to kill the princess? Maybe kidnap her? Not at high speed for sure, but ... He gunned it and the Escalade accelerated along with him. It again rammed their rear end.
The limo hopped forward, then veered sideways. The blow nearly bounced them into the left lane.
Into a car he hadn't seen.
Horns blared. He sucked in a deep breath past the vise clamping his chest. The muscles in his shoulders and arms screamed with the strain but he held the limo in the right lane. Dammit. Damn my eye. Turning his head too far around meant taking his eye off the road. Not good.
He needed a freaking guide dog. He hated it but the choice of words was apt. "Nadia, Sarika, the damn eye injury fucks with my vision on the left. Using the mirrors helps but I need one of you to be my eyes."
"I can do it." Nadia's voice was strained. Trying for confidence. "Sarika needs to stay down. "
"I'll get out of your way," the princess said. Clothing rustled, shoe soles scraped on the floor mat as the two women switched places.
If only he could see on his left. "Nadia?"
"I'm ready, right behind you. Steady line of cars on the left. Yellow convertible leading the pack."
Matt stayed on course with her keeping him alerted. A solid chain of cars and trucks cruised along, intent on the endless merry-go-round, leaving exhaust fumes in their wake. No one around them seemed to notice what was going on. Where was a cop car when you needed one?
The green thicket of the park grounds sped by on the right, trees reaching above walls erected to block traffic noises. In tandem, the limo and the Escalade zoomed past River Road and toward the next exit. The road widened to five lanes for the left-hand I-270 split, so he had to make his move.
"I'm gonna ease left for the exit. Then fake him out."
"I don't get what you're doing, but okay." Nadia's voice sounded strained, but her tone determined. "Blue van pulling in beside you."
He swung back into the right lane just in time.
"Now it's clear. Go."
He whipped the car left. The Escalade still hung in the right lane. Then it found an opening and veered into his but remained two cars behind. Good. "Again?" She told him to wait for a semi to pass. The split for the northern suburbs was fast approaching. The Escalade moved closer again as another car edged right. Only one car back.
He was running out of time. He gripped the steering wheel tighter.
"Okay, go," Nadia said.
He peeled to his left as if headed for Gaithersburg, luring the Escalade to follow. He gunned it to get clear.
A delivery van blocked the Escalade. Here was his chance. He'd done this once on the Autobahn, but that time he was doing the chasing. And he had vision in both eyes. "Everybody hold onto something. This could be hairy."
No time or energy to spend on worrying. He ripped the wheel to the right and knifed through vehicles across the right hand lanes headed east around the beltway.
"The Escalade?" He slowed to blend into traffic in the far right lane.
"He's coming." He could hear panic shredding her voice. "Oh, God, we didn't shake him. What can we do?"
"How far back is he?" Matt didn't dare turn to see. Vehicles were speeding bumper to bumper at seventy and higher.
"About ten cars. Maybe more. But in the fast lane."
He could still do it. Even if the bastards spotted them exiting. "I'm going into Bethesda again. I can lose him on back streets." At least that was his plan.CHAPTER 3
MATT WRENCHED THE wheel a hard right sped down the exit ramp. He hugged the arc of the exit curve. His best chance here was that he knew the tangled streets, and it was likely their pursuers did not.
This early in the morning, traffic on Old Georgetown Road bustled with more delivery trucks than cars. Before the dickwads could catch up or figure out where the limo had gone, he had to get invisible. He scooted around a semi backing into Dunkin Donuts, then careened right onto a side street.
No sign of the Escalade.
More random twists and turns took them through a neighborhood of older Colonials, and then he swung into a school parking lot. He stopped behind the second row of vehicles. Nobody followed them. The women were safe. He rotated his shoulders and drew a breath, flexed his aching fingers. His heart rate began to ease up.
Stefan heaved a giant sigh. "You lost them. In my day, I could have done that." Beaming a wide and gap-toothed smile, the chauffeur clapped Matt on the back.
Nadia sank to the limo floor and drew deep breaths. She folded her arms and pressed them against her stomach, a vain attempt to ease the emotions rocking her. Her pulse still fluttered.
She glanced at her friend. Pale blond strands of Sari's always perfect hair had come loose from her chignon, and she'd chewed off her lipstick. About like Nadia must look. Maybe more shaken. Sari hadn't wanted to believe the rebels would really attack her. Her chest rose and fell with shudder, and she sent Nadia a wobbly smile. What the hell was going on? Rebels ramming them, shooting at them to kill the princess? The world had gone crazy.
The motor was still running, but the front doors clicked. Stefan opened the passenger-side door. Clucking his tongue, he aided the princess to exit. When Matt opened the door beside Nadia and held out a hand, she hesitated. Not letting him help her would be petty, especially after he probably saved all their lives, not just Sari's. The touch of his fingers as he supported her shot electric vibrations up her arm, and the berry scent of his chewing gum tickled memories she'd suppressed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dark Vision"
Copyright © 2018 Susan Vaughan.
Excerpted by permission of Gullwood Press.
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