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Special Agent Cal Rico checked his watchagain. Only three minutes had passed since the last time he'd looked. It felt longer.
A lot longer.
Of course, waiting outside his director's door had a way of making each second feel like an eternity.
"Uh-oh," he heard someone say. Cal saw a team member making his way up the hall toward him. Mark Lynch was nicknamed Hollywood because of his movie-star looks. He was a Justice Department liaison assigned to the regional headquarters. "What'd you screw up, Chief?" Lynch asked.
Chief. Cal had been given his moniker because of his aspirations to become chief director of the International Security Agency. Except they weren't just aspirations.
One day he would be chief. Since that was his one and only goal, it made things simple.
And in his mind, inevitable.
"Who said I screwed up anything?" Cal commented. But he was asking himself the same thing.
Lynch arched his left eyebrow and flashed a Tom Cruise smile. "You're outside Kowalski's office, aren't you?"
Cal had been assigned to the Bravo team of the ISA for well over a year, and this was the first time he'd ever been ordered to see his director. Since he'd just returned from a monthlong assignment in the Middle East and wouldn't receive new orders within seven duty days, he was bracing himself for bad news.
He'd already called his folks and both of his brothers to make sure all was well on the home front. That meant this had to do with the job. And that made it more personal than anything else could have been.
"If you have a butt left when Kowalski quits chewing it," Hollywood continued, "then show up at the rac-quetball court at 1730 hours. I believe you promised me a rematch."
Cal mumbled something noncommittal. He hated racquetball, but after this meeting he might need a way to work out some frustrations. Pounding Hollywood might just do it.
The door to the director's office opened, and Cal's lanky boss motioned for him to enter.
"Have a seat," Director Scott Kowalski ordered. There was no mistake about it. His tone and demeanor confirmed that it was an order. "Talk to me about Jenna Laniere."
Cal had geared up to discuss a lot of things with his boss, but she wasn't anywhere on that list. Though he'd certainly thought, and dreamed, about the leggy blond heiress. "What about her?"
"Tell me what happened when you rescued her in Monte de Leon last year."
That was a truly ominous-sounding request. Still, Cal tried not to let it unnerve him. "As best as I can recall, I entered the hotel where she'd checked in, found her hiding in the bathroom. I moved her from that location and got her to the rendezvous point. About a half hour later or so, the transport took her away, and I rejoined the Bravo team so we could extract some American hostages that the rebels had taken."
Kowalski put his elbows on his desk and leaned closer. "It's that half hour of unaccounted-for time that I'm really interested in."
That couldn't be good. Had Jenna Laniere filed some kind of complaint all these months later? If so, Cal had her pegged all wrong. She had seemed too happy about being rescued to be concerned that he'd used profanity around her.
"Wait a minute," Cal mumbled, considering a different scenario. One that involved Paul Tolivar, or rather what was left of Tolivar's regime. "Is Jenna Laniere safe?"
Translation: had Tolivar's cronies or former business partners killed her?
The FBI had followed Jenna for weeks after her return to the States. When no one had attempted to eliminate her, they'd backed off from their surveillance.
As for Tolivar's regime, there hadn't been enough hard evidence for the Monte de Leon or U.S. authorities to arrest Tolivar's partners or anyone else for his murder. In fact, there hadn't been any evidence at all except for Justice Department surveillance tapes that couldn't be used in court since they would give away the identities of several deep-cover operatives. A move that would almost certainly cause the operatives to be executed. The Justice Department wasn't about to lose key men to further investigate a criminal's murder. Especially one that'd happened in a foreign country.
"Ms. Laniere's fine," Kowalski assured him.
The relief Cal felt was a little stronger than he'd expected. And it was short-lived. Because something had obviously happened. Something that involved her. If Jenna had indeed filed a complaint, there'd be an investigation. It could hurt his career.
The one thing he valued more than anything else.
He would not fail at this. He couldn't. Bottom linebeing an operative wasn't his job, it was who he was. Without it, he was just the middle son of a highly decorated air force general. The middle son sandwiched between two brothers who'd already proven themselves a dozen times over. Cal had never excelled at anything. In his youth, he'd been average at best and at worst been a screwupsomething his father often reminded him of.
His career in the ISA was the one way he could prove to his father, and more importantly to himself, that he was worth something.
"After you rescued Ms. Laniere, the Justice Department questioned her for hours. Days," Kowalski corrected. "She didn't tell them anything they could use to build their case against Tolivar's business partners. In fact, she claims she never heard Tolivar or his partners speak of the rebel group that they'd organized and funded in Monte de Leon. The group he ordered to kill her. She further claimed that she never heard him discuss his illegal activities."
"And the Justice Department believes she was telling the truth?"
Kowalski made a sound that could have meant anything. "Have you seen or spoken with her in the past year?"
"No." Cal immediately shook his head, correcting that. "I mean, I tried to call her about a month ago, but she wasn't at her office in Houston. I left a message on her voice mail, and then her assistant phoned back to let me know that she was on an extended leave of absence and couldn't be reached."
The director steepled his fingers and stared at Cal. "Why'd you try to call her?"
Cal leaned slightly forward as well. "This is beginning to sound a little like an interrogation."
"Because it is. Now back to the questionwhy did you make that call?"
Oh, man. That unnerving feeling that Cal had been trying to stave off hit him squarely between the eyes. This was not something he wanted to admit to his director. But he wouldn't lie about it, either.
No matter how uncomfortable it was.
"I was worried about her. Because I read the investigation into Tolivar's business partners had been reopened. I just wanted to see how things were with her."
Judging from the way Director Kowalski's smoke-gray eyes narrowed, that honest answer didn't please him. He muttered a four-letter word.
"Mind telling me what this is about?" Cal asked. "Because last I heard it isn't a crime for a man to call a woman and check on her."
But in this case, his director might consider it a serious error in judgment.
Since Jenna had a direct association with an international criminal like Paul Tolivar, no one working in the ISA should have considered her a candidate for a friendship. Or anything else.
Kowalski aimed an accusing index finger at Cal. "You know it violates regulations to have intimate or sexual contact with someone in your protective custody. And for those thirty minutes in Monte de Leon, Jenna Laniere was definitely in your protective custody."
That brought Cal to his feet. "Sexual contact?" Ah, hell. "Is that what she said happened?"
"Are you saying it didn't?"
"You bet I am. I didn't touch her." It took Cal a few moments to get control of his voice so he could speak. "Did she file a complaint or something against me?"
Kowalski motioned for him to take his seat again. "Trust me, Agent Rico, you'll want to sit down for this part."
Cal bit back his anger and sank onto the chair. Not easily, but he did it. And he forced himself to remain calm. Well, on the outside, anyway. Inside, there was a storm going on, and he could blame that storm on Jenna.
"As you know, I'm head of the task force assigned to clean up the problems in Monte de Leon," Kowalski explained. "The kidnapped American civilians. The destruction of American-owned businesses and interests."
Impatient with what had obviously turned into a briefing, Cal spoke up. "Is any of this connected to Ms. Laniere?"
"Yes. Apparently, she's still involved with Paul Tolivar's business partners. That's why we started keeping an eye on her again."
That took the edge off some of Cal's anger and grabbed his interest. "Involvedhow?"
Kowalski pushed his hands through the sides of his graying brown hair. "She's been staying in a small Texas town, Willow Ridge, for the past couple of months. But prior to that while she was still in Houston, one of Tolivar's partners, Holden Carr, phoned her no less than twenty times. They argued. We're hoping that during one of their future conversations, Holden might divulge some information. That's why the Justice Department has been monitoring Ms. Laniere's calls and e-mails."
In other words, phone and computer taps. Not exactly standard procedure for someone who wasn't a suspected criminal. Of course, Hollywood would almost certainly have been aware of that surveillance and monitoring, and it made Cal wonder why the man hadn't at least mentioned it. Or maybe Hollywood hadn't remembered that Cal had rescued Jenna.
"What does all of this have to do with alleged sexual misconduct?" Cal insisted.
Kowalski hesitated a moment. Then two. Just enough time to force Cal's anxiety level sky-high. "It's come to our attention that Jenna Laniere has a three-month-old daughter."
It took Cal a few moments to find his breath, while he came up with a few questions that he was afraid even to ask.
"So what does that have to do with me?" Cal tried to sound nonchalant, but was sure he failed miserably.
"She claims the baby is yours."
Cal finally spotted her.
Wearing brown pants and a cream-colored cable-knit sweater, Jenna came out of a small family-owned grocery store on Main Street. She had a white plastic sack clutched in each hand. But no baby.
One thing was for sureshe didn't look as if she'd given birth only three months earlier.
But she did look concerned. Her forehead was bunched up, and her gaze darted all around.
Good. She should be concerned about the lie she'd told. It probably wasn't a healthy thought to want to yell at a woman. But for the entire hour-long drive from regional headquarters to the little town of Willow Ridge, Texas, he'd played around with it.
She claims the baby is yours.
Director Kowalski's words pounded like fists in Cal's head. Powerful words, indeed.
That's why he had to get this situation straightened out so that it couldn't do any more damage. Before the end of the week, he was due for a performance review, one that would be forwarded straight to the promotion board. If he had any hopes of making deputy director two years early, there couldn't even be a hint of negativity in that report.
And there wouldn't be.
That's what this visit was all about. One way or another, Jenna was going to tell the truth and clear his name. He'd worked too damn hard to let her take that early promotion away from him.
Cal stepped out of his car, ducked his head against the chilly February wind and strolled across the small parking lot toward her. He figured she was on her way to the apartment she'd rented over the town's lone bookstore. Judging from the direction she took, he was right.
Even though she kept close to the buildings, she was easy to track. Partly because there weren't many people out and about and partly because of her hair. Those shiny blond locks dipped several inches past her shoulders. Loose and free. The strands seemed to catch every ray of sun.
That hair would probably cause any man to give her a second look. Her body and face would cause a man to stare. Which was exactly what he was doing.
She must have sensed his eyes on her because she whirled around, her gaze snaring him right away.
"It's you," she said, squinting to see him in the harsh late afternoon sun. She sounded a little wary and surprised.
However, Cal's reactions were solely in the latter category.