“Michael Stone has earned his spot in my top three romance heroes!” ~ Reader review
**Winner of the Heart of Excellence Ancient Romance City Writers award for Best Romantic Suspense!
The grandfather clock in the corner chimed, its deep baritone vibrating under a sheet of protective plastic. The antique clock, unlike the west wall of Michael Stone’s home office, had escaped damage when the bullets flew. If only his chest had been as lucky.
Michael stopped sanding the section of Sheetrock in front of him to rub the scar under his shirt. For the sixth time in as many months, he was patching and sanding holes, trying to cover up the past. But just like the drywall dust that had infiltrated every corner of his office, reminders of the hostage incident infiltrated every corner of his mind.
The edge of one of the filled bullet holes was ridged. Another had sunk. He should just knock them out and start over. He should do the same with the memories.
Julia. Conrad. Raissi. The names swirled in his brain, making his gut clench and his forehead sweat. No matter how many times he cut out and patched the holes, betrayal, obligation, and failure rose from the dust to mock him.
Starting on the ridged patch, he gritted his teeth as the sandpaper chewed up the dried mud and dust fell to the ground. Time, he told himself, as the grandfather clock chimed again. I just need more time.
Using his shirt sleeve to wipe the sweat from his forehead, he pushed the past behind the carefully constructed wall he’d built in his mind. He should have been at Ella’s school, watching her parade around, all smiles and six-year-old self-confidence in her Wonder Woman costume instead of trying to fix something that couldn’t be fixed.
Halloween had become so dangerous Ella’s school had decided to put on a trunk-or-treat, complete with parade, to keep the students protected. The fact that kids had lost the freedom to enjoy trick or treating saddened Michael. It saddened him even more that he was loathe to go watch his niece enjoy the substitute version because he couldn’t go anywhere in public without a battalion of security. As Deputy Director of the CIA and brother-in-law to the next president—if the pre-election day polls were accurate—his autonomy no longer existed.
These days, it didn’t matter if you were an adult or a kid. Freedom was a precious commodity choked off by criminals and terrorists.
Throwing the sandpaper down on the tarp at his feet, he headed for his desk. A week’s worth of newspapers covered one corner. His stuffed briefcase lay next to them. The European Directorate was waiting for his signature on a dozen different projects.
Michael wheeled his office chair out and sat down hard. He booted up his laptop, drumming a staccato on the top of his desk with his fingers as he waited for the opening screen to ask for his password. Before it could flash the message, his attention was drawn back to the wall. Raissi’s smirking face danced over the holes.
Adrenaline buzzed in his veins as he shut the laptop with a firm snap. No way was he getting any work done tonight. He should call Kinnick, his bodyguard and sparring partner, and hit the gym. Fighting was the only way he’d found to jack the energy and the memories from his psyche.
He’d taken up mixed martial arts which combined kickboxing with the two other phases of combat—takedowns and submission holds. Fights required all three types of skills, and knowing which phase would give you an advantage over your opponent gave you control of the fight.
Even outside the ring, control was power.
Thad Pennington, Republican candidate for U.S. President, was mere days and percentage points away from taking control of the White House. He’d already offered Michael directorship of the CIA after the election, but Michael had turned him down. Unlike a majority of D.C.’s political pundits, he didn’t want his legacy handed to him on anything other than merit.
Thad was also Ella’s father. A father on the campaign trail and missing the Halloween festivities. Yet another reason Michael should have been at Ella’s school. She needed a substitute father more and more while her biological one pursued the dream of power.
Across the room, Raissi’s face faded into poorly patched bullet holes once again, standing out in bas-relief from the smooth surface surrounding them. A heavy, burning sensation tugged at Michael’s chest. Letting out his breath, he rocked his chair back and forth, his fingers absently probing his scar.
Holes. His life was full of them. Work, social life, family. His goddamn chest. And every time he patched one, it seemed to have the opposite effect. The holes kept getting bigger, spreading like a disease.
The phone on his desk rang, jolting him out of his thoughts. A vacation from them was such a relief, he snagged the receiver without looking at the ID.
It was only two syllables, but his sister’s high-pitched voice, cracking with strain, brought him up straight. “What is it, Ruthie?”
She sobbed and the hair on the back of his neck rose. “It’s Ella. She’s…gone.” Another sob. “Kidnapped. We don’t know who’s got her. Oh, Michael, what are they doing to my baby?”
The world screeched to a halt. As the next beat of his heart echoed inside his head, he rose from the chair, his body kicking into phase one of combat.
Washington D.C. suburbs
Brigit Kent unlocked the door to her loft, dropped her overnight bag on the floor inside, and flipped on the lights. After traveling nonstop in Europe for the past week, she wanted a hot shower, a pint of Cherry Garcia, and a couple hours of BBC America.
On the kitchen counter she found a basket stuffed with various fruits and chocolates, an official Department of Homeland Security ID badge with her photo and name on it, and a note from her assistant Truman Gunn.
Welcome back to your home away from home. JOE secured your assignment with Homeland. I’ll catch you up on all the spiffy details first thing tomorrow. White House, eight o’clock. Wear the suit.
P.S. TiVo’d Dr. Who for you.
Brigit shed her Burberry trench coat, unwrapped a Godiva and popped it in her mouth. JOE stood for Jolly Old England, Truman’s nickname for her employer, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The Department of Homeland Security thought they were getting a freelance consultant on domestic terrorism, and they were, but while she was working for Homeland, SIS had an undercover job for her.
What neither SIS nor Homeland realized was Brigit had her own agenda while she was in Washington.
She pulled the Cherry Garcia from the freezer and kicked off her boots in the living room. She flipped on the TV, anxious to catch up on her favorite show. Before she could find the TiVo remote, though, a breaking story on Headline News caught her eye. Eleanor Pennington, the daughter of Republican nominee Thad Pennington, had been kidnapped.
Frowning, Brigit turned up the volume and sat on the edge of the couch. A reporter on the scene at Eleanor’s school reported scant details before summoning several people nearby to give eyewitness accounts.
Gooseflesh rose on Brigit’s arms as she listened. No one had actually seen the girl being kidnapped, but she had disappeared from a school function out from under the watchful eyes of adults and Secret Service agents. No contact from the kidnapper had been made except a single phone call—Eleanor’s voice crying for her mother.
Proof of life.
A tremor went down Brigit’s spine and the little girl in her head cried out, the old nightmare of a locked door and the fire surfacing. Her gaze darted to the photo next to the TV. She and her younger sister, Tory, were grinning at the camera, arms thrown around each other’s neck in childhood abandon. A different proof of life.
As if her body had a will of its own, Brigit rose from the edge of the couch and returned the ice cream to the freezer. She slipped on her trench and slid her sore feet back into her boots before retrieving her handgun from her overnight bag and heading for the door. At the last minute, she went back to the kitchen counter and grabbed the Homeland badge. That and the kidnapping had just made her assignment for SIS a slam dunk.
Leaving the lights on in the loft, she closed and locked the door behind her, slipping her handgun into the pocket of her trench coat.
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