Sheltered By The Millionaire 

SHELTERED BY THE MILLIONAIRE, Harlequin Desire, November 2014

A life-and-death rescue leads to love for a single mom in USA TODAY bestselling author Catherine Mann’s Texas Cattleman’s Club story. Texas tycoon Whit Daltry has always been a thorn in Megan Maguire’s side, especially when he tries to put the kibosh on her animal shelter. But when he saves her daughter during the worst […]

Rich Man’s Fake Fiancee – 2-in-1 reissue w/Brenda Jackson 

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CHAPTER ONE

Only one thing sucked worse than wearing boring white cotton underwear on the night she finally landed in bed with her secret fantasy man.

Having him walk out on her before daylight.

Ashley Carson tensed under her downy comforter. Through the veil of her eyelashes, she watched her new lover quietly zip his custom fit pants. She’d taken a bold step – unusual for her – by falling into bed with Matthew Landis the night before. Her still-tingly sated body cheered the risk. Her good sense, however, told her she’d made a whopper mistake with none other than South Carolina ’s most high profile Senatorial candidate.

Moonlight streaked through the dormer window, glinting off his dark hair trimmed short but still mussed from her fingers. Broad shoulders showcased his beacon white shirt, crisp even though she’d stripped it from him just hours ago when their planning session for his fundraiser dinner at her restaurant/home had taken an unexpected turn down the hall to her bedroom.

Matthew may have been dream material, but safely so since she’d always thought there wasn’t a chance they could actually end up together. She preferred a sedentary, quiet life running her business, with simple pleasures she never took for granted after her foster child upbringing. He worked in the spotlight as a powerful member of the House of Representatives just as adept at negotiating high profile legislation as swinging a hammer at a Habitat for Humanity site.

People gravitated to his natural charisma and sense of purpose.

Matthew reached for his suit jacket draped over the back of a corner chair. Would he say goodbye or simply walk away? She wanted to think he would speak to her, but couldn’t bear to find out otherwise so she sat up, floral sheet clutched to her chest.

“That floorboard by the door creaks, Matthew. You might want to sidestep it or I’ll hear you sneaking out.”

He stopped, wide shoulders stiffening before he turned slowly. He hadn’t shaved, his five o’clock shadow having thickened into something much darker – just below the guilty glint in his jewel green eyes that had helped win him a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Five months from now, come November, he could well be the handsome sexy-eyed Senator Landis if he won the seat to be vacated by his mother.

With one quick blink, Matthew masked the hint of emotion. “Excuse me? I haven’t snuck anywhere since I was twelve, trying to steal my cousin’s magazines from under his mattress.” He stuffed his tie in his pocket. “I was getting dressed.”

“Oh, my mistake.” She slid from the bed, keeping the sheet tucked around her naked body. The room smelled of potpourri and musk, but she wouldn’t let either distract her. “Since yesterday, you’ve just developed a light step and a penchant for walking around in your socks.”

Ashley nodded toward his Gucci loafers dangling from two fingers.

“You were sleeping soundly,” he stated simply.

A lot of great sex tended to wear a woman out. Apparently she hadn’t accomplished the same for him, not that she intended to voice her vulnerability to him. “How polite of you.”

He dropped the shoes to the floor and toed them on one after the other. Seeing his expensive loafers on her worn hardwood floors with a cotton rag rug, she couldn’t miss the hints that this polished, soon-to-be Senator wasn’t at home in her world. Too bad those reminders didn’t stop her from wanting to drag him back onto her bed.

“Ashley, last night was amazing–”

“Stop right there. I don’t need platitudes or explanations. We’re both single adults, not dating each other or anyone else.” She snagged a terrycloth robe off a brass hook by the bathroom door and ducked inside to swap the sheet for the robe. “We’re not even really friends for that matter. More like business acquaintances who happened to indulge in a momentary attraction.”

Okay, momentary for him maybe. But she’d been salivating over him during the few times they’d met to plan social functions at her Beachcombers Restaurant and Bar.

Ashley stepped back into the bedroom, tugging the robe tie tight around her waist.

“Right, we’re on the same page then.” He braced a hand on the doorframe, his gold cufflinks glinting.

“You should get going if you plan to make it home in time to change.”

He hesitated for three long thumps of her heart before pivoting away on his heel. Ashley followed him down the hall of her Southern antebellum home/turned restaurant she ran with her two foster sisters. She’d recently taken up residence in the back room off her office, watching over the accounting books as well as the building since her recently married sisters had moved out.

Sure enough, more than one floorboard creaked under his confident strides as they made their way past the gift shop and into the lobby. She unlocked the towering front door, avoiding his eyes. “I’ll send copies of the signed contract for the fundraising dinner to your campaign manager.”

The night before, Matthew had stayed late after the business dinner to pass along some last minute paperwork. She never could have guessed how combustible a simple brush of their bodies against each other could become. Her fantasies about this man had always revolved around far more exotic scenarios.

But they were just that. Fantasies. As much as he tried to hide his emotions, she couldn’t miss how fast he’d made tracks out of her room. She’d been rejected often enough as a kid by her parents and even classmates. These days, pride starched her spine far better than any back brace she’d been forced to wear to combat scoliosis.

Matthew flattened a palm to the mahogany door. “I will call you later.”

Sure. Right. “No calls.” She didn’t even want the possibility of waiting by the phone, or worse yet, succumbing to the humiliating urge to dial him up, only to get stuck in voicejail as she navigated his answering service. “Let’s end this encounter on the same note it started. Business.”

She extended her hand. He eyed her warily. She pasted her poise in place through pride alone. Matthew enfolded her hand in his, not shaking after all, rather holding as he leaned forward to press a kiss…

On her cheek.

Damn.

He slipped out into the muggy summer night. “It’s still dark. You should go back to sleep.”

Sleep? He had to be freaking kidding.

Thank goodness she had plenty to keep her busy now that Matthew had left, because she was fairly certain she wouldn’t be sleeping again. She watched his brisk pace down the steps and into the shadowy parking lot which held only his Lexus sedan and her tiny KIA Rio. What was she doing, staring after him? She shoved the door closed with a heavy click.

All her poise melted. She still had her pride but her ability to stand was sorely in question. Ashley sagged against the counter by the antique cash register in the foyer.

She couldn’t even blame him. She’d been a willing participant all night long. They’d been in the kitchen where she’d planned to give him a taste of the dessert pastries her sister added to the menu for his fundraiser. Standing near each other in the close confines of the open refrigerator, they had brushed against each other, once, twice.

His hand had slowly raised to thumb away cream filling at the corner of her mouth…

She’d forgotten all about her white cotton underwear until he’d peeled it from her body on the way back to her bedroom. Then she hadn’t been able to think of much else for hours to come.

Her bruised emotions needed some serious indulging. She gazed into the gift shop, her eyes locking on a rack of vintage-style lingerie. She padded on bare feet straight toward the pale pink satin nightgown dangling on the end. Her fingers gravitated to the wide bands of peek-a-boo lace crisscrossing over the bodice, rimming the hem, outlining the vee slit in the front of the 1920’s look garment.

How she’d ached for whispery soft underthings during her childhood, but had always been forced to opt for the more practical cotton, a sturdier fabric not so easily snagged by her back brace. She didn’t need the brace any longer. Just a slight lift to her left shoulder remained, only noticeable if someone knew to check. But while she’d ditched the brace once it finished the job, she still felt each striation on her heart.

Ashley snatched the hanger from the rack and dashed past the shelved volumes of poetry, around a bubble bath display to the public powder room. Too bad she hadn’t worn this yesterday. Her night with Matthew might not have ended any differently, but at least she would have had the satisfaction of stamping a helluva sexier imprint on his memory.

A quick shrug landed her robe on the floor around her feet.

Ashley avoided the mirror, a habit long ingrained. She focused instead on the nightgown’s beauty. One bridal shower after another, she’d gifted her two foster sisters with the same style.

Satin slid along her skin like a cool shower over a body still flushed from the joys of heated sex with Matthew. She sunk onto the tapestry chaise, a French Restoration piece she’d bargained for at an estate auction. She lit the candle next to her to complete the sensory saturation. The flame flickered shadows across the faded wallpaper, wafting relaxing hints of lavender.

A deep breath at a time she willed her anger to roll free as she drifted into the pillowy cloud of sensation. She tugged a decorative afghan over her. Maybe she could snag a nano nap after all.

Timeless relaxing moments later, Ashley inhaled again, deeper. And coughed. She sat up bolt right, sniffing not lavender, but…

Smoke….

Honorable Intentions 

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HONORABLE INTENTIONS
Chapter One

New Orleans, Louisiana: Mardi Gras

“Laissez les bons temps rouler!” Let the good times roll!

The cheer bounced around inside Hank Renshaw, Jr.’s, head as he pushed through the crowd lining the road to watch the Mardi Gras parade. His mood was anything but party-worthy.

He needed to deliver a message on behalf of his friend who’d been killed in action ten months ago. Tracking down his best bud’s girlfriend added twenty-ton weights to Hank’s already heavy soul.

Determination powered him forward, one step at a time, through the throng of partiers decked out in jester hats, masks and beads. Lampposts blazed through the dark. The parade inched past, a jazz band blasting a Louis Armstrong number while necklaces, doubloons and even lacy panties rained over the mini-mob.

Not surprising to see underwear fly. In years past, he’d driven down from Bossier City to New Orleans for Mardi Gras festivities. This town partied through the weekend leading all the way into Fat Tuesday. If former experiences were anything to judge by, the night would only get rowdier as the alcohol flowed. Before long, folks would start asking for beads the traditional way.

By hiking up their shirts.

A grandma waved her hands in the air, keeping her blouse in place for now as she shouted at a float with a krewe king riding a mechanical alligator, “Throw me something, mister!”

“Laissez les bons temps rouler!” the king shouted back in thickly accented Cajun French.

Hank sidestepped around a glowing lamppost. He spoke French and Spanish fluently, passable German and a hint of Chamorro from the time his dad had been stationed in Guam. He’d always sworn he wouldn’t follow in the old man’s aviator footsteps. While his dad was a pilot, Hank was a navigator. But in the end, he’d even chosen the same aircraft his dad had—the B-52. He couldn’t dodge the family legacy any more than his two sisters had. Renshaws joined the air force. Period. They’d served for generations, even though their cumulative investment portfolio now popped into the billions.

And he would give away every damn cent if he could bring back his friend.

Chest tight with grief, Hank looked up at the wrought-iron street number on the restaurant in front of him. Less than a block to go until he reached Gabrielle Ballard’s garret apartment, which was located above an antiques shop. He plunged back into the kaleidoscope of Mardi Gras purple, gold and green.

And then, in the smallest shift of the crowd, he saw her in the hazy glow of a store’s porch lights. Or rather, he saw her back as she made her way to her apartment. She didn’t appear to be here for the parade. Just on her way home, walking ahead of him with a floral sling full of groceries and a canvas sack.

Hurrying to catch her, he didn’t question how he’d identified her. He knew Gabrielle without even seeing her face. What a freaking sappy reality, but hell, the truth hurt. He recognized the elegant curve of her neck, the swish of her blond hair along her shoulders.

Even with a loose sweater hiding her body, there was no mistaking the glide of her long legs. The woman made denim look highend. She had a Euro-chic style that hinted at her dual citizenship. Her U.S. Army father had married a German woman, then finished out his career at American bases overseas. Gabrielle had come to New Orleans for her graduate studies.

Yeah, he knew everything about Gabrielle Ballard, from her history to the curve of her hips. He’d wanted her every day for a torturous year before he and Kevin had shipped out. The only relief? Since she lived in South Louisiana, while he and his friend were stationed in Northern Louisiana, Gabrielle had only crossed his path a couple of times a month.

Regardless, the brotherhood code put a wall between him and Gabrielle that Hank couldn’t scale. She was his best friend’s fiancée, Kevin’s girl. At least, she had been. Until Kevin died ten months ago. Two gunshots from a sniper at a checkpoint, and his friend was gone. That didn’t make Gabrielle available, but it did make her Hank’s obligation.

Gabrielle angled sideways, adjusting the sling holding her groceries and the canvas sack, to wedge through a cluster of college-aged students in front of the iron gate closing off the outdoor stairs to her apartment. A plastic cup in one guy’s hand sloshed foamy beer down her arm. She jumped back sharply, slamming into another drunken reveler. Gabrielle stepped forward, only to have the guy with the cup block her path again. She held her floral sack closer, fear stamped on her face.

Instincts still honed from battle shifted into high gear, telling Hank things were escalating in a damn dangerous way. He scowled, shoving forward faster without taking his eyes off her for even a second. The street lamp spotlighted her, her golden hair a shining beacon in the chaos. She pressed herself into a garden nook, but the sidewalk was packed; the noise of the floats so intense that calls for help wouldn’t be heard.

Hank closed the last two steps between him and the mess unfolding in front of him. He clamped his hand down firmly on the beer-swilling bastard’s shoulder.

“Let the lady pass.”

“What the hell?” The drunken jerk stumbled backward, bloodshot eyes unfocused.

Gabrielle’s gaze zipped to Hank. She gasped. Her emerald-green eyes went wide with recognition as she stared at him. And yeah, he felt an all too familiar snap of awareness inside him every time she crossed his path, the same draw that had tugged him the first time he saw her at a squadron formal.

One look at her then, in the ice-blue dress, and every cell in his body had shouted, “Mine!” Seconds later, Kevin had joined them, introducing her as the love of his life. Still, those cells in Hank kept on staking their claim on her.

The guy shrugged off Hank’s hand, alcohol all but oozing from his pores into the night air. “Mind your own business, pal.”

“Afraid I can’t do that.” Hank slid his arm around Ga-brielle’s waist, steeling himself for the soft feel of her against his side. “She’s with me, and it’s time for you to find another spot to watch the parade.”

The guy’s eyes focused long enough to skim over Hank’s leather flight jacket and apparently decide taking on a trained military guy might not be a wise move. He raised his hands, a glowing neon necklace peeking from the collar of his long-sleeved college tee. “Didn’t know you had prior claim, Major. Sorry.”

Major? God, it seemed as if yesterday he was a lieutenant, just joining a crew. Okay. He sure felt ancient these days even though he was only thirty-three. “No harm, no foul, as long as you walk away now.”

“Can do.” The guy nodded, turning back to his pals. “Let’s bounce, dudes.”

Hank watched until the crowd swallowed the drunken trio, his guard still high as he scanned the hyped-up masses.

“Hank?” Gabrielle called to him. “How did you find me?”

The sound of her voice speaking his name wrapped around him like a silken bond. Nothing had changed. He was still totally hooked on her. Bad enough before when she and Kevin had been engaged. But now, one glance at her made memories of his dying friend roil in his gut again.

He needed to check on Gabrielle as he’d promised Kevin he would, pass along his friend’s final words, then punch out of her life for good.

“You still live at the same address. Finding you wasn’t detective work,” he said, guiding her toward the iron gateway blocking her outside stairway. His eyes roved over the familiar little garden and wrought-iron table he’d seen for the first time when he’d driven down with Kevin two years ago. Determined to gain control of his feelings, he’d accompanied his bud on a weekend trip to the Big Easy. Pure torture from start to finish. “Let’s go to your place so we can talk.”

“What are you doing here? I didn’t know you’d returned to the States.” Her light German accent gave her an exotic appeal.

As if she needed anything else to knock him off balance. Good God, he was a thirty-three-year-old combat veteran, and she had him feeling like a high schooler who’d just seen the new hot chick in class.

He took in her glinting green eyes, her high cheekbones and delicate chin that gave her face a heartlike appearance. A green canvas purse hung from one shoulder, her floral shopping sack slung over her head, resting on her other hip. The strap stretched across her chest, between her breasts.

Breasts that were fuller than he remembered.

Better haul his eyes back upward, pronto. “I’m here for you.”

The rest could wait until they got inside. He pulled her closer, her grocery sling shifting between them heavily. What the hell did she have in there?

He slipped a finger under the strap. “Let me carry that for you.”

“No, thank you.” She covered the sack protectively with both hands, curving around the smooth bulge. Smooth? Maybe not groceries, after all. But what? Her sack wriggled.

He looked at the bag again, realization blasting through him. Holy crap. Not a satchel at all. He’d seen his sister Darcy wear one almost exactly like it when her son and daughter were newborns. No question, Gabrielle wore an infant sling.

And given the little foot kicking free, she had a baby on board.

Billionaire’s Jet Set Babies 

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…He needed more time with her.

His mind filled with a vision of Alexa chasing his kids around, all wet from the tub. Warm memories pulled him in with a reminder of the family life he should be having right now and wasn’t because of his workload. Having Alexa here felt so right.

It was right.

And so he wasn’t sending her home in the morning. Not only did he need her help with the children, he wanted her to stay for personal reasons. the explosive chemistry they’d just discovered didn’t come around often. Hell, he couldn’t remember when he’d ever burned this much to have a particular woman. So much the craving filled his mind, as well as his body.

The extension of their trip presented the perfect opportunity to follow that attraction to its ultimate destination.

Landing her directly in his bed.
***
BILLIONAIRE’S JET SET BABIES
by Catherine Mann
Harlequin Desire
October 2011

Acquired: CEO’s Small Town Bride 

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“I never thought you would turn into a smug, stuck-up snob.”

“Why don’t you speak a little louder? I don’t think they heard you over at table ten,” Rafe quipped.

“Why do you care what they think? What does it matter to you if I lose my job?”

“Sarah, perhaps we should talk this out somewhere more private.”

“Oh, so now you want to speak to me? After five months of ignoring my existance? After fourteen years of not even a postcard when you left for L.A. after graduation? I’m so sorry if hearing the truth makes you uncomfortable.”

He’d opened his mouth to take her down a peg…. Then the absurdity of it all hit him. He was renowned for making top corporate raiders quake in their Gucci loafers, but fearless Sarah took him on without a wince…

Bossman’s Baby Scandal 

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Lauren Presley wondered how a man could be so deeply inside her and yet totally distant at the same time. But no doubt about it, the sated, half-dressed man tangled up with her on her sofa at work had emotionally left the building.

She would boot the rest of him out of her deserted office as soon as she could breathe again.

The butter-soft leather of her turquoise couch stuck to the back of her legs through her thigh high stockings, sweat still slicking her body from their frenetically passionate – surprise – hook up. At least her fledgling graphic art business was closed for the day, the workplace empty.

Everything seemed out of sorts, disconnected like a Salvador Dali painting. She couldn’t blame Jason for regretting their impulsive act since she was pretty much freaking out too over how fast her panties had landed on the floor, her dress up around her waist while she’d torn at his belt buckle and zipper. Jason Reagert was a business friend, a working alliance they may very well have wrecked. She needed to get through this awkward post-sex moment ASAP with her pride intact.

She absolutely refused to be like her desperate, needy mother.

A low drone filled the quiet of the empty office. Lauren tensed. “Your pants are vibrating.”

Jason arched back and raised a dark eyebrow, his close cropped hair mussed on top from her fingers. “Pardon?”

She clapped her hand on his warm hip – beside his BlackBerry. “Seriously. It’s buzzing.”

“Damn.” He disentangled himself, cool air brushing over her bared legs. Jason swung his feet to the floor, his Testoni loafers thunking against the scarred wood as he sat and unclipped the handheld. “Helluva bad timing.”

Avoiding his eyes, she slid upright and adjusted her silky black wrap dress in place again. Her panties would have to wait. She kicked the scrap of ebony satin under the sofa. “Your pillow talk leaves something to be desired.”

“Sorry.” His zipper closing rasped, overloud in the late night silence. “It’s my reminder alarm.”

“Alarm for what?” She stared nervously at the white brick walls, the easel in the corner, the artwork on lit screens.

“My flight to California.”

Right.

He was leaving.

Lauren stood, smoothing her dress and looking for her favorite Manolo leopard pumps that she wouldn’t be able to wear again without thinking of this stupid, impetuous night.

She and Jason had been wrapping up final details on a graphic art design project she’d freelanced for his last ad campaign at the New York firm – he was leaving his NYC job and heading to greener career pastures in California. The job at Maddox Communications in San Francisco was a great opportunity for him. She’d known about this for a couple of weeks…. And as she’d hugged him goodbye tonight, she’d been knocked off balance by how upset she was over his impending move.

One second she’d been looking up at his leanly handsome face while blinking back tears, and the next second they’d been kissing… and more. A tingle of pleasure prickled down her spine, settling lower as she remembered the bold sweep of his tongue and his hands, his strength as he’d cupped her bottom and lifted her against him. Already her body ached to reach for him again, grab hold of that tie she’d never quite manage to undo and tug him toward her again. The impulse was too much, too strong.

Too overwhelming.

Gathering up her shredded self control, she looked away from his strong cheekbones and tempting mouth. She didn’t know where all these frenetic feelings had come from and wasn’t sure how to untwine them now that he was leaving.

She spied her leopard print shoes under the desk and welcomed the chance to put some space between herself and Jason and a sofa that smelled of good sex. She knelt, pulling one pump free but the other stayed annoyingly out of reach.

“Lauren,” his loafer clad feet stopped beside her, making her all the more aware of her ungainly butt-up position, “I don’t make a habit of–”

“Stop.” She sat back on her feet, willing away one of those awful blushes that came with her auburn-head complexion. “You don’t need to say anything.” Echoes of her mother’s humiliating pleas for her husband to stay bounced around in Lauren’s head.

“I’ll cal–”

“No!” Standing, she gave up on her shoes, her toes curling against the cool wood floor. “Don’t make promises you aren’t certain you’ll keep.”

He scooped his suit jacket from the back of a contoured metal chair. “You could call me.”

“What would that accomplish?” She faced him full on for the first time, taking in his prep-school good looks, hardened with an edge from his years in the Navy. He came from old money and had made his fair share of new as well. “You’re moving to California and New York City is my home. It’s not like we have any kind of real connection beyond being work acquaintances who happened to get caught up in a fluky hormonal maelstrom. Nothing to disrupt our entire lives over.”

Shaking her long, loose hair back, she opened the door to the larger studio outside, empty but for vacant rolling chairs pushed haphazardly up to tables.

He braced a hand on the doorframe, his arrogant brown eyes revealing a hint of surprise. “You’re giving me the brush off?”

Apparently Jason Reagert wasn’t told no often. Of course she’d been mighty quick to say yes, something she intended to change starting now.

“I’m simply being realistic, Jason.” She stared him down, her spine straight in spite of the fact he stood at least a head taller.

Later, away from him, she would hole up in her cute little one bedroom apartment on the upper east end of Manhattan. Or better yet, hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the entire day, crawling into the world of each painting. Her art was everything. She couldn’t forget that. This business – bought with a surprise inheritance from her dear elderly Aunt Eliza – was her big chance to make her dreams come true. To prove to her mother she was worth something more than a debutante slot and lucrative marriage.

She refused to let any man derail her.

Finally, Jason nodded shortly. “Okay, that’s the way you want it, that’s the way things will be.” He skimmed back her hair with his knuckles, his callused thumb stroking her cheekbone. “Good-bye, Lauren.”
She settled her features into a portrait worthy of any Dutch master – solemn and unrelenting. Jason turned away, his jacket hooked on one finger over his shoulder, and she fought back the urge to call out to him.

Hearing he was leaving New York had brought a surprise pinch of regret. But nothing compared to the twist in her gut as she watched him walk out the door…

Propositioned into a Foreign Affair 

propositioned_into_a_foreign_affair

Chapter One

His hands roved her bare body, melting her with the warm heat of his strong caress.

Bella Hudson bit her lip to hold back an embarrassing groan. Barely. She called upon all her training as a Hollywood actress to stay silent while Henri worked his magic on her oiled up body.

Muscles melting, she buried her forehead deeper in the massage table’s face cradle. The scent of aromatherapy candles soothed her nose while Christmas carols sung in French mixed with ocean sounds to caress her ears.

Pure bittersweet pleasure. Very bittersweet.

Sixty-two year old masseur Henri was likely to be the only man touching her for quite some time since her jerk of an actor boyfriend stomped her heart just last week. And wow, that thought sure kinked up her neck again, encroaching on her peaceful retreat.

She and her precious dog – Muffin – had escaped to France for some much needed soul soothing at the seaside Garrison Grande Marseille. Garrison hotels always provided the best in pampering, peace and privacy.

And crossing the Atlantic guaranteed she wouldn’t risk accidentally running into Ridley or worse yet, Uncle David.

Men. They were all rats. Well, except for Henri, who was too old for her and married, but oh my, he worked wonders with heated river stones along her lower back.

“Henri, are you and your wife happy?” She stared through the face cradle at Henri’s gym shoes as he swapped out the stones beside her treasured little Muffin snoozing away in her pink doggie carrier.

“Oui, Mademoiselle Hudson. Monique and I are very ‘appy. Four-tee years, three children and ten grandchildren later. My Monique is still beautiful.”

He continued to laud his wife and family, his adoration so thick it threatened to smother her.

Or make her gag.

She’d really thought Ridley loved her, only to have him say he’d been too caught up in the romance of their starring roles in the movie about her grandparents’ WWII romance. She’d really thought her parents loved each other too.

Wrong. And wrong again.

Her mother had cheated. She’d slept with her own brother-in-law and now Bella’s Uncle David was actually Daddy David. Her two cousins were actually her half-siblings. Good God, her family was ripe to be featured on an episode of Jerry Springer.

Even river stones couldn’t ease that ache.

A low sounding beep echoed through the room. A series of clicks sounded. Had the whale sounds traded up to dolphin calls?

Henri yanked the sheet up to her shoulders. “M’selle Hudson , quick, get up.”

“What?” she asked, not quite tracking yet.

Her eyes snapped open. She blinked to adjust in the dim light and found Henri blocking someone trying to push through the door.

Someone with a camera.

Crap. Crap. Totally tracking now, Bella bolted off the table and to the floor. Her feet tangled in the sheet and she pitched forward.

“Paparazzi. Run,” Henri barked as Bella struggled to regain her footing. “Run. M’sieur Garrison prides himself on protecting the privacy of his clients. He will fire me. Then my wife, she will keel me. She is crazy mean when she gets angry.”

So much for Henri and Monique’s happy marriage.

“Where the hell am I supposed to run to?” Bella spun away from the door – and the camera – making sure to anchor the sheet over her backside. She dashed to Muffin’s quilted pink carrier and grasped the handle.

She couldn’t wedge past Henri and the photographer struggling to raise his camera over Henri’s head.

“The screen,” Henri gasped, “move the screen. There’s another door behind. I will hold off this piece of garbage, M’selle Bella.”

Henri might have strong hands, but he appeared to be fighting a losing battle. Time was shorter than this oil spotted sheet.

Clutching the Egyptian cotton in one hand and the rhinestone studded carrier in her other, Bella raced to the antique screen painted with Monet-style murals. Sure enough, she found a narrow exit decorated with a large red bow. She butt-bumped the bar, creaked the door open and peeked out.

She looked left and right down an empty corridor, less ornate than the rest of the hotel. Labeled office doors bedecked with simple holiday wreaths. There might be some after-hours workers around, but running into them beat the hell out of sprinting through the wide open, high ceiling lobby with crystal chandeliers spotlighting her mad dash toward the elevator.

“Okay, Muffin, cross your paws, ‘cause here we go.”

Her sweet little fur baby yawned.

Bella tucked into the dimly lit hall, empty but for ornately carved antiques. Her bare feet pounded along the thick Persian carpet on her way past a lush green tree, tiny lights winking encouragement. She paused at the first office.

Locked. Damn.

She ran her hands along door after door on her way down. All locked. Double damn.

An echo sounded behind her. The sound of someone running. She glanced over her shoulder and…

Click. Click. Click.

She recognized the sound of a camera in action too well. The short but bulky photographer had overpowered Henri.

Bella ran faster, Muffin’s cloth cage bumping against her leg. She wasn’t a novice in ditching the press. She’d been aware of the media attention on her family since she was born twenty-five years ago.

Gilded framed photos of employees stared at her in a weird pseudo voyeurism. She rounded the corner and yes, yes, yes, found a mahogany door slightly ajar. No lights on. Likely empty. She would lock herself inside and call for help.

Panting, she raced the last few steps, slid through the part in the door.

And slammed into a hard male chest.

One without a camera slung over his shoulder, thank heaven, but still a warm bodied – big bodied – man. She looked up into his cool gray eyes. She didn’t need to check the formal photo by the door to confirm the identity of this dark haired, billionaire bachelor. At only thirty-four, he’d already been featured in plenty of “most eligible” lists. This expatriate bad boy had broken hearts from the Mediterranean to South Beach .

She’d fallen into the arms of hotel magnate Sam Garrison…

The Executive’s Surprise Baby 

the_executives_surprise_baby

PROLOGUE

July, five months ago

Brooke Garrison ordered her first taste of alcohol at twenty-eight years old.

She reached across the polished teak wood for the glass of wine from the aging bartender at the Garrison Grand hotel lounge. Her hand shook after the emotional toll of the day, hearing her father’s will read, learning of his secret life. At least she didn’t have to worry about getting carded even if she had been younger since her family owned the place.

“Thank you,” she said, surreptitiously reading the older man’s nametag, “Donald.”

“You’re welcome, Miss Garrison.” He slid an extra napkin her way as smoothly as the pianist slipped into his next song. “And please accept my condolences about your father. He will be missed.”

By more people than she had realized. “We all appreciate the kind words. Thank you again.”

“Of course. Let me know if you need anything else.”

Anything else? She would like to erase this whole horrible day and start over. Or at least stop thinking about it, much less talking. She’d already ignored four voice messages from her brother Parker’s receptionist.

Tentatively, Brooke sipped the wine, wincing. She watched the candle’s flame through the chardonnay’s swirl. Somewhere in that glass held the answers to what stole her mother away from her. To what had driven her father to lead a secret second life in the years before he’d died.

Her alcoholic mother’s bitter words after the reading of John Garrison’s will this morning echoed over and over again through Brooke’s head. “The cheating son of a bitch. I’m glad he’s dead.”

What a helluva way to learn there weren’t five Garrison offspring – but six. In addition to three bothers and an identical twin sister, Brooke had an illegitimate half-sister living in the Bahamas , a sister her father had never told them about while he was alive. Instead, he’d chosen to share the news in his will while handing over a sizable chunk of the Garrison Empire to Cassie Sinclair – the newly discovered sibling.

Not that Brooke cared about the money. The betrayal, however, burned.

Conversations and clinking glasses of happier people swelled around her while she sipped. She wanted none of the revelry, even made a point of carefully avoiding eye contact with a couple of men attempting to snag her attention.

Brooke raised the long-stemmed crystal to her mouth again. She knew intellectually to be as top notch as the fresh flowers and linens around her. Her taste buds, however, registered nothing. She was too numb with grief.

She’d always blamed her mother for her father’s frequent business trips. The drinking must have driven her wonderful daddy away. Now she couldn’t help but wonder if her father’s behavior had somehow contributed to her mother’s unhappiness.

And how could she untangle it all in the middle of mourning the loss of such a huge figure in her life? The hotel blared reminders of his presence. She could see her father’s imprint on each multi-domed chandelier in the bar, on every towering column.

Brooke circled a finger around the top of her half-full glass, an indulgence she never allowed herself because of her mother’s addiction.

Tonight wasn’t normal.

Her eyes hooked on the looming columns in the spacious hall outside the bar – the evening turning farther beyond normal than she ever could have anticipated.

Through the arched entranceway walked the last man she expected here, but one she recognized well even in the dim lighting. Their families had been business rivals for years, a competition that only seemed to increase once Jordan Jefferies had taken over after his father’s death.

So why was Jordan here now?

Brooke forced herself to think more like her siblings and less like her peacemaker self… and the obvious answer came to her. He’d come to her brother Stephen’s hotel to scope out the competition.

Brooke took the unobserved moment to study Jordan Jefferies prowling the room with a lion’s lazy grace. No, wait. Lazy was the wrong word.

Think like her siblings. Jefferies would only want people to perceive a lazy lope so he could pounce while she was otherwise occupied staring at his blond, muscle-bound good looks.

Yeah, she’d noticed his looks more than once. He might be the enemy, but she wasn’t blind. However, she’d considered him off limits because of the controversy it would cause in her family. Often, she’d heard her oldest brother Parker fume for days over a contentious business meeting with Jordan . The family diplomat, she always tried her best to soothe over arguments and hurt feelings.

For all the good it had done her. The whole Garrison clan had been ripped raw today.

Her mother’s voice whispered in her head again… “The cheating son of a bitch. I’m glad he’s dead.”

The bartender swooped by, breaking her train of thought. “Can I get you anything else, Miss Garrison?”

Garrison. She couldn’t escape it anywhere around here, just as futile as thinking she could keep peace in her family.

Why bother trying?

A heat fired through her veins and bloomed into an idea, a desire. And sure, a need for open rebellion after a day of hell. “Yes, Donald, actually you can do something for me. Please tell the gentleman over there,” she pointed to Jordan , “that his drinks for the evening are on the house.”

“Of course, Miss Garrison.” The bartender smiled discreetly and walked under the rows of hanging glasses to the other side of the wooden bar. He leaned to relay the message and Brooke waited. Her stomach tightened in anticipation.

What would he think of her picking up the tab for his drink? Likely nothing more than a Garrison acknowledging his presence.

Would Jordan Jefferies even remember her? Of course he would. He was a savvy businessman who would know all the Garrisons. A better question – would he be able to tell her apart from her twin?

He looked from the bartender to her. His gaze met hers, and even in the low lighting she could see the blue of his eyes. Interest sparked in his slow smile.

Jordan picked up his drink and wove his way around the patrons, straight toward her with a deliberate, unhesitating pace. He set his glass beside hers. “I didn’t expect such a nice welcome from a Garrison. Are you sure you didn’t have the bartender poison my drink, Brooke?”

He recognized her. Or a lucky guess?

“How do you know I’m not Brittany ?”

Without ever glancing away from her eyes, he reached, stopping an inch shy of touching a lock of her hair that stubbornly refused to stay pulled back. “Because of this. That wayward strand is signature Brooke.”

Wow. He definitely recognized her when even her own father had gotten it wrong sometimes.

In that moment, she realized she had more Garrison determination in her than anyone would have ever suspected. Brooke lifted her glass to Jordan in a silent toast.

She’d seen him many times. She’d always wanted him.

Tonight, her family be damned, she would have him…

Pursued 

pursued

“Negative G forces coming. Hold on to your lunch.”

Captain Josie Lockworth, USAF upped the throttle and pushed forward on the stick of her T-38 supersonic jet. Out of courtesy only, she offered the warning to reporter Shannon Conner strapped into the back seat.

Not that she had anything against reporters. Hell, she’d flown with top notch embedded journalists in the Middle East. Her best friend was even a television correspondent.

This reporter, however, could only be called a hack. Her news network soaked up scandal like a thirsty rag. Josie couldn’t afford bad press derailing her multimillion-dollar military test project. Forget the money, actually small change as far as the government was concerned.

Her mother’s honor had been held hostage long enough.

The T-38 pierced a low-lying cloud. Blood rushed up to her head with negative G forces, the reverse of positive Gs that pushed blood down. The body tolerated fewer negative Gs before passing out. One negative G. Two. Three. Spots danced in front of her eyes on the mountainous horizon of the California desert.

Adrenaline sang through her veins. Sweat popped along her back through her T-shirt. Her flight suit clung like a second skin. But then the uniform was already as much a part of her as any epidermal layer.

She pulled back on the stick, glancing up at the mirror to check her passenger. Shannon was awake but slumped in her seat in the tight cockpit, one strand of blond hair sneaking out of her helmet to stick to her pale face.

No hurling yet. A twinge of respect trickled through Josie’s steady focus, even a bit of sympathy.

But she did need to keep the reporter busy and disoriented. How better than nonstop acrobatics in a supersonic and nimble airplane? Shannon had insisted on the full-out flying experience. And Josie always delivered one hundred percent.

Tucking sideways, she slipped through a mountain pass. Through her clear top canopy, she watched the sandy landscape scroll past.

Josie forced oxygen in and out. Her huffed exhales echoed through the headset Darth Vader style. Near silence swallowed the cockpit, the only sound the rasp and drag of breathing through the oxygen mask since they’d left noise behind with speed.

As always, she flattened her frustration with familiar routine of flying. The trainer jet zipped along over a range near Edwards Air Force Base, approximately a hundred miles northeast of Los Angeles. Not much longer left in this flight until she landed where she worked in a military detachment at the nearby Palmdale testing facility, also known as Air Force Plant 42.For a test pilot, steely nerves were mandatory, leaving no room for cranky emotions jangling her at a critical second. And during test missions, any second could be critical.

Okay, so this wasn’t a test and she was pissed.

That someone like Shannon had been allowed access to Josie’s current test project just proved higher ups were only paying lip service to endorsing her work. Someone wanted this resurrected project that had once been her mother’s to fail. Damaging press could facilitate their cause.

And yeah, yeah, she mentally rolled her eyes at her annoying voice of reason. Part of her still resented Shannon from their prep-school days at the Athena Academy for the Advancement of Women.

Advancement? Shannon had tried to advance Josie right out the front gates on a trumped up charge of stealing.

Good God, as if.

Her stomach which held strong against negative Gs grew downright queasy over the notion of taking so much as a post office pen. But back then, Shannon had convinced everyone Josie was off her rocker like her washed up military mama. Who could expect reasonable behavior from a Lockworth lady?

Anger fired hotter than an afterburner, jangling the singing adrenaline off key. Her combat boots braced on the rudders. She kept her right hand loose on the stick, her left on the two throttles, flicking up to adjust dials then landing back on the stick. Not a HOTAS – hands on throttle and stick, with all the buttons attached. In the T-38 she had to take her hands off the stick and throttle to work the controls. But for Shannon, she’d give a new spin to the HOTAS – Hands On Tummy and Sickbag.

She ran the stick fore and aft, gliding the T-38 through the sky in a porpoise-style swim along the rolling mountain range. Push for a hint of a negative G at the top of the sine wave. Pull for the kiss of a positive G at the bottom of sine wave. Push, pull. Push, pull.

“Uh, Josie?” Shannon’s thready voice echoed over the headset. “Where’s the eject button again?”

Crap. She’d gone too far, something she never did anymore. She steadied the stick. “Just a little PIO – pilot induced oscillation. My fault, and nothing to worry about. I’ve got it back under control.”

Time to get herself under control as well. She needed to tamp down the old impulsive Josie in favor of her more structured self she’d cultivated after her mother’s breakdown. “We’re on the straight and narrow now. As long as you keep your eyes forward, all will be normal.”
Unlike looking to the side where everything blurred with speed.

She hugged the terrain with skill and calm. No one would ever have reason to accuse her of weakness or emotional instability. She knew how hard she would have to fight even a whisper of that label since her mother had been locked away after “the incident.” But with this test project, Josie hoped to clear her mother’s name – and shake free of that dark legacy.

“Doing okay back there?” Josie’s gaze flicked up to the mirror again.

“Just fine,” ever-prideful Shannon replied, brown eyes wide, make up still impeccable.

Pride, Josie could understand. She had her fair share of that. Sad thing was, Shannon really packed a genius brain under all that uptight pettiness. Given the right direction, she could have been an incredible asset to the Athena Academy alumni list – if she’d even made it to the twelfth grade instead of being punted out on an honor violation.

All a moot point since, more importantly, that genius brain could twist things against Josie in a heartbeat if the intellect wasn’t otherwise occupied. And if her navigational calculations were correct, they were seconds away from a guaranteed distraction.

Bingo. Right on target, there it was, a nifty distraction for any brain. “Bet you wouldn’t expect to see that out here.”

“See what?”

“A nudist colony.” She hoped her words didn’t convey the grin she couldn’t stifle.

Silence echoed over the headset, then, “You’re making that up to get me to look over to the side where it’s tougher to keep oriented with the motion. You just want to freak me out again.”

“I’m only playing tour guide.” Oh yeah, completely in control again. “Not that I have anything against nudist colonies, but I can’t help wondering. Why have one in the desert? I mean think about it. Wouldn’t the sunscreen sting in sensitive places? And sitting on a metal lawn chair, a guy would really have to watch his butt and be careful of his, uh, well, hoo-hah hanging out there.”

“And this helps me with my feature how?” Broadcaster neutral tones livened up with an extra touch of bitchiness.

“I’m trying to show you some of the local scenery. But if you don’t think it will work, no problem. Besides, hoo-hah might be too technical a term for your viewers.”

“You’re so not funny.”

This whole damned flight wasn’t funny. And the threat Shannon posed to her career was downright terrifying, but Josie had to find moments of levity where she could.

“You’re right. I totally understand if you don’t want to look. It’s much easier to keep your lunch down if you’re focusing forward.” Now wasn’t there a nifty life lesson there? “Watching out the side is only for folks with steely nerves.”

She’d tossed down a gauntlet and Shannon would undoubtedly accept the challenge. Wait. Wait for it.

“Oh my God.” Shannon’s face went waxy in the mirror. She jerked back around front, gaze fixed on the horizon.

“Been that long since you saw a hoo-hah, huh?”

Shannon’s growl echoed through the headset.

Josie concurred on a number of levels. Sadly, it had likely been even longer for her since she didn’t have time for a man lately, much less his hoo-hah. Not that she would admit that to Shannon.

The woman resented her, always had. Right from their early teenage years at Athena Academy, Shannon had envied Josie’s connections through her grandfather, past CIA director Joseph Lockworth. Poppy had been directly responsible for starting the prestigious all-girls prep school designed to empower women, many of them going on to government security jobs. With only two hundred students from grades seven through twelve, the bonds forged among students were tight and lifelong.

She still sweated bullets over how Shannon’s little stunt had almost cost Josie her dream. Luckily, her best friend Tory Patton had worked her own investigative skills and proved Shannon was responsible for stealing the class’s petty-cash fund and setting up Josie.
Josie’s hands fisted tighter. She should just get over it. Besides, she had the Athena diploma. She could afford to be magnanimous. Adult.

Easing back the stick, Josie skimmed a more scenic route along California’s desert valleys cut by the ridges of the Sierra Nevadas with the Kern River running through. She cranked an east turn away from the river valley, out of the Sierras back over flat land of dry lake beds and creosote bushes, closer to her Palmdale testing facility near Edwards AFB and closer to dropping off Shannon.

Josie continued a tour-guide litany while her passenger stayed silent for once. Thank God.
A road splitting the desert stretched straight and long ahead of her, marred only by the dust kicked up from a motorcycle bearing down toward the test facility. She lined up along the lone band of road, pacing, gaining ground on the rider. And why not? Everything in an aviator’s life was a chance for competition.

Fringe rippled from the arms of the biker’s leather jacket giving off a Mad Max air that fit well with the scattered miners, desert rats in rusted trailers. Wild and untamed, like the old Josie who was no longer allowed free rein. The taboo element entranced her all the more for being forbidden. Even while she rambled her scenic explanations to Shannon, Josie couldn’t look away from a sight and yearning that held her attention beyond any hoo-hah.

Her headset crackled with a cleared throat. Shannon’s interruption yanked Josie’s attention back to the cockpit.

“Too bad you couldn’t get Tory to cover your dog and pony show. No doubt she would have televised anything you wanted. That loyalty among classmates is something else. You two even covered for a pregnant friend once – what happened to Kayla and her kid anyway? Did she ever find a man to marry her?”

Okay, that ripped it. The old Josie still humming just below the surface kicked her adrenaline level up into a freaking aria. “For a smart woman, you sure do say some mighty unwise things at times.”

She could put up with someone smacking at her. But her innate sense of justice which had once earned her the label “Josephine the Tattletale Queen” really balked at letting an injustice go unavenged.

Nobody messed with her friends.

“You know, Shannon, I don’t think I’m lined up just right. We need to go around.” She clicked on the radio. “Palmdale Tower, Bat two-zero on the go.”

Josie popped the jet into afterburners, dumping raw gas into the exhaust stream like a pilot light on a stove igniting, pumping up the speed. Thwump. The plane jolted from the swift kick in the ass. Exhilaration trilled within her like the final high note exploding free to reverberate through an auditorium.

Her eyes flicked to the mirror. Shannon’s face turned cucumber.

“Ah, hell, Shannon–” she couldn’t quite suppress the sarcasm “–I probably should have told you I was going to do that.”

Shannon grappled at the face mask. Her throat worked, then cranked down in a swallow. Impressive move, holding back the volcano of vomit that would have spewed up through the mask.

Enough payback for one day. Point made. The last echoes of justice faded, leaving an emptiness inside her that grew increasingly difficult to ignore.

Josie leveled off at five hundred feet above the runway. “Palmdale Tower, Bat two-zero requesting left closed.”

“Left closed approved. Repeat base.”

“Bat two-zero, left base with gear.”

The control tower responded, “Bat two-zero, clear to land. No traffic.”

Coming in. Landing. One hundred and fifty miles per hour at impact, the tires screeched in protest of the brakes. She kept the nose up to bleed off speed as well until poof, the plane’s nose tilted down and kissed asphalt. The plane taxied down the runway at a sedate pace.

Hand easing back on the throttle, she slowed, pulling off onto the hammerhead toward Shannon’s waiting television cameraman. “Palmdale, Bat two-zero clear the active. Going to ground control.” She switched frequencies. “Palmdale ground, Bat two-zero. Clear the active. Request parking.”

“Bat two-zero, taxi via Alpha,” ground control responded. “Back to spot sixteen. Caution construction. Right hand side of Alpha at Bravo.”

A blue pickup truck slid in front of her with a “follow me” sign in back to lead her onto the tarmac. The sun’s rays baked through the clear canopy, desert temps still notching in November. Her flight suit stuck to her back against the leather seat as she followed the truck past the guy waving wand flashlights toward the parking spot–

And toward a uniformed man, the major, her boss, standing waiting.

Not good. The murky cloud over her day went opaque.

Major Mike Bridges had no doubt made the trip out to the flight line to coincide with her landing for a reason. Since he stood by the hangar housing her two modified test models of the Predator unmanned spy drone, he must be here for her. A problem? If so, she needed scoop-hungry Shannon Conner out of the way before any discussion.

Josie whipped off her helmet and deplaned. Wind tore across the treeless expanse, lifting her short hair, drying the sweat on her body with gritty gusts. Her combat boots smacked steamy asphalt three steps behind Shannon, who was staggering toward the nearest trash can.

Shannon gripped the metal edges and leaned, her borrowed flight suit stretching across her heaving back. Wonder if the cameraman would document that part?

Her boss frowned. Josie cringed, then braced. He’d only assumed command a month ago, so she still wasn’t sure where she stood in regard to his approval and respect. Still, she’d followed orders today – show the reporter around and pull out all the stops. Okay, so she’d worked in a little revenge for her friend along with it. And at a totally sucky time.

She needed to lay low after the fallout from her helicopter diversionary stunt she’d pulled to help one of her Athena grad friends with a mission a few months ago. Another wrong she’d leaped in to avenge and damn the consequences. She’d never quite understood why being right wasn’t always the right thing.

Regardless, her flight and fun were over.

A rumble from behind the hangar interrupted her thoughts seconds before a Harley rolled into view. The same low rider cruiser she’d seen from her plane roared up with the guy wearing black leather.

The motorcycle jerked to a stop by the fence gate. Fringe rippled on the man’s arms rippled. The growling engine shushed.

One boot slammed the cement. A muscled thigh in faded blue jeans and black chaps swung over. The second boot pounded pavement. He tugged off the helmet, shaking free coal dark hair longer than any military regs allowed. The thick mane hit his shoulders.

Definitely not military.

He smacked along his leather-clad thighs, dusting, the action and chaps drawing attention to a hoo-hah package that–

Nope. Not gonna go there even in her mind. Too much talk of hoo-hahs must have her hormones on overload.

Her P.C. call sign might have started out as a Josie and the Pussy Cats reference, but she’d quickly redirected it to Politically Correct. She had rights and wrongs down pat. Checking out a man’s hoo-hah was as disrespectful as an ass-check from him.

Even if this guy didn’t have a problem with women who flew jets and shot the big guns like other men she’d seen outside the workplace, she didn’t have time for a relationship. Hell, she barely had time to do her laundry.

Once she cleared her mother’s name, her life would be different. Then she could shake off the ghosts of her past and not worry so much about the repercussions of letting the occasional emotion slip free.

She turned her attention back to the upchucking reporter, reaching into her thigh pocket for a pack of tissues and a peppermint. Silently she passed Shannon the candy and tissues.

Blond hair straggling forward, Shannon snatched the offerings and started restoring order for a camera appearance. “My feature about you is going to suck, you know.”

“We both know it was going to anyway.” Josie popped a peppermint into her mouth as well and clicked it to the side against her teeth.

Life might not always be right or fair, but people were predictable for the most part. There was something comforting about that, even when it brought negative garbage her way. At least she could see it coming and strategize.

After her mother’s breakdown and discharge from the Air Force, Josie had submerged all impulsiveness, clinging to clear-cut reason and stability. Except for a brief lapse today with shaking up Shannon, she’d stuck to her plan. Emotionalism, injustice, any upset in the cosmos launched jitters in Josie’s tummy that left her HOTAS.

Her wayward eyes skipped right over to the biker making his way toward her commander. What the hell were the two of them plotting? Her instincts screamed ambush ahead.

The Cinderella Mission 

cinderella mission

Dr. Alex Morrow was dead.

Samuel Hatch feared it all the way to his sixty-year-old, ulcer-riddled gut.

The aging operative bolted back breakfast in his office, two antacids with cold coffee. His job as the Director of ARIES came with countless rewards and endless holes in his stomach. Since Hatch had created the top secret section of the CIA, ARIES had become his family, his agents the children he and Rita had never been able to conceive.

Now he suspected he’d lost one.

Restrained tension hummed through him, stringing him as taut as the twine he worked to twist around the wilting plant behind his desk. He aimed the sunlamp with meticulous care, grounding himself in the ritual while he plotted how best to utilize his unlimited resources.

One day’s silence he could accept, especially given the unstable climate in European Holzberg and neighboring Rebelia. But three days and Alex’s tracking device inactive…

Every inch of Hatch’s raw stomach burned after ten years of worrying about his pseudo-offspring. Yet their mission was too important to abandon. ARIES operatives embraced assignments no sane CIA agent would touch.

Their country owed these silent knights countless debts that could never be acknowledged.

Hatch anchored the stake on a struggling strawberry plant he’d grafted from home. He mentally sifted through Alex’s final transmissions like the soil through his fingers as he looked for the proper texture to bear fruit. Heaven help them all if Alex fell into DeBruzkya’s hands. The crazed Rebelian dictator under investigation was a sick bastard.

Heaven help Alex.

His fingers twitched, snapping a limp stem off the plant. He wouldn’t let even one of his operatives, especially this one, go down without unleashing the full arsenal at his disposal. Hatch clutched the crumpled leaves in his fist and turned back to his office.

And what a mighty arsenal it was, compliments of the government’s blank check.

Large flat screen monitors lined one wall, glowing with everything from CNN to satellite uplink status. Computers hummed from his desk as well as along the conference table where laptops perched in front of eight seats. Electronic cryptology boxes littered the workspace for encoding and decoding transmissions.

In the midst of it all, he relied on an old fashioned map of the world with pins marking locations of his operatives. The cover of each agent’s private sector identity offered the freedom to travel anywhere undetected. Already, he’d alerted European operatives to begin searching, but without a narrowed field, there was only so much he could expect.

He needed focus, someone to pull together the minuscule threads of information left behind in a handful of transmissions from Alex. Hatch rubbed the bruised leaves between his fingers like a talisman as he studied the map. Slowly two pins on the board paired in his mind.

The perfect duo for finding answers to the questions left in those last transmissions. Logical Kelly Taylor would balance well with Ethan Williams, a rogue operative who thought so far outside the box he invented his own rules.

And their personal baggage?

They would either have to work through it or ignore it. He didn’t need any fireworks drawing unwarranted – and potentially deadly – attention to this mission.

Hatch reached for one of the seven phones on his desk and punched a three-digit code. One ring later, he carefully placed the mangled leaves on the soil at the base of the struggling strawberry plant. “Taylor, Director Hatch here. I need you to locate Ethan Williams, then meet me in my office with his after-action report from Gastonia.”

Her affirmative barely registered. Hatch studied the sole remaining plant from Rita’s garden that hadn’t been killed by his black thumb. Since Rita’s death, that plant and ARIES were all he had left, and by God, they would bear fruit.

Hatch packed the soil around the base of a new sprout and refrained from reaching for the antacids again. Williams and Taylor would find Alex.

Assuming there wasn’t – as his roiling gut kept telling him – a Judas in their ranks.