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eBook by Melinda Skye
eBook Category: Romance/Mystery/Crime
eBook Description: In the fast-paced world of espionage, two partners must fight their way through a web of lies, misdirections, and red herrings in order to fight back against the terrorist plot that threatens the world. Vivienne Holbrooke has been at the spy game for quite a while, but her new partner insists on treating her like a novice. But when terrorists threaten the country she's sworn to protect, they're going to have to learn to work together. Alex Masterson had had it up to here with female agents. He didn't want a partner, he didn't need a partner, but he was stuck working this case with a little rich girl who wanted to play at being a spy. But when things get a little more complicated than they expect, he might find more than just backup in his partner. Working together, the two partners tackle terrorists and false trails, eventually leading to a showdown that puts their country in danger ... and their hearts on the line. Can they save the world and fall in love?
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC, Published: 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: July 2011
* * * *
Charity had an unusual fondness for orange hair dye, blood red fake fingernails, and chewing gum. Vivienne Holbrooke, self-proclaimed super-spy or, more accurately, agent for a government agency so covert it didn't have a name, enjoyed none of these things. What currently drove Viv nuts was the fact that she was Charity.
But it was Charity's eccentricities, right down to calling all her regulars "hon," that made her the perfect waitress at the Stop*In Diner. Situated along the dusty nowhereness of Route 66 in Oklahoma, the Stop*In was the most popular restaurant in the area, based solely on its being the only one there.
Sighing to herself, Viv looked around the almost completely empty diner. The interior was classic fifties style, but only because it hadn't been remodeled since it opened. Round, red plastic-covered stools lined the counter and oldies music played on the jukebox, but everything had faded. The dust got in everywhere in Oklahoma, including the Stop*In.
It was getting to Viv, too. Schooling her features into the blank stare that Charity did so well, Viv mentally screamed in frustration. It wasn't the diner, Viv knew that. The diner only represented the endless weeks of inactivity that had the normally active Viv clawing at the walls of her invented persona, Charity.
She had no one to blame but herself. It wasn't like she'd been punished with this assignment. Instead, she'd chosen to take this operation instead of one in Libya, hoping to finish the work she'd been doing for months now. Having made the decision to stay with it, she'd picked the diner and lovingly chosen the frizzy orange wig that now slowly ate away at her once-limitless patience.
Hoping that it wasn't a sudden appearance of adult-onset snootiness caused by her upbringing that made her feel this resentful of the small hick town, Viv wiped down the counters, again. She didn't think so. Sure, this was a million miles away from where she'd come from, but Viv had the feeling that anyone in their right mind would go crazy here. Before she could sneak a look at her coworker, Eddie, to mentally prove her point, a blast of hot air from the doorway signaled the entrance of a customer.
Viv mentally withdrew and let Charity do what she did best. "Merle!" Charity yelled from across the diner, "It's been weeks!"
"It's been a long trip this time, Charity, but you know I always plan on stoppin' at the Stop*In," said the grizzled old man with a twinkle in his eye.
While Charity blathered on to her hapless victim, Viv wondered at the man in front of her. Up until she met Merle, Viv had always assumed that the cheerful old men whose eyes supposedly twinkled were the figment of writers' imaginations. But then she'd been confronted with his twinkling blue eyes and had had to revise her beliefs. Truck drivers, at least on Route 66, tended to be a surly sort, but there were the exceptions. Viv had found that few of these exceptions stopped at the Stop*In.
Except, of course, for Merle, which was handy, since he was the whole reason why she was here.
Viv played off her excitement at finally seeing her quarry again as Charity's inane happiness at having a customer to talk to, but relief flooded her system. There might finally be an end to this torture. She could kill off Charity and head back to the real world.
Trying not to think that it might be a bad sign that she kept referring to the character she played as a separate person, Viv/Charity asked, "What can I getcha, hon?"
There was only one other customer in the place, so she didn't feel too bad about focusing on Merle for a while. After all, he was the highlight (and target) of her job. Popping her gum against her teeth, she waited while he considered the menu. "I'll just have some of that good lookin' apple pie."
"I shouldn't have to ask. You always have the apple pie," she drawled.
"Cain't help it. It's the best along this dusty road," he replied.
She headed for the counter, taking the clear glass lid off the display that housed the freshly made apple pie. Grabbing the coffee pot as she turned back around, she slid the plate across the table to him and poured the coffee with a deft hand.
A tired looking young man in the back booth got up, replaced his tattered baseball cap, tossed a couple dollars on the table, and headed out the front door.
"Good thing you tip better than he does, hon, or else I wouldn't like you as much." She tapped her blood-red acrylic nails on the table. "That boy comes in here every day, regular as you please, and only leaves me a dollar tip every time. He doesn't even pass the time of day with me."
"A purty girl like you? For shame."
Viv tried to work up a blush that would fit with Charity's character, but didn't quite manage it. "Go on, now. Anything thing else you need?"
"This should do me fine."
Charity blew a bubble and then winked at him, "Back in a minute then, hon. I've got to get some air."
Heading through the swinging doors into the kitchen, she aimed an amused glance at the cook, Eddie, who looked as out of place here as she felt. He hummed show tunes while he cooked up the greasy meals she served. Not wanting to waste her time, she headed out through the propped open back door to the area behind the diner, where the drivers parked their big rigs.
Out back, next to one of the semis, stood the young man in the baseball cap that had left the diner a few minutes earlier. Nodding at him as she walked past, she moved around to the back of the rig she knew to be Merle's and glanced around. No one else was in sight.
From her apron pocket Viv pulled out a sophisticated lock pick set and got to work on the padlock that held the rear doors shut.
Hearing a noise, she froze, and turned to see the young man come into view. "Whatcha doin', Charity?"
"Funny, Weiss, you're hilarious. You're supposed to be keeping watch."
"You know there's no one out here but the fairy cook and the old man. There's no one in this godforsaken place."
"The longer you're here, the less PC you get. Could I have gotten a bigger pig for a partner? And could you go keep watch?"
As she spoke she opened the lock with the ease of practice that came from opening the same lock each time the truck came through the area. That done, she put away her tools and opened the back doors with as little noise as possible. She slipped inside, trusting Weiss to do his job. They may not get along, but he was pretty good at what he did. He wouldn't work for The Agency otherwise. Plus his blending-in skills were unbeatable. In his late thirties, he still managed to look as though he'd get carded at the local honky-tonk bar where Charity hung out in the evenings.
Vivienne put both Weiss and Charity out of her mind and glanced around the mostly empty rig. "Good," she thought, "fewer things to search than usual." Heading towards the pile of boxes up front, she checked her watch, not wanting to be gone conspicuously long.
A few minutes later, Viv emerged from the back of the truck and locked up the back doors. At Weiss' raised eyebrows, she nodded, then headed back towards the diner, ignoring his quiet whoop of satisfaction.
Over her shoulder she called back to him, "Hey Weiss. We need to call Belmont and get things settled. Why don't you do that while I finish up here?"
"You got it. See you later."
Viv slipped the package she'd "acquired" from Merle's truck into her apron pocket next to the lock picks and headed back into the kitchen.
Walking past Eddie, who hummed a song from My Fair Lady, she pushed her way through the swinging doors into the main diner. Strolling over to Merle's table, she slid into the booth across from him.
Merle grinned at her as he licked the last remnants of apple pie crumbs from his fork. "Mighty fine pie, but I've got to be going. Places to go, you know."
"I'll see you next time, hon."
Charity got up and started wiping down the counters with a rag from the pocket of her apron. Merle left his money on the table and headed out the front door, back to his big rig, back to his life on the highway.
Viv grinned. Done, and not soon enough. Her life as Charity was almost at an end.
* * * *
Later that afternoon, Charity sighed and wiped her hair out of her face with the back of her wrist. When it got quiet in the diner the only thing to do, besides singing duets with Eddie or exchanging fashion tips, was the dishes. Standing in front of the sink was one of her least favorite places to be. The soap did weird things to her acrylic nails, and she had to drive over an hour to the nearest big city to get them done. "Oh man," she thought to herself, "I've been here too long. I actually care about my nails?"
Just then, the bell attached to the front door tinkled. "Thank God," she thought, "a customer." Wiping her soapy hands on the apron that covered her uniform, she headed through the swinging doors into the diner. She grabbed a menu and a roll of silverware and headed for the table where she had seen him sit out of the corner of her eye. Depositing the stuff on the table in front of him, she smiled slightly to herself. The man sitting in front of her sure didn't look like one of her regulars. The large older man, dressed impeccably in a Brooks Brothers suit that must have been hell in the weather outside, looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"A little lost, hon?" she smiled at him. "You were supposed to take a left at Albuquerque."
He looked a little surprised. "So that's where I went wrong." He grinned. "Nah, I heard that the Stop*In diner was the only place to be these days."
Glancing around at the otherwise empty diner, she had to stop herself from snorting. "I think you got the wrong one there, hon."
"I bet this place has got some sort of special appeal," he said.
"You bet your ass it does: we've got the finest apple pie this side of the Mississippi."
"Well then, serve me up a piece of that pie. And I bet you could find me a little something to go on the side, couldn't you?"
"I reckon I can rustle up something for you." Charity grinned and walked back to the counter, swaying her hips and shaking her orange hair. It was good for her to get some new visitors once in a while.
She dished the gentleman up a big slice of pie and gave him a scoop of ice cream on the side, with a special topping: a microchip, fresh from Merle's truck. Heading back, she grinned. This would be the best piece of pie he had ever enjoyed.
"This'll do me fine," the man said, with a smile at the extra she had added. "But do you think you can make it to go? How much do I owe you?"
"Just a sec there, hon. Leaving so soon?"
"Yeah, I'm in a bit of a hurry. Can I take you with me, though?"
"I think that might be okay." Viv grinned at him.
She grabbed him a box and while he maneuvered the pie into the Styrofoam container, she turned, headed back for the swinging doors, poked her head through and motioned to Eddie.
"Eddie, I really appreciate everything you've done for me, but it's time for me to move on. Call me if you ever make it to Broadway."
Charity winked at Eddie for the last time and walked out the swinging doors.
Weiss stood up, looking far more like a Wall Street mogul than the tattered young man who'd been eating at the diner every day since the op had started, looked her up and down, shook his head at her appearance one more time and said, "Ready?"
"You have no idea how ready I am. I take it Belmont sent the jet for us?"
He nodded and opened the door for her.
"I wish I had my baby. But the jet will do nicely to get me out of this hellhole." Her accent faded more and more, the closer she got to the door.
"Princess, if you had brought that Ferrari down here, you would have spent the whole time moping about getting it dusty."
Charity grinned. At this point, nothing could ruin her good mood. "Let's go! I can't stand another second here!" She grabbed his hand and charged on ahead, yanking him after her. They headed out into the heat, letting the front door bell tinkle as the door closed behind them. Weiss tucked the microchip in his pocket, not even minding that the case that held it was slightly sticky from the ice cream.
Eddie, who had come out to wave goodbye to Charity, watched them walk around back and soon saw a sleek, black Lincoln Town Car pull out onto Route 66 and drive off with a dust cloud swirling behind it. Through the window, he thought he saw Charity pull off her orange hair and let a tumble of blonde curls cascade down her back, but he couldn't be sure, as they disappeared in the distance.
"And she did such a good job of matching her makeup to the orange hair," he murmured to himself as he walked back inside.
* * * *
A flaming red Ferrari screeched up to an unremarkable building. Parking in the tow-away zone, Viv climbed out of the car. She didn't worry about it; no tow trucks would ever come around here. Coming straight from the airport was less than ideal, since night had fallen during the flight back, but time was of the essence. She needed to get the microchip into Technical; she could change her clothes later. As soon as she entered the building, she had to stop at the security checkpoint. Viv smiled at the security guard as he waved her through. Having few rules in her life made it easier, but the rules she did have, she stuck to religiously. One, always smile at police officers and security guards. Two, always flirt with the pizza boy and the baristas. Thinking about it caused a growl of hunger in her stomach. Pizza was definitely in order tonight.
Winding her way through the endless corridors, she stared straight ahead, ignoring the cameras that followed her every move. She couldn't see them, but knew there were there.
Her first stop was at the Technical Lab to drop off the microchip she'd personally escorted home from Oklahoma. One of the technicians took it from her with barely a backwards glance. Knowing she'd made their day with the technology she'd just handed over, she headed back out to the hallway.
Finally entering a large room, after several more security checkpoints, she looked around at the desks and busyness that surrounded her. A few industrious souls looked up as she passed by, registered her, and then went on with their work. Viv spent little time actually in the office; she was a much better field agent, so she knew only a few of the faces she passed.
Heading down the side of the room, she aimed her path towards the glass walled office at the end of the row. Knocking, she barely paused before opening the door. "Hi honey, I'm home!" She grinned at the man behind the desk.
Franklin Belmont grimaced. "There goes the neighborhood."
"No one around here has any respect for me. If y'all aren't nice to me, I'll quit."
Belmont snorted. "Y'all? I think you spent a little too much time in the south, honey child."
"That was my point." She grinned and then flopped down into a seat in front of his battered wooden desk. "Shouldn't Weiss be in on this debrief? He worked the op with me in Oklahoma."
"We pulled him to work on another case. He took off again as soon as you left the plane."
Viv nodded. She knew how stretched their resources were right now.
"Okay, spill it, Holbrooke."
"Awww, Belmont, I didn't know you cared."
"Seriously, Viv." Belmont rolled his eyes as she grinned at him from across the table. She would give him the information he needed, but she liked to drive him nuts with the waiting.
"Right." She sat up and began in a business-like tone. "You sent me to the middle of nowhere, to retrieve a missing microchip that the thief was having shipped across country. Now, why was it being driven? I mean, I would understand flying it, I would even understand Fed-Exing it, but driving?"
"It seems he was trying to sneak it past our guys. He knew the FBI had been watching pretty closely and figured shipping it via big rig was the least obvious method of transport."
"He didn't think we were aware of his uncle, but figured we could check every FedEx package in the States? I will never understand the criminal genius."
"Genius. Ha." Belmont snorted. "Some genius. He managed to screw up so bad we got the chip back."
"Good point. But we still haven't gotten him."
He winced. It was a sore point with everyone that their thief, Marcus, was still on the loose. "So, are you gonna tell me or not?"
"You know, the one thing I would like to make perfectly clear in this debriefing is that this assignment was cruel and unusual punishment. If I ever see another piece of Bubbalicious again, I'll die." She looked astonished when Belmont broke into laughter. "No, really. I'm serious. I can't believe I survived for that long."
"You poor little thing."
"I'm hardly little."
"I've noticed, Bigfoot."
"Hey!" She smiled. Even if Belmont was her superior, she got along well with him.
"Franklin, I've been thinking..."
"No one calls me Franklin. Not even you."
"See, that's what I've been thinking about. It would be so much more exciting if we all had code names...you know, I could be something like...Eden or, I don't know, Vixen. And you, of course, we should call by some letter, like M in James Bond."
He snorted again. Viv knew that she could pretend to be a ditz and to not care about her job, but she was as loyal as they came. After all, she certainly didn't need to be there. The classic poor little rich girl, Vivienne Holbrooke had a trust fund large enough to significantly relieve the national debt. Her parents were socialites, and Viv remained amazed that she'd managed to break free and do her own thing. Fortunately, The Agency kept her grounded.
"Vixen? You're hardly that. Charity was a much more accurate name for you. You might play a pretty good vamp when we need you to, but you're hardly a femme fatale in real life."
"Jerk. Just for that I'm not gonna tell you how I got the chip back."
"Just kidding. If you don't talk, I'll just have one of our 'experts' force it out of you."
"I can see the headlines now: 'Rich Girl Held Captive and Tortured by Secret Agent Boss.'" This time she snorted. "Right. Like that's gonna happen."
Belmont rubbed his hands together and, with a gleam in his eye, said, "I can see I'm going to enjoy torturing you a lot."
Grinning, she stuck her tongue out at him.
"How mature, princess."
"That's Princess Vixen to you, buddy." Then, straightening up in her seat, she began. "Okay, here's how it went down. You told me we had intel the chip was going to be shipped, but we had no idea by whom. We knew Marcus was going to have it driven across country. Our first background check showed no connection to anything related with trucking. If this had been a mob-job, it would have been a lot easier to figure out which trucking company he was going to use."
Viv stopped to take a breath, then continued. "So I headed out to Diablo, the club where Marcus hung out until we got smart to it. I ran into the guy who used to be his right hand man. Apparently he's flying solo these days. Between his resentment and my sexy little red dress, I managed to find out that Marcus has an uncle on his father's side who's a trucker. So I grabbed Weiss and decided to meet this uncle of our very favorite thief.
"Anyways, I did some checking, found out which route the guy drove and put him under surveillance. Once I knew his routine, I headed down to Oklahoma."
"Well, I've always wanted to go there. You know, the musical." Viv laughed to herself. Apparently Eddie had rubbed off on her after all. She started to warble "O-K-L-A-H..."
Belmont cut her off quickly. She wasn't surprised. She may be one of his best-trained agents, but even she knew that she just could not sing.
"You were saying?"
"Oh, right. Well, I've driven Route 66. If you start in Chicago, you're pretty desperate for company by the time you hit Oklahoma. Every trip this guy took, he always stopped at the same diner. So I got myself an awful orange wig, a really bad manicure, and a job at his favorite diner, a fabulous place called the Stop*In. Then I started to make friends."
"You always were the friendly type."
She yawned. "Sorry, D, I'm a little tired."
"Yeah, I said I was going to call you by a letter. M and Q and R are already taken. You need to watch more James Bond movies."
He chuckled. "Get on with the story."
Belmont seemed like such a tough guy, but Viv knew he was a softie inside. You just had to see him with his three little grandkids to know that. He spoiled them rotten, much to his daughter's chagrin. In fact, the rumor was that he'd given up field work to have a family and black ops had lost one of its best agents.
"Okay, so making friends in Oklahoma is pretty easy. The truckers get lonely enough that a waitress can make friends just by smiling at them. I talked to them when they would stop in. Oops. No pun intended."
"Well, I worked at the Stop*In diner. It was funny."
"You're a brute. At any rate, on his next run, the uncle came in, as usual. He turned out to be a super nice guy. Hardly the kind of guy we usually refer to as a 'quarry.'" Viv laughed. "We became friends, and he made it a point to stop to see me and eat apple pie every time he drove his route. We talked a lot about family. He felt bad for me, you see, being an 'orphan,'" at this Viv made quote marks in the air, "and all, so I was free to ask him a lot of questions about his own family. I found out that he had this great nephew, so I wanted to hear all about him. There's not much marriageable material in Oklahoma, you see."
He grinned. "It all becomes clear now."
"I charmed it out of him, what can I say? So every time he stopped in, I asked for news of the nephew and eventually learned he was going to be shipping something with his dear old uncle Merle on his next trip. The next time Merle stopped by, I shot the breeze with him, got him some apple pie, then broke into his truck while he ate, like I did every time, but this time I found the chip. Easy as...well, I'd say pie, but I'm a little tired of apple pie."
"Well, Tech called to say you dropped off the chip that you brought back on your way here, so I guess we can consider this op wrapped up. We'll return the chip to the NSA once we've gleaned any information that might help us out."
"So what's up for me now, chief?"
"Your assignment, whether or not you choose to accept it, is to head home and crash. You deserve a rest after this. We're short on resources, but you can have a week off before you come back in."
Viv paused. She'd rather head back out on assignment. She knew how busy everyone here at The Agency was and wanted to help out. Plus, it wasn't like she had anything or anyone here in Boston, really.
"You're sure?" She asked, with a note of desperation in her voice.
"Viv, I know you like to stay busy, but you've been working this operation for almost six months, not to mention the last two months in some backwater town waiting for something to happen. You're off the clock, as of now."
"But I really haven't done anything the last two months, I mean, I'm perfectly rested and in great shape. I could easily head back out right away."
Belmont frowned at her. "See the office, Holbrooke? I'm the boss. Get out of here."
Knowing an argument was useless when he'd made up his mind, she stood and headed out the door.
* * * *
Viv curled up on her sage green couch, pulled the afghan over her, and settled back with the first book of her vacation. She'd stopped by the bookstore on her way home and stocked up on happily-ever-after romance novels.
Before she opened the novel, however, she realized she had one last thing to do. Sighing, she picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number. Soon it was answered by a distracted sounding female voice.
"Hello? No, Cynthia, the irises go in the library. I want only orchids out here in the hall... Hello?"
"Vivienne, darling! I'm so glad you called. It's been a while since we've seen you. Have you been busy?"
Viv sighed. It was just like her mother not to notice that she hadn't been in the state for the last two months. "Yeah, just doing what I usually do. But I just called to see how you and Father are."
"Oh, marvelous, darling. Your father and I have been playing a lot of golf lately, and of course there is this benefit that I've been planning... I did tell you about the benefit, didn't I?"
"No, haven't heard a word. What's it for?" Her mother was always either giving or attending some charity function. Viv had stopped listening to her ramble about them years ago. Viv rolled her eyes at her part-time cat, Oberon. When she was out of the country, he lived with her neighbor.
Tuning back in, Viv heard her mother winding up her usual speech about helping others. Viv had managed to miss what charity they were supporting this time, but figured it didn't really matter. "So, darling, are you going to be here this Friday?"
"Yeah, I'll be around."
"It's yes, not yeah. You're not common. And darling, I meant at the party. You simply must come. There will be oodles of available men. I'm sure we can find you someone to keep you from being bored. I'm thrilled you're coming. Don't forget, it's black tie. I'll see you at seven on Friday, dear."
As her mother hung up the phone, Viv could hear her giving directions to Cynthia about the placement of the flowers. Typical, she thought. I didn't even get to say whether or not I was going to come. She just assumes the world follows her directives. And, true enough, the world didn't usually deny MaryBeth Holbrooke anything. She was, simply, a force of nature. Either you did what she wanted or you were bulldozed for standing in the way.
However, like most dictators, she had a loyal cadre of followers who loved her despite her demands or perhaps feared her too much to deny her anything. She could boss around world leaders, and routinely did, and they would still love her for it. Even Cynthia, the highly overworked house manager, was unabashedly devoted to her mistress, though Vivienne could never understand why. She certainly didn't get along with MaryBeth and hadn't since she'd left the Beacon Hill society that her mother considered so important.
"Well, it's not like I'm going to have other plans," Viv smiled at Oberon. "I guess after five days of seclusion here at home I'll need a dose of reality."
She sighed. Now she'd have to go shopping. Her mother would be sure to let Viv know how appalled she was if Viv showed up to yet another function in one of the few evening gowns she already owned. On the other hand, Viv got a kick out of doing exactly what MaryBeth didn't want. Maybe she didn't have to go shopping after all. That put a smile on her face, even if she knew that she was a little too old to take such joy in rebelling against her mother's wishes.
Giving Oberon a last pat, she turned to her book with a contented sigh. She might love the undercover work, but since she wasn't allowed back in the office, nothing beat reading a romance novel with a cat curled up on her lap. There'd be a chance to save the world some other day.