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CIA HEADQUARTERS, LANGLEY, VIRGINIA
Being called into the chief's office was something Malene Cox looked forward to. A special missive commanding her attendance in a solo meeting with the notorious Emmett Nelson, head of National Clandestine Services, the spying arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, meant a plum assignment. Something filled with intrigue, and she hoped, lots of shopping.
As head of NCS's cover life department, Malene lived for these moments. She smelled a sweet professional challenge. It was just too bad she never got to talk, and maybe brag just a bit, about her top secret work for NCS with anyone outside of the Agency.
Her friends and family believed she was wasting her considerable artistic design talents on a boring, though adequately paid, facilities position with the CIA. Working for the pension and the government benefits. Yes, working for the CIA did have a certain cachet attached to it. But when you weren't a spy, only a drone who bought office furniture, as her former mother-in-law liked to call her? Well, that killed any mystique, status, and prestige that might have been attached to working for her secretive employer. Malene always had an underlying sense that she should be offended that no one considered her spy material. She could be just as sneaky and secretive as the next person.
Besides, if she were a spy, would she really tell anyone? But no one seemed to think of that, and for some reason, it rankled her.
Of course, if she did tell anyone what she actually did for the Agency—designing and coordinating cover wardrobes, furnishing and setting up cover homes, setting up social media and creating convincing documentation for NCS's agents—no one would ever believe her. Hers was a job that didn't exist, not to the general public. Didn't anyone wonder about the cover part of being undercover? What did people think—that these things just sprang into being fully formed? That the spies took care of these details themselves?
Now that was laughable. The spies she knew, and she knew all the Agency spies, including her ex-husband, Tate, couldn't be bothered with tasks as menial and mundane as setting up their own cover lives. Which left it to Malene to coordinate with senior field agents, handlers, and the top brass at NCS to get their secret agents comfortably settled into any new cover that was demanded.
It was challenging and creative work that required a deep knowledge of personalities and personality traits, psychology, history, and a myriad of cultures. Malene had trained at Central Saint Martins College in London, where she'd dabbled in fashion design, interior design, and psychology, and had eventually graduated, married Tate, and joined the CIA. Ironically, though he'd never had much appreciation for the work she did for the Agency, Tate had been the one to bring her to Emmett's attention. He was, in essence, her recruiter.
Malene had talent. She had the eye, an eye few people had. Her coworkers told her she should have worked in movies. She'd make an excellent wardrobe designer, set director, or location finder. But Malene loved what she did. She reveled in keeping secrets and being responsible, in some small way, for protecting and defending her country.
She was definitely not a thrill-seeker, had never wanted to be at the wrong end of a gun or an antiballistic missile. Now, a little covert shopping, that was another thing. She loved the secretive element of her job—the fear that she could be found out as she set up a life. The joy of imagining lives that could be and bringing them into being without anyone suspecting. Of shopping at everything from exclusive shops to tag sales. Her job was simply, and absolutely, perfect.
The chief's door stood open. Malene knocked lightly on the door frame.
Emmett Nelson looked up from his laptop and smiled at her. "Ah, Malene, there you are. Come in."
It was amazing there was any room on his desk to set his computer. Emmett's office was renowned in the Agency for being cluttered with the eclectic—tiny figurines, airplane models, McDonald's toys, miniature gadgets, puzzles and mind-benders, abstract art, energy-drink cans, bottles in odd shapes, and just about anything else a person could imagine. Probably including a few deadly weapons disguised as toys, compliments of the research and development department.
Emmett called his eccentricity and habit of collecting interesting odds and ends from across the globe and displaying them in his office the sign of a creative mind. The clutter inspired him.
The disorder offended Malene's sense of design, but she understood Emmett's love of it. Her fabric samples, paint chips, and magazine clippings inspired her in much the same way.
"You wanted to see me, Chief?" She slipped into the room and closed the door.
It went without saying that you closed the door when having a meeting with Emmett. Everything in this building was top secret, even what the chief had for lunch. The entire building was shielded and protected by scrambling equipment and signal-blocking machinery. Every type of cloaking device imaginable protected the clandestine missions being planned inside the building and the intel that protected the country. Emmett's office was triple shielded. Topping the airline industry, the Agency believed in triple redundancy. Double redundancy was not enough.
There was a saying among spies, "Trust no one." And that was never truer than inside agency headquarters. You never knew who might have turned, or was a plant, or a mole, or a double agent. The paranoia could drive a normal person crazy. It certainly did its best to make Malene berserk. She would have appreciated a little trust, even just a smidgen.
"Have a seat." Emmett gestured toward the impressive deep-brown leather guest chair.
Emmett had some of the best furnishings in the Agency. He had to. He never knew when the director, a five-star general, or the president would stop by. Malene had picked out most of them herself. The Agency couldn't trust an outside design firm with the details or layout of Emmett's office. Loose lips and all. And people willing to take payoffs.
Emmett wore an immaculately tailored suit that fit his sleek, athletic frame as if it had been made for him. And it had been. She'd designed and ordered it herself. It was darn good work.
Today Emmett looked every inch the government professional, a politician, the boss—handsome and stately. Which was her intended effect when she'd designed the suit. Emmett could appear any way he chose. He was also one of the world's finest masters of disguise.
Malene tried to digest what it meant that he was looking bosslike this morning. Did that bode ill, or not?
Not, she decided. If he looked too friendly, it meant he was up to something. Always be suspicious if the boss offered you a drink as soon as you walked in. If he appeared too sympathetic, it meant he had bad news to relate. Bosslike couldn't possibly mean anything other than he had an exciting assignment for her, something to be taken seriously. She was Emmett's go-to cover-life girl. Maybe it even meant a raise. She'd been doing some fine work this past year. She was due one soon.
She sat and relaxed into the plush, buttery leather of the wingback chair.
"A high-priority job's come up," Emmett said without preamble. "I need my best personnel on it."
Malene clasped her hands in her lap and smiled back at him. "I'm your woman." She certainly was. She wasn't vain, but she wasn't falsely modest, either. She worked hard and excelled at what she did—she was quite simply the best.
Emmett gave her a half-smile and cleared his throat. "I appreciate your enthusiasm and loyalty, but let me give you a piece of advice—never agree to a deal until you've heard the details, large and small."
"Read the fine print, right. Got it." She felt duly chastised, but it didn't kill her enthusiasm. She'd accept no matter what.
"I need absolute subjectivity and impartiality for this job," he said, peering at her piercingly. "You've always been a consummate professional. I've never had any complaints there. But I know better than anyone there's a limit to a person's ability to remain impartial where emotions are involved. Personally, I have my doubts about whether you'll be able to separate your personal from your professional life during this project." He sighed and shrugged. "But I'm up against it.
"I'll understand your objections completely, and allow you to withdraw your agreement. No black marks on your record." His eyes twinkled with tease.
Malene was smart enough to know there'd be no way to decline, but she listened politely as a sick feeling settled in her stomach. Personal from private? That didn't sound good. Not at all.
"I'd like you to think it over and give my proposal a fair shot. As head of the department, it falls under your jurisdiction. You'll ultimately be in charge, but you'd have a little distance. But I'd like, I need, your personal hand in this. If you think you can handle it." He ran his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair as if he was struggling with his decision.
But Malene knew the boss too well to be fooled. He'd just issued a challenge—one he was certain he'd win.
She was on extreme alert now. What was the chief hinting at? Tate was about the only thing that would sour her on an assignment. Oh, damn.
"With Kendra out on maternity leave, I know you're swamped. Her absence is partly why I'm asking you to attend to this matter yourself."
Emmett was usually direct. Malene grew distinctly anxious, and that sick feeling turned into a roiling knot, as he hedged. The mention of Kendra also made her sit up straighter. Since Malene had divorced Tate over his mission-related infidelity, Kendra handled all his cover-life needs. Not that there were many—Tate never went undercover as anything other than himself—Tate Cox, software guru, son of deceased Senator Burrell Cox and wealthy socialite Lenora Andrews Cox, and international playboy.
Heaven knows there was a time or two when Malene had been itching to get her hands on one of his assignments. For one, Tate got some of the most interesting missions in the Agency. And two, well, she wasn't usually a vindictive woman, not where anyone but Tate was concerned. But she wouldn't have minded a little bit of good fun and innocent revenge for the emotional travails he'd put her through during their marriage. These days they were cordial, polite, distant, with an underlying sense of seething when their paths crossed. What would it hurt to mix things up a bit?
She knew all the little ways to make him squirm and she wasn't above using them. Emmett, however, had been sharp enough never to give her the opportunity. Until now? This must be important stuff.
"This must be Tate's mission." Though her heart raced, she tried to remain calm, and sound almost bored. "He doesn't usually present much of a challenge for my artists."
Emmett laughed. "Ah, but this time he's taken on a rather unique, and extremely dangerous, situation."
"That's so like Tate." So she'd been right to be leery.
Emmett picked up a wooden puzzle cube and rolled it in his palm. "Careful what you say. Objectivity, remember? This could be a career-maker for you. A mission so delicate, there will be a rare amount of active fieldwork involved."
Fieldwork? Now he really had her attention. As long as she wouldn't be looking down the barrel of anything stronger than a beer …
"I need someone nimble and adaptable. Someone who thinks on the fly. Someone with connections all over Britain and Europe. Someone whose presence won't arouse suspicion."
Malene took a deep breath. "What has Tate done now?"
Emmett raised a brow at her skeptical question.
Malene was Kendra's supervisor. She knew a great deal more than most people about the trouble Tate could get into.
"An enemy agent has apparently fallen in love with him. So she claims."
"What!" She recovered from her shock quickly and shook her head and laughed. "Poor thing."
She could handle this. She hoped. Where Tate was concerned, she still had a decent amount of unreasonable, unfathomable jealousy. "Well, it's not the first time. He can turn on the charm when he wants to."
She didn't really feel much sympathy for this poor, vulnerable, "loses her heart too easily" foreign agent who'd fallen for Tate's act. "I'm guessing Nicole isn't too thrilled about this news."
Tate had been dating Nicole Arceneau, a French actress, for the past six months. Malene had heard rumors Tate was thinking of marrying her, mostly from their five-year-old daughter, Kayla, who guilelessly spilled her daddy's secrets. He'd never mentioned it when he'd picked Kayla up for one of his custodial visits. But then, he and Malene never talked much. It was more of a "grab the kid and dash" situation.
Malene didn't relish sharing Kayla with Nicole. If she had her way, Tate would remain single until Kayla was grown. She didn't need an evil stepmother interfering with her parenting. It was bad enough she had Tate to contend with.
"Didn't you hear?" Emmett said a little too casually. "Nicole broke it off. Rather suddenly. She's taken up with a French director and eloped." Emmett grinned. "Guess she chose career over pleasure."
Malene was stunned. Why hadn't she heard? She was supposed to be in the intelligence business.
For the past week, Tate had been in town between assignments. He'd had Kayla with him several days and she hadn't spilled a word about his breakup. Usually her five-year-old would blab news like that to her the minute Tate dropped her off. She wondered what he'd bribed her with and why the media hadn't picked up the story.
"Actresses can be fickle. Tate must be heartbroken." Served him right. Then she felt herself grinning. One bad stepmother avoided.
Emmett shook his head. "He bounces back quickly."
That was true, too. But she had the feeling Emmett was teasing her, either that or trying to get an obtuse point across. "When did this big breakup happen?"
"A month ago, while he was still in Monte Carlo. We've had a hell of a time keeping it under wraps."
That explained things. Malene frowned. Sneaky bastard. She really was out of things. She made a mental note to get some new internal informants and either teach Kayla how to pry better or outbribe Tate for the intel her daughter was keeping from her.
"And now he's taken up with this foreign agent on the rebound? As much as he loves women, that doesn't sound like Tate. He'd never purposely date the opposition unless it's his mission."
She hadn't heard about this new love affair, either. Or mission, if that's what it was—a way to infiltrate the enemy camp and get human intelligence, humint? As she knew all too well, Tate wasn't above prostituting himself for a mission. But she still should have heard about it.
She hated to ask the next question. "And by enemy agent, I assume you mean RIOT?"
The Revolutionary International Organization of Terrorists was NCS's main adversary. A group of terrorists bent on creating worldwide anarchy and ultimately installing their leader, Archibald Random, as grand poobah and supreme leader of the world. Random had a genius IQ and some days seemed unstoppable. His terrorist network included organizations from street gangs to the Mafia and Al Queda. Each group acted in their own interests, but ultimately he controlled them. He also had his own team of spies and personnel who worked directly for him.
Tate, and therefore Malene, always wondered whether these groups knew they were expendable to Random. Random was a terroristic genius, strategically minded in a frightening and accomplished way.
Emmett nodded. "Yes, RIOT, of course. And it will be his mission."
She sighed heavily. "I'm confused. You'd better give me the mission details. And not to contradict your authority, Chief, but are you sure sending Tate out to date the enemy is a good idea? He falls in love so easily." She couldn't keep the bitterness out of her voice. "The last thing I need is to share custody of Kayla with Tate and his evil RIOT mistress."
Nicole was starting to look pretty good in comparison. Damn that French director.
Emmett gave her a crooked smile. "That's why I need you for this job. Tate has to seduce this young woman and convince her to come to our side—without losing his heart in the process. I need you along riding roughshod to make sure the mission goes as planned.
"You're extremely valuable to the Agency and know too much about too many Agency operations. If the terrorists got hold of you…" He shrugged. "It's dangerous to send a senior official like you into the field. Under normal circumstances, I'd avoid it."
Oh, boy, Malene thought. She didn't like the sound of this at all. "Let me get this straight—you want me to stop Tate from falling in love with a RIOT agent who's in love with him? What makes you think I have any influence over him?"
Emmett shrugged again. "I'm not sure you do, but you have something more powerful—a vested interest in the outcome. And that's the best I can shoot for right now. You're my best hope."
She pursed her mouth to one side and made a look of doubt. "Hope you're not betting on this one, Chief. The odds are long."
Emmett laughed. "But the payout will be tremendous. I'd bet on a mamma bear protecting her cub any day."
Malene couldn't help smiling back. He had a point. "Okay, give me the details—how has this woman fallen in love with him? When did they meet? What's the plan?"
"That's the crazy thing—they haven't met."
Emmett nodded. "She worked as a clerk in RIOT's records department while completing her Ph.D. in mathematics and fell in love with his picture, the surveillance videos of him, and his dossier when she came across it."
Malene was taken aback and let her surprise show. She didn't know what was worse—a girl mooning over Tate, or the fact that RIOT had a dossier on him and Emmett seemed unconcerned. Maybe the dossier shouldn't have surprised her. Tate had dealt RIOT some heavy blows over the years; of course they'd be watching him. A man as handsome and outgoing as Tate wasn't easily overlooked, she grudgingly admitted to herself.
"Really? She fell in love with his picture, like a groupie, or a stalker fan? Spies have them?" It gave her the creeps thinking of some girl kissing Tate's picture good night.
Emmett nodded. "Something like that, though I'm guessing it was more like looking at points of compatibility on an online dating site. Sophia is a sharp girl. Has a high IQ. She's sized up Tate's dossier and seems to think he can save her. Or, at least, he's her best chance."
"That's not love. That's a schoolgirl crush. Tate's good enough looking, but, really? How old is she?"
Too young, Malene thought, with a tinge of jealousy even though she hadn't a clue as to what this girl looked like. She could be a two-bagger for all Malene knew. But Malene was thirty-three, the same age as Tate. And irrationally, she didn't like the competition of youth.
"Well, her youth and inexperience certainly show, falling in love with a picture and a dossier persona." She shook her head. "What does she want?"
"She wants to defect from RIOT, escape and start a new life."
Malene fought to keep her jaw from dropping. "Is she completely crazy? No one escapes from RIOT. They'll send their death squad after her. SMASH has a one hundred percent kill rate. She understands that?"
This was going from bad to worse. She really didn't need Tate falling in love with someone who had SMASH on her tail.
Emmett nodded. "She's a mathematician. She knows all too well the odds she'll survive in the long run are incredibly stacked against her. But she's also desperate. Sophia's not a RIOT agent. Not a spy. She's a civilian who works for them. And she had no choice in that.
"Her parents got involved with RIOT when she was two. They were true believers in RIOT's cause and involved her in their activities from the beginning. Indoctrinated her. She grew up not knowing any other kind of life or belief system existed. From the time she was a toddler she was in too deep to escape.
"She grew up, went to college, got a doctorate in mathematics at the tender age of twenty-two, and was moved from the records department by Random to join RIOT's elite encryption team.
"But the more she saw of the operations, the more her conscience struck her. She realized she was on the wrong side, the side of evil. She couldn't leave as long as her father was still alive. She has no siblings and her mother died when she was ten. Her dad just passed away two months ago, freeing her to risk escaping from RIOT's Soviet-like grip.
"She came across Tate's files during the course of her work in college. Saw how many times he was suspected of thwarting RIOT's plans, and knew that if anyone could help her, Tate was the guy. She developed a sort of hero worship. She's been in love with Tate for some time."
Malene shook her head, resisting doing a lot of tut-tutting. "She missed a key point of compatibility—she must not have noticed Tate's an only child, too. There's a combo rife with the potential for disaster and head-butting. One of the absolute worst birth order combos. Never marry an only child."
Malene let out a breath, wishing she hadn't made that mistake, she with her training in psychology. And further wishing her daughter wasn't an only. She planned to find the right man and rectify that, make a sibling for Kayla. "The little darlings think they're the center of the world, always want to take charge, and haven't a clue about how to deal with the opposite sex. Not in the long run. I can only imagine the horror of two of them trying to get along."
"Her full name is Sophia Ramsgate. Her mother was Swedish. Her dad a good old American mutt, an expat who preferred Sweden and England to the good old U.S. of A. Sophia grew up in Sweden and Great Britain." Emmett grinned and turned his laptop around for Malene to see.
A stunning twenty-four-year-old beauty with deep blue eyes, lush blond hair, and a figure to die for, smiled out at her. A femme fatale of just the type to catch Tate's eye.
Malene involuntarily gasped. Was it just her imagination, or did Sophia look like a younger, prettier, more glamorous version of herself?
"She's certainly … Tate's type," she said slowly, frowning. It seemed a little too opportune to Malene that a sexy woman practically designed to catch Tate's eye suddenly wanted his help escaping from RIOT. She latched on to her professional control and spoke dryly. "RIOT does realize that Tate and I ended badly?"
Emmett cocked a brow and laughed. "You see the resemblance, too."
Malene was glad she wasn't the only one. "It's hard not to. If only I'd been that gorgeous." She shook her head.
She wasn't begging for a compliment and the chief didn't give her one.
"Don't let her looks now fool you—like I said, she's smart. In the last six months she's sexed herself up and made her looks over to attract Tate." Emmett hit a button on his laptop and brought up a photo of a slightly younger Sophia—plain, but with good bone structure, no makeup, bad haircut, unstylish, baggy clothes, unflattering glasses, and a few pounds overweight. Certainly not the svelte, toned creature from the first picture of her he'd shown Malene. "This is her a year ago. She's been following his career for years. She knows what kind of women Tate likes. Why wouldn't she give herself the best chance of success?"
Mal frowned at the before shot of Sophia. "Has she remade herself? Or has RIOT done it for her? That's an exceptionally professional makeover. In my expert opinion, too professional." She looked at the chief. "I smell a setup. You don't think this is all just a little too convenient, that Sophia is simply too tempting a treat for Tate to resist? What are the odds?"
She stared at her boss. The Agency wouldn't risk helping a young woman escape from RIOT out of the goodness of their hearts.
His grin deepened. "I appreciate your concern. We all feel the potential for a setup. But what would RIOT gain? We've checked her out thoroughly and her story holds water."
"In exchange for exfiltrating her successfully and providing her with a new identity and protection, she has promised to share her inner knowledge of how RIOT's encryption squad works. Their encryption techniques, their encryption philosophy, the works. With the intel she could give us, we could put a serious dent in RIOT's operations."
Malene understood the temptation for such valuable intel. But she didn't like the risk to her family. "And if she double-crosses us and feeds us false intel?"
"How? Our encryption experts will obviously check out anything she gives us before we act on it. She can't go back to RIOT. If we cut her loose, she's a dead woman."
What the chief said made sense, but Malene was still wary. "When and how do you plan to exfiltrate her?"
"RIOT is sending her to the Cheltenham Festival of Science as a guest speaker. The science festival is a big summer tourist event, half entertainment, half serious science. It's the perfect spot to make an escape. Lots of people in town and ways to blend into a crowd and assume a new identity."
Malene's heart skipped a beat. She knew all about Cheltenham. Tate had taken her on vacation there when they were dating.
"As you know, Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, is in Cheltenham. What else is RIOT up to? Are they trying to infiltrate Britain's top code-cracking institution?" Emmett said.
"Sophia initiated contact by approaching one of our agents in London and outlining her plan and demands. Ironically, at the Tower of London. Nice place to meet spooks, one of the most haunted places in England."
Yeah, Malene knew all about meeting spooks at the Tower. That's where she'd met Tate.
The chief winked. "She won't defect for anyone other than Tate. She has it all figured out—she wants Tate to meet her at the festival and spirit her away."
Malene frowned. She felt a lot of things about Tate, most of them distinctly not nice, but she didn't want her daughter to be fatherless at five years old. Tate had made a solemn promise he'd be around to pay for Kayla's college and walk her down the aisle, and Malene meant to hold him to it. "And Tate rushed to take this assignment, despite the risks and potential for walking straight into a trap?"
Emmett's look said everything. "You know Tate. He loves a challenge."
"And beautiful women." She shook her head. "Does the man have a death wish?" Sometimes she suspected he did—it was called a thrill-seeker gene and not a day went by when she didn't worry that he'd passed it on to Kayla. She was already showing signs …
"Tate thinks the payoff's worth the risk. You can see why I need my best team on this assignment," Emmett said. "Meaning you, with your vested interest in making sure Tate comes home alive with his heart intact."
"And the fact that I look like Sophia." Malene knew how the chief's mind worked. "I can go along with Tate with my authentic paperwork and simply switch identities with her, allowing her to escape on my passport with Tate while I disappear."
The chief just smiled. "What do you say?"
"How are you going to sell this "take your ex-wife on assignment" to Tate? I'm not an agent and he doesn't need much cover-life help."
Emmett's eyes danced with malicious delight. "That's where you're mistaken—the girl is nervous about Tate's being recognized and being put under tight surveillance. She stipulated that he must spirit her away undercover."
Malene's heart raced with real professional excitement now. This was getting more and more interesting by the minute. Tate undercover? That was simply delicious.
"You sure know how to twist a girl's arm." Malene bit her lip and smiled to herself as one evil thought after another occurred to her. "Can I make him gay?"
That might keep him out of Sophia's bed and prevent him from falling in love with this girl. She really didn't like the vision of Kayla walking down the aisle as a flower girl in Tate's wedding to a RIOT mathematical genius. Or the thought of seeing the beautiful babies Tate and Sophia would make.
Emmett laughed. "I already said Tate's job is to seduce her. Hard to do if he's gay. Sophia's expecting a charmer, even if he is undercover."
Malene shrugged. It had been worth a try. "But you will let me torture him a little?"
"No torturing. I can't afford to have him distracted in the slightest."
"He's going to be distracted no matter what we do. You're absolutely no fun sometimes, Chief." Against orders, or not, she was going to dress Tate in the itchiest wool sweater she could find. Wool irritated Tate's skin. Other than in a suit, he never wore it.
Tate had a lot of itches she planned to interfere with, including an insatiable sexual appetite. For now, wool would have to suffice as her weapon of choice.
"You'll take the assignment?" Emmett said. "You'll have to be away from Kayla on location in Great Britain until we have Sophia safely hidden away."
"Do I have a choice?" She smiled back at Emmett's smug smile. He knew he'd won. The thought of fieldwork and creating a cover life for Tate was simply too enticing. And messing with Tate and saving him from himself? The thrill of that went without saying.
"I'll do it. Mom will take Kayla. She loves having her." She bit her lip and shook her head. "The things a mother does for child and country."
Emmett laughed. "I need you to get on it immediately."
Malene nodded. "Sure thing, Chief. What do you have in mind? What's my cover story?"
The chief arched a brow. "Don't you mean Tate's?"
"No, mine. I've never had one before. Mine's going to be a lot more fun."
Copyright © 2014 by Gina Robinson