Since leaving the CIA under questionable circumstances, Amanda Caldwell has been living a quiet, uneventful life in a sleepy mountain town. But when Rick Cooper, her former partner--and former lover--makes an unexpected reappearance, she senses things are about to get a lot more interesting.
Rick's mission is to protect Amanda and her identity from an assassin who's picked up her trail. It isn't long before working together stirs up all the passion and energy they'd once shared on the job. And in Rick's bed. Still, there's more to Rick's assignment than he can share with his "partner." Revealing the truth wouldn't be smart. But keeping his secret could be deadly.
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Harlequin Enterprises, Limited
March 01, 2012
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Excerpt from Secret Identity by Paula Graves
Her name wasn't really Amanda Caldwell.
She hadn't gone by her real name since she was twenty-two, fresh out of college and looking for adventure. She'd found her adventure in a very covert section of the CIA and had become a different person.
A lot of different persons.
Over the years, she'd learned never to trust a stranger--or a friend. Never sit with her back to the door. Never take the same route home twice in a row.
In a place like Thurlow Gap, Tennessee, population 224, that last rule was hard to live by. Bypassed by the major state highways, the picture-postcard mountain hamlet had never become a tourist trap like other towns bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, much to the chagrin of the town's tiny chamber of commerce.
But the seclusion suited Amanda's needs very well.
Today she'd chosen a scenic route through Bridal Veil Woods behind the town's water tower. It added a few minutes to the normal ten-minute walk from town to her cottage in the foothills, but the sense of control was worth the extra time.
From the woods she emerged onto Dewberry Road two hundred yards north of the small cottage she'd bought two and a half years ago. As she headed up the road, a warbly voice called out her name. "Hey there, Miz Caldwell, did you get the job?"
Amanda turned to smile at the curly-topped little girl wobbling up to her on a bright pink bike. She'd grown up in a small town, but all the years and experiences since then had erased the memory of just how little privacy there could be in a town the size of Thurlow Gap. Everybody knew your business, even six-year-olds with scabby knees and gap-toothed grins.
"Hey there your own self, Lizzie Jean." She fell easily into the Southern accent she'd spent a couple of years losing when she joined the agency. "I did get the job."
Starting Monday, she'd be putting together the fall print ads for Gruver Hardware. It was freelance, like all the rest of the jobs she took these days, but it would pay a few months' worth of bills, sparing her from having to dip into her emergency funds.
Lizzie Hawkins slid off the bike and started walking next to Amanda. "Hey, some fella come lookin' for you earlier. He left a box on your porch. Is it your birthday or somethin'?"
Amanda kept smiling, but inside, her heart rate ratcheted up just a notch. She hadn't ordered anything, and it wasn't likely anyone in town had sent her something when they could have easily dropped it by in person.
These days, she didn't much like mysteries.
"What did the fella look like?" she asked.
"He had on a brown shirt and shorts, and he smelled sweaty." Lizzie wrinkled her nose. "He looked a little like Mr. Fielding, only a lot younger."
John Fielding was a Cherokee of indeterminate age who ran a produce stand on the edge of town. So the man who'd dropped off the package was dark-skinned and dark-haired. Maybe American Indian. Maybe...not.
Amanda's muscles tensed. Just a little. "What about his voice--anything strange about it?"
Lizzie's forehead wrinkled. "No, ma'am."
So no accent, foreign or otherwise. Maybe a local hired to deliver the package. "Did you see what he was driving?"
"A big brown truck."
Could be legit, she thought, letting herself relax a little more. Maybe someone in town had ordered her a book or something as a thank-you for a freelance design job well done.
"Thank you, Lizzie, for lettin' me know. Now you run along home, okay? I'll see you later." Amanda stayed still, watching the little girl ride away. When Lizzie was at a safe distance, Amanda turned up the gravel drive to her house. Towering pines in the front sheltered the house from the road, but as she reached the cobblestone walk to her front porch, she caught sight of the box lying on the welcome mat in front of her door.
She took the steps to the porch with care, watching for any sign of a booby trap. Not that she really thought there would be. Not after all this time.
But old habits die hard.
Official-looking labels plastered the front of the package, printed with her name and address. It was about the size of a shoe box, maybe a bit wider, with the logo of an online bookstore on the sides.
Amanda considered her options. Opening the box out here was out of the question. On the off chance it was a bomb, she'd want to limit the blast radius by putting an extra layer of protection--like walls and floors--in the way. While moving the box might be enough to set a bomb off, such a hair-trigger detonator would have made delivering the bomb dangerous. And if the detonator were remotely controlled, it probably would have gone off the minute she stepped up on the wood porch.
One thing was certain: calling the cops was out. Besides Thurlow Gap being miles from any town boasting a decent bomb squad, calling the cops because a deliveryman left a package on her porch would look nuts. She didn't need the scrutiny.
She took a deep breath and picked up the box. It was remarkably light, ruling out books. Probably ruled out a shrapnel bomb, as well, unless the shrapnel was made of something lighter than metal. Taking a quick look behind her to be sure nobody was lurking among the trees, she unlocked her front door and entered. She set the box on the hall table and locked the pair of dead bolts behind her.
The basement was the best place to open the box, she decided. It was mostly underground, with cinder-block walls that would force any explosion up rather than out toward surrounding homes.
She detoured to her bedroom and pulled a battered foot-locker from her closet. Inside were some of the trappings from her former life, including body armor and a flak helmet. She strapped on the gear, grimacing at the added weight.
The sight of her reflection in the dresser mirror gave her pause. She stared at the wide-eyed woman, girded like a gladiator, and gave a soft bark of laughter. Once a paranoid secret agent, always one.
But she didn't take off the body armor.
Downstairs, she set the box on the floor beneath a steel worktable that had been left in the house by its former owners. She grabbed a box cutter from her jumble of a tool chest and crouched by the package, slicing a square in the side of the box and pulling out the cardboard plug.
She sat back on her heels, staring at the wad of cushioned plastic wrap poking through the hole she'd just cut. A self-conscious chuckle escaped her lips.
She sliced a bigger hole and pulled the cushioned wrap through the opening. It unfolded as it came out, revealing a small box of matches.
She set it aside and shined a flashlight through the hole in the box, checking the interior. It was just a plain box. No wires, no detonator, no C4 strapped to the cardboard anywhere.
Puzzled, she picked up the matchbox and gave it a light shake. Whatever rattled inside didn't sound like matches. She opened it slowly, waiting for something to burst free from the box, but nothing jumped out at her.
It took a second for her to realize what lay inside the box. As it registered, the box fell from her suddenly numb fingers, spilling its contents on the floor.
Artificial fingernails, painted bloodred.
Amanda flexed her hands, phantom pain skittering along the nerve endings at the tips of her fingers. She pushed back the unwanted memory and picked up the now-empty matchbox, examining it. A ten-digit number was scrawled in black ink across the inside of the box. 2565550153.
Ten digits could be a phone number, she thought. A north Alabama area code. Did she even know anyone in Alabama?
She pushed to her feet and carried the matchbox upstairs, her mind racing through all the possibilities. The fake nails she understood--whoever had sent her the box had known her in her former life, known what happened in Kaziristan. It was a calling card.
The number, though--what did the number mean?
She stopped in her room to shed the body armor and helmet, shoving them back into their closet hiding place. Dropping on the side of her bed, she contemplated the phone on her bedside table. If the number on the matchbox was a phone number, should she call it? What if it was someone trying to confirm who she really was?
She flipped the matchbox over to the blue-and-white imprint on the front. She had the same brand in her kitchen right now. Anyone could have sent it.
Something small and black in one corner caught her eye. It looked like little more than a tiny smudge, as if the ink on the box label had spattered during printing. But Amanda had seen something like it before.
She took the box to the kitchen and found a magnifying glass in the utility drawer. Under the magnifying lens, the smudge became a couple of tiny letters: A. Q.
Part of her wanted to pack up and leave Thurlow Gap before sunset. But the same part knew there was nowhere she could go that Quinn couldn't find her. The master spy who'd trained her in covert ops had come by the nickname "Warlock" honestly.
She might as well dial the bloody number. He already knew where she was.
Knoxville, Tennessee, basked under an unseasonably warm late-March sun, humidity making Rick Cooper's shirt stick to his back beneath his suit jacket. He would take the jacket off but he was armed--legally, of course; over the years, he'd learned to strictly adhere to any law that didn't absolutely have to be broken. Still, no need to draw unwanted attention by sitting in an open-air bistro wearing a Walther P99 in a shoulder holster.
He checked his watch. He'd been waiting for almost an hour, but so far no one had approached his table besides the flop-haired teenage boy who kept refreshing his water glass and asking if he was ready for a menu yet. Derrick Lambert, the prospective client who'd emailed him with directions to the meeting, was apparently a no-show.
As he reached for his wallet to pay the waiter for his time, his cell phone rang. He checked the display--the call was from an unfamiliar number with a local area code. Was it his prospective client, explaining his late arrival?
He answered. "Hello?"
He heard a faint inhalation, then silence.
"Hello?" he repeated, loudly enough to draw a look from patrons at the next table.
The phone clicked dead. Rick took out his frustration on the off button and jammed his phone in his suit pocket.
"It wasn't a wrong number." The smooth voice behind Rick sent adrenaline jolting through him. He turned and gazed up into the hard hazel eyes of Alexander Quinn.
"Derrick Lambert, I presume?" Rick turned his back on the CIA spook, anger flooding his chest.
Quinn took a seat across from Rick and waved off the approaching waiter. "Sorry I'm late."
"No, you're not."
Quinn inclined his head. "Was the number blocked?"
"Good. Now, remember this. Sigurd." Quinn rose and started walking away.
Rick tossed a ten on the table and followed, falling into step as they neared the traffic light at the corner. "That's it? I wait an hour in the sun for 'Sigurd'?"
Quinn stopped and turned so quickly that Rick almost knocked into him. "Just follow the number, Cooper." The CIA agent walked away, cool and unhurried in the warm sunshine.
Bitterness rose in Rick's throat as he reversed course, striding toward the Dodge Charger parked at the curb near the bistro. Screw the phone number. Alexander Quinn had mucked up his life enough already.
He unlocked the door and slid into the hot interior of the car. The jacket went to the passenger seat, followed by his tie. Starting the car, he cranked the air up a notch, struck, not for the first time, by how good people in this country had it. Clean water. Beautiful homes. Big, shiny cars with air conditioning. He'd been in places where those luxuries would have been as out of reach as a trip to the moon.
The Charger's engine growled to life under him as he pulled out into the moderate midday traffic on Summer Street. Stopping at a red light, he pulled out his phone and punched in his brother's direct line. Jesse Cooper answered on the first ring.
"Meeting was a bust," Rick said. "I'm headed back. I'll be in the office first thing in the morning."
"Guy was a no-show?"
"He showed. But it's nothing we want to handle."
"Are you sure?" Jesse asked.
Rick's mouth tightened. "You said my experience would be an asset to Cooper Security. Do you trust it or not?"
"I trust it. You know I do. I've got to go. Isabel's back with a prospective client." Jesse hung up.