Strike the match. Light the fuse. Watch Olivia burn.
CIA operative Olivia Santos lives on a razor's edge. As a NOC—an agent with non-official cover—she's well aware of the risks: if her cover's blown, there's no diplomatic immunity, and a life sentence in a foreign prison is the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is too gruesome to mention. But she never imagined her cover would be compromised from the inside. She has no choice but to go on the run—as luck has it—with her musclebound driving instructor.
Once upon a time, Trent Mann thrived on danger. Now the former Navy SEAL's haunted by a costly mistake in his past. He focuses on his work for Potomac Private Services to hold his nightmares at bay. But when he's saddled with a vapid trophy wife as a defensive driving student, it doesn't take long for the fiery blonde with the enormous eyes to land them both in deep trouble.
Soon Trent and Olivia are on the run from the government, foreign agents, her husband, and an endless list of shadowy enemies. As the danger reaches a boiling point, Olivia and Trent will have to ignore the fire crackling between them to focus on staying alive.
Release date: January 15, 2021
Publisher: Brown Street Books
Print pages: 174
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Melissa F. Miller
Northeast Rehabilitation Partners
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
Monday 9:40 AM
Olivia Santos strode across the parking garage toward her borrowed car, checking her pulse out of habit. Her resting heart rate was 57 beats per minute, almost always. Right now, walking at a moderate to brisk pace, it was an unusually high 114 beats per minute. She chalked up the increase to worry rather than exertion. Grandma Julie’s care team was full of cheery positivity about her progress and prognosis. But the drawn, tired woman in the bed was a far cry from the fierce, fiery grandmother she knew.
She scanned the garage floor to confirm that nobody crouched in the shadows waiting to ambush her and to cement the layout and placement of exit stairwells in her mind. As she fished the keys to her Aunt Hailey’s station wagon out of her pocket, she noted that her behavior was borderline paranoid. Full daylight, secure parking structure, safe neighborhood.
Despite the lack of imminent danger, the heightened alert made her feel better, like she was doing something. While she couldn’t speed her grandmother’s recovery, she could take precautions to protect herself. Control freak. She heard Mateo’s cutting tone in her mind. Her husband may not be kind about it, but he wasn’t wrong.
The elevator in the northwest corner of the garage shuddered to a stop and the doors opened. She swept her eyes over the man and dismissed him as a threat: tall, dressed in expensive business attire, soft. She continued toward the car.
It hurt to see Grandma Julie weak and dependent on other people. And she could read it in her grandmother’s eyes—the situation pained her, too. She wished she could stay longer. But there was no way. As it was, she’d been lucky to get away from Mateo and her work for three days. Her throat tightened, and she choked out a small cough as she unlocked the car door.
She whirled toward the voice, feet planted in a fighting stance, wishing she had something more deadly than a set of keys in her hand.
She breathed slowly, deeply. She knew how to do plenty of damage with keys. Or a shoelace. Even a straw. The quick inventory of everyday objects that she could kill with centered her better than any Zen mantra.
Her expression must’ve signaled her bloodlust. The man who was approaching from the elevator was blinking rapidly, both hands up in the air. As he drew closer, she studied the sculpted blonde hair, the wide brown eyes, the plaid cashmere scarf, and the ID card dangling from a lanyard around his neck.
She exhaled and rolled her neck. “Sneaking up on me is an excellent way to get yourself killed, Braden.”
“I’m … um … sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you—”
“You didn’t. Believe me, you’d know it if you had.”
“Right. Anyway, how’s your grandmother doing? Hip replacement, right?”
She lowered her chin and pierced him with a look. “I don’t think Senator Anglin sent her senior aide out on an errand to ask after my grandmother’s health in person. What do you want?”
He swallowed audibly and shuffled his highly polished shoes against the cement. Between his shifting gaze and his juddering leg, he looked suspicious as hell. Great. She hadn’t requested a meeting and had zero desire to engage in tradecraft in the shadow of the Capitol Building—especially not with Braden Whatever His Name Was.
“I … uh …” he stammered.
Play it cool. He certainly can’t.
It wouldn’t do for anyone walking to their car to notice them. Her eyes flicked away from Braden toward the elevator. He didn’t appear to have a tail, at least not one who wasn’t smart enough to take the stairs. But the fact that he’d tracked her down was unsettling enough.
She smoothed her frown away and gave him a small smile in its place. “My grandmother’s progressing nicely. Please tell the senator I appreciate her concern.” Her tone signaled dismissal.
“Um, there’s something else. The senator wants you to be aware of an issue.”
“What sort of issue?”
“The information you provided about the Nuevo León cell phone tower bid was bad.”
She arched one eyebrow. “That’s not possible.”
She left aside the issue of how Senator Anglin might’ve come into possession of her intelligence report. She wasn’t naïve enough to think leaks didn’t happen.
“The contract didn’t go to Móvil Medios.”
She bit her lower lip. “What?”
“It went to QL.”
QL. Qīng Líng, mainland China’s largest cell phone manufacturer, was widely regarded as an agent of the Chinese government. Their inexpensive phones were ubiquitous and—in theory—provided an easy way for the Chinese government to gain access to millions of private citizens’ emails, texts, and social media posts. Despite QL’s insistence that it was a private corporation, evidence of its spying was piling up.
The United States had banned the company’s hardware and technology. But that hadn’t stopped QL from making inroads in the Latin American markets. Their equipment spread throughout South America and Central America and had finally made its way as far north as Mexico. The U.S. government was pressuring Mexico to keep QL out of North America entirely.
But business was business, QL was offering to upgrade the country’s cellular infrastructure as part of its presence, and Mexico was still smarting over the hard-line stance against border crossings. Mexico basically told the U. S to get stuffed. The diplomats in Mexico City had scrambled to work out an agreement to at least keep QL’s towers in the southern portions of the country.
She shook her head. “QL wasn’t invited to bid on projects within a hundred and twenty-five kilometers of the U.S. border.”
“I know that’s what your source told you, but either your source was misinformed or something changed. QL is the winning bidder. The senator saw the documents with her own eyes.”
Olivia wondered exactly how a United States senator, even one sitting on the telecommunications subcommittee, would get her hands on a Mexican government contract with a Chinese company, but she figured she didn’t want to know.
“My source is good.”
She wasn’t about to tell him that she was the source. She’d seen the geographical restriction set out by the Minister of Telecommunications for Mexico with her own eyes.
The aide cleared his throat. “The senator thought you needed to know. She said you should be extremely careful, given your … situation.”
She swallowed a laugh. As if she could forget her situation. She was a NOC. A CIA operative with non-official cover who had no formal ties to the government. If she was picked up for spying in Mexico City, she’d be on her own. There was no diplomatic immunity for a NOC. It was the first thought she had every morning when she woke up, and the last one she had before she went to sleep.
“Tell the senator I appreciate the heads up. I’ll get to the bottom of this.”
She reached for the car door and gripped the handle.
“One more thing. The senator wants you to take an evasive driving course.”
She pursed her lips. “I’m trained.”
“Call it a refresher.”
“Is there a specific, credible threat against me?”
He blanched. “I, uh, don’t know.”
“I need to know.” She turned and pinned her eyes on his.
He glanced away and raised one shoulder in a half-shrug. “I truly don’t know. But I do know there’s been a rash of high-value Americans being carjacked or kidnapped in their vehicles. Given that you’re believed to be the pampered wife of a multinational executive, you make an appealing target.”
His eyes swept over her. She read his thoughts. Her value as a target wasn’t limited to her net worth or her husband’s social status. She was a fit, healthy, blue-eyed blonde. If the right human trafficker could get her hooked on the right drug and ship her off to the right remote location, she’d fetch a high price.
She swallowed. “Understood. I’ll make an appointment at The Farm for a refresher the next time I’m in the States. “
He shook his head. “You have an appointment. Today.”
“I can’t do that. Mateo’s sent a plane to bring me home. I’m headed to the airfield now.”
“The senator has pulled strings to get you in with Potomac Private Services later today. Tell your husband your grandmother’s taken a turn for the worse and you want to stay an extra day.”
She winced at the truth behind the lie but nodded her agreement. If there was a specific danger waiting for her in Mexico City, it was only smart to brush up.
“Why a contractor, though? I can go to Langley, handle this in-house.”
“The senator thinks it’s better this way.”
What in the hell is going on?
It was pointless to press a political aide on the details. At best, he’d lie.
He started to walk away.
She called after him. “Hey, cut through Stanton Park and walk back to the Senate Office Building.”
He turned to blink at her. “Why?”
“If you swipe your Metropass at Armory Station, you’ll create an electronic trail.”
Judging by the worry that clouded his face, he hadn’t walked to the garage. She sighed. He raced to the elevator and banged on the call button as if he couldn’t get away from her fast enough.
She waited until the elevator car arrived and Braden stepped inside. As the doors closed, she pulled out her phone to call Mateo. She didn’t bother to hope that she’d get voicemail. She always got his voicemail these days. It was almost as if he didn’t want to talk to her. She listened to his voice instruct her to leave a message, first in Mandarin, then in Spanish, and finally in English.
“Mateo, it’s me. I have to stay in Washington an extra day. I hope you can revise the flight plans and your pilot isn’t inconvenienced, but my grandmother ….” She allowed her voice to break before continuing. “… She’s not doing well. Call me so I know you got this message. I love you,” she ended automatically and dropped the phone back into her pocket.
Potomac Private Services Training Facility
Unmapped location on the border of Virginia and West Virginia
10:30 AM Monday
Trent Mann heard the Jeep kicking up gravel in the lot behind him but didn’t turn his attention away from the target. He locked in on the figure, narrowing his focus and vision until the entire world tunneled down to the torso on the paper. He inhaled. Then, as he exhaled, he squeezed off four quick rounds to empty his weapon before engaging the safety and turning to look over his shoulder.
His boss, Jake West, grabbed the roll bar and launched himself out of the Jeep. He strolled up the hill and came to stand by Trent’s shoulder. “Let’s see how you did.”
Trent smirked and walked up to the target to retrieve it. Jake followed.
“I see you haven’t lost any accuracy.”
Trent kept his eyes on the target. Jake was right. He hadn’t. He’d aimed for the heart, and all four shots had hit their target. The third hole overlapped exactly with the first. There was a time the sight would have been a rush, a shot of dopamine straight through his veins. Now, nothing.
“Seriously, man. That’s impressive.”
Trent shrugged and jammed the gun into his shoulder holster, ignoring the press of hot metal against his thin t-shirt. He rolled his neck. “I’m assuming you didn’t drive up here to be impressed by my marksmanship. What’s up?”
“Wanted to let you know you’ve got a student later this morning.”
“No, my schedule’s clear.”
“It was a last-minute addition.”
“We don’t do last-minute additions.”
“It’s a favor for Senator Anglin.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t know we did favors for senators either.”
“One of her aides called this morning. Asked us to please make an exception and squeeze in an evasive driving course for a woman called Olivia Santos.”
He grimaced. “Constituent?”
“No. Her mother was one of the senator’s sorority sisters at Trinity. Santos lives in Mexico City.”
Jake nodded. “Especially for a high-value target.”
“Why is she high value?”
“She’s married to the vice president of Latin American markets for some telecommunications company. He’s a Mexican national working for a Chinese conglomerate. They’ve got more money than Midas.”
Trent thought for a minute. “So, they’re concerned she’s vulnerable?”
“What kind of concerns are we talking about? A credible threat or just a nervous rich lady?”
“I don’t know. Does it matter? Like you said, you don’t have any students today. Put her through the paces. Basic evasive driving. How to tell if you’re being followed, how to shake a tail, nothing earth-shaking. It’ll be a couple hours, and if you’re lucky, she’ll be easy on the eyes.”
Trent pulled a face. “If I’m lucky, she’ll be easy on my ears. Some of these CEOs’ wives can be—”
“I was going to say bitchy, but I guess that’s why you make the big bucks.”
Jake snickered. “Just play nice with her, Trent. We need to stay on the senator’s good side. She sits on two subcommittees. One is Intelligence.”
“Say no more, brother.”
Jake clapped him on the back and jogged back to his Jeep. Trent watched him go, thinking not for the first time that he was very glad not to have Jake’s job.
How could a former PJ with Air Force Special Warfare spend his days scratching the backs of politicians, schmoozing with CEOs, and dealing with the mountains of paperwork that piled up in his office? Jake claimed that pararescue regularly interfaced with other agencies on rescue missions—even civilians. So he’d learned to be diplomatic on the job.
Better Jake than him. He was a simple SEAL Team 6 guy. Your basic Black Squadron sniper/recon/intel/surveillance operator. Or he was. Now he didn’t know what he was. A driving instructor, apparently. And damned lucky that Jake and Potomac gave guys like him a soft place to land. But was that it—for good?
He knew he wasn’t ready for much more. Not yet. He was still reeling from Carla.
Her name echoing in his mind sent a searing jolt of pain through his temple. He clutched his head and squeezed his eyes shut against the barrage of images that always flashed in his mind when he thought of her.
Abuja, Nigeria. July. In the heart of the rainy season. Torrential rains. A tip about a plot by Boko Harem to bomb the embassy.
Carla slipping out to meet with a source at a bush bar. She shouldn’t have gone without him. They were a two-person operative team. But the source, a cleric, insisted she come alone. She was highly trained. A strong, seasoned operative. A better close quarters fighter than he was. He couldn’t fault her decision. He’d have done the same.
But she didn’t return.
Then the package arrived. Carla’s severed hands in a box. He’d find the rest of her in a remote cave, weeks later, after combing the impenetrable forest around Aso Rock.
The images swam and blurred. His chest seized, and he gulped for air. He crouched on the uneven ground until the sensation of drowning passed and his breathing regulated. He swiped a shaky hand across his sweat-slicked brow, then dragged it through his short hair.
Screw this. He didn’t have time for this, not now. Right now, he needed to clean his weapon and his body. In that order. Showing up for Olivia Santos’ lesson with the acrid stink of burnt propellant clinging to him—tempting though it was—probably didn’t fit Jake’s definition of playing nice.
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