Who knew that digging for the truth could turn deadly so fast . . .
Ex-Special Forces operator Brian Ackerman lives for the danger his job at Iniquus provides. At least he did—until she walked into their briefing room. The woman who stole his heart and disappeared is now his new assignment. Protecting her will be easy. Convincing her she never should've left him in the first place will be much trickier . . .
Sophia Abadi never wanted to leave Brian. She had no choice. Anyone who gets too close to her is in grave danger, and she wasn't about to risk his safety. But now, she needs his help safeguarding Syrian conflict relics from the terrorists who kidnapped and murdered her colleagues. She can only hope she doesn’t get him killed in the process.
But they'll soon realize not everything is as straightforward as it seems—and Brian will be forced to discover just how far he's willing to go for a second chance at happily ever after with Sophia.
Contains mature themes.
Release date: December 2, 2017
Publisher: Fiona Quinn
Print pages: 304
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A remaining sliver of consciousness reminded Sophia that this was a nightmare. She was asleep in her bed in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., waiting for her alarm to release her from the despair of her dream.
That dim glow of awareness whispered to her that it was a sweat-drenched sheet wrapped around her legs and not an astronaut’s uniform. Her bunched muscles cramped from tension, not oxygen deprivation. And that ringing sound was her phone, not the satellite she chased in her battle to save herself and her two young sons.
On the next ring, Sophia Abadi snaked her hand out from under the covers and pulled the receiver to her ear. She still hadn’t settled fully back into her body. Part of her floated in a nebula waiting for the call to be over and the dream to continue. “Yes?” she whispered on an exhale. One eye peeked open to take in the early morning, pearl-gray sky.
“Oh good, you’re up!” It was astonishing how chipper her neighbor Penny’s voice could sound at—Sophia squinted at her bedside clock—six a.m. Sophia had another fifteen minutes before her day was officially supposed to begin.
Sophia cleared her throat and came up on one elbow. “Is everything okay?” She was exhausted from her efforts to catch the satellite and discover the secret to survival. A lasting web of anxiety tangled around her throat, making her choke on her words. She turned her head away from the receiver to cough.
“Oh sure, everything’s fine. Just fine.” Penny sounded like she was on her second, maybe third cup of coffee, though the conviviality seemed forced.
Sophia pulled herself around to plant her feet on the ground, steeling herself for whatever Penny had called about at the crack of dawn.
“I simply wanted to make sure that I caught you before you went outside this morning.”
Adrenaline snapped Sophia fully awake. She launched herself toward her window, yanked back the drapes, and peered out over the front lawn, scanning for something amiss. “What did you do?” she breathed out in a barely audible whisper.
“Mmm,” Penny hummed as Sophia jogged down the stairs. “Me and the girls were playing a little Texas Hold’em and having some margaritas last night.”
Sophia threw open the door. Standing in the gentle warmth of a late May morning, nothing seemed wrong.
“We didn’t invite you because you’re not a stay-at-home mom, and we knew you’d have to work today. School’s off for us. Teacher planning day.” Penny was stalling.
“What did you do?” Sophia asked again, knowing that the women in her neighborhood had the maturity level of unsupervised middle-schoolers with the key to their parents’ liquor cabinet—a deficit that was egged on by their ringleader Marla, who had a definite screw loose.
“We played a little prank on you.” Penny’s voice wavered.
Sophia knew Penny was chewing on a hangnail the way she always did when she said something she wasn’t comfortable with. The line was silent as Sophia jogged over the porch, down the brick stairs, and out to her driveway. “Oh, Penny…” Sophia looked down at the outline of a human—like one detectives would chalk around a dead body. This one was spray-painted white. In one hand, a nosegay of pink flowers from her garden wilted; in the other, there was a picture of a hotdog. There was a real bottle of ketchup. The contents had been squirted where the outlined body would have had a heart. “What did you do?” Sophia asked a third time, not quite getting her brain to wrap around what she was seeing.
“Not me. We. We were drinking.” Penny’s laugh seemed artificially bright. “Having a little fun.”
“Is that why the police were in the neighborhood last night? I saw them over at the Sheppard’s house.” The strobe of red-and-blue lights had flashed on her bedroom wall around one that morning. It happened with obnoxious regularity. “Did you ring the Sheppard’s doorbell again?”
“Well, Marla did. The Sheppards, of course, called the cops. Party poopers. The husband was the one talking to the officer. We were hiding in the bushes at Kay’s house, watching the whole thing. Will was beside himself. It was hysterical. I mean, what did he think the officer would do? It’s not like we broke a law. There’s no law against ringing someone’s doorbell.” Her voice lilted with a decidedly southern accent.
The front door to her neighbor’s house across the way pushed open. Will Sheppard peered about before he moved toward his car, his briefcase swinging with each stride, looking every inch like a middle-management drone. He fumbled his door open then caught sight of her.
Sophia suddenly realized she had run from her house in her sleeping shirt. It hung modestly enough that she couldn’t be placed in handcuffs for indecency. But with nothing on underneath, she felt like she was standing there naked. Sophia grabbed the hem in front of her shirt and pulled it lower as she watched Will saunter over in her direction. “Why the flowers?” she asked Penny, wondering how she could retreat to her house without turning. Sophia wasn’t in the mood to commiserate with Will, and he was heading down the hill toward her yard.
“After the police left, we thought it would be funny if you found an outline on your drive, and wondered if someone had been killed on your property.”
“Seriously?” Sophia backed up a step. “You think that scenario is funny? My children are going to see this. Turner’s old enough to ask me what this is.”
“Oh hush, Sophia, we were having a little fun. Kay can sure whip up a yummy margarita. Whoo, boy! We had a great time. You should have been there.” She was giggling, then suddenly stopped, probably realizing that she had said that they had excluded Sophia on purpose. Penny cleared her throat. “It wasn’t until after Marla outlined me that I remembered that you asked us not to include you in our little pranks. Don’t be ashamed of that, Sophia.” Her voice filled with sincerity and kindness. “We all get that you’re kind of a geek, and you probably never got to hang with the popular crowd. It’s not your fault that you didn’t get a chance to develop a good sense of humor. It takes all kinds to make the world go around. Not everyone has to be fun.”
Will was moving closer, and Sophia took another step back.
“After I realized our mistake,” Penny continued. “We tried to make it friendlier by picking the flowers. Marla had already emptied the ketchup bottle, so we decided to put it on the ground and add a picture of a hot dog. Instead of looking like a mortal wound, now it looks like he spilled ketchup on his shirt.” She laughed heartily then took a deep breath followed by a hum.
Sophia stared at the receiver in her hand, a scowl creasing her face. She meant to count all the way to ten before she spoke, but by the time she said three in her head, she was spitting out, “Get it off my driveway.” The numbness of being woken up and finding the strange display was wearing off, quickly replaced with a healthy dose of anger. Sophia took a third step back and looked behind her, realizing how far she was from her front door. “I mean it, Penny. Today. Before I get home.” She was using her mommy voice. The one she thought would get the job done. Sophia held up a hand like a stop sign, hoping Will would stay where he was. “I have to go,” she told Penny, punching the raised button on the old-fashioned cordless handset.
“I’m sorry your sleep was disturbed last night.” She grabbed the hem of her shirt again. “I saw the police lights.”
“They woke you up?” Will asked from the middle of the cul-de-sac.
“Insomnia.” Sophia pulled her shirt a little lower.
Will’s gaze followed the move. His face flashed red. “Oh dear,” he said, working to find another place to focus his eyes, finally coming to rest on her roofline. “Goodbye.” He turned abruptly and quick-stepped back to his Volvo.
Sophia stood still until Will was well down the road, then got herself back inside. Upstairs, the gentle chimes that were supposed to rouse her from her dreams in a natural, Zen-like way had reached the point of insistence. She took the stairs two at a time to turn the alarm off before the noise woke her boys. She needed a little extra time getting ready today. She wouldn’t be working from home in her usual shorts and t-shirt. Today, she was supposed to do a presentation with her research partner Nadia at Iniquus, the security firm that was assigned to keep them safe. As Sophia adjusted the water temperature in the shower, she wondered if that security would extend to keeping her safe from crazy neighbors.
She cut the water off again when she heard her phone ringing. This time when she picked it up, she heard five staccato beeps instead of her neighbor’s overly enthusiastic voice. She hung up and moved downstairs to her office. She placed her cellphone in front of her, pulled up a map on the computer, opened the code generator on her keychain, and waited.
When the call came in, Sophia read off the alphanumeric code instead of answering with a hello. “938BCK868.”
“You have information?”
“I believe I’ve found what you’re looking for.”
Sophia listed them off and the phone clicked, leaving her with dead air.
Sophia pulled up to the Willow Tree Learning Center just as the Sesame Street alphabet song was hitting its crescendo. She slid the car into park and climbed from behind the wheel. She wasn’t used to tottering in high heels with pointy toes. With her suit jacket draped across the passenger seat, she felt like a grown up today. Well, at least the kind of grown up who didn’t play in sandboxes for a living. In her line of work as an archaeologist, it was rare that she wore anything that required dry cleaning. At least her pencil skirt was made with Spandex, and she could maneuver the kids out of their car seats with ease.
Somehow, Sophia had made it this far without further morning mishaps, though Chance’s eyes looked a little glassy to her as she pulled him into her arms. Sophia pressed a kiss onto his forehead to check for a fever. “You doing okay, sweetie?” she asked as he reached out to play with her earring. He didn’t answer, and she was distracted from her concern by Turner. Her soon to be four-year-old had learned to undo his own seatbelt which was both a blessing and a worry. He clambered past her and his younger brother and was racing for the front door of his school with joyful whoops. Sophia scrambled to catch up with him, grabbing the boys’ backpacks and slamming the door shut on her way.
Sophia thought back to the moms in her neighborhood, and for a melancholy moment, imagined how nice it would be to stay at home and mother her kids. Or at least have a choice in the matter. But she had been widowed right after her twenty-fourth birthday. She was all her boys had. In whispered promises while they slept, Sophia swore she would be their rock. She would do anything and everything she had to do to give them a good life. And today, that meant standing up in front of a bunch of strangers and talking about her work. That thought set Sophia’s anxiety skyward. Her fingers shook as she signed the boys in for the day. Her hands were clammy as she rubbed their backs and gave them each a last kiss before leaving. “Learn wonderful things,” she called as they skipped off to join their friends.
Exhausted and jittery wasn’t a fabulous combination; it made her skin buzz. Sophia prayed her deodorant could hold up to the challenge. She second-guessed her choice of a blue satin blouse as she wobbled back to her car, knowing it would show perspiration badly. She was going to throw the blouse and these darned shoes in the trash as soon as she got home. Sophia checked the time on her cellphone and decided she could stop for a cup of tea for her trek through the morning traffic jam. Luckily, Iniquus wasn’t too far from her house, on the Virginia side of the Potomac; she wouldn’t have to tangle herself up on the capital city streets.
Sophia turned off the CD of cringe-worthy kiddy songs and clicked on the radio. As she scanned for something with an upbeat tempo to distract her from her nerves, she stopped at a man announcing that this morning, Mrs. Murphy of Harrisonburg opened the door to let her dachshund in from his romp in the woods, and he dragged in a pair of pants with a pelvic girdle still inside. She found other leg bones as she followed his path. Police were investigating. “Huh,” Sophia said out loud. “And I thought my morning was going badly. At least that’s not me with a stray femur in my yard.” She clicked on her blinker and turned right into the parking lot.
Here, only two blocks away from Willow Tree, was her one almost daily indulgence. A little family-run doughnut shop that brewed fragrant cups of chai that always had a way of making her feel loved. The mother, who ran the cash register, would sometimes squeeze Sophia’s hand as she handed her the change and say, “It’s going to be okay.” Sophia had convinced herself that this silver-haired lady was a soothsayer, and she’d read Sophia’s fortune in that morning’s tea leaves. Sophia just had to hang on until the magical moment when things would be okay. This morning, Sophia was disappointed that it was the daughter who took her money, so she didn’t get a pre-presentation pep talk.
As Sophia rounded the corner on her way back to the car, she popped the lid off her cup to blow coolness across the surface while she walked. She climbed into her car before she took the first tentative sip of scalding liquid and decided it would have to wait. A burned tongue would make speaking clearly at this morning’s presentation that much harder. And this was going to be difficult enough as it was. Sophia glanced in her side mirror to a see a rotund man working his way toward the sidewalk. She pulled her door partially shut so he could squeeze on by. As he stepped onto the curb, he lurched sideways, catching himself on her car, shaking it. Chai sloshed across Sophia’s lap. Screaming in pain, Sophia grabbed the door handle and leapt from the car. She let the cup fall to the ground and yanked her skirt—sopping wet with blistering hot tea—down to get it away from her skin.
The obese man righted himself and bobbed his way into the shop without a backward glance. With her skirt around her ankles, Sophia leaned over to examine the red streaks running across her thighs. Her blouse just covered her now-damp panties.
A man called out to her, “Are you okay?” as he hustled over.
“This is becoming a theme for today,” Sophia mumbled, as she reached for the hem of her blouse and pulled it down for modesty’s sake.
The man had his focus on her thighs. “Jeez, you’re pretty badly burned. Do you need a ride to the hospital? Should I call an ambulance?”
Sophia kicked out of her skirt. She answered with a shake of her head. Her focus was on trying not to cry and add mascara running down her cheeks to her problems. Burns or no burns, she had a speech to give in a few minutes.
“Hang on, I have some cream in my first aid kit.”
Sophia picked up her winter-white skirt, now stained chai brown. She turned to take in the puddle on her front seat. The clock on her dash said she was running late for the meeting. Tears glazed her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. She wouldn’t cry a single tear. Not a single one. Sophia gritted her teeth as she pulled her gym bag from the back seat and unrolled her yoga pants. At least they were solid black. They’d have to do.
The man was back by her side as Sophia yanked off her shoes to get dressed. He held up a can of lidocaine. “This should help.” He held it out for her.
“Yes, thank you.” As Sophia sprayed her thighs, she realized that this was truly the stuff of nightmares. While she’d tried to survive against the power of an evil universe last night, she could just as easily have had this surreal dream, standing half-dressed in a parking lot, handing the spray can to a stranger so he could get the back of her legs. Thank goodness there was nothing pervy or seedy about this guy. In her mind, she decided he was a first responder of some kind, and he was out of uniform but still felt compelled to help. She reached down and gingerly yanked her pants into place.
The stranger handed her the can. “I bet you’ll need a touchup before the day is through.”
She took it gratefully, wondering what the right thing to say in a situation like this was. “You’ve earned yourself a boxful of good karma.” She extended her hand to shake his.
“Perfect. I was running kind of low on it.” He grinned and loped off, as if seeing a woman disrobe in a parking lot was an everyday occurrence.
Sophia reached for the blankie scrunched in Turner’s car seat to use as a barrier between the puddle in the driver’s seat and her pants. She put her car in gear and pressed on the gas. Chancing a ticket with her aggressive driving, she fought through traffic to get to Iniquus. She needed to get there on time, looking crisp, cool, and professional. After all, first impressions were impossible to unwind.
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