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Authors: Misty Evans

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Operation Proof of Life

BOOK: Operation Proof of Life
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Blood ties run deepest—and deadliest.

 

Super Agent Series, Book 3

No matter how many times he patches the holes in the wall, CIA Deputy Director Michael Stone can’t forget the night a terrorist took him hostage in his own home. Or the mistakes that transformed him into an overwhelming force to keep his country safe. And now that his niece, the daughter of the Republican candidate for President, has been kidnapped just days from the election, Michael vows to do whatever it takes to get her back.

Dr. Brigit Kent, a consultant for the Department of Homeland Security, knows this particular kidnapper well. Exposing him, however, will reveal her sister’s secret ties to a terrorist group. The only way to keep her sister safe is to blackmail the sexy, rock-solid deputy director. A move that puts her directly in his line of fire.

Brigit is undeniably beautiful, brilliant, cunning. But is she friend or foe? The answer to that question could break Michael’s personal code of honor—and his heart.

 

Warning: Bullets and blackmail, good luck and laughter. Surprises and secrets and love ever after…

eBooks are
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transferable.

They cannot be sold, shared or given away as it is an infringement on the copyright of this work.

 

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

 

Samhain Publishing, Ltd.

577 Mulberry Street, Suite 1520

Macon GA 31201

 

Proof of Life

Copyright © 2009 by Misty Evans

ISBN: 978-1-60504-806-2

Edited by Sasha Knight

Cover by Natalie Winters

 

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

First
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
electronic publication: October 2009

www.samhainpublishing.com

Proof of Life

 

 

 

Misty Evans

Dedication

This book is dedicated to Mark, protector and companion on all my journeys. You’re the real deal, and
I’m
the lucky one.

A branch in my family tree belongs to the Irish, so I’m using their help in saying thanks to all who contributed to this book. Hearty Irish wishes go to Sheri Humphrey for reviewing Brigit’s injuries and guiding me in realistic treatments. More good wishes go to Val Pearson for supplying a name for my peace-loving Irish poet. Thanks, Val!

I don’t have to look far to find a four-leaf clover with incredible kids like Sam and Ben, and invaluable friends like Nana, Angela, Donnell, Chiron, Tessy and Ree. You guys never fail to inspire, motivate and love me whether I’m laughing or grumping.

I love research and making new friends in the process. In this story Brigit would not have come to life without the help of Dr. Cynthia Clark. Thank you, Dr. Clark, for opening my eyes to endless possibilities for Brigit’s work as a consultant for DHS and answering my questions with excellent care to details.

Miles and miles of Irish smiles go to my local librarian, Sue Mannix, who guided my research into the world of Irish history, religion, politics and good old-fashioned heart. The Irish are an incredible people and I’m glad I got to know them better in this process because of you.

And to my editor, Sasha, I offer never-ending thanks for your patience, understanding and ability to make me feel like the luckiest writer on the planet. I’m wishing you a beautiful rainbow, complete with an overflowing pot of gold.

Chapter One

Arlington
, VA

Halloween

The grandfather clock in the corner chimed, its deep baritone vibrating under a sheet of protective plastic. The antique clock, unlike the west wall of Michael Stone’s home office, had escaped damage when the bullets flew. If only his chest had been as lucky.

Michael stopped sanding the section of Sheetrock in front of him to rub the scar under his shirt. For the sixth time in as many months, he was patching and sanding holes, trying to cover up the past. But just like the drywall dust that had infiltrated every corner of his office, reminders of the hostage incident infiltrated every corner of his mind.

The edge of one of the filled bullet holes was ridged. Another had sunk. He should just knock them out and start over. He should do the same with the memories.

Julia. Conrad. Raissi. The names swirled in his brain, making his gut clench and his forehead sweat. No matter how many times he cut out and patched the holes, betrayal, obligation and failure rose from the dust to mock him.

Starting on the ridged patch, he gritted his teeth as the sandpaper chewed up the dried mud and dust fell to the ground.
Time
, he told himself, as the grandfather clock chimed again.
I just need more time.

Using his shirt sleeve to wipe the sweat from his forehead, he pushed the past behind the carefully constructed wall he’d built in his mind. He should have been at Ella’s school, watching her parade around, all smiles and six-year-old self-confidence in her Wonder Woman costume instead of trying to fix something that couldn’t be fixed.

Halloween had become so dangerous Ella’s school had decided to put on a trunk-or-treat, complete with parade, to keep the students protected. The fact that kids had lost the freedom to enjoy trick or treating saddened Michael. It saddened him even more that he was loathe to go watch his niece enjoy the substitute version because he couldn’t go anywhere in public without a battalion of security. As Deputy Director of the CIA and brother-in-law to the next president—if the pre-election day polls were accurate—his autonomy no longer existed.

These days, it didn’t matter if you were an adult or a kid. Freedom was a precious commodity choked off by criminals and terrorists.

Goddamn terrorists.

Throwing the sandpaper down on the tarp at his feet, he headed for his desk. A week’s worth of newspapers covered one corner. His stuffed briefcase lay next to them. The European Directorate was waiting for his signature on a dozen different projects.

Michael wheeled his office chair out and sat down hard. He booted up his laptop, drumming a staccato on the top of his desk with his fingers as he waited for the opening screen to ask for his password. Before it could flash the message, his attention was drawn back to the wall. Raissi’s smirking face danced over the holes.

Adrenaline buzzed in his veins as he shut the laptop with a firm snap. No way was he getting any work done tonight. He should call Kinnick, his bodyguard and sparring partner, and hit the gym. Fighting was the only way he’d found to jack the energy and the memories from his psyche.

He’d taken up mixed martial arts which combined kickboxing with the two other phases of combat—takedowns and submission holds. Fights required all three types of skills, and knowing which phase would give you an advantage over your opponent gave you control of the fight.

Even outside the ring, control was power.

Thad Pennington, Republican candidate for U.S. President, was mere days and percentage points away from taking control of the White House. He’d already offered Michael directorship of the CIA after the election, but Michael had turned him down. Unlike a majority of D.C.’s political pundits, he didn’t want his legacy handed to him on anything other than merit.

Thad was also Ella’s father. A father on the campaign trail and missing the Halloween festivities. Yet another reason Michael should have been at Ella’s school. She needed a substitute father more and more while her biological one pursued the dream of power.

Across the room, Raissi’s face faded into poorly patched bullet holes once again, standing out in bas-relief from the smooth surface surrounding them. A heavy, burning sensation tugged at Michael’s chest. Letting out his breath, he rocked his chair back and forth, his fingers absently probing his scar.

Holes. His life was full of them. Work, social life, family. His goddamn chest. And every time he patched one, it seemed to have the opposite effect. The holes kept getting bigger, spreading like a disease.

The phone on his desk rang, jolting him out of his thoughts. A vacation from them was such a relief, he snagged the receiver without looking at the ID.

“Stone.”

“Michael?”

It was only two syllables, but his sister’s high-pitched voice, cracking with strain, brought him up straight. “What is it, Ruthie?”

She sobbed and the hair on the back of his neck rose. “It’s Ella. She’s…gone.” Another sob. “Kidnapped. We don’t know who’s got her. Oh, Michael, what are they doing to my baby?”

The world screeched to a halt. As the next beat of his heart echoed inside his head, he rose from the chair, his body kicking into phase one of combat.

 

~ * ~

 

Washington
D.C.
suburbs

Brigit Kent unlocked the door to her loft, dropped her overnight bag on the floor inside and flipped on the lights. After traveling nonstop in Europe for the past week, she wanted a hot shower, a pint of Cherry Garcia and a couple hours of BBC America.

On the kitchen counter she found a basket stuffed with various fruits and chocolates, an official Department of Homeland Security ID badge with her photo and name on it, and a note from her assistant Truman Gunn.

Welcome back to your home away from home. JOE secured your assignment with DHS. I’ll catch you up on all the spiffy details first thing tomorrow. White House, eight o’clock. Wear the suit.

T.

P.S. TiVo’d
Mistresses
for you.

Brigit shed her Burberry trench coat, unwrapped a Godiva and popped it in her mouth. JOE stood for Jolly Old England, Truman’s nickname for her employer, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The Department of Homeland Security thought they were getting a freelance consultant on domestic terrorism, and they were, but while she was working for DHS, SIS had an undercover job for her.

What neither SIS nor DHS realized was Brigit had her own agenda while she was in Washington.

She pulled the Cherry Garcia from the freezer and kicked off her boots in the living room. She flipped on the TV, anxious to catch up on her favorite show. Before she could find the TiVo remote, though, a breaking story on Headline News caught her eye. Eleanor Pennington, the daughter of Republican nominee Thad Pennington, had been kidnapped.

Frowning, Brigit turned up the volume and sat on the edge of the couch. A reporter on the scene at Eleanor’s school reported scant details before summoning several people nearby to give eyewitness accounts.

Gooseflesh rose on Brigit’s arms as she listened. No one had actually seen the girl being kidnapped, but she had disappeared from a school function out from under the watchful eyes of adults and Secret Service agents. No contact from the kidnapper had been made except a single phone call—Eleanor’s voice crying for her mother.

Proof of life.

A tremor went down Brigit’s spine and the little girl in her head cried out, the old nightmare of a locked door and the fire surfacing. Her gaze darted to the photo next to the TV. She and her younger sister, Tory, were grinning at the camera, arms thrown around each other’s neck in childhood abandon. A different proof of life.

As if her body had a will of its own, Brigit rose from the edge of the couch and returned the ice cream to the freezer. She slipped on her trench and slid her sore feet back into her boots before retrieving her handgun from her overnight bag and heading for the door. At the last minute, she went back to the kitchen counter and grabbed the DHS badge. That and the kidnapping had just made her assignment for SIS a slam dunk.

Leaving the lights on in the loft, she closed and locked the door behind her, slipping her handgun into the pocket of her trench coat.

Chapter Two

Ashford Heights
, MD

Midnight

Ashford Heights lay on the north side of Washington, D.C., one of the many suburbs off Interstate 270 popular with up-and-coming power players who eschewed looking like players and portrayed themselves as natural-born leaders instead. Houses were modern versions of old plantations. Churches, with their lily white steeples, were beacons to a bygone time as well. Private schools had devoured the public school district, all of which had dress codes, security guards and entire wings dedicated to the next generation of Washington’s elite.

Blinding lights from video cameras and media vans bounced inside Michael’s car as the armor-plated Lincoln Navigator shot through the gates of Ashford’s most prestigious subdivision. Security officers flanked both sides of the entrance, the SUV’s headlights illuminating letters on their jackets as the driver maneuvered the vehicle up the winding drive. Along with the media, the FBI, Secret Service, state and local cops were all working the story of the year.

The Navigator stopped in front of a two-story Colonial, a modern echo of an eighteenth-century Monticello. Columns lined the veranda and potted topiaries bookended the ruby-red-colored door. Light from the front windows fell in soft sheets across the backs of white, slat-backed rocking chairs.

Michael steeled his nerves to walk up the wide plank stairs and enter the house. In his time at the CIA, he’d faced much tougher situations. Never, though, had he experienced such a crawling fear in his stomach. Never since his father had been killed had he felt such guilt.

Images of Ella flashed behind his eyes in a kaleidoscope of memories. The pink knit hat she’d worn in the hospital after her birth, the way her blue eyes had widened when she’d blown her first bubble with the gum he’d snuck to her behind her mother’s back, the sound of her laughter as his dog, Pongo, had licked a scoop of ice cream off her cone.

Failure kicked him in the gut.
I should have been there for her. I could have protected her.

He rubbed his eyes, forcing the dampness in them to retreat as he swallowed the brick in his throat. The darkness of the night mirrored the darkness in his mind.

“Deputy Director?” Brad Kinnick stared at him from the open car door.

Filling his chest with the cool fall air, Michael gave Brad a nod and slid out. The bodyguard moved aside and focused his attention on the crowd of official cars in the circular drive and security personnel stationed around the house.

After his credentials were checked at the door by a young FBI agent, Michael was ushered into the foyer. In the hours since the kidnapping, Thad had flown home from Ohio while Michael inserted himself into the police and FBI’s investigation at the school, stepping on a few toes in the process. As a CIA officer he had no jurisdiction on U.S. soil. His reputation, however, and the fact that every man and woman looking for Ella understood his need as her uncle to make sure the investigation was expedient and thorough, had bought him priceless professional courtesy.

Thad grasped Michael’s hand in a tight grip. Fatigue shadowed his brother-in-law’s face and lined his forehead. “Anything?”

Michael wiped his shoes on the rug out of habit. His sister Ruth’s penchant for cleanliness came from their mother’s gene pool. Genes that entirely skipped Michael’s. “No solid leads yet. Any news on this end?”

“The phone call at ten was it. She cried for Ruthie, and the connection went dead. We never heard the kidnapper’s voice. No ransom demand, nothing.”

Thad massaged his forehead with one hand, dropped it to his side. His eyes pleaded with Michael. “What do they want?”

Thad knew the answer to the question, but needed to hear the truth from someone else. Someone he trusted. Michael met his stare. “They want you to stop running for president.”

“Why?”

That answer wasn’t so pat. “Could be a hundred and one reasons.”

Thad shook his head and led the way into the study. Two FBI experts sat at his massive cherry wood desk—computers, modems and tracking equipment covered the top. Behind them, two other agents examined files, talking on cell phones and looking over the seated agents’ shoulders. Thad’s focus dropped to a framed photo of Ella on the coffee table next to his leg. His sigh was almost inaudible. “So if I hold a press conference and announce I’m withdrawing my bid for election, whoever took her will give her back?”

The forty-nine-year-old senator didn’t expect an answer this time. He simply needed to process the facts. Michael faced the fireplace and crossed his arms over his chest. “Best case, yes.”

“You know I’d do anything to get my little girl back,” Thad said. “But are you sure that’s what they want? The FBI said they could just want money or a favor of some sort, like releasing one of their compatriots from jail.”

“If the kidnappers wanted money or anything else, they would have asked for it already. This is a show of power. They want you to back down.”

His brother-in-law slumped into a high-backed chair, hope draining out of him. Knowing he needed to collect his thoughts, Michael withdrew and left him alone.

At the desk, he asked the agents specific questions and watched their body language as much as he listened to their verbal answers. They were stumped. Ella had disappeared after the parade. Multiple times during the evening, she’d run out to the parking lot during the trunk-or-treat and gone back inside the school to warm up with hot cocoa and giggle with her friends.

At some point, while Ruth chatted up their mothers, Ella, Wonder Woman costume and all, had simply vanished.

Ella had escaped her adult guardians’ watchful eyes and ears on several occasions before. With unrestrained zeal, she chased butterflies into wooded areas, held her breath underwater for endless seconds too long, and jumped from heights that would intimidate military operatives.

The entire school had been searched and everyone in attendance from teachers to janitors was being interviewed. All the families as well.

Four hours later, there was still hope of finding her alive, but the odds decreased with every passing minute. The single call from the kidnapper had been made from a disposable cell phone sold by dozens of discount stores in the local area. With no traceable phone, no voice imprint from the caller and no ransom request, the investigation was stalled.

Michael had little expertise with kidnappings, but he did know a few things about power and manipulation. At this point, the kidnapper was making a statement. He had the power and the skill to get what he wanted. All they could do was wait and try to figure it out.

“Where’s Ruth?” Michael asked the female FBI agent.

She raised a finger and pointed at the ceiling.

Leaving the den, Michael made his way to the circular staircase at the end of the hall. His feet were ten-pound weights as he jogged up the carpeted stairs. Heading for the bedroom wing on the right, he pulled up short when he heard muffled crying from the left. Switching directions, he saw Ella’s bedroom door ajar. He stopped beside it and pushed it open with his hand.

Little-girl pink saturated every wall and corner. Even if Ella’s favorite color had been black, the endless ruffles, rhinestones and feather boas would have tipped him off to her penchant for all things girly.

Ruthie perched on Ella’s bed, her back to the door and her face buried in her hands. Her shoulders were set but her controlled sobs gave her away. Next to her, a woman sat rubbing Ruthie’s shoulder, her head bent next to his sister’s as she murmured soft words of support.

Sensing Michael’s presence, the woman raised her head, her round gunmetal gray eyes locking on his. Stunning black eyelashes curved around the lids, calling attention to their striking color. With her fair skin and black curl of bangs, she resembled one of the dolls sitting on Ella’s bed.

Except her eyes weren’t innocent like the dolls’. In their depths, they were hard, serious, cynical. Soldier’s eyes. As if she’d seen and lived her share of trouble.

Her dark brows crashed together and she rose from the bed, keeping a protective hand on Ruth’s shoulder. “Yes?”

She’d combed her hair into a tight ponytail, but several sections had broken free to frame her heart-shaped face. The severity of her hairstyle was in direct contrast to her clothes. A faded T-shirt sported a green four-leaf clover between the swell of her breasts, and brown camouflage pants hung from her hips as if she’d stolen them from her older, much larger brother. Her dusty, creased work boots looked like they belonged to an archeologist who’d just come in from a dig.

Ruth dropped her hands and turned her head. “Michael!”

His sister’s eyes, bloodshot from crying, flashed relief at the sight of him. She rushed into his outstretched arms and Michael embraced her, all the time keeping his focus on the stranger who continued to stare him down.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” she said into his chest. She was still wearing her heels, the top of her carefully coiffed blonde hair tickling his chin. As one of Virginia’s members of the House of Representatives, she was as much a Washington pundit as her husband. It was yet another motive for Ella’s kidnapping. “What are we going to do?”

Michael patted her back and scanned the stranger for any kind of ID badge. He’d already ruled her out as a friend of the family. Anyone who knew Ruth knew better than to wear dusty boots into her house. Her choice of clothing also ruled out police officer. “The FBI has everything under control.”

The stranger gave a quiet, derisive snort. Michael narrowed his eyes at her in warning as he shifted Ruthie under one arm and stuck out his hand. “Michael Stone. And you are?”

Her gaze slid from his face to his protective arm around Ruth and back to his face. Her eyes softened and he saw a flash of emotion in them. Desire? No. The emotion in her eyes spoke of a yearning, a longing for something she wanted and couldn’t have.

Ruth gave an exasperated huff, putting one hand to her cheek. “Where are my manners? Michael, this is Dr. Brigit Kent. Dr. Kent, my brother, Michael.”

Dr. Kent shook his hand, her scrutiny of him as intense as his was of her. “
The
Michael Stone? Deputy Director of Central Intelligence?” The British accent was faint, the cadence of her voice so smooth it was almost lyrical. “You are…younger…than I expected.”

She looked like she was all of twenty—far too young to have earned a doctorate in anything—but Michael kept the observation to himself. She wasn’t the first person to be surprised the man holding his position hadn’t hit forty yet.

Still as she started to take her hand back, he held onto it. A subtle show of power. “You have me at a disadvantage, I’m afraid, Dr. Kent. Is there a reason you’re here in my niece’s bedroom during this delicate situation?”

Ruth patted his arm. “Dr. Kent is a consultant for Homeland Security, and she lent me some of her studies for the early education initiative bill I proposed last year. She just stopped by to offer her support.”

So she was smart as well as beautiful. Michael released Kent’s hand, but kept his arm around Ruthie as he smoothly maneuvered her to the side to clear a path. “Thad and Ruth appreciate your support. Now if you’ll excuse us, I’d like to talk to my sister alone.”

Dr. Kent’s pause lingered half a second. “Of course.” She put a hand on Ruthie’s forearm as she stepped in front of her. “You have my mobile number. Call me if you need anything.”

Ruth broke from Michael’s protective arm to hug her. The two exchanged goodbyes, and Dr. Kent held out her hand to him again. “Pleasure, Deputy Director.”

As before, the way she enunciated each syllable made her words sound lilting. Michael accepted her handshake, noticing the expensive watch on her right wrist. Her hand snugged into his palm, and her skin was warm and soft.

But her serious eyes challenged him and something very male and completely out of place kicked in his stomach. Her tiny hand gave his much larger one a firm squeeze and a tug.

He tugged back without considering the consequences, his response not entirely a power play this time.

 

~ * ~

 

Brigit stood in the shadows under the staircase, shivering under her coat. Michael Stone was formidable. Definitely not someone to mess with. He could have been her size, instead of his six feet plus, and he still would have oozed authority from every pore of his body. His massive shoulders looked like a linebacker’s. His handshake had gripped her like a vise. And his eyes…

Shaking her head to clear the memory of his probing stare, Brigit took a deep breath, closed her eyes and thought of Eleanor Pennington.

Four hours into the kidnapping. Where had she been at that point? What had she been feeling? Crawling through her memories, she brought up the fear, still vivid enough to raise goose bumps on her skin.

I was still panicked, but the adrenaline was wearing off. Tory was already asleep, having cried herself out. Peter was lying low, waiting, I suppose, to make sure no one was on his trail. I couldn’t make sense of why he’d brought us to the bar and then upstairs. Why he’d locked us in the bathroom. I was hungry…

Voices in the den brought her back to the present. Checking that the coast was clear, she followed the hallway to the rear of the Pennington house, slowing her pace as she noticed the walls lined with family portraits. In the midst of smiling faces, one stood out.

Michael Stone, a younger version than the one upstairs but every bit as solemn in his smart Marine dress uniform, frowned down at her. The American flag in the background was as fitting a backdrop as Brigit could imagine for the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence.

His reputation within the intelligence community pegged him as a quiet, rock-solid leader. While ambitious, he appeared to be so for the right reasons. Reasons missing from Washington for centuries. He actually wanted to protect and defend his country from all threats, rather than further his political career or line his own pockets.

In the six months since he’d taken over as the second in command of the CIA, he’d brought a mole within his organization to justice, severed the Agency’s ties with a dozen different lobbyists and congressmen, and restructured a struggling spy group. All after surviving a hostage standoff and being shot. It would take time to erase the organization’s failing marks in the world of international espionage, but if anyone could do it, it was Michael Stone.

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