Authors: Ruby Knight
his edition published
Post Office Box 57914
Los Angeles, California 91413
Copyright Â© 2016 by Ruby Knight
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author's imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
: Paper & Sage Designs
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o my Parents
, who taught me to chase my dreams.
To my sisters, who are the best cheerleaders a girl could have.
To my son, who shows me what loving unconditional is.
, get back!”
My feet were moving and I had to consciously control my speed so I didn't run too fast, but I was still running quicker than I should've been able to, motioning with my arms and screaming at the agents that had surrounded Enrique Hernandez's residence in Key Biscayne. A few of the guys I'd trained with at Eisenhower, the CIA's youth early requirement program you've never heard of, dropped behind some cars. They knew me, certain that I wouldn't be blowing smoke about something like this. I could hear the ticking; it pulsed up through my boots and radiated through my skull. Somehow, somewhere, I must've tripped a wire and the place was going to blow up. Hernandez would kill as many agents as he could before going down. This way, his entire compound, cash, and drug loads would all go up in flames. Become ash.
Two strong arms ending in tanned and calloused hands wrapped my body and covered my head as I got pulled tight into a man's body, his hard frame wrapping me up as we dove behind a car. The chaos surrounding me evaporated into a resonating silenceâthe ticking stopped; three pins dropped before a click sounded. Things appeared to move in slow motion. My perception shifted as I analyzed the situation.
I could taste the salt from the ocean on my tongue, my senses tingling through the awareness as I licked my lips. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the sway of a palm tree. Not due to a lush coastal breeze, no. This was from the gorgeous, Spanish-style mansion being leveled to bits of fragmented concrete. Tiny pieces of stucco and red terra cotta scattered across my vision as a deafening roar blasted my eardrums. The distinct smell of C-4 and burning filled my nose, as the taste of ash became more distinct in my mouth.
A few of the older government operatives stared blankly as they blinked too quickly at the flames while pressing their hands against what presumably must be ringing ears. Idiots. Why should they listen to me? A female in the Central Intelligence Agency. No, not just a female. A girl. A
in the CIA.
The old geezer, hard-nosed, I-wear-a-suit-and-tie-every-freaking-where guy watched every single damn thing I did under hooded, puffy, always red, disapproving parental eyes. I was never good enough. He was glaring at me now, probably coming up with some way to put this down as a derogatory event on my service record. Even though I was better trained than a majority of these dudes, they had experience and seniorityâair quotes around those words, please. So, Eisenhower's Early Recruitment program didn't mean crap to them even though it was a black division of their own agency.
“How're your ears?”
I mouthed. Just to mess with their heads.
The guy overseeing this operation jammed his fingers in his ears and shook his head. “What?” he yelled.
“You okay?” Mikey asked.
I breathed in the scent of his clean shirt and spicy cologne. Mikeyâmy constant, the annoying brother, the best damn partner, and the calm to my chaos. We worked. That was it. Right now, those two smells were my home. The only home I had known for the last five years.
“Yeah, thanks to you.” My voice came out slightly out of breath as I pushed him up off the ground. He reached his hand out to help me.
“You would've made it out.” He tucked a strand of hair that had escaped my meticulous ponytail behind my ear.
“Not without your weird spidey sense to check for explosives.”
The words rattled through a shaky laugh. No matter how many times I had been in the field, the drop of adrenaline afterwards always left my muscles quivering. Not my favorite feeling. My arms hurt while I dusted cement particles off my shoulders, physically biting my tongue so I wouldn't break out in Jay-Z lyrics.
“Get that dirt off your shoulder,” Mikey said in that thick Bostonian accent of his.
I barked out a laugh. “I was just thinking that.”
Captain Dickhead, aka the Ops lead, glared in our direction. He had issues with us taking part in this mission and voiced his concerns to anyone who'd listen. Funny thing about my service recordâno matter what Captain I-have-a-stick-up-my-ass thought, it would be cleared of his remarks. In fact, my clearance level went so far above his, it proved hard for me to take his daily power trips seriously. Still, he and I had worked well together on previous missions based out of Florida.
“All the evidence is gone, Caldwell,” he spat out.
My bulletproof vest was so hot in the Miami heat, him trying to put additional pressure on me for the explosion made my blood boil. I tugged on the Velcro to rip it off. Bomb off meant danger averted, for now.
“Send in the techs. I'm sure they can salvage the dealer names or account information from the hard drives. Even if they're burned, there'll be a trail. There's always a trail. Men like him all follow the same pattern.”
The shrugged-off vest ended up dumped on the hood of the unmarked black Ford SUV. Without the weight on me, I grew hyper-aware of how much my hair had gotten stuck to my neck.
“Agent Rushton, it was great to work with you. I'll let your superiors know of your performance.” I patted him gently on the shoulder before turning away from his shocked expression. A smirk passed over my lips.
Mikey strolled up to my side with two bottles of water, and he tossed one in my direction. I nodded in gratitude and twisted off the plastic cap then squeezed half the contents down my throat.
Mikey and I had been through training together, both of us squeaking thirteen-year-olds when the government recruited us. I had been drawing Eli Scadden's name in my math notebook while pretending to finish my homework when Agents Bergeson and Swanson had knocked on my door. Mikey had been like my brother at Eisenhower, and the freaking weird thing was that he was finally starting to look less long-and-lanky awkward, and more filled-out. Which kind of confused the hell out of me, but I just shut that thought right down. Mikey needed to remain my best friendâhe got this life, and best of all, me, and also how hard it proved to be completely disconnected from the world. He knew how it felt to have two separate livesâthe part of who you were before the government sank its claws into you and the distinct life after.
I shook off the thoughts. Going down that road, being emotional about attachments, was what a regular person would do. They'd trained me to be anything but regular. “When do we leave?”
He nodded in the direction of the approaching SUVs.
“Oh, seriously? I really wanted to work on my tan.” My pout could have given a toddler being denied a treat in the candy aisle a run for his money.
Mikey laughed at me and swung his heavy arm around my shoulder.
“Onward and upward, Julia. Let's go make our country proud,” he said with mocked enthusiasm.
I slapped at his stomach, the back of my hand bouncing off the flex of his abs. Strange. Mikey had abs. When did Mikey get abs? His Boston accent was still pronounced, despite his last six years out of Boston. That hadn't changed. So where did these babies come from? At first, I'd hated the accent, but I found it endearing now; it had grown on me. His voice sounded deeper, making it sexy â¦ which completely baffled me, because Mikey
My attention zeroed in on his high cheekbones and full lips as he called out good-byes to the remainder of the douchebag team we had been with in Miami. He made friends everywhere he went.
“What? Do I have something on my face?” He ran a big hand across his mouth.
I pursed my lips to cover up my small smile. “Nope, you're good.”
His grey eyes locked with mine in an unfamiliar way. We were both trained to shut down the emotional bullshit, as connections of any sort were dangerous. We didn't get to be teenagers. We didn't get to have emotions or feelings or whatever the hell this confusing shit was. I shrugged his arm off and boxed away whatever that feeling implied. Mikey could only give me the illusion of comfort; he wasn't actually allowed to give me physical comfort.
I didn't lose control, ever.
The road my thoughts had just taken me down was an emotional place where I refused to go. My training didn't allow me to go to the swooning, puppy-dog, love-sick, hormonal teenager place. It didn't matter that our bodies had a natural reaction to each other. We had to lock it down. Never got to test out the waters, not a single toe. Not in the field, or even out of it.
So I did. I turned cold and swallowed down any emotion that could be misconstrued as flirting in any way, shape, or form. I was damn good at my job. Even if I didn't know exactly why I did what I did.
hey didn't let
us stop by the safe house and shower. Our things had already been collected. Sad that my entire life could be stuffed into a backpack-sized go-bag. I didn't like not being in a suit while walking into the Miami branch of the Central Intelligence Agency. I stood out more, but then again, at least I didn't feel like I was trying to play dress up and fit in with the adults. The form-fitted, V-neck black T-shirt stuck to my still sweaty back, and the skintight tactical pants clung to my legs. My boots clomped against the tile, instead of making the cute echoing sound of high heels.
Mikey and I got pulled into a Grinder. The things said in these rooms didn't go on record. No cameras or bugs in here. I nodded down toward my shoulder and tried to sneak a sniff. As suspected, I was in major need of a shower. My usually pale skin looked an unhealthy gray, from the ash of the explosion which was matted down and stuck on by sweat, and, God, I didn't even want to guess what I smelled like.
“Mikey, I swear I can smell you from here.” I sniffed the air and wrinkled my nose.
“Har, har. You smell like sweet roses yourself, Ju-Ju.”
He attempted to lift my arm from my side, and I locked it into place.
“Don't torture yourself. That would not be a good thing for either of us in this tiny confined space,” I squeaked out.
His fingers slowly released their grip, and I tried to remain unaware of the tingling sensation they left behind on my arm. I wasn't allowed to have tingling sensations. I wanted to sigh, but secret agents didn't get to sigh over boys.
The door handle turned. The bottom hinge creaked an unearthly groan as it opened. The door needed some WD40, judging by its sound of metal on metal.
Burgeson. Mikey and I shoved to our feet and saluted.
“Sit down. Don't salute to me, jeeze. You aren't in school anymore.” He grumbled with a smile on his wrinkled, teddy bear face. You wouldn't guess the man could shoot basically any target from any range, with any weapon. He was deadly, masquerading as Santa Claus.
“Old habits, sir,” I said through a smile.
“Come 'ere, kid.”
I ran over and got the best bear hug ever.
Director Burgeson had brought me into the Eisenhower program. He taught the âspecial procedures' class and kicked ass on behalf of dads everywhere to any boy who ever disrespected a girl. He was my second dad.
“Mikey. How're ya?”
Mikey nodded. “Good, sir, thank you. What's next for us?”
Burgeson pushed me away, and a mixed look of regret and skepticism crossed his face. “Mike, we need your skill set in Mexico City. You'll be in the field for the next year. You and Julia are going different directions at this point. You're no longer going to be partners.”
My chest hollowed out. Someone had stolen my insides. My stomach bottomed out, like it does when you ride to the top of a rollercoaster that drops you too quick. No, no! They couldn't take Mikey away. Hell, we had proved ourselves. We had worked our asses off to get Hernandez.
“We just knocked the last case out of the park. Hernandez, his drugs, his ring, they're gone. Not to mention the cover-up that Mikey and I did for the governor's daughter, keeping it from the locals,” I bit out, my voice trembling, waving my hand around the room. My well-fought-for control was slipping, my heart threatening to climb out of my throat.
Burgeson flinched slightly.
“We aren't breaking you up to punish you. You're both getting what should be considered a promotion. This should be exciting. I know you've become friends, so I'm sorry you won't see each other any more. But that's not what's important, though, and you both damn well know that.” Bergeson threw the last part out in a quiet huff.
A blush crept across my chest, the heat threatening to crawl up my neck, my face about to betray how mortifying this was. Breaking us up, like we were a damn couple.
“Each of your mission specifics are classified. Julia will be in New York City. If you have to contact her, go through me. Otherwise, you don't need to. Are we understood?”
We both nodded. Nothing we could do about orders.
“Mike, your team is waiting for you outside. I'll give you two minutes, out of the goodness of my heart, to say good-bye to your old academy friend.” Bergeson nodded to us and slipped out the door.