Merline Lovelace.

Seduced by the Operative






What if I stay longer?

He gave her hair another slow stroke. Or dont leave at all? The question brought her blinking awake, as hed known it would. Pushing upright, she propped herself on an elbow. Her hair fell across her forehead. When she hooked the loose strand behind her ear, he saw her face clearly in the moonlight streaming through the top half of plantation shutters. Saw, too, the question in her eyes.

We agreed up front that we both need our space, Luis. We discussed boundaries.

Perhaps its time to renegotiate those boundaries.

Why?

I want more of you, Claire.

You have all Im prepared to give right now, she said quietly. All I can give.

Dear Reader,

As many of you know, Claire Cantwell, code name Cyrene, and sexy Colonel Luis Esteban have appeared as secondary characters in a number of CODE NAME: DANGER novels. I plotted their book years ago, but other projects kept getting in the way. So many readers have asked for their story, though, that Ivefinally!written it. I hope you have as much fun as I did going along on the mission that tested both Claires skills and her ability to resist Luiss determined pursuit.

If youd like to see photos of the places and events described in this book, go to my Web site at www.merlinelovelace.com and click on the Travel tab at the top of the page, then on the album labeled Europe 07.

And be sure to watch for the next CODE NAME: DANGER book, coming in 2010 from the Silhouette Romantic Suspense line.

All my best,

Merline

Seduced by the Operative
Merline Lovelace


www.millsandboon.co.uk

MERLINE LOVELACE

A retired U.S. Air Force officer, Merline Lovelace served at bases all over the world, including Taiwan, Vietnam and at the Pentagon. When she hung up her uniform for the last time, she decided to combine her love of adventure with a flair for storytelling, basing many of her tales on her experiences in the service.

Since then, shes produced more than seventy-five action-packed novels, many of which have made USA TODAY and Waldenbooks bestseller lists. Over ten million copies of her works are in print in thirty-one countries. Named Oklahomas Writer of the Year and the Oklahoma Female Veteran of the Year, Merline is also a recipient of a Romance Writers of Americas prestigious RITA Award.

When shes not glued to her keyboard, she and her husband enjoy traveling and chasing little white balls around the fairways of Oklahoma. Check out her Web site at www.merlinelovelace.com for news, contests and information about upcoming releases.

To Marie and Tom and Caren and Mike.

What a wonderful adventure our trip to Prague was.

And thanks for that excursion to the bone ossuary who wudda thunk Id get a whole book out of it!

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 1

The terrifying dreams started two nights ago.

Dr. Claire Cantwell listened carefully as Nick Jensen, code name Lightning, wheeled his sleek Jag down Pennsylvania Avenue. The warm May weather had brought lunchtime crowds pouring out of the federal buildings that lined the broad avenue. Yet Claire didnt so much as glance at the people crowding into outdoor cafes or lined up at street vendor carts. Her attention remained riveted on the man at her side.

Tall, tanned and tawny-haired, Nick served as special envoy to the president. The title was one of those empty honorifics spun up for a wealthy campaign contributor decades ago. Only a handful of Washington insiders knew the position served as a facade for Nicks real jobdirector of OMEGA, an ultrasecret government agency whose operatives were activated only at the direction of the president.

One of them had just been activated. Nick had swung by her office a few moments ago on his way to the White House. Claire Cantwell, code name Cyrene, was getting briefed on her mission on the fly.

A psychologist by profession, Claire had made a painful transition into the grim world of forensic psychology and hostage negotiation after her husbands kidnapping and brutal murder almost six years ago. That expertise stood her in good stead during the dangerous and highly secret ops she worked as an undercover operative for OMEGA.

This mission apparently would draw more on her skills as a psychologist than a secret agent. Still trying to assimilate the facts surrounding the presidents abrupt cancellation of a goodwill swing through Central America, due to his teenage daughters terrifying nightmares, Claire probed for details.

Did they give you any information about the nature of the nightmares?

Only that they hit suddenly, late at night. Or rather, early in the morning. Around three or four a.m.

Thats when most dreams occur, she acknowledged. During REMrapid eye movementsleep. That normally takes place in the latter stages of the sleep cycle.

The girl woke screaming and soaked in sweat, Lightning related. The first night, the physician accompanying the presidential party thought shed simply overdone it while touring schools and special events. He gave her a mild sedative to help her sleep. The second night, the visions were evidently so real, so terrifying, that the president decided to bring her home. Hes worried sick about her.

Understandable. Shes his only child.

His only immediate family, in fact. John Jefferson Andrews had lost his wife to cancer when he was a charismatic young governor. Since then hed balanced the demands of his political career against the needs of his daughter.

That much was well-known. What hadnt been made quite so public was that Andrewss party put enormous pressure on him to run for president. Hed turned them down repeatedly, and only threw his hat in the ring after his supporters convinced him Washington needed an infusion of fresh blood.

It did. Desperately.

Andrewss determination to clean house hadnt made him popular with certain career bureaucrats and Beltway bandits, however. Hed taken office in January. Now, just four months later, noisy grumbling could be heard in the halls of congress and various federal departments.

The president asked for you personally, Lightning said as he pulled up to the first White House security checkpoint. You impressed both him and his daughter when you briefed them on the emotional and psychological stresses unique to the Washington environment.

Ill certainly do whatever I can to help, although I havent had a great deal of experience in adolescent psychology.

The whap-whap-whap of a helicopter passing low overhead almost drowned her out. By the time Claire and Lightning cleared the subsequent checkpoints and walked out to the heliport, Marine One was touching down.

The steps lowered and the president emerged first. Lean and fit and boyishly handsome, John Andrews had captured the publics imagination with his energy and obvious devotion to his daughter. Both showed as he turned to help the teenager descend.

Claire studied the dark-haired young woman as she crossed the lawn with her father. Her body language spoke volumes. Shoulders hunched, she kept her head down and avoided looking at the group whod turned out to welcome home the presidential party. The only sign of a normal fourteen-year-old was the iPod poking out of the pocket of her bright red jacket and the white earbuds looped around her neck.

The president gave Lightnings hand a quick shake before turning to Claire. Thanks for rearranging your schedule for us, Dr. Cantwell.

Youre welcome, sir. She returned his firm handshake before shifting her gaze to the teenager. Its good to see you again, Stacy.

The girl nodded and murmured a greeting.

Your father thought it might help you to talk about what happened during the trip. Ill be happy to chat, if thats okay with you.

The teen lifted her head then, and shocked Claire with the dark circles under her eyes. In a few short days, the smiling, happy young girl whod waved to photographers before boarding Air Force One had acquired a haunted look.

I guess.

The president laid an arm across his daughters shoulders. Why dont you take Dr. Cantwell up to the living quarters, Stace? I need to go to the office and make a few calls.

Okay.

Claire started to follow the teen, but caught sight of a familiar figure descending the steps of Marine One. Her pulse gave a sudden kick and a wry smile tipped her lip.

Colonel Luis Esteban made Antonio Banderas look like something the cat dug up.

She should be conditioned to the impact of his curling black hair, bronzed skin, silky mustache and come-hither smile, all wrapped up in six foot two inches of solid male. She and Luis had worked several missions together. More to the point, theyd been lovers for almost a year now. Between her practice and periodic missions for OMEGA, and his frequent trips back to his own country, they saw each other often enough to maintain the sizzle, but not so often that the mere sight of him should send heat racing through her veins and clench the muscles low in her belly.

Theyd first met years ago, when he served as chief of security for the Central American nation of Cartoza. In that capacity, hed worked an op with Maggie Sinclair, another now-retired OMEGA agent. The drop-dead-gorgeous Esteban had turned up in Washington some months later, fully intending to follow up on the attraction that had sparked between him and Maggie.

When he found her involved with the man she later married, Luis claimed shed broken his heart. Maggie knew better, as she laughingly informed Claire when Luiss roving eye descended on the quiet, self-contained psychologist. The colonels blatant attempts to get Claire into his bed had amused her at first. Then slowly, inevitably, theyd reawakened the sexual appetites that had gone into hibernation after her husbands murder. The man was as skilled a lover as he was persistent.

Esteban now served as Cartozas ambassador to the U.S. As such, hed done most of the advance work for President Andrewss now canceled goodwill trip. Claire knew how many hours hed put into preparing for it, and guessed he would shoulder a heavy dose of responsibility over its abrupt termination.

Would you wait just a moment, Stacy? Id like to talk to Ambassador Esteban.

Shed taken only a few steps across the lawn before Luis drew aside with another disembarking passenger. Claire recognized sandy-haired Tom Fogerty, the presidents chief of staff. Whipcord lean and intense, he was one of the few Washington insiders retained by President Andrews to facilitate his administrations transition. And by the sound of it, Fogarty was not at all happy with the cancellation of the Central American trip.

I dont know when well reschedule, he told Luis, impatiently shifting his briefcase from hand to hand. To tell the truth, Mr.Ambassador, Cartoza isnt real high on my list of priorities right now.

It should be, Luis shot back. We are the United Statess strongest ally in that region.

Yeah, well, maybe if youd managed security a little better in your country, we wouldnt have had to cut our visit short.

Luiss jaw locked. Even from several yards away, Claire recognized the warning signs.

I will tell you one more time, my friend, he said slowly, dangerously. Stacy Andrews did not eat or drink anything that wasnt first tested by both your people and mine.

Something caused those nightmares. I still think well find they were drug-induced.

The blood test showed no evidence of hallucinogens. The president informed me of that himself.

Im sure hell want the tests rerun, now that were back in the States.

The implication was as insulting as Fogertys sneer.

When Luis narrowed his eyes and gave a low hiss, the politician took a quick step back. Hastily, Claire intervened.

Id like to see those test results, she said with cool authority. Ill obtain the necessary privacy release. If you would, Mr. Fogerty, please ask the presidents physician to fax them to my office. Heres my card.

Right. Keeping a wary eye on Luis, Fogerty pocketed the business card she retrieved from her purse. And Ill need to know your assessment of Stacys condition.

Im sorry, thats privileged information.

Not when your patient is the daughter of the president.

Shes not my patient. Were merely going to chat. Claires normally soft voice was laced with steel. With Stacys permission, I may tell her father what we talked about. But hes the only one Ill consult or release information to without her specific consent.

Fogerty jerked his head in a quick nod and walked away. Luis followed his progress with narrowed eyes.

He is an officious bureaucrat, that one. The next time he insults me or my country, he will find himself eating his teeth for breakfast.

For all Claires training and skill at handling people, shed yet to learn how best to deal with Luis when something roused his fierce, untempered masculinity. His surge of testosterone at moments like this reflected his passion and his proud Latin heritage.

On a deep instinctive level, she appreciated his tough machismo. He was a man anyone could rely on in a tight situation. She should know. Shed done exactly that several times during the missions theyd worked together.

On a more civilized level, she wanted to calm and soothe and direct his uncompromising maleness into somewhat less combative channels. The eternal female response, when dealing with someone like Luis, she acknowledged with a wry inner smile.

Can you come for dinner? she asked quietly. Id like your take on what happened.

His expression altered. The heat didnt leave his dark eyes and the testosterone was still zinging through the air, but this time both were directed at her.

Of course, mi querida. Ill bring the wine. Seven oclock?

Sevens good.

Trailed by her Secret Service detail, Stacy Andrews escorted Claire up a flight of stairs in the Executive Residence. The protective agents remained in the hall outside while the girl ushered Claire into a suite of sunny rooms that overlooked the South Lawn.

The suite blended early American history with the distinctive stamp of a lively teenager. A funky lamp with a leopard-print shade sat atop what looked like a genuine Chippendale tea table. Posters of the Jonas Brothers decorated one wall, a Frederic Church landscape hung on another. A laptop and iPod player occupied a place of honor on an early American slant-lid desk. D.C. schools let out in mid-May for the summer, so there were no backpacks or textbooks scattered around, but Claire noted with approval plenty of teen magazines and paperbacks.

Growing up the daughter of a popular and gregarious governor had instilled Stacy Andrews with social graces beyond her years. Forcing herself to shed some of her reserve, she played the perfect hostess.

Please, make yourself comfortable, Dr. Cantwell.

Claire chose the oversize sofa, angled to face a wall-hung plasma TV.

Would you like something to drink? Stacy asked politely. Tea? Coffee? A Diet Coke?

A Diet Coke would be great.

A small army of staff catered to the First Familys needs, but the teen kept a private stash of goodies in her suites minikitchen. She poured two soft drinks into ice-filled glasses, then filled a bowl with cheesy Corn Curls.

These are my favorite munchies, she confided as she positioned the bowl between them on the sofa. Dads, too.

Luckily, shed provided linen napkins with the snack. Claire nibbled on a few morsels and dusted the orange residue from her fingers before taking a sip of cola. She didnt push the subject foremost on both their minds. Instead, she and Stacy chatted idly about other favorite foods and the latest High School Musical movie. The subject of the teens plans for the summer led to an awkward pause.

Im going to camp, she said slowly, twisting a strand of dark brown hair around two fingers. After camp, I was supposed to accompany Dad on another goodwill tour, this one to Asia. I dont know if hell want to take me afterafter what happened in Cartoza.

What did happen, Stacy?

I dont know! I mean, I was having fun. I met lots of kids my own age and went to a village fiesta and got to swim with the dolphins at a marine life preserve. Then I had thesethese awful dreams.

Can you describe them for me?

There were people. Lots of people dressed in kind of weird clothes.

Weird how?

Old-fashioned, I guess you could call it. And real plain, like they were farmers or something. Some of the women had kerchiefs on their heads. At first they were just standing there, staring at me. Then theyThen they

She twisted the strand of hair into a tight spiral. Her breathing sped up. Carefully, Claire watched these visible signs of distress.

They started crowding closer and closer, Stacy said in a small, scared voice, until I was surrounded.

She swallowed. Her eyes took on a haunted look that accented the dark shadows under them.

Then their faces start falling off, she whispered, pushing out each ragged syllable. The flesh melted away, until they were just skulls with empty eyes. All of them. Just skeletons. Surrounding me. Reaching for me. LikeLike I was going to die and they wanted to drag me into the grave with them!

She ended on a note of rising panic. Claire anchored her with a calm observation.

Skeletons quite often appear in dreams, but they dont necessarily symbolize physical death.

Hope replaced the burgeoning fear in the girls eyes. They dont?

No. In fact, some analysts think they represent life, not death. It could be your subconscious telling you to stop, take a breath, focus on the positive things around you, instead of the negative. Which must be kind of hard to do when youre living in a fishbowl, Claire added shrewdly, and you see your fathers critics on the evening news. It must hurt to hear them question his leadership.

It does! I hate it when people criticize him. They did it back home, too, when he was governor, but theyre so much meaner here.

Claire didnt doubt that. Andrews was playing in the big league now.

Did you have dreams like this back home?

No, never!

Tell me what books youve been reading lately. What Web sites you go to, the movies you watch.

With her bright red jacket, jeans and Mary Janes, Stacy Andrews didnt give the appearance of being into Goth or horror, but Claire knew appearances could be very deceptive. Nothing the girl related seemed likely to have implanted the hideous images shed described, however.

How about caffeine? She tapped the frosted glass. Do you usually have a soft drink before bed?

No. Dad says theyre not good for me and wants me to limit myself to one or two during the day. Her eyes pleaded with Claire for another explanation. The dreams really freaked me out, Dr. Cantwell. What else could have caused them?

Well, it could have been the stress of the trip, although threatening dreams such as the ones youve described can result from any number of causes. Lifting a hand, she ticked off a quick list. Anxiety, illness, loss of a loved one, excessive alcohol consumption, reaction to a drug, sleeping disorders, or even an inherited tendency toward nightmares.

Dad never mentioned having horrible dreams like this, and hes got a lot more stress than I do.

How about your mom? Claire asked gently. You went through a rough time when you lost her. Do you still miss her?

Every day. But She worried her lower lip with her teeth for a moment. It scares me, Dr. Cantwell. Sometimes I have to think real hard to remember what she looked like.

Thats a natural part of healing.

As Claire knew all too well.

We may not keep their faces or the sound of their voices in our heads, but we keep them here. She laid a palm over her heart, reminded vividly of her own torturous journey. You dont need to feel guilty for going on with your life, Stacy.

I dont. At least, I dont think I do.

They talked for a little while longer, and Claire heard nothing that suggested a troubled or deeply disturbed teen.

Tell you what, she said when they finished. Ill do some research and get back to you. In the meantime, try to go to bed the same time each nighteven on weekendsto reset your sleep cycle. A warm, relaxing bath before you hit the sheets might also help. Also a good thirty-minute workout, if you exercise at least four to five hours before bedtime.

I can do that.

I cant promise you wont have these dreams again, Claire cautioned. If you do, call me and Ill come over. Or you can come to my office. Well talk you through them and try to understand what theyre telling you.

Thanks, Dr. Cantwell. ImIm not so scared now.

Good girl. Do you want me to speak to your father about our discussion? I wont, if youd rather not.

Sure, you can tell Dad. Ill talk to him, too, and tell him what you said.

Stacys Secret Service detail remained on duty in the hall while a staff member escorted Claire to the West Wing.





: 1 2 3