Seduced by the Operative Merline Lovelace Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR For psychologist Claire Cantwell–code name Cyrene–the stakes couldn't be higher.Tapped for a top-secret mission for the president, the OMEGA covert operative needed the unique expertise of a man with whom she'd shared danger–and her bed. Lethally attractive special ops agent and ultrasuave diplomat Luis Esteban wanted more than Claire was ready to give.Now, with their very survival at stake, Claire has to trust Luis with her life…even if that means surrendering the one thing she vowed never to give: her heart. “What if I stay longer?” He gave her hair another slow stroke. “Or don’t leave at all?” The question brought her blinking awake, as he’d 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 it’s time to renegotiate those boundaries.” “Why?” “I want more of you, Claire.” “You have all I’m 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 I’ve—finally!—written it. I hope you have as much fun as I did going along on the mission that tested both Claire’s skills and her ability to resist Luis’s determined pursuit. If you’d 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 (http://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, she’s 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 Oklahoma’s Writer of the Year and the Oklahoma Female Veteran of the Year, Merline is also a recipient of a Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA Award. When she’s 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 I’d 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 didn’t 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 Nick’s real job—director 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 husband’s 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 president’s abrupt cancellation of a goodwill swing through Central America, due to his teenage daughter’s 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.” “That’s when most dreams occur,” she acknowledged. “During REM—rapid eye movement—sleep. 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 she’d 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. He’s worried sick about her.” “Understandable. She’s 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 he’d balanced the demands of his political career against the needs of his daughter. That much was well-known. What hadn’t been made quite so public was that Andrews’s party put enormous pressure on him to run for president. He’d 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. Andrews’s determination to clean house hadn’t made him popular with certain career bureaucrats and Beltway bandits, however. He’d 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.” “I’ll certainly do whatever I can to help, although I haven’t 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 public’s 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 who’d 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 Lightning’s hand a quick shake before turning to Claire. “Thanks for rearranging your schedule for us, Dr. Cantwell.” “You’re welcome, sir.” She returned his firm handshake before shifting her gaze to the teenager. “It’s 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. I’ll be happy to chat, if that’s 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 who’d waved to photographers before boarding Air Force One had acquired a haunted look. “I guess.” The president laid an arm across his daughter’s shoulders. “Why don’t 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, they’d 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. They’d first met years ago, when he served as chief of security for the Central American nation of Cartoza. In that capacity, he’d 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 she’d broken his heart. Maggie knew better, as she laughingly informed Claire when Luis’s roving eye descended on the quiet, self-contained psychologist. The colonel’s blatant attempts to get Claire into his bed had amused her at first. Then slowly, inevitably, they’d reawakened the sexual appetites that had gone into hibernation after her husband’s murder. The man was as skilled a lover as he was persistent. Esteban now served as Cartoza’s ambassador to the U.S. As such, he’d done most of the advance work for President Andrews’s now canceled goodwill trip. Claire knew how many hours he’d 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? I’d like to talk to Ambassador Esteban.” She’d taken only a few steps across the lawn before Luis drew aside with another disembarking passenger. Claire recognized sandy-haired Tom Fogerty, the president’s chief of staff. Whipcord lean and intense, he was one of the few Washington insiders retained by President Andrews to facilitate his administration’s transition. And by the sound of it, Fogarty was not at all happy with the cancellation of the Central American trip. “I don’t know when we’ll reschedule,” he told Luis, impatiently shifting his briefcase from hand to hand. “To tell the truth, Mr.Ambassador, Cartoza isn’t real high on my list of priorities right now.” “It should be,” Luis shot back. “We are the United States’s strongest ally in that region.” “Yeah, well, maybe if you’d managed security a little better in your country, we wouldn’t have had to cut our visit short.” Luis’s 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 wasn’t first tested by both your people and mine.” “Something caused those nightmares. I still think we’ll find they were drug-induced.” “The blood test showed no evidence of hallucinogens. The president informed me of that himself.” “I’m sure he’ll want the tests rerun, now that we’re back in the States.” The implication was as insulting as Fogerty’s sneer. When Luis narrowed his eyes and gave a low hiss, the politician took a quick step back. Hastily, Claire intervened. “I’d like to see those test results,” she said with cool authority. “I’ll obtain the necessary privacy release. If you would, Mr. Fogerty, please ask the president’s physician to fax them to my office. Here’s my card.” “Right.” Keeping a wary eye on Luis, Fogerty pocketed the business card she retrieved from her purse. “And I’ll need to know your assessment of Stacy’s condition.” “I’m sorry, that’s privileged information.” “Not when your patient is the daughter of the president.” “She’s not my patient. We’re merely going to chat.” Claire’s normally soft voice was laced with steel. “With Stacy’s permission, I may tell her father what we talked about. But he’s the only one I’ll 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 Claire’s training and skill at handling people, she’d 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. She’d done exactly that several times during the missions they’d 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. “I’d like your take on what happened.” His expression altered. The heat didn’t 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. I’ll bring the wine. Seven o’clock?” “Seven’s 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 Family’s needs, but the teen kept a private stash of goodies in her suite’s 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. “Dad’s, too.” Luckily, she’d 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 didn’t 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 teen’s plans for the summer led to an awkward pause. “I’m 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 don’t know if he’ll want to take me after…after what happened in Cartoza.” “What did happen, Stacy?” “I don’t 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 these…these 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 they…Then 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. Like…Like 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 don’t necessarily symbolize physical death.” Hope replaced the burgeoning fear in the girl’s eyes. “They don’t?” “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 you’re living in a fishbowl,” Claire added shrewdly, “and you see your father’s 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 they’re so much meaner here.” Claire didn’t doubt that. Andrews was playing in the big league now. “Did you have dreams like this back home?” “No, never!” “Tell me what books you’ve been reading lately. What Web sites you go to, the movies you watch.” With her bright red jacket, jeans and Mary Janes, Stacy Andrews didn’t 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 she’d described, however. “How about caffeine?” She tapped the frosted glass. “Do you usually have a soft drink before bed?” “No. Dad says they’re 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 you’ve 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 he’s 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.” “That’s 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 don’t need to feel guilty for going on with your life, Stacy.” “I don’t. At least, I don’t 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. “I’ll do some research and get back to you. In the meantime, try to go to bed the same time each night—even on weekends—to 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 can’t promise you won’t have these dreams again,” Claire cautioned. “If you do, call me and I’ll come over. Or you can come to my office. We’ll talk you through them and try to understand what they’re telling you.” “Thanks, Dr. Cantwell. I’m…I’m not so scared now.” “Good girl. Do you want me to speak to your father about our discussion? I won’t, if you’d rather not.” “Sure, you can tell Dad. I’ll talk to him, too, and tell him what you said.” Stacy’s Secret Service detail remained on duty in the hall while a staff member escorted Claire to the West Wing. She departed the White House a half hour later, leaving behind a somewhat reassured teenager and a still very worried father. Another staff member drove her back to her office on K Street. Since her very efficient office manager had cleared her schedule after Lightning’s call, Claire decided to beat the traffic out of the city and dictate notes of her session with Stacy Andrews at home. As she drove across the 14th Street Bridge and headed for Alexandria, her thoughts swung between the frightened teenager she’d spent the afternoon with, and the enticing, demanding, occasionally exasperating but always intriguing man she would spend the evening with. Luis could fill in more details concerning Stacy Andrews’s activities while in Cartoza. With a shiver of sensual anticipation, Claire decided he could also make up for the long hours she’d put in at work while he was gone. She loved her profession. Helping someone through pain or confusion or despair gave her a deep sense of giving back to the world. Her client list kept her extremely busy between the missions she worked for OMEGA. Very often, Claire brought casework home with her, as she had tonight. She had a large number of friends and acquaintances, as well. Socializing with them and with her tight circle of fellow agents required skilled juggling. Luis had added another dimension to the life Claire had carved out for herself. And of all the demands on her time and energy, she acknowledged with another ripple of anticipation, Colonel Luis Esteban required the most personal attention. Chapter 2 Thinking of the evening ahead, Claire turned onto a tree-shaded street in Old Town, Alexandria. After her husband’s death, she’d sold their colonial-style home in the suburbs and purchased a three-story townhome. Not only was it closer to her downtown D.C. office, but renovating the town house helped blunt some of her soul-searing grief. Her home was one of four carved out of an eighteenth-century brick warehouse that had once stored huge barrels of tobacco awaiting shipment from the New World to the Old. Claire had sanded the oak plank floors herself and roamed antique stores on weekends for just the right doorknob and lamp. She’d chosen light, neutral fabrics for the furniture, with jewel-toned throw pillows for the occasional splash of color. Plantation shutters graced the windows throughout the house instead of drapes. In her considered opinion, the result was a perfect blend of new and old, of sunlight and space. The tranquility of her home welcomed her as she took the stairs from the ground-floor garage to an entry hall lined with oak plank flooring. Once inside, she decided to change before dictating her notes. When working with clients, she wore suits or pantsuits in cool, soothing colors that, theoretically at least, put them at ease. At home she preferred hip-hugging sweats and comfortable T-shirts. Unless Luis was coming for dinner. Or sex. Or both. With those tantalizing possibilities ahead, she deposited her briefcase on the foyer table and detoured to the den to click on the built-in stereo system. Humming along with Etta James’s smoky rendition of “At Last,” she went upstairs. As always, when she entered her bedroom her glance went first to the crystal-framed photo on the bedside table. It was one of her favorites, snapped during her honeymoon in Hawaii. She and Dave were laughing and splashing through the surf. He looked like he was about to lose his baggy bathing trunks to the undertow. Claire waved to the camera, hoping her new husband didn’t moon the woman who’d obligingly offered to take the picture. “Hard to believe we were ever that young,” she murmured with a smile. Stifling a familiar pang of regret for the years she and Dave had lost, she exchanged her suit for loose-fitting linen slacks with a drawstring waist. She topped those with a colorfully embroidered, off-the-shoulder top she’d picked up during a visit to Cartoza with Luis. He’d taken such delight in showing her his country, she in meeting his friends and family. His parents were dead, but he remained close to his brother, a clutch of sisters, a lively brood of nieces and nephews, and the rather intimidating matriarch of the Esteban clan—a blunt-spoken nonagenarian they all called Tia Maria. Smiling at the memory of Tia Maria’s observation that it was about time Luis chose a woman for her sense instead of her chest size, Claire slid her feet into thong sandals and descended to the kitchen on the main floor of the town house. Cooking for Luis always challenged her admittedly limited culinary skills. Dave had been pretty much a meat-and-potatoes man. Claire’s tastes were somewhat more eclectic, but nowhere near Luis’s sophisticated palate. Since he’d burst into her life, he’d introduced her to exotic delicacies she would never have tried on her own. Thank goodness she had two swordfish steaks in the freezer. While they defrosted in the microwave, she prepared a marinade of lemon juice and white wine. After dousing the steaks, she stuck them back in the fridge. Sprinkled with slivered almonds and arranged on a bed of crushed tomatoes, they would broil in minutes. She assembled a fresh spinach salad and put that into the fridge, too. With crusty French bread and a side of wild rice, the meal should satisfy even Luis’s discerning tastes. Dinner taken care of, Claire went down the hall to the room she’d had custom-fitted as a combination library, office and retreat. Bookshelves lined three walls, high-tech electronic gear the fourth. Her favorite novels and biographies vied for space in one section of shelves. Psychology journals and reference books filled the rest. She went first to check her faxes. She found one from the White House—a confidentiality agreement she needed to sign and return before they would release Stacy Andrews’s medical information, including the results of her most recent blood test. Claire read the agreement carefully. Satisfied it conformed to her own professional standards concerning client privacy, she signed and dated it. Once she’d faxed it back, she powered up her computer and switched on voice recognition mode. “Notes from session with Stacy Andrews, fourteen-year-old female, who’s experienced two vivid nightmares with debilitating sleep interruption.” She noted the date, time and place of the consultation and described in detail her observations and discussion with the president’s daughter. When she finished the dictation, she switched to a powerful search engine that gave her access to a host of databases. Those included the Clinical Psychology Network, with its more than five thousand links, and the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The link she was most interested in at the moment took her to the National Sleep Foundation. Claire knew Freud believed dreams expressed unconscious desires, but modern research had tied them to the REM cycle. REM sleep began with a signal from the pons at the base of the brain. The signal was relayed to the cortex, which controlled learning, thinking and organizing information. Although scientists had yet to definitively determine what actually caused dreams, one theory held that the cortex received fragmented signals from the pons and tried to sequence them into thoughts or scenes. Everyone dreamed. Not everyone remembered their dreams when they woke up. But if the REM cycle was suddenly interrupted or the dreams were vivid or frightening, the sleeper might jerk wake. In that case, they could retain detailed images, as had happened with Stacy Andrews. Chewing on her lower lip, Claire slid a pad toward her and began making copious notes on the symptoms and treatment for nightmares. That led her to the rare but very dangerous condition known as REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, when individuals got out of bed and began physically acting out their dreams while asleep. She was still hard at work when the door chimes rang. Startled, she glanced at her watch. Good thing she’d prepared the swordfish before getting lost in her research. When she opened the door, Luis had to fight to keep his smile lazy. Madre de Dios! Did the woman have any idea how seductive she looked? The last slanting rays of the sun deepened the gold in her pale blond hair and gave her skin a creamy tint. His pulse quickening, Luis followed the clean line of her throat to the slope of her shoulders so enticingly displayed by her blouse. She excited him in her usual attire of severely tailored suits and pumps. Cool and serene, she stirred fantasies of slowly stripping away her outer clothing piece by piece until he roused the passion he knew lay underneath. Like this, though, with her hair falling in a soft cloud to her shoulders and those drawstring pants riding low on her hips, she shoved all thoughts of slow out of his head. His groin tightened, and his greeting took on a husky note. “Buenas tardes, mi corazîn.” “Buenas tardes, Luis.” Her reluctance to use pet names or endearments amused him as much as it had begun to irritate him. He was no overeager young stud. He’d loved passionately once, long ago. Since then, he’d enjoyed mutually satisfying liaisons with a fair number of women. Sophisticated women for the most part, who knew how the game was played and enjoyed playing it. Luis had worked hard to give them as much pleasure as they’d given him. He’d also made sure he parted with each on amicable terms. But this one, this reserved, self-contained beauty, challenged his masculinity in a way no other woman had. Even in their most intimate moments, she held back a part of herself. Luis hadn’t minded at first. He understood and respected her need for privacy in some corners of her life. He was a man with many secrets himself. Yet what had begun as a familiar, sexual dance had gradually become a test of his will. And hers. One day, he vowed, he’d break through the wall she’d built around her heart since her husband’s brutal murder. “Dinner will be ready shortly,” she said as the door closed behind him. “I just have to broil the…” He snagged her arm, tugged her around. “First things first.” Depositing the wine he’d brought on the hall table, he thrust his free hand into her hair. The strands threaded between his fingers like air-spun silk. “I missed you while I was in Cartoza, preparing for President Andrews’s visit.” “I missed you, too.” She came into his arms readily and her mouth opened under his. That should have been enough. That, and the way she hooked her arms around his neck and rose up on tiptoe to return the kiss. Despite her ready kiss—or perhaps because of it—Luis wanted more. Perhaps it was his still-simmering frustration over the president’s canceled trip. Perhaps it was the insult from that ass, Fogarty. Whatever it was spurring him sharpened his desire for this woman to a deep, driving need. He angled his head, found her tongue with his. His hands roamed her back, slid down to cup her bottom and press her against him. He was already hard and aching for her, which made her draw back a little. “Before dinner?” she asked, with a smile in her eyes. “Before, during and after,” he growled, scooping her into his arms. His heels rang on the hardwood stairs as he carried her up to the master bedroom. The decor was all Claire—oyster-colored walls, framed Impressionist prints, an inch-thick Turkish carpet in muted jewel tones. Nothing harsh, nothing jarring, everything perfect and in place. Including the photo in a crystal frame on her bedside table. Luis wasn’t jealous of the husband Claire had loved and lost. On the contrary, that soul-shattering experience had moulded her into the woman she was today. Strong. Self-reliant. Incredibly skilled, both in her profession and the dangerous undercover ops she worked for OMEGA. Too strong at times. Too self-contained. What ate at him was the knowledge she’d entered this relationship for the same reasons he’d entered it. For friendship and intellectual stimulation, as much as sexual satisfaction. The problem was, she seemed content with that. The atavistic urge to disrupt the tranquil harmony of both the room and the woman in his arms gripped him. A little roughly, he deposited her on the bed and stood over her while he unbuckled his belt and shed his clothing. Her gaze swept down his chest and flat belly to linger on the erection jutting from the nest of dark hair at his groin. “You have missed me,” she said with a teasing smile. Luis was in no mood for teasing. He wanted her wet and hot, as hungry for him as he was for her. At some deeper, primal level, he also wanted her to acknowledge him as a mate as worthy of her as the husband she’d lost. He took time only to unstrap the ankle holster that was as much a part of him as his suspicious nature and various scars. Naked, he came down beside her. Stretching her arms above her head, he captured her wrists with one hand and yanked at the ties of her slacks with the other. Her eyes widened, but she obligingly kicked off her sandals and raised her hips. In one swift move, Luis rid her of both slacks and lacy briefs. He tugged up the hem of her blouse, well aware of the fact that she rarely wore a bra at home. She didn’t need one. Her breasts were small and firm and tipped with pink nipples that rose to stiff peaks when he suckled them. Mounding the creamy flesh with his free hand, he bent his head. Claire dragged in a swift breath. She wasn’t sure what lay behind this sudden, Neanderthal approach to sex, but her body responded to it. Her back arched as Luis used his tongue and teeth on her. Pleasure streaked from her breasts to her belly, and her womb clenched in a tight spasm. She could feel the tension building, feel her nerves ignite every place his silky mustache prickled her skin. His mouth was hot and demanding, his knee insistent, as he wedged it between hers and pried them apart. The psychologist in Claire analyzed the negative cognitions of sexual dominance even as the woman in her responded to his strength and unerring skill. “Luis,” she panted, tugging at her wrists. “Let me touch you. Let me pleasure you.” “Next time, querida. This time, I want to pleasure you.” He was good at it. So damned good. His muscled thigh pressed against her sensitive flesh. His mouth claimed hers. When he finally released her wrists and hooked an arm around her waist to position her under him, Claire was wet and ready. And very grateful for the fact they didn’t have to resort to condoms. She’d started birth control again before deciding to yield to Luis’s blatant attempts at seduction, but was well aware of his numerous past conquests. They’d been cautious at first, always using the extra protection of a condom. She trusted him enough now, though, to believe him when he swore she was the only woman in his life. For the moment, anyway. She had no idea how long that would last, but until circumstances changed, she had not the slightest hesitation about welcoming him eagerly into her body. When he entered her, she could feel each hot, ridged inch. His first thrusts were swift, hard, possessive. She lifted her hips to meet them, and they soon moved together in a rhythm that grew more urgent, more intense, with each grind of their hips. Her climax began as a swirl of tight, dark sensation. She felt it spiraling up from her belly, tried to contain it. When the sensations exploded in a starburst of exquisite pleasure, she threw her head back, arched her spine and rode the crest. “Well, we certainly worked up an appetite.” Smiling, Claire sipped her frothy cappuccino and surveyed the remnants of the dinner they’d eaten on the deck. A fat candle flickered inside a glass hurricane lamp. Tiny white lights strung through the vines twisting around the trellised roof added to the glow of a full moon. She’d pulled on lacy briefs and a celery-colored silk caftan. Luis’s scent still clung to her skin, mingling with the fragrant cherry-and-rum aroma of his thin cigarillo and the chocolaty steam rising from the cup she held cradled in both hands. He sat across from her. He’d raked a hand through his dark hair and left his shirt hanging out, half-buttoned. She liked him this way, Claire mused, as her gaze drifted to the V of bronzed skin dusted with curling black chest air. Relaxed. Comfortable. He was usually so polished and urbane. So much in control. The colonel might have left the military years ago, but the military hadn’t left him. “Tell me what happened in Cartoza,” she requested. “I’m damned if I know.” He leaned back in his chair and blew out a cloud of smoke. “I thought everything was going well. President and Se?ora Diaz welcomed the Andrews to Cartoza with a family luncheon. That afternoon, the two presidents attended the opening session of the Organization of American States. Andrews was welcomed warmly despite the United States’ difficulties with some Latin-American countries.” “Like Venezuela,” Claire murmured, remembering a particularly nasty op another OMEGA agent had worked on that country’s border some months back. “Like Venezuela,” Luis echoed. “While the politicos attended to business, Se?ora Diaz gave Stacy a tour of the capital. They were accompanied by the fourteen-year-old girl who recently won our national spelling bee. And, of course, a full contingent of both U.S. and Cartozan security forces. I vetted every one of our people myself.” Claire didn’t doubt it. As former chief of Cartoza’s security forces, Luis would not take the challenges associated with a visiting head of state lightly. “The first nightmare came well after midnight, close to four a.m. I didn’t learn of it until several hours later. I also learned the physician accompanying Andrews’s party had administered a sedative and Stacy had slept for the rest of the night.” Frowning, he rolled the thin cigar in his fingers. “She appeared happy and quite normal the next morning, although you could see the fatigue in her eyes. We altered her schedule so it included only the events we thought she would most enjoy. Stacy and Rosa—the spelling bee champion—splashed in the Dolphin Cove with a group of other youngsters. That afternoon they attended a village fiesta. It was very colorful, crowded and noisy, but I swear to you, Claire, my people tested everything before she ate or drank it. I’m ninety-nine-point-nine percent certain no one slipped her any kind of drug or hallucinogen.” “It certainly seems unlikely, but you and I have been in this business long enough to know anything is possible. So the second nightmare occurred that night, after the fiesta?” “It did.” His mouth grim, Luis stubbed out his cigarillo in the ashtray Claire kept out on the deck for his use. He never lit up inside and always took care to stand or sit downwind, so as not to expose her to secondhand smoke. She would have liked him to give the habit up completely, but the casual nature of their relationship didn’t give her the right to request that kind of behavioral modification. Unless or until that relationship changed, she actually enjoyed an occasional whiff of the rum-and-cherry smoke. “Did the White House fax you the results of the blood test they administered after the second nightmare?” he wanted to know. “I had to sign and send back a confidentiality agreement first. The results may have come in in the past few hours…while I was otherwise engaged.” “Will you inform me if the actual results are different from what I was told?” “No.” Her calm reply produced only a small shrug. Luis had learned enough about Claire’s profession—and about her—during their months together to have expected no other answer. He also knew she would do her best to keep him in the loop, however. Especially with his prickly macho pride and national honor at stake. “If they are different,” she assured him, “I’ll ask Stacy or her father if I can discuss them with you.” She tapped a nail against her cappuccino cup. A item from the notes she’d dictated tugged at her thoughts. “Do you know what the women at the fiesta were wearing? The village women?” The question surprised him. “Their best garments, I would guess. As you know well, the women of my county love bright colors. They would have worn ruffled skirts in red and turquoise and green. Embroidered blouses trimmed with colorful ribbons. That sort of thing.” “What about on their heads?” “The girls usually wear garlands of flowers, the older women lace mantillas.” “Flowers and lace, not kerchiefs?” “Some may have covered their hair with cloth mantles. Why do you ask this?” “It was just something Stacy said. A fragment of the dream she remembered.” Luis’s gaze sharpened. “You think a woman wearing a head covering may have frightened her and caused her to have these nightmares?” “I haven’t formulated any viable theories as to their root cause yet. I had just dictated my notes and begun my research when you arrived.” “Nevertheless, I’ll query the captain who commanded her escort and have him review the footage from the festival. If Stacy spoke to or came in contact with a woman wearing a mantle, it should be on the surveillance videos.” Being able to take some action, any action, seemed to reenergize him. “Are you done with your cappuccino, my heart? If so, I’ll carry the dishes into the kitchen.” “I’m finished.” When she rose to help gather the plates, he nudged her aside. “You cooked, I’ll clean. Go, finish this research I interrupted. Then we will finish what we began earlier.” Luis made sure their second session was as slow and sweet as the first was fierce. He would have made it last until dawn, if Claire hadn’t finally driven him over the edge. His chest heaving, he sprawled bonelessly amid the tangled sheets until the world stopped spinning. She lay with her head nested on his shoulder, her hair spilling across his chest and the musky scent of their lovemaking teasing his nostrils. Idly, he played with strands of her hair as the thoughts that had tugged at him when she’d opened the door to him earlier once again played through his mind. Why couldn’t he seem to get enough of this slender, maddeningly independent woman? How was it that she satisfied his every carnal desire, yet left him wanting more? God knows he was a self-professed connoisseur of women. Some he’d admired for their beauty, some for their intelligence or talent or sparkling personalities. But this one…This one stirred urges that edged dangerously close to that vague, ill-defined emotion the poets labeled love. Luis had teetered on the brink of that emotion only once before. The affair had flamed hot and ended in a murderous cross fire. Since then, he’d limited himself to mutually satisfying liaisons with no commitments on either side. Yet lying here, stroking Claire’s hair, breathing in her scent… “Shall I stay the night, querida?” “What time is it?” she murmured sleepily. He flicked a look at the bedside clock. His glance lingered on the crystal frame for a second before he replied. “Almost two.” “Mmm.” She buried her nose in the warm skin of his neck. “Too late for you to drive back into the city and rouse the embassy staff. Stay the night.” “What if I stay longer?” He gave her hair another slow stroke. “Or don’t leave at all?” The question bought her blinking awake, as he’d 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 the plantation shutters. Saw, too, the question in her eyes. “We agreed up front that we both need our space, Luis. We discussed boundaries.” “Perhaps it’s time to renegotiate those boundaries.” “Why?” “I want more of you, Claire.” “You have all I’m prepared to give right now,” she said quietly. “All I can give.” He was formulating his response to that when the phone beside the bed shrilled. Rolling over, she lifted the receiver. “Dr. Cantwell.” A few clicks sounded, then a disembodied voice announced that the line was secure. That was followed by a terse request that came through clearly enough for Luis to overhear. “This is Tom Fogerty, Dr. Cantwell. Can you come to the Executive Residence right away?” “Of course. Is it Stacy?” “Yes. She’s had another episode. She’s sobbing hysterically and asking for you.” Chapter 3 When an aide escorted Claire into the Executive Residence, an assortment of staff members and Secret Service agents hovered in the hall outside Stacy’s bedroom. Sandy-haired Tom Fogarty was among them looking tense, hastily dressed in jeans and a knit shirt with one edge of the collar turned under. He greeted Claire with undisguised relief, then opened the door to the same suite she’d visited the day before and stuck his head in. “Dr. Cantwell’s here, sir.” “Ask her to come in.” Fogarty closed the door behind Claire, leaving her alone with the president and his daughter. They sat huddled side by side on the sofa in the sitting room. Every lamp was lit in that room and the room beyond. Claire caught a glimpse of the bed with its covers thrown off and onto the floor, as if the occupant had struggled violently with them. The president sat beside his daughter with an arm around her shoulders. One glance told Claire that Stacy had yet to recover from her terrifying dream. Above her pink cotton sleep shirt, her face was splotchy and her eyes red from crying. The president didn’t look much better. Claire saw no trace of his trademark boyish charm. Belted into a navy robe with the presidential seal embroidered on the pocket, he greeted her calmly, but the deep crease in his brow showed he was a very worried father. “Thanks for coming, Dr. Cantwell. Sorry to drag you out in the middle of the night.” “It’s not a problem, Mr. President. Hi, Stacy.” Sympathy for the girl softened her voice. “This must have been a bad one.” The teen shuddered. “It was awful.” “Do you feel up to telling me about it? It’s difficult, I know, but I’d like to hear whatever details you can remember before your subconscious suppresses them.” “Will it?” she asked with a desperate need for reassurance. “Make me forget all this, I mean?” “That’s normally what happens.” At the president’s invitation, Claire took the chair angled toward the sofa. “Would you like coffee?” he asked. “That’s a fresh carafe. They just brought it up a few minutes ago.” “I’m fine for now, thanks.” “Okay.” He glanced from Claire to his hunch-shouldered daughter. “Do you want me to leave while you talk to Dr. Cantwell, Stace? I’ll wait outside in the hall. You can call me when you’re done.” “No.” She clutched at the lapel of his robe. “Stay, Daddy. Please.” “Sure. If that’s okay with Dr. Cantwell?” “Certainly. I’d like to record this session so I won’t be distracted by taking notes or have to try to remember everything later. Is that all right with you, Stacy?” “I guess so.” Claire extracted a microrecorder from her purse and clicked it on. After noting the time, date, location and name of the client, she slipped the recorder into the pocket of her pantsuit. “Out of sight, out of mind,” she told the other two with a smile. “Okay, Stacy. Tell me whatever you can remember from your dream.” In a choked whisper, the teen described a dream sequence very similar to the one she’d related to Claire earlier that day. Crowds of people surrounding around her, reaching for her. Women in aprons and kerchiefs. One man, she thought, was holding some kind of wooden pitchfork. Bit by bit, their flesh began to melt away. Their eyes became empty sockets. Until they were just rank upon rank of skulls, skeletons, disjointed bones. “There was something else.” Forehead furrowed, she tried to remember. “Some kind of vault or crypt or something.” Her hand crept across the sofa cushion to clutch her father. White-knuckled, she continued in a ragged whisper. “I remember stepping down some stairs. I know I felt cold. Icy cold. I think I heard music or chanting. There were more bones. So many bones. Then I could sense…” She gulped, breathing hard. Claire ached at the fear reflected in the girl’s eyes. “I could sense…I could feel my own skin sagging and starting to fall off. I screamed for help. But they just looked at me, Dr. Cantwell! All those skulls, all those skeletons. They just looked at me with their dead, empty eyes. Does it mean I’m going to die?” she asked on a note of sheer panic. “Absolutely not. We talked about this yesterday, remember? Dreams aren’t harbingers of the future. They’re an amalgam of your subconscious, fractured thoughts. Our task now is to determine what’s implanting those thoughts.” She shifted her attention to the president. “I told Stacy yesterday that threatening dreams like this one could stem from a number of causes. Stress might be a major factor, as could illness, sleeping disorders, drug reactions or the loss of a loved one.” The crease between president’s brow deepened. Out of that list, the loss of a loved one had to have hit him as hard as it had his daughter. With a tug of sympathetic understanding, Claire continued calmly. “I think we should rule out possible physical factors first. I’d like to talk to your doctor and set up a complete physical for Stacy. I’d also like you to consider allowing me to schedule her for a sleep study.” “What does that involve?” “The studies generally include a polysomnogram, which records a number of body functions while the subject is sleeping. Like brain activity, eye movement, heart rate and carbon dioxide blood levels. Also, we’ll conduct a Multiple Sleep Latency Test. That measures how long it takes the subject to fall asleep.” “Where would these tests be conducted?” Stacy wanted to know. “In a hospital sleep lab. Georgetown University Hospital has an excellent one. So does the University of Maryland Medical Center. I’m sure Bethesda does, too, although I’m not as familiar with it as the other two.” The president and his daughter exchanged glances. “What do you think, Stace?” “I trust Dr. Cantwell. I’m okay with whatever she suggests.” “Good.” Slipping a hand into her pocket, Claire clicked off the recorder. “I’ll get with your physician and set the tests up. Don’t worry, Stacy. Between us, we’ll figure what’s causing these dreams.” “I hope so! I’m supposed to leave for camp next month.” To redirect the teen’s thoughts from the nightmares, Claire asked her about the camp’s activities. Stacy perked up when describing the summer camp for disabled children, where she’d served as a counselor last year and hoped to again this year. They chatted until she ran out of steam and her lids began to droop. When she put up a hand to cover a wide yawn, Claire knew it was time to end the session. “Sleepy, Stacy?” “Yes.” “You hit the sack,” her father instructed. “I’ll step outside for a moment to talk to Dr. Cantwell, then I’ll bunk down here on the sofa for the rest of the night.” “You don’t have to do that, Dad!” “I don’t have to, but I want to.” “Okay. Thanks, Dr. Cantwell.” “You’re welcome. We’ll talk again when I have the tests set up.” “I want them done right away,” the president told Claire when they went into the hall and he’d waved back the handful of staff so they could speak privately. “Today, if possible.” “I’ll make the calls this morning.” “She’s the most important person in my life, Dr. Cantwell.” His Adam’s apple worked. “Whatever it takes, whatever I have to do, I’ll do it to give her a normal, happy childhood. Even if it means resigning.” “I’m confident it won’t come to that.” “I hope not!” He thrust a hand through his hair. “But the stress of this job is unimaginable. Far more than I’d anticipated, even with my years as a governor. And the complete lack of privacy. You’re surrounded, every minute of the day. If that’s what’s giving Stacy these nightmares…” His voice took on a gruff edge. “If that’s what’s making her so scared…” “We don’t know that’s the root cause. There are many other possibilities. Including,” she added, “an inherited tendency. May I ask, sir, do you dream?” “If I do, I don’t remember the details after waking up.” “What about Stacy’s mom? Did she have nightmares?” “Occasionally, now that I think about it.” His forehead furrowed. “But Teo’s dreams were never like this.” “Teo?” Like the rest of America, Claire had read numerous articles during the long campaign that touched on John Andrews’s deceased wife. None of those articles had referred to her by anything other than Anne Elizabeth Andrews. “Teodora was her confirmation name,” the president explained. “She got it from her grandfather on her mother’s side.” A brief smile flitted across his face, easing the lines of stress. For a moment he looked like the boyishly handsome president who’d taken office just months ago. “Teodore Cernak was one of the toughest old coots I’ve ever met,” he told Claire. “He was just sixteen when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in ’38. They conscripted him into the navy, but he deserted a year later and stowed away in the hold of a cargo ship. He snuck into this country with less than five dollars in his pocket. Twenty years later, the man owned and operated nineteen dry-cleaning shops and still cussed like a sailor.” “He must have passed some of that toughness to Stacy. She’s a remarkable young woman, Mr. President. Together, we’ll get her through this rough patch.” Dawn streaked the ink-black sky when Claire drove down her quiet Alexandria street. As she neared her town house she saw the sleek sports car Luis drove when not on official embassy duties still parked at the curb. Deep in thought, she hit the garage remote. In the rush to get to the White House, Luis’s suggestion that it might be time to renegotiate their agreed-upon boundaries had slipped to the back of her mind. She hadn’t had time to reflect on it, much less formulate a response. She wasn’t up to tackling that kind of discussion now, however. Their two deliciously exhausting sessions between the sheets and the hours she’d spent at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had her running on reserve. Luis, thank goodness, recognized that immediately. He was in the kitchen, settled comfortably at the island counter with the early edition of the Washington Post and a mug of coffee. He’d showered, Claire saw from the dampness glistening in his black hair. And shaved. The prickly stubble that scraped her inner thighs last night was gone. “How is Stacy?” he asked. “Shaken.” That’s all Claire would say, despite his very direct involvement in the situation. He understood and accepted the concise reply with a nod. “I hope you can help her.” “I’m certainly going to try.” When she shrugged off her shoulder bag and dropped it on the counter, he skimmed a discerning eye over her face. “You look exhausted.” “I am.” “Shall I make you breakfast? Eggs scrambled with sausage and salsa?” “As tempting as that sounds, I’ll pass. What I need right now is a shower, followed by a power nap. Then I have to hit the phones.” “I understand.” When he eased off the stool and crossed the room, his scent enveloped her. Claire succumbed to a moment of weakness. Sliding her arms around his waist, she leaned against his chest. “God, you smell good.” “Do you think so?” One jet-black eyebrow arched. “My staff will no doubt smirk when I arrive home smelling of your perfumed soap. I must bring my own next time. And a shaving kit to leave here.” He scraped a palm across his chin. “Your plastic razor does not do the job on my bristles.” “Boundaries,” she murmured. “We’ll talk about them later. When we’re not so tired.” He curled a knuckle under her chin and tipped her face to his. “Yes, querida. We will.” His mouth brushed hers. The kiss was whisper light, yet made Claire rethink her immediate priorities. “Now go,” he instructed, “take your nap. I’ll let myself out.” Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39923074&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. 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