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Authors: Paula Graves

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BOOK: Secret Identity
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Rick refilled the Charger’s tank before approaching the woman—people often responded more openly to nosy questions if you asked them while handing them money. He added a package of cinnamon breath mints to the tab and asked her if she knew Amanda Caldwell.
“Who wants to know?” the woman asked in a whiskeyed rasp, eyeing him with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.
“I’m an old friend. Rick Cooper.”
The woman’s brow creased further. “Can’t say she ever mentioned you.”
“She called me earlier today, but I didn’t ask for her address. I was in the area so I thought I’d drop by to visit.”
“She don’t get many visitors.”
Not surprising, Rick thought. “No significant other?”
The woman gave a loud snort. “Hell, the girl don’t even have a dog keepin’ her company.”
He couldn’t quell a glimmer of satisfaction at the woman’s words, though shame followed fast on its heels. What right did he have to wish her a life of solitude? When his hand was forced, he’d chosen a mission over her. She’d made a similar choice. Things between them ended abruptly, and apparently she’d never looked back. He hadn’t, either.
At least not that he’d ever let anyone see.
His coming here to talk to Tara—Amanda—wasn’t personal, even now. He just wanted to know why a CIA master spy like Alexander Quinn was pulling his strings where she was concerned.
The clerk inclined her head. “Come to think of it, I reckon maybe she’d like seein’ an old friend, at that. Especially a good-lookin’ fella like you.” Her lips quirking, she lifted a sun-leathered arm and pointed down the road. “She lives in a house a few blocks down Dewberry Road. On the left. The house is set back a bit, but you really can’t miss it—she has a big black mailbox with the number 212 on it.” She winked at him. “Tell her she can thank me later.”
Rick smiled and thanked her, heading out to his car. As he slid behind the wheel of the Charger, his cell phone rang. It was Jesse. He considered not answering but finally thumbed the connector. “Hey, Jesse.”
“Why the hell are you heading north?”
“I can’t tell you that yet.”
“You can’t tell me?” Irritation edged his brother’s drawl.
“Not yet. But it’s important or I’d be on my way back to the office.” Rick started the Charger.
The pause on Jesse’s end was thick with annoyance. “You may be family, but that doesn’t mean you can keep pushing the envelope quite so hard, Rick.”
“And you know as well as I do that some things happen we have to deal with on the q.t., Jess. This is one of them. I’ll explain everything later, okay?”
Jesse sighed. “Stay in touch.” He hung up.
Rick checked to see if he was safe to pull out. A black Toyota Land Cruiser turned into the gas station and pulled up at the pump behind him, leaving him in the clear.
As he waited for traffic to open up enough for him to take a left onto Dewberry Road, his gaze drifted back to the pumps, where a sandy-haired man wearing a black T-shirt and black trousers unfolded himself from the Land Cruiser and reached for the pump handle. He met Rick’s glance briefly before his gaze settled on the gas pump’s fuel gauge as it rang up his purchase.
Something about the sandy-haired man dinged Rick’s internal radar. He didn’t recognize him; Rick had a good memory for faces, and he’d never seen the man in the Toyota before. But something about him just didn’t fit here in Thurlow Gap. There was a foreignness to him. As if he didn’t belong.
Heading east on Dewberry Road as the clerk had directed, Rick met his own gaze in the rearview mirror. Brown eyes stared back at him under dark, quirked brows.
There’s a foreignness to you, too, Rick Cooper.
He’d been away from home entirely too long.

 

 

AMANDA SCRABBLED THROUGH the closest box, cursing herself for falling into willful complacency. There was nowhere safe in the world, not even Thurlow Gap, Tennessee. No paradise was safe from murderous rage.
She should have prepared better for this moment from the second she set foot in this town.
Her former life came with baggage, but stupidly, she’d shoved that baggage into a bunch of boxes stacked haphazardly on metal shelves in her basement and told herself that she was safe enough with two dead bolts on the front door and a cheap alarm system she’d installed herself.
She’d thought the danger was over in this paradise of mountains and forests and friendly neighbors. Three years of mind-numbing normalcy had lulled her into a false sense of peace now shattered by a phone number on a matchbox and a single word spoken by a man she’d once thought she might love.
She should have had a disaster kit handy. Forget her past with the CIA; she lived within fifty miles of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for God’s sake. She should already have been stockpiling food and water and batteries.
At least she had her savings. She’d driven to Maryville an hour ago and withdrawn all but a hundred dollars from the savings account. She had twelve grand in cash to work with. She could buy a lot of peanut butter and bottled water with money like that.
Buying a brand-new identity would be pricier, but at least she knew how to make that happen. She just had to make it to a big-enough city.
By four forty-five, she’d packed two duffel bags full of survival provisions, including two of her three handguns—the Walther P99 and the SIG Sauer P238—and nine boxes of ammo. Upstairs, her Smith & Wesson M&P 9 mm was already loaded, with an extra round in the chamber.
She’d also packed a gym bag full of underwear, jeans, T-shirts and a denim jacket. All that was left now was packing a box of nonperishable foods and she’d be ready to go.
To where, she wasn’t sure.
She looped the canvas straps of the duffel bags over her arms, grunting at the weight as she started up the stairs. As she hauled the bags through the door into the kitchen, a high-pitched beeping sound started echoing through the house. It took a second to realize what it was.
Someone had tripped her perimeter alarm.
She dropped the bags on the kitchen floor and raced down the short hallway to her bedroom. A red light on the alarm system’s control panel was blinking with each beep.
She hit the code and stopped the alarm from sounding before a call went out to the local police. Whatever happened next would have to happen without putting anyone else in danger, including the local law. The good old boys who wore the uniform of Thurlow Gap’s police department wouldn’t be prepared for what they’d find here.
She grabbed her Smith & Wesson from the nightstand. The heft of it in her hand gave her a renewed sense of control, easing the rapid-fire cadence of her pulse. She crept down the hall to the front of the house and moved to one of the windows looking out on the shaded front yard. Sliding the curtain aside an inch, she peered out at her driveway but saw nothing.
Still, something had tripped the perimeter. Might have been an animal.
Might not.
She took a couple of deep breaths to brace herself and scooted through the doorway into the kitchen to check out the side window. But when she peeked through a space in the curtains, all she saw was movement to her right, a flash of charcoal disappearing around the side of her house, heading toward the front.
She started toward the front door, then froze when three loud raps rang through the silent house.
An assassin who knocked first?
She moved away from the door, her footfalls whisper-soft against the hardwood floor. It might be a ruse to bring her to the doorway. Even peering through the fish-eye security lens was too dangerous; any large-caliber ammunition would penetrate the wood door. Should’ve replaced it with a steel-reinforced one, she thought.
Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve. Too late now.
Knocks sounded on the door again, louder this time. She backpedaled, old instincts kicking in. She ran to the kitchen and grabbed a box of ammunition for the Smith & Wesson. Tucking the box in her waistband, she headed out the back door, hoping her visitor would keep knocking long enough for her to reach the woods behind her house. She could set up a defensive position there, her familiarity with the terrain an advantage.
She had barely reached the carport, however, when she heard the sound of footsteps coming down the flagstone walk toward the corner of the house. She raced around the back of her car and crouched behind the front fender.
The footsteps continued a moment, then fell silent. Amanda’s pulse thundered in her ears. She tightened her grip on the 9 mm and held her breath, waiting for his next move.
“Tara?”
The voice, deep and familiar, sent a shiver down her spine.
“Sorry, it’s Amanda now, isn’t it?” Rick Cooper asked.
She remained silent.
“I know you’re out here. I can feel you.”
Her stomach knotted, inconvenient tears stinging her eyes.
His footsteps made a scraping sound on the concrete as he walked slowly toward her car. “I saw Alexander Quinn not two hours ago. Have you spoken with him?”
“Stop there,” she commanded, pleased at the steadiness of her voice, considering how hard her heart was pounding.
He stopped.
She dared a quick peek over the hood of her car. Rick stood about ten feet away. His coffee-brown eyes met hers, his lips parting.
“You called me earlier,” she said.
His mouth quirked. “Technically, you called first.”
“Did Quinn tell you what to say?”
“Not exactly. You know how damned inscrutable he is.”
“But he did tell you to say ‘Sigurd’?”
“He told me to remember the word.
I
chose to say it.”
As Quinn had known he would. Manipulative bastard. “What have you been doing since MacLear went down?”
“Working.”
She sat back on her heels. “Doing what?”
“Security-threat analysis. My brother has an agency.”
“I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“I have two of them. And three sisters. I didn’t just hatch out of a rock somewhere, you know.” Rick’s gaze focused on the barrel of the Smith & Wesson. “I really don’t like having a weapon pointed at me.”
“Too bad.”
He pressed his lips in a tight line. “Very well. What does ‘Sigurd’ mean?”
“Nothing.” She motioned with the gun. “I need to leave. You’re standing in front of my car.”
“What does ‘Sigurd’ mean?” he repeated.
Before she could answer, something hit her windshield with a loud crack, spider-webbing the glass.
“Get down!” she shouted to Rick.
She heard a soft thud and a low groan.
“Rick?”
Scrabbling sounds came from the other side of the car, moving toward her. She wheeled and aimed the Smith & Wesson at the sound. Rick ducked around the front of the car, tumbling forward onto his hands and knees at the sight of the gun. “May I please hide behind your car?” he gritted between his teeth.
BOOK: Secret Identity
2.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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