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Authors: Catherine Mann

The Cinderella Mission

BOOK: The Cinderella Mission
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One agent is already missing, and now the U.S. government’s most confidential secret is in danger of falling into a power-hungry dictator’s hands.

The top-secret agents of ARIES are the world’s only hope.

Agent Ethan Williams:
Haunted by childhood memories of his parents’ deaths, this millionaire playboy is deadly serious about protecting those close to him. And these days that means his alluring new partner, Kelly Taylor—a woman he can’t keep close enough….

Agent Kelly Taylor:
She may look innocent, but this young linguist is no stranger to danger—or desire. She’s always wanted to be an operative, and she’s finally gotten her chance. But posing undercover as Ethan’s lover has awakened another longing….

Samuel Hatch:
A lifetime in the CIA has shown him secrets the rest of the world would never imagine. And as director of the top-secret ARIES agency, it’s up to him to make sure those secrets stay safe. His agents are the best of the best, and he’s not going to lose one now….

Dr. Alex Morrow:
Hatch’s most covert operative is missing somewhere in war-torn Europe. Morrow’s last message mentioned mythical jewels with devastating powers, but the transmission was unclear. If ARIES can’t locate the good doctor soon, the world may pay the price….


Dear Reader,

This month we have something really special on tap for you.
The Cinderella Mission
, by Catherine Mann, is the first of three FAMILY SECRETS titles, all of them prequels to our upcoming anthology
Broken Silence
and then a twelve book stand-alone FAMILY SECRETS continuity. These books are cutting edge, combining dark doings, mysterious experiments and overwhelming passion into a mix you won’t be able to resist. Next month, the story continues with Linda Castillo’s
The Phoenix Encounter.

Of course, this being Intimate Moments, the excitement doesn’t stop there. Award winner Justine Davis offers up another of her REDSTONE, INCORPORATED tales,
One of These Nights
. A scientist who’s as handsome as he is brilliant finds himself glad to welcome his sexy bodyguard—and looking forward to exploring just what her job description means.
Wilder Days
(leading to wilder nights?) is the newest from reader favorite Linda Winstead Jones. It will have you turning the pages so fast, you’ll lose track of time. Ingrid Weaver begins a new military miniseries, EAGLE SQUADRON, with
Eye of the Beholder.
There will be at least two follow-ups, so keep
eyes open so you don’t miss them. Evelyn Vaughn, whose miniseries THE CIRCLE was a standout in our former Shadows line, makes her Intimate Moments debut with
Buried Secrets,
a paranormal tale that’s as passionate as it is spooky. And Aussie writer Melissa James is back with
Who Do You Trust?
This is a deeply emotional “friends become lovers” reunion romance, one that will captivate you from start to finish.

Enjoy! And come back next month for more of the best and most exciting romance around—right here in Silhouette Intimate Moments.

Leslie J. Wainger

Executive Senior Editor

The Cinderella Mission

To Joanne Rock, a fabulous critique partner and an awesome friend. Thank you for the tireless reads, endless support and countless bags of shared Jelly Bellies!

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The Cinderella Mission #1202


began her career writing romance at twelve and recently uncovered that first effort while cleaning out her grandmother’s garage. After working for a small-town newspaper, teaching at the university level and serving as a theater school director, she has returned to her original dream of writing romance. Now an award-winning author, Catherine is especially pleased to add a nomination for the prestigious Maggie to her contest credits. Following her air force aviator husband around the United States with four children and a beagle in tow gives Catherine a wealth of experience from which to draw her plots. Catherine invites you to learn more about her work by visiting her Web site:


r. Alex Morrow was dead.

Samuel Hatch feared it all the way to his sixty-year-old, ulcer-riddled gut.

The aging operative bolted back breakfast in his office—two antacids with cold coffee. His job as the Director of ARIES came with countless rewards and endless holes in his stomach. Since Hatch had created the top-secret section of the CIA, ARIES had become his family, his agents the children he and Rita had never been able to conceive.

Now he suspected he’d lost one.

Restrained tension hummed through him, stringing him as taut as the twine he worked to twist around the wilting plant behind his desk. He aimed the sunlamp with meticulous care, grounding himself in the ritual while he plotted how best to utilize his unlimited resources.

One day’s silence he could accept, especially given the unstable climate in European Holzberg and neighboring Rebelia. But three days and Alex’s tracking device inactive…

Every inch of Hatch’s raw stomach burned after ten years
of worrying about his pseudo offspring. Yet their mission was too important to abandon. ARIES operatives embraced assignments no sane CIA agent would touch.

Their country owed these silent knights countless debts that could never be acknowledged.

Hatch anchored the stake on a struggling strawberry plant he’d grafted from home. He mentally sifted through Alex’s final transmissions like the soil through his fingers as he looked for the proper texture to bear fruit. Heaven help them all if Alex fell into DeBruzkya’s hands. The crazed Rebelian dictator under investigation was a sick bastard.

Heaven help Alex.

His fingers twitched, snapping a limp stem off the plant. He wouldn’t let even one of his operatives, especially this one, go down without unleashing the full arsenal at his disposal. Hatch clutched the crumpled leaves in his fist and turned back to the conference area of his office.

And what a mighty arsenal it was, compliments of the government’s blank check.

Large flat-screen monitors lined one wall, glowing with everything from CNN to satellite uplink status. Computers hummed from his desk, as well as along the conference table where laptops perched in front of eight seats. Electronic cryptology equipment for encoding and decoding transmissions littered the workspace.

In the midst of it all, he relied on an old-fashioned map of the world with pins marking locations of his operatives. The cover of each agent’s private-sector identity offered the freedom to travel anywhere undetected. Already, he’d alerted European operatives to begin searching, but without a narrowed field, there was only so much he could expect.

He needed focus, someone to pull together the minuscule threads of information left behind in a handful of transmissions from Alex. Hatch rubbed the bruised leaves between his fingers like a talisman as he studied the map. Slowly two pins on the board paired in his mind.

The perfect duo for finding answers to the questions left
in those last transmissions. Logical Kelly Taylor would balance well with Ethan Williams, a rogue operative who thought so far outside the box he invented his own rules.

And their personal baggage?

They would either have to work through it or ignore it. He didn’t need any fireworks drawing unwarranted—and potentially deadly—attention to this mission.

Hatch reached for one of the seven phones on his desk and punched a three-digit code. One ring later, he carefully placed the mangled leaves on the soil at the base of the struggling strawberry plant. “Taylor, Director Hatch here. I need you to locate Ethan Williams, then meet me in my office with his after-action report from Gastonia.”

Her affirmative barely registered. Hatch studied the sole remaining plant from Rita’s garden that hadn’t been killed by his black thumb. Since Rita’s death, that plant and ARIES were all he had left, and by God, they would bear fruit.

Hatch packed the soil around the base of a new sprout and refrained from reaching for the antacids again. Williams and Taylor would find Alex.

Assuming there wasn’t—as his roiling gut kept telling him—a Judas in their ranks.

Chapter 1


ARIES operative Ethan Williams stumbled back a step. His hoarse croak ping-ponged through the cavernous room in a mocking echo. He gasped past the pain exploding in his head.

But he stayed on his feet, damn it.

Ethan swiped his wrist under his bloody nose. Three fast blinks cleared the haze from his vision, if not the dull ache and metallic taste of blood.

Screw pain.

He charged back into the cutthroat battle that reeked of sweat and resolve. He dodged shadows cast by light filtering through the thick plate-glass windows overhead.

Perspiration plastered his T-shirt to his skin. Salt stung the healing nick in his side from a brush with a bullet last week. He ignored it.

The second’s hesitation had already cost him his advantage. He needed to stay sharp. After his near miss in Gas
tonia eight days ago, he feared his edge had dulled. Losing that edge could mean losing his life.

Or worse yet, his job—his only reason for crawling out of bed every morning.

Without it, he might as well step in front of the next bullet. He’d come damned close to doing just that more than once after Celia died, before his recruitment into ARIES had given him the ultimate way to fight back against a world that didn’t play fair.

Ethan led with his shoulder in a low blow. His opponent grunted. Adrenaline surged.

ARIES operatives had precious few rules, and Ethan liked that most about his job in the special section of the CIA. Free rein to win in any arena. Essential with life-or-death stakes.

Not that Ethan had much use for his own life. But winning? Yeah, Ethan had a hell of a lot of respect for the thrill of winning.

He pivoted, boxed out, threw in an elbow, looking…for…that…


Basketball tucked to his stomach, he swung around. Ethan on offense now that he had possession, fellow ARIES operative Robert Davidson manned defense in their half-court game.

To some, it might seem a simple hour of pick-up. But even basketball in a CIA training facility in Virginia provided the chance to hone skills, search for potentially lethal weaknesses and overcome them so he could stay in the real game a little longer.

Ethan dribbled, waited, hunting for the opening.




Patience. Don’t rush. Find the mojo.

Halogen lights in the gym threw a bluish haze across his opponent. Ethan mentally zoned out the sounds of others
shooting hoops on the second court, the bleed-over noise from the connected weight room.

Davidson taunted, “Don’t be bringing it to me weak like before, rich boy.”

“Gonna go right by you,” Ethan promised, ignoring the taunt about his family’s obscene bank balance.

This could get ugly.
Oh, yeah.
Excitement pulsed.

Ethan sprinted for the net. Crossover dribble. Nikes squeaked on polished plank. Bolt past. He caught an elbow in the side, his pager digging deep. Ignore it. Keep his hands on the ball, mind on the mission.

Launching into the air, he plowed past for the lay-up. The thrill nudged closer, his elusive edge slipping back into reach.

He jammed it home.

“Weak, my ass.” Ethan hung from the rim for an extra three victorious seconds. “I’ve got a whole lot more of that where it came from.”

Davidson landed on his butt, sliding backward. He raised his hands in surrender. “I give. You’re one crazy son-of-a-bitch.”

No newsflash there.

Ethan dropped to the court and scooped up the ball. A surprise kick of sympathy for Davidson caught him unaware. The guy
almost died nearly two years ago. He looked in top form now, but could anyone ever fully recover from the blast of shrapnel he’d taken to the leg?

A ghostly whisper of that stray bullet echoed through Ethan’s memory.

He tucked the ball under his arm and extended a hand. “Let’s call it quits. Good game, man.”

“Thanks.” Reaching up, Davidson hooked hands with Ethan. “But it’s not over yet.”

Davidson yanked.

Ethan lurched forward. The basketball jarred free. He landed with a teeth-jarring thud on the slick wood floor, his
pager ramming into his side like a brick. He rolled to his back just in time to see the guy sink a three-pointer.

“Oh, yeah.” Davidson punched the air with his fist. “Nothing but net.”

Ethan sank back on his elbows. If this had been a real-life operation, that lapse could have cost a life.

Number-one rule, nix the emotions.

He’d pretty much mastered covering the ice block inside himself with a smile. Sure everyone considered him a bud, but he knew the truth. Only with a select few—three to be exact—did he reveal a genuine glimpse of himself. With his boss. With his aunt who’d raised him.

And with Kelly.

Shy Kelly, Hatch’s top informations assistant and languages specialist in the operational support unit. Seeing her innocence always reminded Ethan of all the reasons he’d joined the CIA in the first place, back in his idealistic days. Their office friendship had been a real port in the storm for him in his messed-up world.

Until he’d realized she harbored a damned misguided infatuation for him. He’d been with too many women to miss the look that had crossed her face as she’d whispered,
be careful,
just before he’d left for the Gastonia assignment.


His bullet wound stung.

Ethan swept the rolling ball back into his grasp.

No way was there a correlation between his missing mojo and discovering Kelly’s crush. Even considering a link gave too much importance to their friendship when he simply didn’t have it in him for anything more.

Ethan leapt to his feet and shook off doubts with a laugh, his most reliable cover for facing the world.

Davidson thumped him on the back. “If style counted for points, my friend, you’d have won hands down.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Ethan tempered his grousing with a grin. “Go shove your sympathy along with those style points.” He smacked the ball out of Davidson’s hands.

A humming sound started, low, the buzz of a pager. Ethan and Davidson both slapped their hands on the waistbands.

Ethan glanced down at the LCD screen.

Code Delta.
Highest level of urgency. Report to ARIES immediately.

Adrenaline surged double-time.

Davidson’s hand fell away. Disappointment shadowed his face. “Just you, rich boy.”

“Let ’em know over at the shooting range I won’t be making it in this morning. Catch you later,” Ethan called, already four steps closer to the door. The drive to the remote ARIES underground compound outside of DC would give him time to get his head together.

Without breaking stride, he swiped his water bottle off the bleachers. Ducking into the locker room, he poured the water over his head and pitched the bottle in the trash. A towel across the face cleared away sweat and blood. A quick hand through his hair slicked back the shaggy length he hadn’t bothered to trim since his deep-cover assignment in Gastonia. He snagged his clothes on the way out.

A rogue thought diluted his adrenaline. What the hell would he say to Kelly when he saw her for the first time since his return? God, he hoped he’d read her wrong.

He knew he hadn’t.

Ethan took the winding hall at a slow jog, flashing his ID through multiple security checks. With any luck, less than an hour from now he would be back on line for his next mission, away from Kelly Taylor and the feelings in her eyes he didn’t know how the hell to handle.

Bitter February wind moaned through the parking garage. Ethan thumbed his remote, disarming the car alarm. He threw his change of clothes over to the passenger side and slid into the embrace of the leather seats in his retooled vintage Jaguar.

Fifteen minutes later, he broke the city limits and opened up the engine. Deserted roads zigzagged in front of him with
trees alongside creating a twisting icy tunnel into the Virginia hills.

Steering with his knee, he whipped his T-shirt over his head. He reached to the seat next to him for his black turtleneck. He accommodated for his disdain of ties with great suits.

His car phone chimed over the heater blast.

Ethan yanked the shirt over his head, only blinded for a second before he reached to jab the speakerphone. “Williams, here.”

ARIES’s number flashed across the screen. He alternated hands on the wheel to slide his arms through the sleeves while waiting for the communications operator to speak the code.

“Confirming your dentist appointment with Dr. Brown.”

Ethan rolled out his answer that signified he was alone. “Tuesday at eleven.”

“Thank you, sir.”

An answer of “I don’t have my day planner with me” would have signaled that he could not speak freely because a passenger could overhear.

Modem sounds drifted through the speakerphone in their digital dance to link encrypted lines for secured conversation. Ethan activated cruise control along the empty expanse of rural highway. He kicked off his Nikes and shucked his sweatpants.

The telecommunications squeaks ended. “Confirm we have a secure line. Stand by for your party from Director Hatch’s office. Go ahead, ma’am.”

Ma’am? Hatch’s office?

A burn started in his brain, firing an instinctive awareness that fate had targeted his mojo again. He had a fair guess who the agency
from Hatch’s office would be. That
would be the freaking icing on his bad-luck cake that had started with someone shooting at him as he hurtled through the sky dangling from a streamer parachute.

Foreboding made a drive-by in Ethan’s brain with a mere
second’s warning before
voice flowed through the speakerphone in the last kind of distraction he needed today with a Code Delta in his future.


Kelly Taylor’s single word swirled through his car and conscience.

“Roger, Kel. I’m here.” He kept it light. No way would she discuss anything too deep with the agency monitoring their call. “What do you have for me?”

“Director Hatch requested that I let you know he’s waiting in his office when you arrive. Something to do with your Gastonia assignment.”

Damned if she didn’t have the most incredible voice caressing the airwaves with a richness that could make reading a menu sound like foreplay. And she thought she wanted him when he knew damned well he couldn’t have her.

He still remembered the impact of hearing her for the first time two years ago. He’d nearly crawled through the phone line. In five seconds flat, he’d planned seventeen ways to romance her into his bed where he would tangle himself up in that smoky suggestiveness for a solid week.

Then he’d found Kelly Taylor’s voice didn’t fit the rest of her. At all. Face-to-face, the woman personified innocence and happily-ever-after. He might have wanted those things once, but since Celia, he preferred his women with eyes wide open. Liaisons with innocents were especially taboo. And Ethan suspected they didn’t come any more innocent than Kelly Taylor.

So instead of a lover, he’d found a friend, a much more valuable commodity.

“Ethan?” Her voice glided over his name like bourbon swirled on the sides of a glass. “Are you still there?”

“Yeah, Kel.” He grabbed his pants off the seat beside him, steadying the wheel as snowflakes dotted his windshield. “Just kinda busy right this second.”

“Anything I can help you with?”

Ethan glanced down at his bare legs and boxers. “No, thanks. I’ve got it under control.”

His body tightened.

“I’m always here to give you a hand.”

Ethan stifled a groan.

“Are you okay? Should I tell Hatch we’ll debrief later?”

Debrief? Ethan resisted the urge to cover himself. He drove one-handed down the lonely stretch of road while sliding into his Brooks Brothers pants. “No thanks.”

“If you’re sure you’re up for the meeting.”

He was seconds away from being “up” for a hell of a lot more if he didn’t finish this call. He resolved to focus on her words rather than her voice. “I’m only five minutes out. Once I upload my after-action report from the Gastonia assignment—”

“Already done. I had a head start to get on top of things.”

An image of her on top of other things nearly sent Ethan into a snow-filled ditch.

Apparently her words posed a hazard after all with each syllable blanketed in her intoxicating tones. The afternoon promised to be long and painful. “Thanks, Kelly.”

“My pleasure.”

Ethan swerved short of driving up a road sign.

Now that would be a hell of a way to go, pants down and totally turned on by the equivalent of encrypted phone sex.

A voice like that should come with some kind of warning label.
Don’t use while others are driving or operating heavy machinery.

Ethan buckled his belt while driving past the agency radar detector at the designated speed to signify he wasn’t under duress. “Need to sign off. Approaching the perimeter.”

“See you soon.”

The connection died.

Silence echoed in his car. Ethan accelerated around the corner back up to eighty, steering one-handed while exchanging his diver’s watch for a Cartier timepiece.

His senses cleared and a mental image of Kelly overlaid the sensual torture of her voice. Large chocolate eyes invited a person to climb right into her soul.

Those vulnerable eyes, too full of some misguided infatuation, offered all the reminder he needed to leave her the hell alone. He knew firsthand how a broken heart crippled a person and wouldn’t deal the same blow to anyone else.

Especially not to Kelly.

Besides, he had enough on his agenda with a Code Delta—make or break for a man testing his ability to stay at the top of his game.

Ethan squashed doubts and slowed over the grate in the road that held the covert camera to check the Jaguar’s undercarriage for explosives. He would simply keep his mind on the mission. He’d identified his weakness, right? No softening, none of that sensitivity garbage.

BOOK: The Cinderella Mission
9.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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