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Christmas was supposed to be about joy and hope...not about thwarting terrorist plots
Most covert agents weren't blessed with long careers. Mike Becker wasn't like most agents. On the cusp of early retirement, he's given one final assignment: babysit a single mother with a reputation for coming up with conspiracy theories. Except the bullets flying Claire Chadwick's way can't be dismissed. Now Mike will do anything to protect her and her son, and uncover the truth. A truth that places them at the center of a terrorist attack on Christmas Day. Mike's career may be coming to a blazing finish, but in this woman he finally has a shot at the redemption that's eluded him for so long.
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Carol Ericson lives in southern California, home of state-of–the-art cosmetic surgery, wild freeway chases, and a million amazing stories. These stories, along with hordes of virile men and feisty women clamor for release from Carol’s head until she sets them free to fulfill their destinies and her readers’ fantasies. To find out more about Carol and her current books, please visit her website at www.carolericson.com, “where romance flirts with danger.”Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The message mocked her, and Claire almost punched the computer monitor. She didn't think it would be easy figuring out her stepfather's password, but she didn't think it would take her almost fifty tries over the course of three weeks, either. How did those hackers do it?
Placing her fingers on the keyboard, she closed her eyes, racking her brain for the next possible password. The voices in the hallway stopped her cold, sending a ripple of fear across her flesh.
She had no reason to be in this office, especially with a lavish party going on downstairs—her lavish party. She whipped her head around, the action loosening her carefully coiffed chignon, and lunged for the French doors. She parted the drapes, grabbed one handle and slipped through the opening onto the balcony.
She clicked the glass door shut just as she saw the door to the office crack open. Placing her palms against the rough brick, she sidled along the wall until she reached the edge of the balcony farthest from the doors.
Feathers of snow drifted from the night sky, leaving a dusting of white on the Georgetown streets. DC rarely saw snow in December. Just her luck.
She crossed her arms, digging her fingers into the cold skin exposed by her sleeveless gown. She couldn't stay here long or her stepfather's security detail would find her and would have to chip her stiff body from the brick facade of the town house.
The French doors next to her swung open and Claire flattened herself against the wall. Her stepfather, Senator Spencer Correll, must've noticed the parted drapes or the chill in the room and had decided to investigate. What possible excuse could she offer for being out on the balcony in the snow in an evening gown in the middle of a party?
"I love it when it snows in DC." Her stepfather's hearty tone reassured her that he had no idea anyone was lurking out here—it also sounded forced. He must be putting on an act for someone—but then, when didn't he put on an act?
"We're not going to have a white Christmas in South Carolina, so maybe I'll stay here for a week or two and soak up the atmosphere."
The other man's Southern drawl marked him as a constituent from her stepfather's home state. She just hoped the snow didn't enthrall him enough to step onto the balcony.
"I suggest you do. Nothing like Christmas in DC."
Spencer's voice sounded so close, she was surprised he couldn't see her breath in the cold air. She held it.
"It'll be an especially merry Christmas for you, Senator Correll, if you vote for that...uh...subsidy."
"It's a done deal. I'll introduce you to my assistant tonight. Trey will take care of all the details. After tonight, your boss should be reassured."
"Looking forward to it." The toe of a polished dress shoe tapped the pavers on the balcony, and Claire clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering.
"There's quite a crowd here tonight, Senator. I understand your stepdaughter, Claire, is an amazing fund-raiser."
"If by fund-raiser you mean relentless harridan, that's Claire." Spencer chuckled. "Just like her mother."
Claire's blood ran like ice through her veins, and it had nothing to do with her rapidly dropping body temperature. The chill in Spencer's voice when he mentioned her mother buoyed her suspicions that he'd had something to do with Mom's death. Maybe by discovering what he was up to with his vast amount of fund-raising and secretive meetings with suspected terrorists she would finally uncover evidence tying him to Mom's so-called accident.
She still had the video—the video that had sent her reeling and tumbling down a rabbit hole.
"A great lady, your wife." The shoe retreated, and Claire never heard Spencer's response to the compliment to his dead wife as the doors closed on the two men.
She let out a long breath and a new round of chills claimed her body. Even though they'd closed the door, her stepfather and his crony were still in the office.
She turned toward the low wall around the balcony and peered over the edge. She could hike up her dress and climb over and then try to reach the trellis that was positioned on the side of the building. She was just one story up.
"Are you going to jump?"
She gasped and jerked her head toward the sound of the voice from below. A man stood just outside the circle of light emanating from the side of the house. What was he doing out here? More important, why was he yelling? She put her finger to her lips and shook her head.
He caught on quickly. He shrugged a pair of broad shoulders draped in a black overcoat and turned the corner back to the front of the house, his red scarf billowing behind him.
Could this night get any worse? She rubbed her freezing hands together, and couldn't feel her fingertips.
Then the shadows from the office stopped their dance across the balcony and she knew the two men had left the room. Biting her lip, she tried the door and heaved a sigh of relief. At least Spencer hadn't locked it. He didn't need to with the sensors, cameras and security guards monitoring this place—her place.
She tripped back into the room, her feet blocks of ice in her strappy silver sandals. She made a beeline for the door, throwing a backward glance at the computer. She'd finish checking passwords another time.
She crept down the hallway toward the stairs, but instead of heading down to her party, she climbed the steps to the third level of the expansive townhome her mother used to share with Spencer Correll, Mom's third husband.
She needed to warm up before mingling with her guests, anyway, and a visit to her son was a surefire way to warm both her heart and body.
Pushing open the door next to her bedroom, she tiptoed into the darkened room, the night-light shaped like a train her beacon. She knelt beside Ethan's bed and burrowed her hands beneath the covers, resting her head next to his on the pillow.
His warm mint-scented breath bathed her cheek, and she traced the curve of his earlobe with her lips.
She whispered, "Love you, beautiful boy."
His long lashes fluttered and he mumbled in his sleep. She had to get him out of here, out of this viper's nest. His grandparents had been clamoring to take him snowboarding in Colorado over the holidays, and even though this would be her first Christmas without him, she was making the sacrifice to protect him. He'd be leaving her in two days.
"Claire?" The shaft of light from the hallway widened across the floor.
Her stepfather's voice always made her skin crawl.
"I'm in here, Spencer."
"You have a surprise guest downstairs."
"I hope this guest came with his or her checkbook."
"Oh, I think he came with a lot more than that." Spencer stepped into the room. "Where have you been all night? I haven't seen you since the festivities kicked off with the tree lighting."
"I had a headache, and then I stopped in to see Ethan. I'm getting in some extra time with him before sending him off to his grandparents."
"I still can't believe you're parting with your son over Christmas."
"The Chadwicks haven't had him for the holidays—ever. They deserve that."
"They should've told that son of theirs to stay home once he had a baby on the way. If he couldn't keep out of harm's way for you, he owed that to his child."
"That's enough." She straightened up and pulled back her shoulders. "Shane was doing what he loved. His work was important to him. I don't want you ever to say anything like that in front of Ethan."
Spencer held up his hands. "I wouldn't do that. Now, come downstairs. They're getting ready to serve dinner, and you'll want to see this guest. Trust me."
She wouldn't trust her stepfather if he told her it was snowing outside after she'd just been standing in the stuff. She smoothed her hands across the skirt of her dress, flicking a tiny crystal of ice onto the floor, and joined him at the entrance to Ethan's room.
He closed the door and placed a hand on her bare back.
"I feel like I'm coming down with something." She shrugged off his clammy hand and headed for the curving staircase with Spencer close on her heels.
Did he suspect something?
With her fingertips trailing along the carved bannister, she descended into the warmth and chatter below. She scanned the room, her gaze skimming over glittering jewels and black bow ties. She didn't see any special guest—just a bunch of strangers with checkbooks.
Looking back at Spencer, she asked, "Where's this special guest?"
"You don't have to pretend anymore, Claire." He drummed his fingers along her shoulder. "He told us everything."
A knot twisted in her stomach. What kind of game was her stepfather playing this time?
From the step above her, Spencer leveled a finger toward the foyer. "There he is."
Claire's eyes darted among the faces of the strange men gathered in the foyer shedding coats, and then her breath hitched in her throat when she caught sight of a tall, dark-haired man unwinding a red scarf from his neck.
Had he seen enough of her on the balcony to identify her?
He must've felt her stare burning into him because at that moment, he glanced up, his eyes meeting hers and his mouth twisting into a half smile.
Spencer nudged her from behind. "Don't be shy now that the cat's out of the bag. Go greet your fiancé."
Claire Chadwick looked like a ghost at the bottom of the staircase, her pale skin, blond hair and long, sparkling silver dress blending together to form a glittering cloud. Only her eyes, big, round and dark, stood out in relief.
Lola hadn't exaggerated her friend's beauty, but Claire didn't have the look of a woman greeting her fiancé for the holidays. Of course, what did he expect of a novice? He'd have to take the reins here.
He dropped his scarf on top of his overcoat, resting in a maid's arms, and took the ticket from her fingers. Nudging his bag on the floor with the toe of his dress shoe, he asked, "Could you please check this, too?"
Straightening his cuffs, he descended the two steps from the foyer into the great room, decorated with twinkling lights and crystal stars hanging from the ceiling. An enormous Christmas tree dominated one corner of the room, coated with silver flocking and sporting gold ornaments amid its colored lights.
He made a beeline for Claire, taking tentative steps in his direction, her stepfather, Senator Spencer Correll, almost prodding her forward.
This scenario wasn't going as planned.
As the distance between them shortened to two feet, he held out one hand. "Sweetheart, I hope you don't mind that I surprised you like this. My conference ended early." He took her cold, stiff fingers in his hand and squeezed. "Lola sends her love."
He pulled Claire toward him and kissed her smooth cheek. At the mention of Lola's name, her hand relaxed in his. He didn't know where the communication had failed, but at least Claire had some expectation of his presence here.
Her arms twined around his neck and she pressed her soft lips against his. "Babe, I'm thrilled to see you here, even though you spoiled my surprise."
His arm curled around her slender waist, and they turned to face Spencer Correll together. Correll's assistant had joined them.
Mike stuck out his hand to introduce himself to the assistant, just to make sure Claire knew his name...or at least the name and identity he'd devised for this assignment. "Mitchell Brown, nice to meet you."
Correll clapped his hand on his assistant's shoulder.
"Trey Jensen, this is Claire's fiancé, Mitchell Brown. Mitchell, my assistant, Trey Jensen."
He shook the other man's hand, already knowing his name, bank account balance and sexual predilections. "Good to meet you, Trey. Now, if you gentlemen don't mind, I'm going to steal my fiancée away from her own party for a few minutes."
Claire pinched his side. "I thought you'd never ask, babe."
Spencer chuckled. "You two go ahead. I'll hold down the fort for you, Claire. It's not like you've spent much time with your guests anyway."
Claire responded to this zinger by pulling Mike toward the staircase with a firm grip. "We won't be too long."
They held hands up the stairs and across the landing until she dragged him into a library, its shelves lined with books and the floor covered by a thick carpet that muted their steps.
She shut and locked the door and then turned toward him, her unusual violet eyes alight with fire. "Fiancé? You're my fiancé?"
"I thought it was the best cover to keep me close to your side and privy to Correll's comings and goings. That way I can stay in this house. I even brought a bag. This is still your house, isn't it?"
"Yes." She narrowed her extraordinary eyes. "Did Lola send me someone I can actually work with, or a bodyguard?"
"Can't I be a little of both?" He spread out his hands. He liked it better when she had her arms curled around his neck, kissing him, instead of skewering him with a frosty gaze. He needed to get on her good side if he wanted her to give Lola a good report—not that it mattered at this point.
"Just so you know, Mitchell Brown is not my real name.
It's Mike. Mike Becker."
"Suits you better." Crossing her arms, she tapped the toe of her glittering sandal. "When did this fiancé stuff all go down, Mike Becker?"
He put a hand in the pocket of his dress slacks and toyed with his coat-check ticket. "From the look on your face when I walked in, I figured you hadn't received Lola's final text."
"She told me she was sending someone from her husband's agency, but I didn't know the details. I certainly didn't know I was acquiring a fiancé."
"I didn't even give Lola all the details."
"I have a five-year-old son. To him, you'll be nothing but a friend, got it?"
The mama-bear attitude surprised him coming from this glittering goddess, but it figured she'd be protective of her son. He knew all about the boy and the tragic demise of her husband, Shane Chadwick.
"I know about...your son, and I have no intention of playing the doting fiancé or future stepdad in front of him."
She blinked and brushed a wisp of blond hair from her eyes. "Ethan's going out to his grandparents' place in a few days, anyway. I'm glad Lola gave you some background, although I'm sure you did some checking on your own."
"Of course." Didn't she realize that every covert-ops agent at home and abroad knew the story about her husband? Hell, didn't the entire world know? Mike cleared his throat. "Jack Coburn isn't too pleased you contacted his wife directly, but when you mentioned a connection between Correll and a terrorist group, we thought it best to investigate. You have some video proof?"
"I do. I'm sure it proves...something. You'll see." She'd hooked her finger around a diamond necklace encircling her neck, and the large pendant glinted in the low light of the library.
"When can I see it?" Jack wasn't all that convinced Claire had any proof of anything, but he didn't want to leave any stone unturned—especially when that stone involved his wife's friend.
"I have it in a secure location. I'll show it to you tomorrow."
"Your stepfather would be playing with fire if it's true. He has access to the highest levels of government."
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