Undercover avenger, p.1

Undercover Avenger, page 1

 

Undercover Avenger
 


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Undercover Avenger


  Had someone been inside her cottage? And if so, why?

  Eric had not bothered to turn on the light. He pointed to the desk in the corner near the sliding glass doors, and she noticed the drawer ajar in the darkened room. A few of her notes were scattered on the floor, the various files she’d collected from the private investigator shuffled through as if someone had searched them.

  Her pulse clamored. Someone had been there. But why would they be interested in her files?

  Eric’s hand gently touched hers. “Someone was in here.”

  She jerked her head up. “I know.”

  “Do you have any idea why?”

  Because they know why you’re in Savannah, she realized. And they don’t want you to learn the truth….

  UNDERCOVER AVENGER

  RITA HERRON

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  Award-winning author Rita Herron wrote her first book when she was twelve, but didn’t think real people grew up to be writers. Now she writes so she doesn’t have to get a real job. A former kindergarten teacher and workshop leader, she traded her storytelling for kids for writing romantic comedies and romantic suspense. She lives in Georgia with her own romance hero and three kids. She loves to hear from readers, so please write her at P.O. Box 921225, Norcross, GA 30092-1225, or visit her Web site at www.ritaherron.com.

  Books by Rita Herron

  HARLEQUIN INTRIGUE

  486—SEND ME A HERO

  523—HER EYEWITNESS

  556—FORGOTTEN LULLABY

  601—SAVING HIS SON

  660—SILENT SURRENDER†

  689—MEMORIES OF MEGAN†

  710—THE CRADLE MISSION†

  741—A WARRIOR’S MISSION

  755—UNDERCOVER AVENGER†

  HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE

  820—HIS-AND-HERS TWINS

  859—HAVE GOWN, NEED GROOM*

  872—HAVE BABY, NEED BEAU*

  883—HAVE HUSBAND, NEED HONEYMOON*

  944—THE RANCHER WORE SUITS

  975—HAVE BOUQUET, NEED BOYFRIEND*

  979—HAVE COWBOY, NEED CUPID*

  CAST OF CHARACTERS

  Eric Caldwell—A scarred man in search of revenge.

  Melissa Fagan—She was abandoned as a child and is on a dangerous quest to find her identity.

  Luke Devlin—Eric’s FBI contact. Does he know something about CIRP that he’s hiding?

  Ian Hall—The new director of CIRP. Is he whom he claims to be?

  Arnold Hughes—The former director of CIRP who is wanted by the police. Has he resurfaced from the dead with a new face?

  Candace Latone—Is this psychotic woman really Melissa’s mother?

  Robert Latone—This powerful foreign diplomat will kill anyone who threatens his power and his name.

  Edward Moor—Latone’s right-hand man and confidant.

  Dennis Hopkins—A scientist dabbling with brainwashing techniques.

  Wallace Thacker—A chemist who has recently transferred to CIRP. Could he be Hughes?

  Helen Anderson—The elderly nurse has been at the research hospital for years. Does she have secrets that might help Melissa find her birth parents?

  Walter Stinson—One of Melissa’s patients. Did he really lose his leg to diabetes?

  Louise Philigreen—A confused woman who lost a baby years ago.

  To Melissa Endlich for all your support!

  And to the Georgia Romance Writers for being the greatest chapter ever!

  Thanks a bunch for turning out at the signings.

  Contents

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Prologue

  Eric Caldwell walked a fine line with the law, but he didn’t care. He had trusted the Feds before and people had died. He didn’t intend to let it happen to this witness.

  Even if he and his brother, Cain, fought again. Cain, always the good guy, the one on the right side of the law. The man who never saw the grays.

  The only color Eric did see.

  “Come on, Eric, where’s the witness in the Bronsky case?” Cain asked.

  “What?” Sarcasm laced Eric’s voice. “Did the police lose another witness?”

  “We do the best we can,” his brother said. “Do you know where he is?”

  Eric grabbed a Marlboro and pushed it into the corner of his mouth. “Sorry, can’t help you, bro.”

  Cain hissed, his message ringing loud and clear. Eric was lying, but Cain knew better than to push it. Eric would do whatever he could to keep the witness alive. “You can’t go around undermining the cops and the FBI, Eric, or killing every criminal who escapes the system.”

  He glared at Cain over the duffel bag he’d been packing. “I didn’t kill anyone.”

  Cain’s gaze turned deadly. “I don’t want to see your vigilante ways get you in trouble. It’s like you’re on a death mission, taking everything into your own hands.” Cain’s voice thickened. “One day you’re going to cross the wrong people.”

  Eric ignored the concern in Cain’s warning, zipped his bag, then threw it over his shoulder, grabbed his keys and strode toward the door. “Like you don’t cross the wrong kind all the time.”

  “It’s not the same thing,” Cain argued. “I have people covering me. You’re on your own.”

  Eric hesitated. “You could quit the force and help me. Make it your New Year’s resolution.”

  “New Year’s has come and gone,” Cain said. Their gazes locked briefly and Eric’s stomach clenched. His brother was serious. “Join the force, Eric, and work with the law, not against us.”

  But Eric could not fit the mold. “I guess we hit that impasse again.” He snagged his laptop off the counter.

  Cain’s jaw tightened. “Watch your back. If you get into trouble—”

  “Then you’ll be there to help me.” A cocky grin slid onto Eric’s face. “Now, I’d love to stay and talk politics but I gotta go.”

  Cain caught his arm before he could fly past. “Where are you going?”

  Eric stared him down hard, the way he had when they were boys and they’d argued over whether or not to interfere when things had gone sour at home. When their father had taken his rage out on their mother and them. “I have business to finish,” he said between clenched teeth. “Legitimate business at the ranch.”

  His brother studied him, didn’t believe him. Eric didn’t care.

  Or maybe he did, but he would do what he had to do anyway.

  Mottled storm clouds rolled across the sky as he headed outside, thunder rumbling above the trees. The wind howled off the lake, a haunting reminder of the bleakness that had become his life.

  He didn’t have time for self-analysis, though. He had to get the witness to a safe house, then meet that woman his friend Polenta had sent his way. She’d sounded desperate, as if she was in trouble. And there was a kid involved. Some baby named Simon. The woman hadn’t made sense. She claimed they were after the baby, that he was the product of a research experiment.

  He’d known then he had to help her and the child. He’d even considered confiding in Cain, but she had turned to him for a reason. Because she couldn’t trust the cops.

  The reason he did what he did.

  Eric could never say no to a woman or child in trouble. Not when his own
past haunted him, when memories of his mother’s suicide still sent sweat trickling down his spine. Years ago, he’d started working with an underground organization to help women escape abusive homes so they didn’t meet the same fate, and their children didn’t suffer from abuse themselves. Someone had to help them break the cycle.

  He jogged down the front-porch steps two at a time, heading toward the lean-to where he’d parked the Jeep. Thankfully, his brother followed him to the porch. The witness was hiding in the back room, waiting to escape out the side door, then slip through the woods to the SUV.

  Rocks and gravel sprayed beneath his boots as he walked, the sting of his brother’s disapproval burning his back. He shrugged it off, tossed his duffel bag into the back seat along with his computer and saw the witness crawl into the passenger seat. He waited until Cain turned before he went to retrieve the cash he kept stashed in the shed for emergencies.

  Shaded by the thick forest of trees between his property and the road, he stepped toward the knotty pines. But a sudden explosion rent the air, the impact throwing him against a tree. Glass shards and flying metal assaulted him. He banged his head and tasted dirt, then jerked around on his knees in shock. His Jeep had exploded. A fireball rolled off it toward the sky. Ignoring the blinding pain that seared him, he lurched forward to rescue the witness, but another explosion rocked the ground and sent him hurling backward again into the woods.

  Fire breathed against his skin, catching his clothes and singeing his arms and legs. A jagged rock pierced his skull.

  The world went momentarily dark, the crackle of fire eating into the night. Eric pulled himself from the haze and tried to yell for help, but his vocal cords shut down. The smoke and fire robbed him of air. He coughed, inhaling the acrid odor of his own burning flesh. Pain, intense and raw, seared him. Flames clawed at his face, and pieces of hot metal stabbed his thigh. Then dizziness swept over him.

  He released a silent scream into the night, welcoming death and telling his brother goodbye.

  Chapter One

  Three Months Later

  “Did you find my birth parents?” Melissa Fagan asked.

  Larry Dormer, a local Atlanta private investigator she’d hired, hesitated before answering. “I hit a lot of dead ends.”

  He was stalling. Melissa steadied her voice to hide the disappointment. She wanted a name, just a name. At least for starters. “So, why did you call me in, Mr. Dormer?”

  “You told me to let you know if I found anything. I have a lead.” Anxiety emanated from him in the uneven breaths that rasped through the air, along with the scent of his perspiration. He’d cracked his knuckles more than once, as well, reaching for cigarettes, then fighting the urge, a definite sign of nerves.

  Instead, he drummed a pencil on his desk. How bad could it be? Had he located her parents and been told they didn’t want to be found? Were they shady people?

  “You know most records are sealed—”

  “Just tell me,” she said, growing impatient. She could feel his pity, hear the disapproval in his voice, sense he was holding back. He didn’t think she should search for people who might not want to be found. She should respect their privacy. She’d heard it all before. But she had to know the truth. “Look, I understand how difficult it is to hack into confidential files. Believe me, I’ve tried several sources. But I want to know everything you learned.”

  “You’re sure? You registered in the national database for adopted children, so if your parents were looking for you, they’d be able to contact you.”

  “Maybe they’re not certain I’d welcome them.”

  He still hesitated. “All right. But you may not like what you discover.”

  “I’m well aware of that.” All those years of foster care, she’d prayed she’d be adopted. Or that her mother or father would suddenly appear and rescue her from a life of being shuffled from one place to another. That hadn’t happened.

  Now at twenty-six, she had no such illusions that her life would be so idyllic.

  Her mother had left her on the doorstep of a church with no note, nothing except a tiny handmade crocheted bonnet with a pink ribbon. She had no idea why she’d been deserted. If she did, maybe she could overcome this dreadful sense of abandonment.

  Besides, it would be nice to feel connected to someone else in the world. Not to feel so alone. To at least know the truth about the woman who’d given birth to her.

  He still hesitated, studying her over square glasses, giving her time to contemplate her options.

  What if her mother or father had searched for her but had encountered the same brick walls she had? Or what if her parents had given her away because they couldn’t handle parenting an imperfect child?

  She massaged her temple, fighting an agitation-induced headache. The one that indicated the onslaught of a seizure. Her medication helped immensely, but occasionally she still experienced the episodes. They were mild, not epileptic in nature, and her symptoms mimicked a bad migraine—she became disoriented, slipped into a trancelike state for a few minutes—but they still embarrassed her and made her feel flawed. Besides, the attacks always left her physically exhausted and slightly depressed.

  Other questions assailed her. What if her mother had never told her father about her existence? What if one of her parents could accept her and be proud that she’d become an independent young woman? A physical therapist, when so many people hadn’t believed she’d succeed.

  What if your parents are happily married to other people and have families of their own? What if they’re ashamed of you, the bastard child?

  What if you weren’t born out of a night of passion?

  Are you prepared for an ugly truth like that?

  How could she go on not knowing, though? She’d lived in darkness all her life, her past an empty vacuum—at least this was one door she could open, look through, then close it if need be.

  She braced herself for the worst. “Tell me what you discovered.”

  He sighed and reached for a cigarette, this time relenting and lighting up. The stench of smoke filled the air, his shaky rasp of contentment following. “Your mother’s name was Candace Latone.”

  Candace? She savored the name for a moment. “Was Latone her maiden name or married name?”

  “She wasn’t married.”

  “What else can you tell me?”

  “She was young. Gave birth to you in Savannah, Georgia.” He hesitated, his reluctancy to answer her palpable.

  “What?” Anger tightened her throat. “I’m paying you for the truth, not to sugarcoat it.”

  “All right.” He wheezed, his cheap suit coat rattling as he swiped at the perspiration on his face. “She spent some time in a hospital down there.”

  “You mean she worked at one? Was she a nurse, an aide, a doctor? What?”

  “She was a patient, Miss Fagan. She attended college in Savannah and got involved in some kind of research experiment at the hospital where she volunteered.”

  “What kind of experiment?”

  “I haven’t been able to find that out. Records are sealed. No one is talking.”

  “And my father?”

  “Nothing so far.”

  Her mind veered off on a tangent—could the research experiment have caused her seizure disorder? The doctors hadn’t been able to explain the exact cause, but suggested it was genetic. And though not life threatening, the disorder deterred people from adopting her. Worse, she was afraid she might pass it on to a child. Maybe if she discovered the cause, the doctors could prevent her offspring from inheriting the condition.

  “If I were you, I’d forget the search.” He stood, inhaling smoke and shuffling papers, his demeanor indicating an end to their meeting.

  “Can you keep looking?” Melissa asked.

  “I told you everything, Miss Fagan. Now, I’d let sleeping dogs lie.”

  Melissa shivered and gripped the chair edge. She didn’t believe him. He was hiding something.

  Still,
learning her mother’s name should have been enough. Melissa had been born in Savannah; she had a place to start. But the fact that Candace had been involved in a research project, and that Melissa suffered from seizures no one could explain, triggered more questions. “All right, thank you for your help.”

  He snapped the file closed as if glad to be finished with it. “Goodbye, Miss Fagan.”

  Melissa headed to the door, still contemplating his odd behavior. The elevator dinged, and she waited for the people to exit, then stepped inside, fighting off the stench of body odors, stifling perfumes and smoke lingering inside.

  Frustration clawed at her as the doors closed, claustrophobia choking her. She pulled at her collar and inhaled, wrestling with bitter memories of being locked in a small room by her foster parents. They’d claimed they wanted to prevent her from wandering around at night, had been afraid she’d stumble into something. Instead, they’d confined her like a prisoner.

  The elevator whirled to a stop, the doors buzzed open, and she stepped outside, breathing in the fresh air. A warm spring breeze brushed her neck, the scents of freshly baked bread and Italian cuisine floating from the neighborhood restaurant. The hum of Atlanta traffic whizzed around her—a horn blowing, a siren wailing, pedestrians passing. A homeless man in ratty clothes reeking of booze and filth hugged a bottle of wine to his chest, his glassy eyes staring up at her, glazed and disoriented. Compassion filled her. She understood how it felt to be homeless, unwanted.

  She slipped inside a neighboring bagel shop, bought a bagful of bagels and a cup of hot coffee, then hurried out and handed them to him. Then she hailed a cab. At least she had more information than she’d had the day before.

  Tomorrow, she would check out the research park in Savannah and get a job there. Once she located her parents, she could put the past to rest.

 
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