A Dangerous Need: Excerpt

New Title (Originally Titled Spy Betrayed).  Same Story!

Chapter One

 

The man arrived with a quick stride through the deepening shadows on the Newcastle ferry dock, skirting the dim pools of light the lampposts cast on the deserted concrete.  He was tall, and heavily built, and from him exuded an enmity so heavy, so thick, that, to MI-6 agent Celesta Whitestone, watching with binoculars from the wheelhouse of the ferry that had brought her from Sweden to northern England, it pushed aside the stuffy, lingering smell of stale coffee and sweat from the disembarked crew and sent an icy alert down her pain-bent spine.

The enmity was for her.  She could feel it to her core.

Instinctively, her leather-gloved hand moved to her belly, shaky in her fevered heat, protective over the sealed, vital documents taped to her skin.  One person, besides herself, knew she would arrive by ferry.  One person, besides herself, knew she would arrive tonight.

It was none of the men on the dock below.

They’d stood at bay as the ferry had emptied of its passengers an hour ago, scrutinizing the slow-moving families with prams and toddlers, slower-yet seniors with canes and wheelchairs, the even slower crawl of autos leaving the belly of the ship, and lastly, the fast-moving crew ready for home.

Now the dock was empty, the hour midnight, the late summer solstice dusk given way to a storm-clouded night.  Waves rocked the ferry, the surge of the North Sea beating into the river Tyne from the storm that had delayed the ship’s crossing.

Celesta’s midsection cramped with the damned nausea that had plagued her since before the rendezvous yesterday she’d arranged with the Swedish agent.

She bent double, her arm across her belly, and pulled in a deep breath of the stale cabin air, wiping her sweating brow with the back of her glove.

She never got sick.  The Swedish agent had never failed her.

Perhaps she’d been poisoned.

Perhaps he was dead.

The man with the enmity stopped beside a cargo truck along the dock side of the ferry, keeping to the deepest shadows.  A hint of jowls and a weathered neck showed above his upturned coat collar, but the rest of his face was hidden by the impenetrable shadow cast by the pulled-down brim of his fedora.

Get the packet to Gemma, Celesta’s muddled, fevered mind said.  Don’t risk it falling into anyone else’s hands.  Secrecy was paramount.  No trail of dead bodies.

But that muddled, fevered mind held her back in a heavy lethargy that spread to her limbs.  She had to see who’d betrayed her.  She had to know, before they could betray her again.

Beyond the cargo trucks, a young man hurried from the silent, darkened terminal building toward the man in the fedora.  Lean and suited, the new arrival crossed directly beneath one of the lampposts, cocky, or careless, his young, clean-shaven face eager and ambitious.

A chill washed over her heated body.

Jonathan Tabernash?

Her dulled gaze sharpened on Tabernash, watching for the signal she’d arranged with Gemma, and even as she watched, she knew the signal would never come.  Gemma wouldn’t send a novice agent.  Gemma wouldn’t send anyone but herself.  Not on this mission.

Celesta’s labored breathing began to speed.  A cold, deadly hardness broke through the fevered pain.  How had Tabernash known she’d be here?

How had the man in the fedora?

With a sharp gesture, the man in the fedora unleashed his goons.

Five men ran from the shadows toward the stern of the ferry and its ramp for vehicles.  Three more fanned across the edge of the concrete dock below Celesta’s perch, watching the water beyond the bow.  Light from a lamppost sparked on a gun.

A burst of adrenaline drove back the lethargy.  Celesta dropped the ferry captain’s binoculars and ran for the open wheelhouse door, pulling off her short, brown wig and stuffing it into the waterproof pouchstrapped across her chest.

Tugging the hood of her head-to-toe wetsuit over her platinum, ponytailed hair, she tookfrom the waterproof shoulder holster the Sig Sauer she’d brought aboard in the special, hidden compartment of her motorcycle and sped outside, along the open water of the river Tyne, hidden by the ferry from the man-in-the-fedora’s view.  Cold air blasted icy and hard, full of the scent of salty sea and heavy diesel.  The sweat on her face chilled, and she sucked in the cold air, antidote to fever.  Spurred by the chill, she reached the stairwell halfway between bow and stern and got her shaking body down one, then two flights of stairs, silent in her trainers.

Heavy, rushing footsteps clanged on the metal stairwell below.

One flight.

Nearing.

Celesta slowed, raising the silenced Sig Sauer.  Steadying herself with one hand on the stair rail, she took the turn as the ferry rocked with a large wave.

Caught midstair, the goon raised his weapon.

Celesta fired.  Once.  Twice.

The man went down with the first.  Died before the second.

She pulled the communications earpiece from his ear and tucked it into her own.

Nothing but the sound of footsteps thudded in her ear, thudding along the deck below, running now and nearing.

As swiftly and silently as she could muster, she took two more flights down.  On the third, another rush of heavy, surging waves rocked the ferry.  Another rush of nausea wracked her sweating body.  She stumbled on a stair, tripped down three, and reached the lowest deck, breathing hard, the air heavy with unshed rain, the clouds low and storm-dark.

Headlights and streetlamps glittered on the opposite shore.  Below, the river churned against the ship.

Metal clanged as the ferry banged against the dock.

Over the rasp of her breath, running thuds, two decks above, sounded along the outside rail, headed for her stairwell.

She crossed the tossing deck to the railing, shoving her Sig into its holster, stripping off her leather gloves, and slid over the cold metal to the lifeboat suspended below.  Reaching beneath its covering tarp, she pulled out the deflated, inflatable raft she’d hidden and grasped the raft’s line in her hand.  Swiftly, she stepped up onto the rim of the boat and dove for the water.

A shout carried from the deck above.  A barrage of gunfire burst in the air.

Fire caught her belly, cutting through the wet suit, burning across her skin, and she cried out at the pain as she hit the cold water, getting a mouthful of oil-laced muck.  Silent bullets broke the surface of the river around her, slicing through the rough, choppy waves.

Clinging to the raft’s line, Celesta dove deep, kicking toward the opposite shore.

Her lungs screamed for air.  Bullets arrowed through the water.

A heavy wave slammed her underwater against the ship, taking her breath, stunning her brain.  Surfacing, she hid beneath the lower curve of the ferry’s hull from the goons, the ship between her and the dock, and from the dock she felt again the enmity from the man in the fedora, as if he knew at that moment where she was and took pleasure in it.

Her body shuddered, uncontrolled, unstopping, from nausea, the pain in her belly, the cold of the water seeping into her wet suit.

Swim, her training demanded through the fevered muddle of her mind, but the heavy lethargy deepened over her limbs, weighing her down, and she curled in a fetal position, protecting the wound in her side and the documents taped to her belly, clinging to her waning body heat, and in the rapidly diminishing, rational corner of her mind, she wondered what poison she’d ingested.

Swim, damn it.

The enmity swelled around her, the poison taking a stronger hold.  Deep paranoia—the enmity of a stranger—pressed her limbs to inaction.

A splash sounded near the dock.  Reluctance to move turned to an unaccustomed despair, then through the lethargy broke unbidden thoughts of love.

“Mark,” she said aloud through trembling lips and hated herself for it, but his face filled her thoughts, sweeping past the enmity, his broad, tanned face, his teasing, blue eyes, his fun-loving mouth, and she clung to his strength, his power, his love.  Clung to her foolish weakness to have believed she could love him back.

Anger burst heated and energizing through the poison-induced inertia.  Anger at herself.  Anger at him.

He’d been no more trustworthy than any other man.

Men’s shouts came from the dock.  Another splash sounded, an oar cutting through water.

Swim.

Swim.

Swim.

This time, her shivering, nauseous body obeyed.  Celesta kicked hard off the ferry, dove beneath the cold swells of the river Tyne, and fought her way toward the opposite shore.

***

In a dazzling spell of sunshine, in the Lake District of northern England, with its high, green peaks and frequent bursts of rain, U.S. Marshal Mark Santini watched the bride waltz in her flowing, white gown with her handsome, tall, tuxedoed new husband and raised a glass of the groom’s favorite ale.  A toast, he thought, the festive lights in Harry Trubshawe’s garden twinkling like midday fireflies among the sun-drenched, erotic statuary.

To the bride…long life and joy.

To the groom…

Mark scowled at the groom, who was the MI-6 protégé—ex–MI-6 protégé—of the ruthless bastard who was the bride’s birth father, who…

Mark slugged down the rest of the ale.  Don’t ask him to explain, it was too damned complicated, and he didn’t want to think about it anymore.  If it weren’t for the groom, Mark’s best friend would still be his partner in the U.S. Marshals.  If it weren’t for the groom, Mark’s ten-year career assignment would still be his assignment, not dancing in the arms of her new husband.

Mark’s losing the woman he loved, however, had been Mark’s own damned fault.

He refilled his glass from a second bottle of ale, the scent of hops and the presence of family the only things familiar of his life of six weeks ago, and raised the glass in another toast.  To the woman I love, who never wants to see me again…

He frowned at his youngest brother Rob, who’d never met the woman in question, but the woman in question was noticeably, conspicuously, absent.

Rob leaned back in his fabric-covered, folding chair and returned the frown over the low centerpiece of white roses and pink camellias, the air filled with a sweet, flowery scent that floated across the garden in the soft, cool June breeze that countered the heat of the sun.  Elegant in his broad-shouldered tux, his bow tie loosened now that the wedding photos had been shot, he pulled another bottle from the case of ale they’d wormed out of Harry. “Put the rest of us out of our misery,” Rob said, glancing at the empty chair reserved for the absent woman at the white-linened table for ten, “and call her.”

Mark remembered her cold, cold eyes, icy blue with hatred and hurt, her body taut with anger.  He loosened his own bow tie.  “Call who?”

Rob gave him a disgusted look and twisted open his ale, his twenty-five-year-old face broad and tanned and square jawed like Mark’s, his dark hair cropped and wavy, his eyes green.

“I’ve forgotten all about her,” Mark said.

“Like hell you have.”

Mark tilted back in his chair and deepened his frown.  “I’m not calling her,” he said, sounding mulish even to himself.  “She never wants to talk to me again.”

“You shot her, Mark.”

“In the line of duty.  She, of all people, should understand that.”  And if she didn’t, he was willing to explain it all over again, and again and again, if she would only answer her goddamned phone.

She was probably on some dangerous, secret, MI-6 mission, out of touch, risking her life, sleeping with other men for queen and country.

He dropped his chair forward, his fist clenched around his glass, which hit the tablecloth with a thud, shaking the water goblets and rattling the silverware.  “What the hell would I say?  Sorry I shot you?”

“It’s a start,” Rob said.  “You could have killed her, but you didn’t.”

“I’m not sure she’d admire that.”  Better he forgot her.  Better he let her go.

She’d let him go, without a word.  A month and a half, without a single, goddamned word.

Rob shook his head.  “Maybe you should call it quits.  You’ve got a lot of the past to get past with her if you’re ever going to be together.  Assuming she wants to get past the past.”

“I’ll call mine if you call yours.”

Rob’s jaw tightened.

A rustle of silk, satin, and tulle announced the bride, who held out her hands toward Mark, her dark hair up in an elaborate twist, her upper body covered with lace, the cleavage she’d discovered in Paris peeking through, Mark’s tomboy, baby-sister Danni now twenty-three years old and feminine and womanly in a way he was still getting used to.  Her new ring glinted on one slender hand in the sunlight, next to her diamond engagement ring.  Tiny crystal beads sparkled on her gown.  “Dance with me,” she said in a happy voice and took his arm and pulled him to his feet.

Off to the left, laughter sounded beside the buffet table decorated with more roses and camellias and packed with food.  Champagne flutes clinked with more toasts, the blond and smiling groom talking to his wife’s adoptive, pleased parents.

Another waltz started up over Harry’s state-of-the-art sound system, and Mark led Danni to the wooden dance floor temporarily installed on a large, grassy spot in the center of the garden in the dappled shade of half a dozen elm trees.  Taking her in his arms, the lace at her back soft beneath one hand, her hand trusting and warm in the other, trusting and warm as it had been her whole life, he twirled her around as he had when she was four and he was fourteen.

Her blue eyes lit with delight, and she laughed, her pretty, oval face grinning, and he knew she was remembering, too.

He spun her around the dance floor.  The perfume Danni had taken to wearing when she’d first met her groom—another change, too much damned change—floated softly but spicily in her path, but Mark’s mind focused on the scent that was missing from the party, Celesta Whitestone’s scent.  Not perfume, not scented shampoo or body soap, just the subtle scent of her, anything else was too dangerous for missions, and missions were her daily life.

“She’d be here if she could,” Danni said, worry creasing her brow, her diamond tiara, a gift from her godmother Gemma, glittering in a ray of sun.

“Who?” Mark said, but as one, they glanced at the end of the long buffet table opposite the groom, where Gemma, Celesta’s MI-6 boss, surreptitiously checked her cell phone for the hundredth time in the last two hours, while downing another piece of wedding cake.  Dressed in a festive, green dress she wore easily on her six-foot-tall, broad frame, her black, shoulder-length, bobbed hair in an elegant sweep, Gemma frowned at the phone, then said something low and grave to Danni’s ex-spy godfather, Harry, who, equally tall and exquisitely British in a tailored, tailed morning suit, listened with troubled, gray eyes.

Mark’s chest tightened.  Celesta was on a vital mission, and a dangerous one at that.  Little else could disturb Gemma’s normally calm, in-command exterior.

“You know who,” Danni said, taking another twirl beneath his arm as they moved along one edge of the dance floor, past a row of erotic statuary draped strategically in tulle.  “She’s had time to cool down.  Call her.

Footsteps sounded, high heels tapping.

Mark’s heart leaped to his throat.  His gaze jerked toward the far end of the garden, beyond a series of brightly blooming flower beds and a burbling, marble fountain, to the back of Harry’s low, eighteenth-century, slate-roofed house.

Harry’s teenaged granddaughter Natalie, her pink hair matching her miniskirt and platform heels, crossed the black flagstone terrace at the back of the house, carrying another tray of hot-from-the-oven, individual, chocolate soufflés toward the buffet table.

Mark’s heart settled jerkily back into his chest, his disappointment heavy in his lungs, his ears keenly aware of the sound not there, of Celesta’s laugh, Celesta’s voice, Celesta’s footsteps over the flagstone announcing her arrival, though she’d never make that kind of noise.  She’d appear, silent and unexpected, sleek and elegant, her luminescent, Nordic beauty outshining both the sun and the tiny, sparkling lights around the garden.

Danni slowed as the waltz came to an end, her gaze shifting from Natalie to Mark’s face.  “Call her, you big dummy.”

He led her toward her husband Alex Daimond, who’d moved to join Gemma and Harry, the three MI-6 agents, one active, two former, huddled in serious conversation beside the wedding cake.

Mark knew it.  Celesta was on assignment.  Some damned, perilous assignment, risking her life.  His pulse began to thud.  “She doesn’t want to talk to me,” he told Danni.  And now it might be too late.

“You called her a treasonous bitch,” Danni said.  “A spy doesn’t take that lightly.”

Alex looked up from the spy huddle as they approached, as muscled and tall as Mark, his blond hair sparking in the sun, brown eyes shrewd and intelligent and shifting to joy at the sight of his bride, and Mark swore that if the man said, “Call her,” he’d punch the groom in the face.  But Alex just flashed that damned charming smile he rightly reserved solely now for Danni and led her back to the dance floor, where Mark’s parents had started to fox trot.

Gemma and Harry followed the newlywed couple, bright smiles on their faces as they began to dance, as if they could fool Mark.  Mark, who’d known both for thirty-three years, since he was a babe in arms.

He strode back to the flower-decked table for ten and its case of ale and pulled off his tuxedo jacket, feeling restless and confined.  “Change is good,” he told Rob, swinging the jacket over the back of his chair, then sat down, unfastening his gold cuff links.  He tucked the cuff links into his jacket’s breast pocket beside his cell phone and rolled up his shirtsleeves.  Picked up his ale.

His cell phone vibrated, low and pulsing.

That flash of excitement he got every time it had rung the last month and a half, hoping it was Celesta, buzzed through him now.  He grabbed the phone from his jacket and checked the caller ID.  An England number, one he didn’t recognize.

Disappointment hit hard, and he exhaled the breath he’d unwittingly held.  “Hello?” he answered, his tone flat.

“Mark?”  The woman’s voice was faint, low and rich like the ale in his hand, as if his longings had conjured her.

Mark leaped to his feet.  “Celesta?

***

Copyright © 2012 by Sharon Louise.  All rights reserved.

A Dangerous Need, a romantic suspense novel and the second book in the romantic suspense series Spies & Deadly Guys featuring the Santini family.  Approximately 127,000 words.

Originally Titled Spy Betrayed.

***

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