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   SECRET IDENTITY
    .............................................Excerpt

Her name wasn't really Amanda Caldwell.

She hadn't gone by her real name since she was twenty-two, fresh out of college and looking for adventure. She'd found her adventure in a very covert section of the CIA and had become a different person.

A lot of different persons.

Over the years, she'd learned never to trust a stranger—or a friend. Never sit with her back to the door. Never take the same route home twice in a row.

In a place like Thurlow Gap, Tennessee, population 224, that last rule was hard to live by. Bypassed by the major state highways, the picture-postcard mountain hamlet had never become a tourist trap like other towns bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, much to the chagrin of the town's tiny chamber of commerce.

But the seclusion suited Amanda's needs very well.

Today she'd chosen a scenic route through Bridal Veil Woods behind the town's water tower. It added a few minutes to the normal ten-minute walk from town to her cottage in the foothills, but the sense of control was worth the extra time.

From the woods she emerged onto Dewberry Road two hundred yards north of the small cottage she'd bought two and a half years ago. As she headed up the road, a warbly voice called out her name. "Hey there, Miz Caldwell, did you get the job?"

Amanda turned to smile at the curly-topped little girl wobbling up to her on a bright pink bike. She'd grown up in a small town, but all the years and experiences since then had erased the memory of just how little privacy there could be in a town the size of Thurlow Gap. Everybody knew your business, even six-year-olds with scabby knees and gap-toothed grins.

"Hey there your own self, Lizzie Jean." She fell easily into the Southern accent she'd spent a couple of years losing when she joined the agency. "I did get the job."

Starting Monday, she'd be putting together the fall print ads for Gruver Hardware. It was freelance, like all the rest of the jobs she took these days, but it would pay a few months' worth of bills, sparing her from having to dip into her emergency funds.

Lizzie Hawkins slid off the bike and started walking next to Amanda. "Hey, some fella come lookin' for you earlier. He left a box on your porch. Is it your birthday or somethin'?"

Amanda kept smiling, but inside, her heart rate ratcheted up just a notch. She hadn't ordered anything, and it wasn't likely anyone in town had sent her something when they could have easily dropped it by in person.

These days, she didn't much like mysteries.

"What did the fella look like?" she asked.

"He had on a brown shirt and shorts, and he smelled sweaty." Lizzie wrinkled her nose. "He looked a little like Mr. Fielding, only a lot younger."

John Fielding was a Cherokee of indeterminate age who ran a produce stand on the edge of town. So the man who'd dropped off the package was dark-skinned and dark-haired. Maybe American Indian. Maybe…not.

Amanda's muscles tensed. Just a little. "What about his voice—anything strange about it?"

Lizzie's forehead wrinkled. "No, ma'am."

So no accent, foreign or otherwise. Maybe a local hired to deliver the package. "Did you see what he was driving?"

"A big brown truck."

Could be legit, she thought, letting herself relax a little more. Maybe someone in town had ordered her a book or something as a thank-you for a freelance design job well done.

"Thank you, Lizzie, for lettin' me know. Now you run along home, okay? I'll see you later." Amanda stayed still, watching the little girl ride away. When Lizzie was at a safe distance, Amanda turned up the gravel drive to her house. Towering pines in the front sheltered the house from the road, but as she reached the cobblestone walk to her front porch, she caught sight of the box lying on the welcome mat in front of her door.

She took the steps to the porch with care, watching for any sign of a booby trap. Not that she really thought there would be. Not after all this time.

But old habits die hard.

Official-looking labels plastered the front of the package, printed with her name and address. It was about the size of a shoe box, maybe a bit wider, with the logo of an online bookstore on the sides.

Amanda considered her options. Opening the box out here was out of the question. On the off chance it was a bomb, she'd want to limit the blast radius by putting an extra layer of protection—like walls and floors—in the way. While moving the box might be enough to set a bomb off, such a hair-trigger detonator would have made delivering the bomb dangerous. And if the detonator were remotely controlled, it probably would have gone off the minute she stepped up on the wood porch.

One thing was certain: calling the cops was out. Besides Thurlow Gap being miles from any town boasting a decent bomb squad, calling the cops because a deliveryman left a package on her porch would look nuts. She didn't need the scrutiny.

She took a deep breath and picked up the box. It was remarkably light, ruling out books. Probably ruled out a shrapnel bomb, as well, unless the shrapnel was made of something lighter than metal. Taking a quick look behind her to be sure nobody was lurking among the trees, she unlocked her front door and entered. She set the box on the hall table and locked the pair of dead bolts behind her.

The basement was the best place to open the box, she decided. It was mostly underground, with cinder-block walls that would force any explosion up rather than out toward surrounding homes.

She detoured to her bedroom and pulled a battered foot-locker from her closet. Inside were some of the trappings from her former life, including body armor and a flak helmet. She strapped on the gear, grimacing at the added weight.

The sight of her reflection in the dresser mirror gave her pause. She stared at the wide-eyed woman, girded like a gladiator, and gave a soft bark of laughter. Once a paranoid secret agent, always one.

But she didn't take off the body armor.

Downstairs, she set the box on the floor beneath a steel worktable that had been left in the house by its former owners. She grabbed a box cutter from her jumble of a tool chest and crouched by the package, slicing a square in the side of the box and pulling out the cardboard plug.

Nothing happened.

She sat back on her heels, staring at the wad of cushioned plastic wrap poking through the hole she'd just cut. A self-conscious chuckle escaped her lips.

She sliced a bigger hole and pulled the cushioned wrap through the opening. It unfolded as it came out, revealing a small box of matches.

She set it aside and shined a flashlight through the hole in the box, checking the interior. It was just a plain box. No wires, no detonator, no C4 strapped to the cardboard anywhere.

Puzzled, she picked up the matchbox and gave it a light shake. Whatever rattled inside didn't sound like matches. She opened it slowly, waiting for something to burst free from the box, but nothing jumped out at her.

It took a second for her to realize what lay inside the box. As it registered, the box fell from her suddenly numb fingers, spilling its contents on the floor.

Artificial fingernails, painted bloodred.

Amanda flexed her hands, phantom pain skittering along the nerve endings at the tips of her fingers. She pushed back the unwanted memory and picked up the now-empty matchbox, examining it. A ten-digit number was scrawled in black ink across the inside of the box. 2565550153.

Ten digits could be a phone number, she thought. A north Alabama area code. Did she even know anyone in Alabama?

She pushed to her feet and carried the matchbox upstairs, her mind racing through all the possibilities. The fake nails she understood—whoever had sent her the box had known her in her former life, known what happened in Kaziristan. It was a calling card.

The number, though—what did the number mean?

She stopped in her room to shed the body armor and helmet, shoving them back into their closet hiding place. Dropping on the side of her bed, she contemplated the phone on her bedside table. If the number on the matchbox was a phone number, should she call it? What if it was someone trying to confirm who she really was?

She flipped the matchbox over to the blue-and-white imprint on the front. She had the same brand in her kitchen right now. Anyone could have sent it.

Something small and black in one corner caught her eye. It looked like little more than a tiny smudge, as if the ink on the box label had spattered during printing. But Amanda had seen something like it before.

She took the box to the kitchen and found a magnifying glass in the utility drawer. Under the magnifying lens, the smudge became a couple of tiny letters: A. Q.

Alexander Quinn.

Part o
The man down the hall was definitely watching her. And given how grubby she looked at the moment, Isabel Cooper didn't think he was ogling her for the usual reasons.
Reaching for the handle of the ice machine door, she dropped her room key card on purpose, giving herself an excuse to shift position and sneak a better look at the man lurking at the end of the hall. He was lean and sandy-haired, wearing a simple black T-shirt and faded jeans. As her gaze rose toward him, he looked away. But she was certain he'd been staring.

Hair prickling on the back of her neck, she scooped ice into her bucket and headed back to her room. The carpeted hallway muffled even her own footsteps, so she couldn't hear anyone moving up the hallway behind her. But she could feel him.

Even though her room was straight ahead, she hooked a quick left into the elevator alcove. It was a dead end, but it gave her a chance to set herself for a fight.

She waited, her breath burning in her lungs.

But no one appeared around the corner.

The elevator dinged behind her, making her jump. The couple emerging from the elevator gave her a curious look. In the mirrored back of the open elevator, she caught a glimpse of her reflection, a wild-eyed brunette in a T-shirt and yoga pants, her feet stuck in a pair of fleece-lined house shoes and her unruly curls caught up in a lopsided ponytail.

The couple turned left, toward her own hotel room. She followed, darting a quick look down the hallway where she'd seen the loitering man. The corridor was empty.

Isabel released a puff of air. Wasn't it time to stop looking for criminals around every corner? Six months had already passed since she'd resigned from the FBI and returned home to work for her brother.

Six months since she'd buried her partner and said her final goodbye to the man she'd worked with for years, since she was a snot-nosed green agent fresh out of Quantico.

God, she missed him.

Trudging to her hotel room, she pushed the painful thoughts of Scanlon from her mind, thinking about the man she'd seen in the hallway instead. He hadn't looked familiar. And apparently she'd only imagined that he'd shadowed her up the hallway.

Tucking the ice bucket under one arm, she swiped the key card in the lock and let herself inside the hotel room. The door clicked shut, engaging the automatic lock. On instinct, she engaged the safety lock as well, waiting for the prickling sensation on the back of her neck to subside. But it lingered, the tingle of a thousand spider legs dancing across her skin.

She darted to the mirrored dresser, put down the ice bucket next to her overnight case and unzipped the bag, feeling inside for her Beretta 9 mm. She shouldn't have left the room without her weapon, but there was nowhere she could hide it in her yoga pants, and she hadn't wanted to alarm the other hotel visitors.

She ran her hands around the inside of her bag one more time, her fingers moving frantically in search of the weapon.

It wasn't there.

Her heart lurched into higher gear, pounding against her breastbone, as she picked up the bag to see if it could have fallen out without her noticing.

As she moved, her gaze glanced across the mirror on the wall above the dresser. Her heart jolted as she saw a man in a black ski mask standing a few inches behind her, holding her Beretta in his gloved hand.

Terror sucked the breath from her lungs.

"Looking for this?" The man behind the mask spoke in a low, pronounced drawl, the unabashed rural accent of the north Alabama hills.

"You can take all my money," she said, careful to sound neither too weak nor too strong. "Take the gun, too. I won't give you any trouble."

The man laughed. "Turn around."

She obeyed, sucking in another quick breath when she realized the man was not alone. A second man, similarly masked and clad in a dark long-sleeved T-shirt and pants, stood nearby, watching her. He didn't seem to be armed but was large enough, muscular enough, to pose a problem if she had to fight her way out of the situation.

The adrenaline coursing through her veins screamed for her to run. Catch them by surprise. But she'd engaged the safety lock—she'd never get it open in time to make her escape.

Was that the point of the man down the hall? To spook her into taking the extra precaution?

Think, Cooper. How do you get out of this?

"What do you want?" she asked, her voice strained.

"You don't know?" The man sounded surprised.

"You don't want money?" she asked, though it was clear her assailants weren't here for anything as ordinary as robbery.

"Agent Cooper, you're too smart to play games with us."

Which answered one question, she thought. They knew who she was. Their agenda was personal, not random.

But why? She wasn't working a case of any sort—she was here in Fort Payne, Alabama, to give a talk to some mystery writers about investigative procedure. It had been months since she'd worked any cases for the FBI, and she wasn't even working an open case with Cooper Security at the moment.

What would bring three armed men to her hotel room?

"I don't know what you want from me," she said aloud.

The man holding the gun on her glanced toward the other man. Isabel took advantage of his brief inattention and grabbed the ice bucket off the dresser, swinging it at his gun hand. The Beretta went flying, smacking against the motel room wall.

She ran to the door, her fingers clawing at the safety latch. As it flipped open, hands circled her throat and gave a backward jerk. She choked as her windpipe began to close from the pressure, black spots forming in her vision.

"Do it now!" her captor growled, dragging her onto the bed. Terror eclipsed the sense of suffocation as she struggled against the hands holding her down. The pressure on her throat eased, and she sucked in a lungful of air. Her vision returned in time to see a flash of a needle descending toward her neck.

She screamed for help, fighting harder. The man who'd had her gun shoved his gloved hand against her mouth, laughing as she bit at the leather. "Scream again, and we'll kill you now."

The needle descended, pricking the side of her neck.

The men held her in place, laughing at her struggles, until she felt her lungs burning for air. The room began to spin and grow strangely out of proportion. On the wall, the bland painting of daffodils started to melt, the colors sliding down the wall to pool atop the dresser.

One of the men had moved away from her, she realized, wondering how that could be possible when it seemed as if a dozen pair of hands still held her down.

She felt powerless to move against the pressure keeping her immobile. Forcing her gaze upward, she found herself staring into a pair of piercing blue eyes.

Jasper Swain, she thought, giving a start when she realized the words had escaped her aching throat in a rasp.

The blue eyes widened.

Then they bled.

And she screamed.



THE CRY DIED QUICKLY, but he knew what he'd heard. It was her. And she wasn't alone.

He flattened himself against the wall of the ice maker alcove down the hall from her room, knowing how disastrous it would be if one of the men inside caught sight of him. But he couldn't let them take her out of here.

He'd considered calling in a tip to the police, but the men in that room were dangerous, reckless men who'd have little compunction about leaving a small-town cop bleeding out in a hotel corridor. The cops would be more likely to get in his way than help him get her to safety.

He closed his fingers around the Glock hidden in the pocket of his windbreaker, grimacing. He wasn't the world's best marksman himself. But unlike local law enforcement officers, at least he knew what he was up against from the start.

How in hell did they think they were going to get her out of here? Was that even the plan anymore? He'd been damned lucky to hear about what the Swains were planning in the first place, considering how close-mouthed the people of Bolen Bluff, Alabama, could be.

He'd overheard the conversation while snooping around Tolliver Feed and Seed. Hidden in the back room, he'd eavesdropped on two Swain clansmen talking cryptically about an operation the next day, something to do with a woman at a Fort Payne hotel.

And if the Swains were up to something, it was bad news.

Down the hall, a door opened, and he heard scuffling sounds. He forced himself to remain in place as footsteps thudded down the hall toward his position.

He edged toward the ice machine, tugging the bill of his baseball cap lower over his face. He didn't have an ice bucket, but someone had helpfully left spares stacked on top of the machine, so he grabbed one of those and opened the ice machine bin. As he dug into the ice, he heard footsteps shuffling past him at a quick clip.

Once they'd passed, he took a quick look down the hall after them. He caught sight of a mass of dark curls and his heart gave a disconcerting flip.

Two men flanked her, holding her up as she sagged against them. A third man lagged behind, watching their backs. All of them wore caps low over their faces, just like his.

They were heading for the stairs.

He waited for them to enter the stairwell before he hurried after them. Cracking the door open, he listened for a second, trying to gauge how far ahead they were.

The footsteps echoed in the cavernous stairwell, making it hard to be sure where the sounds were coming from. He slipped into the stairwell and eased after them, keeping close to the wall to stay out of sight.

He had no idea how he was going to get her away from them without being seen, but if it came to a choice, he'd risk identification to save her. Whatever it took, he was going to get Isabel Cooper away from her captors.

What happened after that, however, would be anyone's guess.
f her wanted to pack up and leave Thurlow Gap before sunset. But the same part knew there was nowhere she could go that Quinn couldn't find her. The master spy who'd trained her in covert ops had come by the nickname "Warlock" honestly.

She might as well dial the bloody number. He already knew where she was.


Text Copyright 2012 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.