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Sins and Scarlet Lace

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Sins and Scarlet Lace (A MACKENZIE NOVEL) 4/16/2013

Declan MacKenzie has loved the same woman for as long as he can remember, but after a mission early on in his career turns deadly, he realizes he can never have a wife or family and keep them safe. So he watches her marry another man. 

Sophia Huxley is involved in a nightmare. Her late husband has been labeled a traitor and he's made her the fall guy. There's no one she can call to prove her innocence. Except the man who broke her heart.

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Excerpt

Sophia Huxley sat huddled in the corner of the small square room. The walls and floor were grey concrete and the fluorescent lights were harsh. The wooden chair beneath her wobbled, and she had to keep both feet pressed to the floor so she didn’t slide forward. A small metal table sat bolted to the floor, scarred and dented from years of abuse. A long stretch of mirror reached across the opposite wall, and she knew they were watching her.

Her mouth was dry, and she wrapped her arms protectively around her roiling stomach. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a full meal. Maybe a few weeks ago when she’d gotten the news of her husband’s death. Things had been a blur since then.

She’d lost track of how long she’d been inside the interrogation room. She was in trouble and she didn’t know how to fix it. She had no family, no close friends. Kane had made sure of that after they’d married. His jealousy had caused her to cut all ties.

Shame crawled up her spine and wrapped around her skin like it always did when she remembered what a fool she’d been. Dec hadn’t wanted her enough, loved her enough, so she’d ended up with a man who’d reminded her of him—in the way he spoke and the way he’d charmed her with his teasing personality—only she hadn’t known at the time it had all been an act. 

It had taken her more than a year after Declan’s cruel parting before she’d started dating again, but Kane Huxley had walked into her life and been relentless in his pursuit, and six weeks later she’d married him. Sophia hadn’t known until she’d walked down the aisle that Declan and Kane had been friends—not until she’d seen the stone mask come down over Declan’s face—the scars there still puckered and red—as she promised to love and cherish another man—a man who would never have her whole heart. It wasn’t every day the bride spent time throwing up in the bathroom instead of enjoying her reception.

Another round of shudders wracked her body, the muscles of her arms and legs knotting into tight balls, and she bit her lips as she tried to massage the areas. They’d dropped the temperature in the room and her teeth chattered as she waited endlessly for someone to come in and speak with her. They called her a traitor. A terrorist. And a dry sob escaped at the thought of what might happen to her.

There was no one left she could turn to. No one who could find out why they were calling her such terrible things.

Thoughts of Declan came to mind—at least the way he’d been when he’d loved her. It hadn’t been the first time she’d thought of him over the years, but it was the first time since the day he broke her heart that she actually wanted to see his face one more time. Maybe he’d been right when he told her when one was faced with moments of life or death, thoughts of the things or people who meant the most were what occupied the mind. Unfortunately for her, it seemed like it was still him. Leave it to her subconscious to enjoy being kicked while she was down. Declan had been Kane’s friend and Kane had betrayed them all. There was no reason for him to come to his widow’s rescue.

Her head snapped around as the grey metal door opened on silent hinges and a man stepped through. She didn’t recognize him, but he was a hell of a lot scarier than the agents who had taken her from her home in handcuffs.

Sophia shuddered involuntarily at the humiliation being handcuffed had brought her—as her neighbors gathered on their lawns and the reporters swarmed around her and she was driven away.

“Mrs. Huxley,” the agent said. “My name is Agent Brennan. And you’re in a whole hell of a lot of trouble.”

His size filled the doorway and the freshly creased slacks and blue dress shirt couldn’t hide the savagery within. His hair was dark as night and swept rakishly across his forehead, and his eyes were the same piercing blue as his dress shirt. He held a large file in his hand and had a weapon at his hip.

Her fingernails bit into her palms and she tensed as he moved into the room and took the chair on the other side of the table. His chair either didn’t wobble or he didn’t care about the discomfort. He didn’t look like the kind of man you’d want to cross.

The pain from squeezing her fists was only a reminder that the nightmare had become reality, and she stared past Agent Brennan into the long expanse of mirror, wondering what the men behind it saw when they looked at her.

“Mrs. Huxley?” Agent Brennan asked, the frown lines marring his forehead making him all the more menacing. “Are you all right?”

The laugh that escaped was harsh and filled with disbelief at his question. “Why am I here?” Her voice cracked and she swallowed once, trying to soothe the dryness.

“Let’s not play games, Mrs. Huxley. Things will go much easier for you if you just tell us the truth.”

“What truth?” she spat, heat rushing to her cheeks as her temper unleashed. “I’ve been called a terrorist and a traitor without any explanations. I’ve been locked in a room for hours without food or water, and no one has read me my rights or asked if I’d like an attorney.”

“Terrorists have no rights. Welcome to the United States of America.”

“I’m not a terrorist,” she said, but the words trembled past her lips and fear rooted in her belly. “I’m not. I haven’t done anything.”

“Your husband was a high ranking agent within the CIA who had top-secret security clearance. Do you know what his legacy is, Mrs. Huxley?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. “He’s the man who put a price on his agents’ heads and sold them to the highest bidder. He’s been responsible for the deaths of fourteen agents, and God knows how many more names he sold before he had the good sense to die.”

Sophia shook her head in confusion. “This is a mistake. My husband was a contractor for a steel company. He never took government contracts because he said they didn’t pay enough. I’ll be the first to agree with you that he’d be capable of murder, but he wasn’t an agent.”

She watched in horrified fascination as the heavy file landed with a thud onto the table. He flipped it open and picked up the document that sat on top. Attached to it was a photograph of her husband. He pushed it towards her and her blood ran cold at the sight of him. Everything she’d never known about him was listed on that one sheet of paper—his security clearance, those under his command, his contacts, his family—her.

“My God,” she said, meeting Agent Brennan’s stone cold gaze. “This has to be some kind of a joke.”

“I promise you, it’s not. Your husband went to work every day and looked into the eyes of the people he was selling out. He was a murderer.”

His eyes flashed with anger and she felt the blood drain from her face. The words he’d said earlier suddenly hit her. She had no rights. No friends. No protection. She was locked in a room with a man who could do anything he wanted so long as she confessed what he thought was the truth, and those watching would do nothing to stop him.

“I want out of here,” she said, pushing back her chair and coming to her feet. The muscles in her calves cramped and the pain almost brought her to her knees, but she stood her ground and gritted her teeth through the pain. “I want to know what you think I’ve done. I want an attorney. You can’t keep me in here when I’ve done nothing wrong.” Hysteria edged its way into her voice and she looked around the room, looking for some way to escape.

“Have a seat, Mrs. Huxley. Do you expect me to believe this act? That you could be married to a man like him and not have any idea the kind of hell he brought down on people’s lives?” Agent Brennan’s voice never rose, as if he was used to watching a woman approaching breakdown status.

Sophia stared at him in shock and answered before she could think better of it. “Of course I know the kind of hell he brought down on people. He was a master at manipulation, at mind games, until you no longer recognized yourself anymore and his truths became your reality. You see these two fingers?” she asked, holding up her right hand so the crooked appendages were easily seen. “He did this the day I told him I wanted a divorce. And then he held a knife to my throat and raped me while he told me he’d kill me if I ever tried to divorce him.” She pulled down the collar of her shirt so he could see the faint scar where the knife had bit into her skin.

“As soon as I managed to crawl away and scramble to my feet I grabbed the rifle I kept by the door and held it on him until he left. But I never found the courage to file for divorce. And every day after I looked over my shoulder because I knew if I ever let my guard down he’d find some way to strike when I wasn’t looking.” She looked at her hand and flexed her fingers back into a fist. “I guess he found a way to strike back at me after all, because here I am. So you don’t scare me, Agent Brennan. I’ve lived through the hell of Kane Huxley.” 

“It’s an interesting story,” he said. “And I have no doubt he would do something like that to his own wife. But it doesn’t excuse the evidence that says you’re as guilty as he was. Do you know how he died?”

Sophia just stared into the cold depths of Gabe Brennan’s eyes and didn’t answer. There didn’t seem to be a point.

“Kane made a deal with the wrong man.” He leaned back in his chair and steepled his hands across his stomach, as if they were just having a casual chat. “We’d deployed a team to Central America to destroy one of the largest drug labs in the world and disband the Ramos cartel. Huxley sold out the team so the soldiers were waiting for them, but the drug lord in charge decided to take Kane down with them instead of parting with the five-million dollar fee Kane had asked for.”

“I don’t know anything about this. About what he did,” Sophia said again.

“You were married to the man. You shared his bed and his home. You can’t tell me you didn’t know what was going on.” Gabe spread the file open and fanned the papers so they arced in front of her. “The evidence doesn’t lie.”

She barely glimpsed at the papers and kept her eyes steady on him. “Kane Huxley and I were married in name only,” she said, feeling the humiliation creep up on her once again. Her eyes darted to the long expanse of glass—she could feel their gazes on her. “I barely saw him when we were married, and I only saw him twice in the three years after I told him to leave.”

“Maybe so, but Kane has been an agent within the CIA for a dozen years. Surely you became suspicious of his behavior during that time.”

Her fists pounded down on the table, sending some of the papers to the floor. “I was too busy trying to outguess his moods and keep my sanity,” she screamed, her voice breaking again. “Do you know what it’s like, Agent Brennan, to be young and confident and on top of the world, and then have that world shattered in the blink of an eye? Until you have no self-confidence or self-respect because someone is in your face day after day, listing your faults and implanting new ones in your mind just because they like to fuck with you?”

Tears coursed down her cheeks, but she ignored them, just as she ignored the brief glimpse of pity she saw in Gabe Brennan’s eyes. She didn’t need anyone’s pity. She needed her freedom. It was all she’d wanted since she’d made the mistake of tying herself to Kane.

“You’re an accountant at a very large and prestigious firm, Mrs. Huxley,” Gabe went on, changing the subject abruptly. “The money your husband collected for selling out the agents had to go somewhere. Your firm moves millions of dollars all over the world every day. It wouldn’t be hard for you to do the same for your husband.”

“You wouldn’t even suggest that if you had any clue what our marriage was like. Kane didn’t talk business with me. He could barely stand to be in the same room with me.”

“Beg your pardon, but why did he marry you in the first place?”

“I was a contest. Nothing more than a prize to be won. And I played easily into his hands. Let’s just say I have bad judgment when it comes to men.”

Gabe leaned forward and separated several documents from the pile, pushing them in front of her. Her eyes widened in horror as she recognized her signature neatly below her husband’s.

“These are documents for six different bank accounts,” Gabe said, spreading them out so she could see.

Sophia glanced at them quickly and felt the noose tightening around her neck. She shook her head in denial. It looked like her signature, but she knew she’d never signed these documents.

“Where’s the money, Mrs. Huxley?”

Her gaze shot up to meet his stone cold glare, but she didn’t flinch. 

“I don’t have any money, Agent Brennan. I never did.”

She could sense his frustration, but she could just as easily see the wheels turning in his head, looking for ways to trap her in a lie.

“The signature on those bank accounts tells me differently,” he said. “I’m willing to bet your accounting background would make it next to impossible for you not to keep printed records somewhere of every transaction that came in and out of those accounts. Technology can’t always be trusted, can it? Which is why agents are turning your house upside down as we speak. They’re talking to friends and your employer. They’ll be taking apart your office and the computer you use there. We’ll find it, Mrs. Huxley.”

Nausea roiled through her stomach as he so easily destroyed her life. She’d have nothing left once they were finished with her. Her firm would dismiss her at the first hint of scandal. She didn’t have many friends left, mostly acquaintances, and her parents were no longer living. If she didn’t have a job, she could kiss her house and everything she’d worked for goodbye.

“Whoever cleared the money from those accounts wiped all traces of where it came from. And if we can find out which terrorist cells funded you and your husband’s very lucrative side business, then we can track them down and bring justice to all of the agents whose covers have been compromised, and we can hopefully save the lives of dozens of others. We have no idea how many identities have been sold, or who is in immediate danger.”

Sophia didn’t want to look at the condemnation in Gabe Brennan’s face any longer. She didn’t want to see his proof. She knew Kane had done this to her, had betrayed those agents and cost them their lives.

“You’re going to want to help us here, Mrs. Huxley. Your husband is dead. There’s no one left to take the fall except for you.”

Sophia closed her eyes and didn’t respond. They’d made up their minds. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes and trailed down her cheeks. The last time she’d cried had been the day Declan had told her he no longer loved her, but she couldn’t seem to stop the tears now. She was too tired and weariness had settled deep in her bones.

“There’s nothing more I can tell you.” The silence that followed was heavy with tension and she finally opened her eyes to face what was to come.

“Have it your way. You’ll be taken to lockup until the teams have finished searching your home and office. You could be there days or weeks, it’s anyone’s guess, but I do know you’ll be getting a visit from Doctor Renfro within twenty-four hours. He’s got this nifty injectable serum that makes people want to talk. If I were you, I’d come clean before that visit. I hear it’s not a pleasant treatment.” 

The scrape of his chair across the concrete floor was like nails across a chalkboard and sent shivers down her spine. She’d lived on fear for five years, looking over her shoulder for Kane to make good on his threats, but it was nothing compared to the fear she felt now.

Agent Brennan gathered the papers—the papers that proved her guilt—and put them back in the file folder.

“I didn’t see any next of kin in your file,” Gabe said as he walked to the door. “And your name has already been splashed across the media. One of your co-workers enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame a little too much. Do you have anyone you want us to contact? Someone to attend to any personal matters while you’re visiting us?”

“Declan MacKenzie.”

Sophia had no idea why it was his name that came to mind first, or why she thought he could or would help her now. Kane had delighted in telling her how many women Dec had had over the years and how many they’d shared together. But she’d learned to recognize Kane’s lies the longer he spouted them. Declan was a bastard for sure, but deep down he had an honor and character that Kane would never possess. And she believed if she called on him for help now he’d come just because his sense of right and wrong and his honor would let him do no less. 

Agent Brennan stared at her with an unreadable look on his face, but she could have sworn she saw a glimmer of surprise in his eyes.

“Call Declan MacKenzie,” she said again, her voice stronger this time. “He used to be military. Special Forces. I don’t know if he still is, but he is—was—my friend. He’s the only person I have left to call.”

She had to believe that everything would be okay. The truth would come out and everyone would see that she was innocent. That Kane Huxley had been a monster to the core. Dec would believe her. He knew her too well to think she could ever become a traitor.

“That can be arranged, Mrs. Huxley.” Agent Brennan stepped out of the room and closed the door quietly behind him, and for the first time since her wedding night she had hope that everything would be all right.

She waited several minutes for someone to come get her and take her to her cell, but the minutes dragged on and the lethargy in her muscles had her dozing. The door didn’t make a sound when it opened again, but the hairs stood up on her arms and a feeling she hadn’t felt in a long time settled low in her gut. She knew he’d be standing there before she lifted her head.

The sight of Declan MacKenzie sent emotions rioting through her body—relief, longing, embarrassment and sorrow. Her marriage to Kane had destroyed part of her, though she’d been scraping and fighting to repair it since she’d separated from him. Kane had taken every opportunity to play psychological games, until she’d started believing the things he’d said.

Dec looked the same at first glance. He was still an intimidating figure—it was just something about the way he carried himself. He moved like a big jungle cat and had the grace of a dancer. His dark hair was shorter than when she’d last seen him—buzzed close to the scalp—and his beard was the same length, though she could still see the jagged scar that followed the line of his jaw. The occasional strand of silver in his hair was new.

“Dec,” she said, the chair tipping over as she got up hastily. Her legs shook and she felt the tears well in her eyes. She’d never seen anything that looked as good as him standing there, and she rushed toward him, throwing her arms around him.

“God, Dec. I’m so sorry.” The tears finally let loose, but only because she wasn’t alone any longer. “I didn’t have anyone else to call. Thank you for coming. Thank you,” she repeated again and again.

“Sophia.” His lips glanced off her temple as he said her name and then he took a step back, so she was no longer touching him.

It was then she realized the obvious. Other than the brief glance of his mouth on her skin he hadn’t touched her in any way. His hands were still in the pockets of grey dress slacks and the sleeves of his white dress shirt were rolled up to show his sinewy forearms. Tension coiled in the broad muscles of his chest and shoulders and the scar along his cheek turned white as he clenched his jaw.

Her eyes widened as she saw the weapon holstered at his side and she took a step back. And then another. Her gaze flew back to his and then she knew. He was one of them, and he’d never believe her over the evidence that was so damning. For the second time in her life, Declan was going to destroy her, and she had no one to blame but herself. The old saying was true—fool me once, shame on you… The only fool in the room was her.

“The only way I can help you is if you tell the truth.” His familiar voice slid across her skin like silk and she had to remind herself to breathe. This wasn’t the same man who’d once loved her. Who’d used that same voice to tempt and seduce. This man was her enemy. And she’d brought him right to her door.

“Go to hell, Declan MacKenzie. And take your evidence with you.”
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