“Why me? Why the hell does it have to be me?” Trace McKinnon stared at his boss with a touch of belligerence.
“Because they specifically asked for you,” Cody Walker said reasonably, with a faint smile. “And in the spirit of interagency cooperation…”
Trace scowled. “That’s BS and you know it.”
“Yeah.” Walker’s smile turned sympathetic. “You know it and I know it. But we have to at least pretend to play nice with the State Department and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.” His voice took on a conciliatory tone. “This is the first time another federal agency has asked for our help since we teamed with the FBI to take down the New World Militia and Michael Vishenko,” he said, referring to a case that in some respects was still ongoing, at least with regard to testifying at trials. “And look how well that turned out. Weren’t you the one who reminded me two years ago we’re all on the same side?”
Damned by my own words, Trace thought, frustrated. His boss was right, and on some level he knew it. It was just that he’d recently started on a case that really interested him for the first time in those same two years, and he hated like hell the idea of turning that case over to someone else while he babysat a foreign princess.
“Why does it have to be me?” he reiterated.
Persuasively, Walker said, “Considering she’s going to be at the University of Colorado Boulder, at least you don’t have to go far from home. And with your background in the US Marshals Service, who better could they get?”
“I would have thought female bodyguards would be better, under the circumstances.”
Walker looked uncomfortable. “Yes…well…you see…the thing is…” He cleared his throat. “The Zakharians are somewhat behind the times. They specifically requested men for this job.”
Trace snorted. “Don’t let Keira hear you say that. It would drive your wife crazy.”
“I know. But we can hardly go against their wishes on this, can we?” He glanced at the folder in front of him, sent over from the Diplomatic Security Service—the other name for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security—in an attachment to an email. “Zakhar is a small country, but it’s critically important to the US’s strategic plan for NATO and Europe. We don’t want to piss the Zakharians off on something as simple as this. Especially since they’ll be picking up the entire tab for the cost involved. Yeah,” he said when Trace raised his eyebrows. “She’s a foreign dignitary, but she’s not a diplomat, and technically she doesn’t qualify for DSS protection, not long term like this. Zakhar’s king just wants our expertise guarding his precious sister, and he’s willing to pay for it. State agreed for the reasons I just mentioned, and it won’t cost the US taxpayers a single dime.”
“Okay, I’ll buy that. But why does it have to be me?” Trace asked for the third time. “Isn’t this something the Diplomatic Security Service would normally handle?”
“The State Department explained that. You were an Embassy marine for six months in Zakhar, so you’ve been exposed to their culture, and—”
“Damn! I knew it. This is because I speak the language, right?”
Amusement touched the corners of Walker’s mouth. “Right.”
“I should never have listed that on my agency résumé.”
“Too late now.”
Frustrated, Trace took a turn around the room. “I can’t guard her 24/7. Who else is being assigned?”
“We’ll let the DSS figure it out. But I do have some ideas…”
Trace groaned at the thought.
“It won’t be that bad,” Walker insisted. “It’s only for a year, and—”
“A year! You didn’t tell me I was going to be stuck with this BS assignment for a year!”
“She’s going to be teaching at the University of Colorado for the next year. Some kind of exchange program. And she’ll have her own retinue with her, including Zakharian security forces.” He hesitated. “But you’re not just being asked to be her bodyguard.”
Trace froze. “Then what?”
“The king doesn’t know it, but the State Department wants you to take note of anything she or her entourage might say…in the Zakharian language.”
“I get it now.” Trace shot his boss a knowing look. “That’s why they want someone who speaks the language. State wants me to spy on her for them.”
“I told you Zakhar is critically important. State wants to know in advance if anything is going to change with that alliance, and it’s possible you might overhear something.” Walker looked at the cover page of the file, on which he’d jotted a few notes. His mouth curved in an expression of distaste. “I’m afraid there’s a little more to it.”
Trace felt his forehead tighten in a question.
“Oh hell,” Walker said. “There’s no delicate way to put it.” His eyes met Trace’s. “They picked you for a variety of reasons, one of which doesn’t have a damn thing to do with anything other than the fact women find you attractive.”
Trace uttered a pithy Anglo-Saxon curse. Then he gritted his jaw and pinned his boss with an uncompromising stare, his voice soft but deadly. “I can’t believe you have the stones to say that to me. If State wants some sort of honey trap they’ll have to look elsewhere.”
“I told them you’d say that,” Walker said with the glimmer of a smile.
“I’ve done a lot of things for my country,” Trace said fiercely. “Some of those things keep me awake at night. But I’ve never done anything I was ashamed of, and I never will.”
Walker held up a hand, palm outward. “Calm down, okay?” he said.
“Damn it, Walker—” Trace growled. His handsome face was a sensitive subject, especially within an agency whose agents prided themselves on fading into the woodwork. And Trace was a damned good agent in every other way. It was just harder for him to avoid standing out in a crowd.
“Forget it,” Walker said quickly. “I’ll give State your answer, and if they don’t like it I’ll tell them the agency will pass on their request entirely.”
Trace took a deep breath and expelled it slowly, forcing down his anger at the same time. “Sorry,” he told his boss roughly. “I should have known you’d back me on this.”
“What about the rest of the request? Will you accept the assignment?”
Trace hesitated, then nodded. “You’ve convinced me. If State still wants me under the circumstances, I’m on board. When do I start?”
“The princess will be here in about a month.” Walker stood up and held out his hand. “Thanks, McKinnon. I knew I could count on you.” Trace shook the outstretched hand, and Walker continued in a completely different vein. “So Keira wants to know, are you going to make it to your goddaughter’s first birthday party this Saturday?”
Trace’s first real smile since he’d walked into this office spread over his face. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’ve already bought her birthday present—she’ll love it.”
“You spoil her.”
Trace laughed. “Like you don’t?” He headed for the door, his mood lightened by the thought of his goddaughter, Alyssa Tracy Walker. He’d been blown away when his former partner asked him to be her daughter’s godfather. He hadn’t had to think twice about accepting. And Alyssa was a darling, just like her mother. She already had all the men in her life wrapped around her baby finger.
“McKinnon!” Walker’s voice stopped him just as he was going through the door. “You’d better take this.” This was the folder that had been sitting on Walker’s desk, the one he’d referred to from time to time as he’d convinced Trace to accept the new assignment. Trace’s thoughts were dragged away from his goddaughter, reminding him of what he didn’t want to think about…not until he had to. He sighed and took the folder, tucking it under his arm.
A princess, he thought as he walked out. Great. Just what I need.
MCKINNON’S ROYAL MISSING, Copyright © 2015 by Amelia Autin Lam
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