Fifteen years ago
“What do you mean it’s over?” The devastation on Ashur Kumar’s face ripped my heart to shreds.
He stood against the shadow of the setting sun in Houston’s Memorial Park. The trees protected us from the sweltering August heat, but my body shook as if chilled to the bone.
Wrapping my arms around myself, I continued with the words that would damn me for the rest of my life. The words that would irrevocably break two hearts forever.
“Exactly what I said. You had to know this wouldn’t last beyond the summer. I leave for Boston in a matter of days. You are going to take over your father’s company. Long-distance relationships are destined to fail.”
My throat burned as if were coated with acid.
If only I could tell him the truth. But if Ashur got one inkling that his father, Minesh Kumar, was forcing me to leave him, I wouldn’t have a future. My family wouldn’t have a future. And no matter how much I loved Ashur, I couldn’t sacrifice my parents. They were good people who worked hard but hadn’t been born with a silver spoon.
Men with money and power held all the cards, and those of us without means had no choice but to follow along or get demolished. It had no bearing that I had scholarships for academic success. A few choice words from a wealthy donor and all my future ambitions would disappear.
I wiped the tears streaming down my cheeks.
“So, in other words, you used me. Just like Papa said you’d use me.”
What? That bastard had told Ashur this. I should have known something was up when I’d felt Ashur pulling away from me.
How could he believe I’d do that?
“No. It’s nothing like what he said.”
“Bullshit,” he snapped. “Then why are you doing this?”
“Ashu, I wish it didn’t have to be this way.”
“Did you ever love me, or was everything you ever said a lie?”
“I never lied to you.” I wrung my hands together.
“You found someone else. Admit it and make it easier on us.”
How could he believe there was anyone else in my life? He was the one and only man I’d ever loved or would ever love.
I shook my head. “No, it has nothing to do with anyone, but…”
“Papa says he has proof. I refused to see it, but now I wonder.”
Proof? What proof?
When I wasn’t working as a clerk at a local pharmacy, I was taking core curriculum classes at the local university so I could save on tuition when I went to Harvard. When the hell would I have had time to cheat on Ashur?
God, I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t lie to him this way. I had to tell him the truth.
There had to be a way to figure out how to make it through the fallout.
Dad had told me he didn’t care about the job, that he and Mom would survive without the high-salaried position. He’d said they’d move anywhere, as long as no one interfered with my dreams.
I’d been so scared about the future that I hadn’t doubted that Minesh Kumar would do something to jeopardize my enrollment at Harvard.
You are such an idiot, Tara. You walked right into his web.
“Ashu, please listen to me.”
“The person I should have listened to was Papa.”
“No, that’s not true. It’s all a lie. I don’t want to do this.” I clenched my fists, not knowing how to fix this.
“Do what? Make me feel like I mattered? Make me believe it was about me and not my money? I’m done.”
“Please,” I begged. “Look past the facade he’s created. He isn’t the man you think he is. He told me if—”
“Go, Tara.” Ashur cut me off. “I hope the new fish you’ve found makes you happy.”
“Please let me explain.” I grabbed his arm, but he shook me off.
“I don’t want to hear another word,” he bit out. “I would have given you the world. You were my everything. Damn you. I’ll never forgive you for this.”
He turned, leaving me at the edge of the park.
I closed my eyes and slid to the ground, trying to hold in pain like I’d never felt before.
* * *
“You have your instructions. After this last mission, I am no longer in charge of Solon-North America,” I said to the men and women around the conference table.
I’d led this group of agents for the past five years, and to them my word was law. Soon, they’d take directions from someone else, a person just as capable, if not more. But for me, it meant my life was forever changed.
No going back now, Tara. You knew what you were getting into. Now you have to live with it.
“Will you be returning to your role or is this a permanent leave?”
I expected this question, and I wasn’t sure how to answer it. Should I give the politically correct response a woman in my situation would relay by saying I was permanently retired, or give them the one that they expected, knowing the type of person I was?
“My future role is one that will have many restrictions, limiting my usefulness in any capacity for the time being.”
I knew my response wasn’t satisfying to anyone, but it was the only one I could give. I couldn’t predict what the future held for me or what I would be able to do once I left Washington. But for the next I-didn’t-know-how-many years, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was my home, and my life would be in the public eye. As if it wasn’t already. But if it meant I could save countless lives, so be it.
A beep from my smartwatch sounded, telling me my security detail would be arriving any moment and to wrap up the meeting.
“Thank you, everyone. It has been a pleasure working with all of you.”
With those last words, the room emptied with the exception of one person, Tyler Camden. He was the current Secretary of State and the new director of Solon, a secret organization focused on stopping human trafficking throughout the world.
He leaned against a wall while watching me.
Ignoring him, I walked over to the third-story windows of my building and stared out at the unobstructed view of the White House.
The countdown to the moment that would seal the course of the rest of my life was now in its final stage, and I had less than seventy-two hours of freedom left. After which, my existence would become even more confined than it had been for the last year and a half.
“Commander Zain. Are you sure you want to do this? It isn’t too late to back out of the wedding.”
I turned from the view and glared at Tyler.
“What? Did I say something wrong, Commander?”
Tyler and I had developed a friendship as young college graduates recruited into Solon while going through our initial training in the organization. Later we’d worked as partners in various assignments before parting ways and pursuing vastly different public careers. He’d gone the way of politics as any conservative third-generation Louisiana politician would go, and I’d gone the route of human rights attorney, taking on every controversial case that brought light to the plague of so many people in the world.
His blondish brown hair was a bit messy, and the sleeves of his button-down shirt were rolled up to the elbow. He looked like an ad for some expensive menswear catalog. Tyler was one of the most handsome men I had ever met, second only to the one I’d wed in a matter of days. Aside from his looks, Tyler possessed an uncanny intellect that allowed him to move between the worlds of the polite elite and underground societies.
“That isn’t funny, Mr. Secretary,” I responded. “I thought you’d leave with the team.”
Tyler smirked as he came around the table to stand next to me. He enjoyed reminding me daily that I could change my mind about stepping down. As far as he knew, I had never been the marrying type, and whatever my fiancé was offering me to marry him wasn’t worth it. Tyler wanted me to marry for love.
What Tyler couldn’t understand was that I’d loved once before and I’d never risk my heart again. And the best way to prevent another heartbreak was to marry the very man who’d shattered my belief in fairy tales and happily ever after.
“But Commander, the troops will never be the same without you.”
“Stop saying that or I’ll punch you,” I growled. “You know how much I hate that title?”
I was never going to live down the name a combatant had given me during a contentious negotiation. The man had tried his hardest to intimidate me, thinking that pointing a gun in my face would scare me into complying with his demands.
Well, it had scared me, but I’d trained myself not to react. After all, I had a habit of walking into situations that had a potential to cause an international incident.
When I’d calmly informed the man that his compound was surrounded by my army of hired guns who wouldn’t hesitate to protect me, he laughed and said I was a worthy opponent even if I was a woman.
“Tyler,” I warned. “Can it with the Commander shit. I have enough on my mind as it is. Let me have these last moments in my office without thinking about the circus that has become my life.”
I turned my gaze to the flawless diamond surrounded by sapphires adorning the ring finger of my left hand and shuddered.
Could I do this? Could I be with Ashur Minesh Kumar, the most powerful man in the nation? Could I become first lady without fucking it up? Could I sleep with a man who made me remember the past but didn’t love me? Could never love me?
My gaze moved to the cover of a news magazine. A polished couple stared out from the pages. The man with rich chocolate eyes, breathtaking good looks, and impeccably groomed style stood with a petite woman who barely came up to his shoulder. There was a headline that read, “First comes an election, then comes marriage, will babies be next?”
A prickle of goosebumps broke out over my skin.
“If you agree to marry me and start a new political dynasty, I will happily sign over half my fortune.”
“What do you mean, start a political dynasty?”
“Exactly what I said. I want children. Help me win the election, give me two children, and you can save the world with your endeavors without ever worrying about funding again.”
“So, you want me to give you petri dish children? That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“No, Tara. I want them the old-fashioned way.”
Tyler set a hand on my shoulder, pulling me from my thoughts. “Commander is who you are, Tara. The agent who will take down an assailant before they knew what hit them. The negotiator who will face off against the scum of the earth to save one life. The woman who is willing to move heaven and earth to help a friend. Just in case you’ve forgotten, with all the chaos of the election and now the wedding, I thought I’d remind you of who you are.”
If Tyler only knew that my marriage would allow me to continue my public human rights work until the day I died. Then again, he couldn’t know. That clause was part of the deal—no one outside of my fiancé and his best friend, Veer George, the current vice president, would ever have any inkling of the details of my relationship.
Eighteen months ago, when we’d agreed to the bargain, love was the last thing on our minds.
Ashur needed a wife, one who would balance his very conservative-leaning tendencies and make him appeal to the voters the then-sitting ultra-conservative president, Henry Edgar, had alienated.
According to Ashur, I was the perfect candidate as an uber-left-wing save-the-world liberal. Especially since I’d navigated a situation where I’d gone toe to toe with Edgar and come out the hero and more internationally renowned than ever. Then there was the fact that we had been childhood sweethearts. This part of our history would give the storybook second-chance romantic solidification to our relationship.
Ashur had offered me fifty percent of his net worth in exchange for marrying him. What he hadn’t known was that I was fully funded by Solon and could do my various humanitarian projects without a second thought.
I’d agreed to his proposal because I needed power. Especially the power that came with a high net worth and allowed me into circles only the elite could ever hope of being included. Among this group of people hid the financiers of the operations that I’d made my life goal to stop.
“You’re one to talk, Mr. Secretary of State. Last I checked, your position as my eyes and ears on the ground disappeared the day you accepted your new job.”
“What was I supposed to say? Ashur is the first president in history to truly fill all high-level positions with people from all political associations and not just his. I’m more useful now than I ever was before.”
“So am I.” I lifted my chin in challenge but knew the lie for what it was. I’d become the pretty face behind the man. A role I’d never ever thought I’d fill.
“That is the furthest thing from the truth, and you know it.” He dropped his arm and turned his gaze to the ominous building down the street from us. “No one will question why I’m meeting with leaders of international organizations or heads of state. It will be a requirement of my job. You, on the other hand, live under a microscope. You are the American version of rags-to-riches to first lady. Everything and anything you do will forever be scrutinized.”
“I know.” I sighed. “The days of making midnight runs for pizza and ice cream are things of the past.”
“I’m sure you could still do those things. Albeit with an audience.”
“The last thing I’ll want to do is to put on a full face of makeup and look pristine to go get some comfort food. I’d need a ringmaster to control the chaos.”
“You do realize, your marriage would have been less of a media circus if you’d decided to tie the knot before he took office?” He rubbed a thumb under my eye. “You look exhausted.”
“If I’d done that then this last assignment wouldn’t be feasible. With the American people focused on me and the ‘American wedding of the century’—” I air quoted, “—the team can implement our plan.”
A slight tremor ran up my spine as I peeked toward the Secret Service agents discreetly positioned outside my door. My privacy had become all but nonexistent the second the election results had come in last fall.
At least the head of my security was an agent in Solon and understood my need for discretion. Whenever I “worked,” he’d make sure I was given enough space so I wouldn’t break attorney-client privilege. Well, that was the excuse given to the rest of my protection detail.
“It’s dangerous and could place all of us in the middle of a scandal bigger than anything we’ve ever faced. Are you sure it’s worth it? There are other ways.”
“There are no other ways,” I countered. “Ameera Kamini sacrificed her safety countless times to help us. The least we can do is help her escape the web she was caught in because of us.”
Three months ago, my best friend and fellow Solon agent had been kidnapped by a terrorist organization known for human trafficking. They’d assumed she was an American spy and decided to auction her for the information she knew. I’d entered the auction as a potential bidder under an assumed name I’d used during various operations. The only stipulation I had to meet was to show a net worth of over one hundred million. With the money I’d get from Ashur I qualified. Now we were in a wait-and-see mode. The date was set for two weeks from now, but the place and exact time of the bidding was still unknown.
“It has the potential to cause an international incident if we don’t time this right.”
“Not if you do your part and I do mine. Once she is on US soil again, I can relax.”
It killed me that Ameera wouldn’t be part of the wedding. Even worse was not knowing where she was. We’d followed countless leads, but by the time my agents reached her, Ameera’s captors had moved to a new location.
“No, that’s when the trouble’s going to start. The story of her being on assignment is only going to work for a few more weeks. We’re lucky no one has grown suspicious since she has a history of living out of the country for long periods of time.”
“We’ve had the decoy checking in. As far as anyone knows she’s on assignment in South Africa. We’ll make sure to debrief her on her reports before she goes back in.”
“Tara, we don’t know what condition she’ll be in when we find her. She may never go back.”
“She’s strong. No matter what happens, she won’t break.”
I had to believe this—the alternative was unthinkable.
“We have another problem to navigate. Actually, two problems.”
“What?” I asked.
“Her father has entered the auction.”
I clenched my teeth. “How do you know? And how the fuck did he find out she was missing?”
Ameera was the daughter of Hamir Ustaf, the self-proclaimed king of Janestan, a small country near India and Pakistan. Nearly thirty years ago, while attending Princeton, he’d had a one-night stand with Ameera’s mother, Nicola Kamini, a fashion model. Ameera had never met Hamir and wanted nothing to do with him.
As far as the world was concerned, Nicola’s husband, Travis Angelo, was her biological father.
It wasn’t until she was twenty-five and working at the UN as a foreign relations specialist that she’d met Hamir. He’d expected her to accept him with open arms but was shocked when she’d informed him that any contact with her could result in arrest for his crimes against humanity.
What Hamir hadn’t known was she worked for Solon and was aware of everything he’d done from the time he’d left the university until he’d become the dictator. He was the poster boy for the type of people Solon fought against.
Needless to say, Hamir hadn’t taken the slight well and had vowed to make her see the correct way to treat her father.
Tyler looked out the window and ran a hand through his hair. “The same way we found out they’re auctioning Ameera.”
The dark web. This hidden portion of the web was scoured by Solon agents continuously and was how we conducted most of our operations.
“Ustaf has created a counter auction to find his daughter and bring her to him.”
“So, he’s going to buy her, just to sell her in marriage to the most useful bidder?”
Tyler clenched his jaw, and his normally happy blue eyes grew hard. “I’ll get her out.”
The determination in his voice told me I wasn’t the only one who cared for Ameera. Solon agents were a family, a makeshift family of mercenaries, but a family nonetheless. However, Tyler and Ameera had a history, one that went into the realm beyond lovers but not quite a couple.
“What’s the second problem?”
“There’s an unknown third buyer. We’ve scoured the net but can’t find any information on them.”
“Keep looking. We can’t risk anyone but us getting to Ameera.”
Between this wedding and Ameera, I was at my limit of stress.
“So, are you ever going to tell your fiancé what you truly do for a living?”
Not if I could help it. How does one tell the President of the United States that his wife is part of a secret organization with no loyalty to any country, that aims to stop human trafficking across the world and will use any means—some that aren’t always legal—to get it done?
I folded my arms across my body. “Are you going to tell your family that you aren’t only the strictly by-the-books and too-pretty-for-his-own-good Southern politician?”
“Not the same, Tara, and you know it.”
“How is it not the same?” I asked defensively.
“I’m not the one marrying the President of the United States. Hell, I may never get married if you don’t stop sending me on do-or-die assignments.”
“You would have gotten bored without me. How else would you get to live out your fantasy of being a secret agent?”
Tyler grunted as he rubbed his shoulder on the spot scarred by a gunshot wound. “It isn’t a fantasy if I’m living it.”
“You won’t have to worry about that anymore after we get Ameera back. Then, I’ll no longer be the head honcho. You will.” I smiled.
“A job I got because you decided to get hitched. Some friend you are,” he joked, then all of a sudden his tone changed. “Seriously, Tara. Ashur can help you. He’ll want to help you if you tell him. He is former military and owns a technology company that could help us. You can trust him. He’ll stand by you. Plus, Ameera technically works for him, and he could head off any fallout from getting her back in the US.”
Trust. That was a loaded word. Trust meant I had faith Ashur would stand by me no matter what happened. Trust meant he would fight for me even when the lie was more believable than the truth. I trusted very few people to have my back, and Ashur wasn’t one of them.
He’d professed he loved me but hadn’t fought for me. He’d walked away, never questioning anything that was going on around him or why someone behaved the way they had.
“It’s better he doesn’t know. Plausible deniability and all that.”
“Yeah, right. You still haven’t gotten over what happened when the both of you were kids.”
“I was over that shit years ago,” I lied and then added, “An eighteen- and twenty-three-year-old aren’t kids.”
“I do believe you protest too much. Tara, you can trust him.”
“I wouldn’t marry a man I didn’t trust with my future. You should know this.”
“But what about your heart and your secrets? He needs someone to lean on as much as you do.”
“Whatever,” I mumbled, pushing down the need to deny the truth of Tyler’s words and deciding to change the subject. “My leave is only temporary, despite what I said to the group.”
I shifted, jostling the side table next to me and knocking a vase over.
I snatched it before it hit the floor and set it back on the table, which resulted in a lifted brow from Tyler.
“Okay, that wasn’t a subtle change of subject at all.” Tyler snorted. “There is no way possible for you to come back to the same role. You can’t go risking your life the way you’ve done in the past. Your marriage with Ashur will no doubt include children and happy little Secret Service agents following you around everywhere you go for the rest of your life. Better get those reflexes under control too. Most people aren’t trained the way we are.”
“You’re such an ass.”
“Tell me I’m wrong, and I’ll tell you that you’re delusional.”
I was saved from responding as a knock came from the door. Both Tyler and I looked toward my security lead, Casey Adler.
“Ms. Zain. Your vehicle is ready to take you for your final fitting.”
“And the circus recommences,” Tyler said and offered me his arm as I exited my DC law office for the last time.