A Cunning Plan: Chapter 1

Ten days till launch date for A Cunning Plan!

Time for you to meet Sloane Harper – sweet mom, cook extraordinaire, hot mess and god awful spy!

The book is already available to buy on Ibooks, Nook, Smashwords and Kobo, and can be preordered on Amazon. 

CHAPTER 1

So far, I have spent more than ten hours this week parked on the exact same street, in front of the exact same building, staking out my husband’s mistress. To be exact, Tom was my ex- husband now, but I was pretty sure he was still my husband when Katherine Stappleton started screwing him.

A sideways glance confirmed Claudia’s eyelids had finally closed, and I sighed in relief. If I had to listen to one more minute of heavy metal, I would hurl myself or my housekeeper extraordinaire out of the car window.

I shot my hand toward the Mini Austin’s radio. But just as the angry voices faded in favor of a monotonous radio show, Claudia’s hand lashed out and slapped my wrist away.

“Go back. I love that song.”
“But I don’t understand Polish,” I said with a pout.
“It’s music, you don’t need to understand it,” she countered, her eyes still closed.
My teeth hurt from the loud screeching she called music. I considered looking for Magic FM again, but Claudia read my mind first. She snapped open one fierce blue eye.
“Don’t,” she warned.
Heavy metal music wasn’t nearly bad enough to risk incurring Claudia’s wrath and chancing her leaving. Listening to any kind of music with her definitely beat sitting in the car alone.

I gave a last, longing stare at the radio then turned my attention to the dashboard’s digital clock. It was 3:43 p.m. according to the flashing orange numbers. Sighing, I thought again of how much time I’d spent here.

The details of my husband’s ‘infidelity’ mattered; they changed the way one perceived things. On one side, you had my ex’s new girlfriend, and on the other, the tramp who stole my husband. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, right?

The same way if you asked Katherine Stappleton, she might have described my endeavor as ‘stalking’ rather than ‘staking out’. If she knew I was hiding in front of her work place, that is, and I was extremely careful not be noticed. Plus, I never left the car or followed her home⏤the definition of stalking. Legally speaking, I was in the clear. I’d checked on Yahoo Answers.
Claudia was now fully awake beside me, blowing bubble gum as pink as her chin-length bob. Disapproval oozed from her. I didn’t care as long as she kept me company. The divorce had left me quite friendless. As a result, Claudia had graduated from housekeeper to life coach, and had become the Robin to my Batman when the Kate issue arose.

This mistress, so artfully hidden during the divorce, had come as quite the surprise. It had been a relief too. When my husband, Tom, left me six months ago, I had felt totally blindsided. Ten years together, two wonderful daughters, sex once a week and sometimes twice on holidays, a cozy home, and a fabulous group of friends⏤wasn’t that the very definition of a happy marriage?
And then one day⏤Bam!⏤he filed for divorce. I didn’t fight it. Why look like a hag when all I had to do was wait it out? I smiled and said I understood his need for change. I let his lawyer represent us both. I agreed to the terms of the divorce without any negotiations⏤I got to keep the house, and most importantly, custody of my girls so it wasn’t such a bad deal anyway. Surely, Tom had felt very magnanimous.

I pretended I didn’t know about the offshore accounts. I figured they would be ours once again when we remarried so there was no reason to bring them up and look petty.

But no matter how much I smiled and consoled Tom, no matter how well I swallowed my tears to look cheerful just like he loved me, my bed was still empty and my girls’ home was broken.

“Movement by the door,” Claudia pointed out sullenly.

As the revolving doors came to life, I ducked for cover under my seat, banging my forehead against the dashboard in the process. Tears sprang to my eyes, a mix of pain and burning humiliation. I fought them off, holding onto on my newfound hope. If Tom had left me for someone else, it didn’t mean he’d stopped loving me. I could now attribute his wandering to lust.

From my pitiful hiding spot, I pictured Kate the goddess’s long brown hair swaying gently in the London spring breeze as she exited the building, her impossibly long legs taking on Maddox Street in elegant strides, her hips sashaying in a pencil skirt.

“It’s just some security guy,” Claudia interrupted my masochistic reverie. “The coast is clear. No Kate in sight.”

I scrambled back onto the driver’s seat and peeled a chocolate chip cookie from my leg, courtesy of one of my daughters, no doubt. Claudia seethed silently next to me. Five more minutes and her patience wore off.

“Kurva! Can you tell me what we’re doing here?” When Claudia got mad her accent became thicker and her vocabulary more colorful. Fortunately for me, her favorite curse words were in Polish. “Sitting here all day is sad. Every day for a week! You have no life, maybe, but I have better things to do.” Like cleaning my house. I was too chicken to say it aloud.

“If you’re trying to scare her off, I know people. Or at least let her see you. You’re scary enough.”

I chose not to let her taunt get to me. “I don’t know what I’m waiting for. I just want my husband—”

“Ex,” Claudia said.
“Back,” I continued. “I guess I’m waiting for a sign.”
“Signs, mediums, past lives. You are worse than my grandnanna!”
“Thank you. I’m sure you grandmother is very wise,” I said.
“You know he’s not worth it,” Claudia said.
“Kate wouldn’t agree,” I snorted.
“She doesn’t know Tom yet.”
“He’s handsome, brilliant—” I ticked my thumb and index fingers.
“He’s good looking for an old guy, and rich,” she translated. “He’s also conniving and full of himself.”
“He’s not old! He’s only forty-three. And he’s worked hard to succeed. Nothing was handed to him on a silver platter.”
“Boohoo! Why do you keep on defending him? He’s a selfish bastard.”
I was tired of this argument. Tom might be all of these things, but he was my husband⏤well, ex for the time being⏤the only man I had ever truly loved, and a fantastic father. None of his countless flaws changed that. “You’re young. You can start a new life.”

She was right. I was young. I simply couldn’t make Claudia understand this was precisely why I needed Tom back.

I wasn’t one to kid myself. If the man I had dedicated most of my adult life to, the one I had left my New York’s life for and followed half-way across the world, had cast me aside without so much as a hint of regret, I couldn’t expect any new relationship to be different. I was obviously lacking, underserving of a man’s love.

Not to mention that thirty-two with two daughters equaled a decade older for a single woman. I pushed my fears away.

“I don’t want to start over,” I said.
“Fine.” She rolled her eyes. “Anyway, I’m out of here. It’s too stuffy.”
“I can open the window if you want?”
Claudia pretended not to hear me.
“This is not good for you, Sloane,” she said, as she grabbed her studded jean jacket and black messenger bag.
The Wiccan star on her right wrist showed as her sleeve hiked up her elbow.
“Don’t stay out too long. You need to eat something.”
I showed the crushed cookie in the cup holder. “I’m all set.”
She waved me off. “Real food. You eat too much junk. Not good for you.”
Said the twenty-six-year-old who was so thin she could slip between two pages of a closed book.
“Don’t worry,” I replied calmly.
“The beds sheets need changing, there’s a load of laundry in the dryer…” Claudia paused to scratch her head, trying to be as thorough as possible as she shoved her chores on me, “and you have to clean the witch’s bathroom.”

The witch⏤that would be my mother, Claudia’s arch nemesis.

“Maybe you can go home and get a head start?” I suggested tactfully, not too hopeful since Claudia had mentioned my mother.

“Too far. I could be working, but you insisted I come with you. Now I’m claustrophobic. I need to go home and rest.”

We’d only been in the car for an hour and a half. She opened the door and stomped a black Doc Martens with Hello Kitty laces outside of the car.

Claudia was a battery: tiny and full of energy. She bent back inside the car and winked warmly.

“See you tomorrow, okay?”
She slammed the door and hurried down the street toward the closest tube station.
I immediately seized control of the radio, experiencing the simple joy of having power over something for once. I sighed as I laced my fingers behind my head and listened to Joe Cocker promise me love would lift me up where I belonged.

After a week camping here as often as my schedule allowed, the only conclusions I had come up with were that Kate had no set working hours and that she rocked a power suit. Somehow, she managed to look very professional with a touch of naughty schoolteacher⏤maybe it was the pearls.

Kate was a personal art buyer who, at this time, was redecorating Varela Global’s headquarters in London. They were located on Maddox Street number thirty-two, in a modern glass and aluminium building currently under my surveillance. Apparently, she had done some work for Gabriel Varela, sole heir to Varela Global, and he had been so impressed by her many talents, he had offered her the artistic selection for the group worldwide.

I knew this, and so much more trivia about Katherine Stappleton through Tom, who had been more than happy to brag about his lover when I had broached the subject while picking up the girls last Sunday.

Apparently, once he’d decided it was safe to let their relationship out of the bag, the gloves were off and he would spare me no detail. I had only wanted to know where she worked but had received much more than I had bargained for. From her cup size to her sky high IQ, I could have written Kate’s biography. She was an Oxford graduate, originating from London, where she had gone back after a few years in Asia working for some of the top galleries. She had never married and was insatiable sexually—well, the last part I had deduced from the satiated wolf smile he sported lately.

Though I had found some information useful, this need to flaunt his happiness in my face had felt cruel. This was the attitude one would expect from the dumpee, some pathetic attempt to salvage a semblance of dignity, but not from the dumper.

Maybe I deserved this. After all, I now realized I was to blame for our divorce. Or so my mother, who had moved in with us to offer assistance after the break up, loved to tell me. I should have taken better care of myself, I should have seduced him every day, should have paid closer attention to his needs. I had felt too confident, had grown negligent.

I couldn’t help but find daunting the list of my many flaws and shortcomings. Countless times a day, I dreamt of packing my mother onto the first flight to New York. Unfortunately, she had a point. Her voice resounded in my ears as I slowly zoned out.

My own snoring woke me, along with a sharp pain in my hand from sleeping against it. I massaged my palm gingerly, moving my numb fingers to activate the blood flow. I’d dozed for half an hour according to my new best friend, the car’s digital clock. Cher had replaced Joe Cocker on the radio. I silenced her by dialing to the next radio program. The voice of the speaker started to fade away, the telltale sign of a song to come.

My panties had turned into a thong while I’d slept. I wriggled in my seat to try to put them back in place. Yet another reason I needed Tom back. I could not wear thongs again and only single women would pretend a tanga was comfortable.

This technique wasn’t working, so I propelled myself on one butt cheek, hitched a hand inside my pants, and pulled with relief on the rebellious panties. Then I fell back on the seat, an ecstatic grin on my face, still sitting on my hand. Which was when I noticed a man staring at me through my windshield.

Blood rushed to my cheeks as his handsome face broke into a grin. I held my breath and willed myself to stay immobile. The exact same way my four-year-old, Poppy, did when she hoped she would not get caught.

Seriously… The one time a good-looking man glanced at me!

Through the shame buzzing in my ears, my brain registered the new song playing. Of course it would be the most romantic song of all⏤Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love, from Pretty Woman. Well, to quote the singer, it was definitely over now. With my left hand, the right one still stuck in my pants, I shut off the radio, happy to find an excuse to avoid looking at the man outside. He seemed familiar. I figured he probably worked on the street. When I raised my eyes again, he was gone⏤probably off to tell some friends about the classy lady in the Mini Austin.

I got both my hands back and buried my face in them.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” I chanted over and over, till the words lost their meaning and I was finally ready to move again.

Catching my reflection in the rearview mirror, I sighed. What a mess. My white skin was dry and in dire need of care. My straight hair lay limp on my shoulders. Highlighted properly and cared for, it looked good, but my natural ash blonde color appeared quite forlorn. I was washed out, like the ghost of the pretty girl I could have been. I made a mental note to book an appointment with Gustav, my fabulous colorist whom I seldom saw these days.

My eyes that changed colors constantly, from green to blue to grey, were my only outstanding features. But even there, tiny lines had started to bloom. I was quite against plastic surgery but this was one of those days when I contemplated Botox. I put two fingers on each side of my eyes and pulled to see what it would look like.

Even from the bottom of my depressed state, I realized I looked quite ridiculous. I dropped my hands on the steering wheel and decided to call it a day. There was only so much my ego could take and I had just about reached it. Plus, Kate could have come and gone a thousand times while I’d napped. I might as well get back to my daughters. As usual, the thought of them made me feel lighter.

I fiddled with the radio, turned the key in the ignition, and bent down toward the handbag at my feet. My face plastered against my knee, I searched for my cell with the tip of my fingers. I hummed along with Freddy Mercury, who must’ve been turning over in his grave, as I took hold of the phone at last.

“Show must…” I belted triumphantly.

Before I could finish the chorus, a cool draft of wind on the nape of my neck paralyzed me. Someone had opened the passenger door. Fear ran down my spine, soon joined by shame as I realized it was windshield man who had invaded my car. I found myself hoping he had found the panties episode so hilarious, he had come for more.

He sat with his knees crammed against his chest as he tried to fit into Claudia’s place. My panic was kept in check for a second longer than it should have when I noticed his eyes fixed on me. They were quite ordinary except for⏤surely, I was mistaken⏤a twinkle of amusement dancing in them.
The reality of the situation was slowly creeping up on me. A stranger was inside my car. I inched toward the door handle, knowing my best solution would be to escape. My only knowledge of martial arts came from watching The Karate Kid. I harbored a strong suspicion it wouldn’t help much. I would probably hurt myself if I tried to pull off a crane move. Shoving all movie references away from my overwrought brain, I wondered what was wrong with me?

A burning sensation in my lungs reminded me to breathe. I gulped as much air as I could, getting ready to scream for help. All the while, I kept my eyes trained on him, trying to conjure a reassuring expression that wouldn’t set him off. Would I make it out of the door if he lunged toward me? Doubtful. Although he lounged back in the seat casually, I could feel the tension in his lean body, a panther ready to pounce on his prey.

I focused on his face, hoping to decipher his intentions. Besides his brown eyes that had lost their humor, the intruder had light chestnut hair clipped short, a nose that must have been straight once, and a square jaw sporting a five o’clock shadow.

At last, my hand connected with the metal handle and I tensed, ready to spring the hell out of here. Let him have the car, I just wanted out.

His hand shot in my direction, but he stopped it right before it touched my arm. “Please. Just give me a minute.”

I cringed, my nails biting into my palm from holding the handle so tight. Please don’t kill me, I pleaded silently. At the thought of my body, flawed as it may be, dead, and my girls becoming orphans, I finally freaked out. It was a relief. At least it kicked me into action. I fumbled with the key, pulling it out of the ignition.

“Here…” I stuttered as I aimed for his lap. “Have the key.”

It bounced off his grey shirt before landing with unstable equilibrium on his knee. His stare never wavered from me.

“Take the car. I mean here’s the key to the car. I’ll just go?”

He gazed at the key and back at me, eyebrow cocked. Maybe he wasn’t after the car. I dove for my handbag, struggled to untangle my foot from its handle, and moaned in frustration. He made a gesture to help just as I managed to break free. I scooted as far away from him as I could while hugging the bag. His mouth twitched as if trying to suppress a smile. I almost thanked him before remembering who he was. Or rather, who he wasn’t⏤aka someone I knew.
Rummaging through my Mary Poppins bag, I promised myself that from now on I would only carry clutches. I was too afraid to look away from him. In scary movies, the murderer always waited for the victim to be distracted to strike. Lip balm, pack of chips, a pen, my mostly empty calendar, keys to my house—possibly interesting to him but completely out of the question, so I fished them out discreetly and sat on them⏤and gum.

“Mrs….” Windshield Man said.

Honking nearby made me jump in my seat. Jittery from nerves, I gave up and threw the whole bag at the man.

“Have it. Have it all.”

Half of the bag emptied onto his lap and the ground. I was way past caring about the tampon that fell at his feet, which was a good thing because otherwise it would have been mortifying. “There’s my wallet inside. 2789. Want to write it down? It’s the pin to my credit card. I’m afraid there’s not much money on it.” I bit my lip as I tried to recall my last bank statement then subtracted my last expenses. “Four hundred and sixty pounds give or take ten or twenty. It’s not much.” How much was my life valued? “Sorry. It’s debit only.”

He shook his head. “Listen…”

Obviously, he wanted more money. I remembered the shared account with relief. “There’s another card. With much more money.” It was to be used only for my daughters’ welfare but I figured keeping their mother alive qualified as such. I scratched my head, my scrambled brain having a hard time coming up with the code. “Aha!” I exclaimed finally. “9876. Easy!”

By now, Windshield Man looked puzzled. I ran my hands in my hair and scanned the car on the lookout for some other bargaining chip. Besides the ‘I love you mommy’ clay heart dangling from the rearview mirror, the crushed cookie in the cup holder was the most valuable thing left.

This was so frustrating!

Out of my wits, I picked up the cookie and threw it right into the man’s face. I watched it tumble down his jaw and land on his lap, leaving a brown chocolate smudge on the edge of his nose. The level of stupidity characterizing this last impulse had the effect of an ice bucket over my hysteria. I caught my breath and waited for his reaction. I was way off the wagon. He couldn’t possibly be interested in my cookie.

He touched his nose gingerly, as if I might have damaged it then broke into a grin. “You threw a cookie at me,” he said, his voice full of wonder.
My jaw went slack. “Huh?”
“Begging, bargaining, crying, punching,” he recited.

“What?”
“Possible reactions to this scenario,” he answered. “A cookie throw? It’s a first.”
When he started to laugh, it confirmed my thoughts. The guy was certifiably insane.
Yet his chuckle was warm, playful, suggesting he was probably younger than he looked, around my age, and for some reason that made him feel less threatening. Or maybe it was his American accent. As if a common citizenship would protect me. Somehow, his laughter eased my fears and made me postpone my escape plans.

The moment lasted only a few seconds before a more serious expression replaced his wide smile. His tone still teetered on the edge of humor when he asked, “Are you done assaulting me?”

I choked on indignation. I assaulted him? He didn’t see my pre-heart attack redness or the smoke coming out of my nostrils because he was too busy repacking my handbag. His face was turned away from me and a fleeting thought of running away crossed my mind. But I was too curious to go. Who was this man? Not a thief, apparently, I concluded as he handed me back my handbag.

“Wait,” he said, pulling back the bag. “First promise there’s no glass of milk hidden in the car. I really like this shirt.”

I stared daggers but kept my mouth shut. I kind of deserved that one. Stupid, stupid, stupid me!

“Mrs. Gennaio…”

“Sloane,” I corrected automatically. Even after nine years, I still winced when I heard my married name. Out of all the gorgeous Italian last names available, how unlucky was I to have landed Mrs. January? “How do you know my name?”

Apparently, my question was irrelevant.
“Agent Ethan Cunning.” He extended his hand for me to shake.
I stubbornly folded my arms and retreated against the window. He returned his hand on his lap, looking unfazed.
“I work for the US government. We need your help.”
A hysterical giggle escaped my lips. I clasped a hand over my mouth to regain control. He waited patiently, shoulders squared and mouth thinned, for me to calm down. The guy was a good actor, I had to give him that.

“Hah hah! And I’m Sloane, the Martian,” I said in a high-pitched voice. “Joking aside, who put you up to this?”

Fake Agent Cunning’s mouth twitched. His brown eyes, mischievous just minutes ago, screamed murder now. I swallowed painfully; afraid I had taken the sarcasm too far. Perhaps it wasn’t a joke after all.

“Seriously. How can you expect me to believe you?”

As if he’d been waiting for my question, Agent Cunning drew his driving license before I could finish my sentence. Men could be thick sometimes.

It confirmed his name was Ethan Cunning, the picture clearly his⏤same wholesome American boy face, but clean-shaven and less intense. It was a good picture, as far as ID pictures went. Although it was a far cry from the handsome, focused man sitting close to me.

I diverted my stare away from his strong jaw covered with light stubble, fearing I might lose the few wits I had left if I kept admiring him. I had yet to see proof of his government affiliation. Before I could ask to see his credentials, Agent Cunning spoke again.

“We hope you can help us in a current investigation.”

I bit back another caustic response, pretending instead that Ethan Cunning wasn’t giving me a cartload of bullshit.

“How? How could I be of any help to the mighty government?”
“You have a strategic position to collect intelligence for us.”
Sure. If what he needed was second-grade gossip, I was his man. Somehow, I doubted that’s what he meant.
“We’ve chosen you because you are a highly capable woman—”
“Really?” I squealed.
Pink rushed to my cheeks, the unexpected praise making me sit up taller. Compliments were too hard to come by these days not to fully savor them.
Agent Cunning’s nonplussed expression morphed into one I didn’t quite identify as he moved onto his second argument.
“And you could get access to a high profile individual we are interested in.” He stared intently, making me catch my breath.
His dark gaze was smoldering. I batted my lashes uncomfortably, unused to a man paying such close attention to me. I was reminded again of the small distance separating us but this time the dread was gone.

I meant to ask clever questions, like who was the high profile individual I had access to or who’d decided to play April’s Fool on me one month late, but instead I found myself asking, “What would I need to do?”

“You would be my CI.”
I knew that meant confidential informant. I was well versed in cop shows and their lingo. Agent Cunning now spoke in hushed tones, low enough that he had to draw closer to me. I fixated on the dimple on his chin. So much that I worried I might drool. I shook myself and stared pointedly at his earlobe instead, a safe enough feature. Or so I thought till my mind wandered again. Stop it! In my defense, six months without a sliver of action was a very, very long time.

“Before I reveal classified information, I need to ask for your complete discretion. If you agree to help us, you won’t be able to talk about our dealings to anyone.”

In all honesty, that might turn out to be a problem. I was kind of a blabbermouth, especially now, when I pictured Tom or my mother’s condescending expressions, my fingers itched to grab my phone and tell them everything. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it! Someone wanted me, thought I was worth noticing, the government no less!

Then I thought of my daughters and the secret part seemed insignificant.
“It’s too dangerous. I can’t.”
Agent Cunning seemed taken aback by my reaction. Feeling guilty, I hurried to explain myself.
“I’m a mom. My daughters are my priority.”
“I don’t see how they are relevant here.”
“I have responsibilities.”
“And what about your duty?” he countered. “Don’t you want to help your country? Be a hero?”

“I’m pretty sure my country doesn’t need me. Aren’t there other agents you can use?”

“I told you discretion is very important here.” He shook his head. “Forget about it. I must have profiled you wrong.”

What else was in this profile of mine?
“I thought you were brave,” he said flatly.
This stung. He didn’t know me so I shouldn’t care but I wanted to be brave. I simply couldn’t afford it. What would happen to my daughters if I accepted his offer?
“I’m sorry. I told you. I can’t.” My voice broke down from disappointment.
All my life I’d been waiting for a moment like this. A chance to prove myself, to be more than what people saw when they looked at me. I often fantasized about heroic scenarios like this. Even as a girl, I would wonder: if I saw a woman getting assaulted in the metro, would I help or walk away? If a building was burning, would I save the baby from the flames? I loved thinking I would rise to the challenge and be brave but you never knew how you would react till it actually really happened to you. Considering the disappointment in Agent Cunning’s gaze, it seemed like I had finally gotten my answer.

“I’m just a mom,” I said as a way of apology.

“You wouldn’t be in danger,” he said at last. “But I can’t tell you more if you don’t agree to help. The information I want to share with you is classified.”

I tried to overlook the thrill these words evoked for me. Instead, I conjured up my daughters’ innocent faces and kept a stubborn silence. We had some sort of staring contest for a while, Agent Cunning and me, which wasn’t at all unpleasant while it lasted.

I saw his resolve dissolve as he drew away from me. He had finally given up. I felt a pang of regret.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, his long fingers holding a manila folder. “I’m going to leave now and give you the night to think it through. You can give me your answer tomorrow.”

Didn’t he hear what I said?

I tried to tame the little monster inside me, thrilled at the thought of seeing him again. Before I could say a word, he swung the door open. I stopped him just in time, only one of his feet dangling outside the car. In his shirt, jeans, and sneakers, he didn’t look very professional. Then again, maybe it was his undercover attire.

“Where? When? How?” I asked.

Again, I could have sworn the bemused glimmer shone in his eyes but it was gone just as fast as before. He jumped gracefully out of the Mini, unfurling his tall body as his feet hit the sidewalk. I thought he was gone, but then he bent back inside, scaring me out of my wits.

“I’ll find you,” he said, and then slammed the door and jogged down the street.

I watched his slender silhouette turn the corner of Maddox and Davies streets. The fear I had experienced wasn’t completely gone from my system yet, and I finally succumbed to it. Every muscle in my body started jerking erratically all at once, so much so I had to sit on my hands to calm their tremor. I rested my sweat-beaded forehead on the steering wheel with a little too much forcefulness, resulting in a loud bang, and indulged in a good, nerve-relieving cry.

Hope you enjoyed this first chapter of A Cunning Plan. Please let me know what you think, either in the comment box below, or on my contact page. Would love to connect!

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