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Authors: Doranna Durgin,Virginia Kantra,Meredith Fletcher

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary

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BOOK: Femme Fatale
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With the ear bud in place, Barbara could speak freely. “That’s not a bad idea.” She tapped a few keys on the keyboard that was just out of sight on the PDA screen and said, “Of the MI6 agents known to be anywhere near that area, the description you gave me identifies your man as Jason Chandler. Very old-school, but he’s had SAS training. He can handle himself. He’d be a good backup, if you can convince him you didn’t shoot Lyeta. She scrolled through a few screens of text, her eyes flickering as she took them in. She nodded with approval. “He’s a good one, Flash. If you get the opportunity, take it.” Then she gave a little frown, staring at the off-screen monitor more closely. “I don’t see anything here about ‘really great ass,’ however.”

“He’s SAS-trained,” Beth said airily. “And what is SAS but ass spelled sideways?”

Barbara smiled briefly, a genuine amusement that Beth rarely saw in her. “The truth is, I should pull you and send in another team. But…you’re also right. We don’t have the time. If we can get our hands on a copy of Scherba’s master keycard, we can take Egorov’s organization apart from the inside out—not to mention get a handle on Krystof Scherba. He’s been a problem for a long, long time.”

Beth snorted. “Wasn’t he notorious on an international level about the time he was thirteen? And what’s with all those tattoos, anyway?”

“Yes to the first…and as to the second, if this works out, perhaps we’ll get a chance to ask him. Our profiler
believes them to be merely an expression of his anarchist’s makeup.”

“I think he just wanted to make his mother mad,” Beth muttered, thinking of the discreet tattoo on her own ankle, acquired when her own age still hung in the teens. Lucky for her the little rattlesnake was small enough to cover with a flesh patch for those times she couldn’t afford any visible distinguishing characteristics. She tucked her hair behind her ear and gave her nose a thoughtful rub. “If I’m staying, I could use a little help sorting through the Blue Crane establishments. Unless we come up with something else, it’s still the best bet. Though I sure would like to know where she stayed last night. Picking through her belongings would be a luxury right now.”

“She was off everyone’s radar as far as I know, but if I hear anything on that, I’ll send it along. The Blue Crane information will come your way shortly.” Barbara gave a slight shake of her head, not entirely happy about the conversation. “Be careful, Flash,” she said. “I mean it. If we didn’t need this so badly…and get Chandler on your side. I mean that, too.”

Beth sighed. She’d intended to forget that part of their conversation. “I hear you,” she said, glancing around the store to see she’d caught the attention of the boom box boys. “I’m going to stash the first package at my backup location. So if anything happens—”

“Noted.” Barbara cut her off with a brusk tone. “I want you to stay in touch, Flash. We enjoy your unconventional ways, but this is one time I want you playing by the rules.
Call in.

“My unconventional,
successful
ways,” Beth said, but it wasn’t an argument and they both knew it. “I’ll call.”

She closed the connection just as the boys got close
enough to look over her shoulder. One of them asked, “Is that a new game?”

“Yes,” Beth said. “A prototype interactive spy game. It’s still in alpha testing, so don’t look for it on the market anytime soon.”

“Then why do you have it in here?” the other boy asked, cleaning up his thick accent so she could understand. No doubt her own words had given her States origin away, although she could have affected any accent she wanted.

Beth gave an airy wave at the electronics that surrounded her. “We’re trying out a new signal security system to assure proper function even in an environment thick with electromagnetics and radio waves,” she said, amusing herself. “Next I’ll be going to try it beneath the SABC tower.”

“Duidelik,” the kid said in approval. His friend nodded wisely and they let Beth wander away, but not without further discussion between them. “Ag, china, you see her takkies?”

Teens in any culture had their own language, it seemed. Beth knew they’d been looking at her dance sneakers, and she had to agree they didn’t blend in. While she was at the shopping center, she needed to pull out the old Stony Man credit card and grab up some clothes meant for something other than a deep night contact on the docks.

On the other hand, if she could get to her backup location, she’d have everything she needed. Perhaps that was the next step…

Her PDA beeped as she headed for the store exit; she hesitated at a spiffy little flat-screen HD television, caught by the familiar, homey look of a CNN broadcast. She flipped open the leather PDA wallet to confirm receipt of a file named bluecrane.txt, smiling to herself. Barbara
Price, superwoman. There was no one else Beth would rather have picking up her field calls.

“Shane Dellamer,” the display television murmured at her, and she glanced up to see a cookie-cutter announcer with ticker-tape announcements scrolling across the bottom of the screen and a small, clear image of Shane Dellamer himself. He looked every bit as cold as his reputation, an impression not helped by his flat gray eyes. “Mr. Dellamer, challenged by his political opponents to answer charges that the many facets of Dellamer Enterprises will pose no conflict of interest should he be elected, declined to respond with anything other than a reference to his campaign platforms. Dellamer Enterprises is involved in successful ventures spanning munitions to entertainment; Dellmore Pharmaceuticals just posted a significant profit increase from last year.”

Shane Dellamer. Multinational, multicorporation…the man had his fingers in everything. Beth wouldn’t be surprised if one day she ended up in the field dealing with the dirty underside of all that success.

First things first. She tucked the PDA away in her sling pack, her mind on the taxi she intended to catch and the bolt-hole she was about to dig into. Maybe she’d grab some takeout on the way.
Brain food.
With one of Barbara’s lists to sort through, brain food was definitely in order.

If only she hadn’t looked out into the mall to see Mr. MI6.

Jason Chandler.

And he was looking right back at her.

Chapter 3

J
ason almost missed her. He’d been through the shopping center once, cruising the sunlit, mall-like interior and shifting from one parallel set of stores to another. He thought perhaps he’d never need to see another African mask or stylized walking stick again, and he’d set his mind to filter out everything but the silhouette he remembered from that morning. Slender, straight, stiff little ponytail at the back of her head.

Almost
…but not quite. Not anymore. Now her athlete’s curves were nearly hidden in a finely knit sweater buttoned at the top, her hair framing her face and changing it from fresh and sporty to strikingly aesthetic. At first he looked right past her.

And then she moved, easing absently toward the store exit, and his gaze snapped back to her.

There was no mistaking the quality of that movement.

She saw him an instant later. Annoyance flickered across her features, and then resignation. At first he
thought she might bolt, but then she walked toward the seating arrangement in the center of the walkway, a sunken area bordered by tall, exotic and leafy plants—and deliberately passed by him so closely they almost brushed against each other.

Bloody well looks like an invitation to me.

She stepped down into the seating area, sat on one of the contoured wooden benches placed along the back of each planter in the triangular space, and crossed those long legs of hers. She had a sling pack now. No telling how well armed she was even without the goodies that had been in her parka but Jason imagined…

Well enough.

They stared at each other a moment, and then her gaze went quite deliberately to the squall parka nestled on the seat beside him. He nodded at it, giving no indication that he’d used it to cover his Browning. “Yours, I believe.”

“Mine,” she said, composed. “Though I don’t suppose you left me any of the fun stuff.”

“Depends on what I missed.”

“Everything,” she muttered, and scowled as if she were arguing with someone who wasn’t even there; she certainly wasn’t looking at him. “You missed everything.”

The next step, he supposed, was to convince her she might as well come with him.

Right, because that worked so well last time.

He eyed her as she struggled with her internal conundrum, and wondered just how she managed as a field agent. Nothing was hidden on that face with its spare but expressive features; like her body, it was not a face of excessives. Audrey Hepburn as an athlete, with eyes that were wiser and lines of jaw and cheek that came lean instead of square…not to mention that incredible neck.
And just as her internal struggle was plain to him now, so had been her anger on the dock, and that single moment of vulnerability when he’d crushed her against the crane pylon.

On the other hand, boyo, she got you with that sultry act. Pure and simple.
It had stirred something within him that very much stayed stirred.

Creative types. Couldn’t trust ’em. Never knew when they’d go haring off on some impulse, or get carried away by all the emotion that fueled them. Never knew when—

That’s enough, Chandler.
Jason stopped himself cold, slamming the door on the over-lurking wellsprings of painful loss that lay in wait for such careless openings of thought.
Another time, another place. Keep your head
here.

He discovered she was staring at him, one eyebrow arched. And well she might, to witness him with such a loss of concentration within striking distance of a woman he’d attacked—who’d responded in kind and prevailed—earlier in the day. She plunked her sling pack in her lap and crossed her arms over it. Defensive gesture, indeed. “How’d you find me?”

“No bloody thanks to whatever it was you slipped on me,” Jason said, not how he’d meant to respond at all. “Have mercy next time and just bean me one.”

She blinked in surprise. “You had a reaction to it? It’s only supposed to leave you a little confused.”

“You can find evidence of my
reaction
to it all along the dock.” Even to his own ears he sounded churlish.

In her place he supposed he might have smiled, too. Just a small smile, quickly hidden. “Gosh,” she said, about as American as she could get. “I’m so, uh, sorry to hear it. Really.”

“I’ll just bet,” he said. He slid his hand under the
parka, neatly snagged his Browning, and scooped up the bundle so he could slide over to her bench, settling close enough to look intimate to anyone who happened to glance at them. She smelled of the same fresh scent as the parka. “Now, you want to talk to me about what went down this morning?”

She managed to look amused. “And why would I want to do that, Jason Chandler? Because you think I killed the woman I was trying to protect? Or because you tried to take me away in cuffs? You’re not going to do that part again, are you?”

“Not planning to,” Jason managed, thrown entirely off balance by her casual revelations.
She knows who I am. She was trying to protect—?

No, he wasn’t sure he believed that. His hand certainly didn’t believe it, curled reactively around the Browning grip the way it was.

Or maybe it was just smarter than he was, and knew he was too off balance around this woman to play the game.

She said, “I don’t know what weapon he used, but he was a fool. He was way too close to target, and even so, didn’t manage an instant kill. Worse yet, he didn’t follow through. We were wide-open while I dragged Lyeta behind that crane leg. Sloppy, sloppy. If you think you can pin work that bad on me, then you don’t have any idea who you’re dealing with, do you?”

Jason gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Everyone has a bad day. Bad enough to leave the rifle behind. And maybe some prints?”

She snorted. “As if.”

After a moment he said, “Ah. One of those American nonsense phrases that’s supposed to mean something.”

“It means I’m leaving.” She stared off at one of the
plants, defiant in a way that made no sense to him. In sudden insight, he recognized it—she was in some way challenging her orders. Not surprising. “I’m not desperate enough to work with you.”

“To work
with—
” Caught flat-footed, he stole her American nonsense phrase. “As if!”

She slanted a shadowed gaze at him. “That really doesn’t work coming from a manly MI6 guy like you.”

Creative types. They followed a logic that meant nothing to anyone else. They switched directions so fast you were always hanging with one foot over the edge of a hairpin curve, a helpless little cartoon character trying to catch up.

And yet still, there was something stirring in such intensity. Such a self-directed approach to life.

Not stirring enough. “You want manly MI6?” he asked. “How’s this? My nice macho nine-millimeter Browning is only centimeters from your bum. It’s a lovely bum, and I’d hate to make holes in it, but I’ve got a ten-round magazine and it’s full.” As an afterthought he added, “It’s got black epoxy finish. Very sexy.”

“My bum?” she said faintly, although not from any obvious fear. More like disbelief of what she’d just heard.

“The pistol,” he said. “Black epoxy. All the blokes want one.” Good Lord, she had him talking nonsense just like she did.

“Yeah?” She actually seemed offended that he’d been talking about the pistol and not her sweet rounded body parts. “
Mine
is a Sig-Sauer P226. Nine millimeter, sixteen-round magazine, European proof marks, custom Nill-grips. Name of Wyatt.” She raised an eyebrow at him, proclaiming her trump. “That’s not counting my rifle, of course. Which you
haven’t
got. You’ve got some fool’s weapon instead.”

“But I’ve got my pistol,” he reminded her. “Centimeters from your bum, remember? And unless you’re hiding a third arm somewhere, your
Wyatt
is not in hand. So when I suggest we quietly leave this little shopping mecca and head for a place where we can discuss why you killed Lyeta and what you found on her body—as well as what she told you—I hope you pay serious attention. And while you’re at it, you can hand over that nice fanny pack. Looks like it’s carrying a bit of weight. Wouldn’t want you to tire.”

“SAS spelled sideways,” she growled. “And what if I don’t? This is such a nice place to make a scene, don’t you think?”

“Only one of us is wanted by the local Boer for murder,” he said complacently, not bothering to mention it wasn’t her. “You go ahead. Make your scene. I’ll be the manly MI6 agent who tracked you down.” He nodded in thoughtful satisfaction. “I like the sound of that. Then we’ll
still
talk—only you’ll be behind bars.”

She glared at him. It was an amazing glare, coming from blue-green eyes the same color as the parka. Deepest turquoise. Those eyes should have been illegal all in of themselves, never mind what else she was up to. The shopping center visitors walked happily by the sunken conversation area, chattering kids in tow, laden with touristy totes and smelling of suntan lotion. Jason had an unhappy awareness that the population of the center had nearly doubled within the past hour; it was well and away time to be out of here. Cape Town’s beautifully moderate weather would bring tourists out in droves as the day wore on.

And she still glared at him. “You know,” she said, “I’ve got things to do, and you’re wasting my time. Has it ever occurred to you that we’re on the same side? That
I didn’t kill Lyeta? That you’re just getting in my way, stopping me from accomplishing something that will benefit us both—not to mention just about anyone else on this little global village we call a planet?”

“No,” he said automatically. “Or why resist coming along with me in the first place?”

She made an inarticulate noise of frustration. “Because you’re
in my way.
I don’t have the time to waste!”

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to convince me with something more along the order of details,” he said. “Lots of details.” But he hesitated, aware of the doubt sitting rather heavily in the center of his chest. The genuine frustration, the way it showed on her face along with everything else—

That doesn’t mean it’s real—she already proved that.

“Six billion, two hundred million people on this planet waiting for me to get in gear. One million, six thousand right here in Cape Town alone,” she grumbled. “And I’m sitting here waiting for you to make up your mind.”

Ow.
“As it happens, my mind’s made up.” It wasn’t. But if he followed procedure, if he brought her in, then it didn’t
have
to be made up. The decisions would be made for him. “Give over the fanny pack and let’s go.”

“Stiff-necked stuffed shirt,” she muttered, renewing her glare as she unclipped the fanny pack. “You
deserve
that haircut.”

 

As the BMW motorbike idled in front of a red light, Chandler turned his head just enough to shout at Beth. “Keep still,” he snapped at her.

She rested her chin on his shoulder, heedless of the way the helmet clipped him on the head. “I’m bored,” she said. “And you made me wear this helmet. I feel like a banana.” At least she had her parka. The sweater had
been fine in calm sixty-degree air at the waterfront, but even though the sun had continued to warm the day, the wind from their passage drew goose bumps on Beth’s arms.

He gritted his teeth as the light changed, resolutely turning his attention back to the traffic as they headed into Cape Town proper. She could see the muscle of his jaw twitch, squaring it even more. He took them through areas with incredible Victorian architecture with iron lace railings and exacting paint jobs and into the more modern part of the city until buildings rose high above them, ultramodern architecture gleaming of glass and steel.

Beth, her hands handcuffed around his waist, felt it the better part of valor
not
to pitch an escape attempt right here on the moving motorbike, leaving potential smears of herself all over the road. Work with him, Barbara had said. It didn’t look like she’d have a choice.

Or rather, the choices were such that allowing him to take her to a quiet place for a chat was the least of all the evils. And if she could break away somewhere along the way, so be it. Meanwhile, she snugged up against his back and let her hands rest on his belt buckle, tapping restlessly…and quite clearly getting to him. Good. The more she annoyed him with the little things, the less seriously he’d take her, the more distracted he’d become—and maybe that moment to break away would be hers for the taking.

They turned onto Strand Street and after a short jaunt through the traffic-filled lanes, swooped down a ramp into the cavernous parking garage below the towering Holiday Inn Cape Town. When he flipped the kickstand down and cut the motor, the resulting silence held the peculiar quality of underground garage acoustics everywhere.

“‘We are the Pilgrims, master, we shall go…’” Beth murmured.

He jerked around to look at her—or tried to, for he was still enclosed in her arms. He frowned at her, those glacial eyes searching hers. They were close enough for Beth to see how the edges of his irises were darker than the rest, as though someone had applied watercolor in a circle and the color slowly, dramatically seeped inward. In this lighting, his pupils had gone huge; it made him look more vulnerable…not so much of that chipped ice British exterior. “How’d you—”

“It’s on the clock, right?” she said. “The SAS memorial at Credenhill.”

“Hell bloody yes,” he said. “What are you doing with it?”

“Trivia. Just one of my many endearing qualities,” she murmured modestly. Not to mention it had the effect she wanted, which was to throw him off stride again. She really didn’t want him to start thinking efficiently. It might occur to him to search her, in which event he’d surely find her little S&W in the ankle holster.

He looked at her another moment and then gave a sudden little snort, turning away to abruptly lift her hands over his head.

She fumbled with the helmet, finally removing it, and when he took it, used her cuffed hands to first muss her hair slightly and then smooth it back. Then she held them out expectantly, palms up.

BOOK: Femme Fatale
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