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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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“Did you know,” she said, “that oysters can change sex at will?”

She’d flabbergasted him, as much as he tried to hide it. “What does that have to do with any bloody thing?”

“Nothing,” Beth said, suddenly tired. Or at least, sud
denly realizing again how tired she was. “And everything.” It was the way her mind worked…the trivia, the non sequiturs, the way she could change directions in mid-stride without stumbling—both physically and mentally. And it had to do with choices. Her choices, his choices, how differently they handled those moments.

It made perfect sense to her, but she didn’t think he’d ever understand it. His very reaction to her free-form thinking—the resistance instead of any willingness to follow—pretty much proved the point. Except…she looked over at him, discovering the frown she expected…and something else. A struggle, beneath the surface, reflected in the shadow of his eyes and the faint working along his jaw.
He’s trying.
Not quite able to follow what she was trying to express but not dismissing it.
Trying.
When was the last time a man had done that?

Never,
that’s when. And
never
had led her expect short, widely spaced affairs that never quite touched her heart. Not even so much as watching this man
try
touched her now.

“It’s okay,” she said, gently enough to be unexpected by both of them. “Maybe one day I’ll dance for you.”

She hadn’t meant it the way it sounded—and the way it sounded created an instant tension between them, one Beth could not help but enjoy and respond to. He stood near the desk, looking as though he might make it to the bed in one decisive step, and Beth almost willed him to do it.

But.

But she had work to do, and so did he. Distractions couldn’t be tolerated, not with the kind of pressure she was under, and a casual fling definitely fit in the distraction category.

That’s not right,
protested a little voice in her mind as
she turned on the PDA, entered the password, and checked her messages.
There’s nothing casual about what just happened.
And nothing simple, either. Great. Not only distracting, but complex. And getting close to irresistible.

Thank goodness she had other things to think about. She found a short message from Barbara—short and to the point. No one had found any trace of Lyeta’s recent presence in public accommodations, but she’d used a deep cover credit card to purchase a sleeping bag the day before she’d met Beth. The day before she’d died.

Sleeping bag? Had she spent the night on a park bench somewhere, playing the homeless person?

“What’s up?” Jason pulled the desk chair into the room, flipped it around, and straddled it, resting his arms along the back. He seemed to have decided to put aside the past few moments, as inexplicable as they were, and go forward. That, too, tugged at Beth as an appealing surprise. “That’s a mighty frown.”

“Is it?” she said, putting a hand to her face. “I guess so. Just…missing pieces.”

“Nothing quite fits yet,” he agreed.

He watched, unobtrusive, while she called up the new data file Barbara had sent—the same list of Blue Crane establishments, this time prioritized. She gave them a quick glance, recognizing that along with type of establishment—restaurant, spa, hotel—Barbara had made geographic priorities. Those within a certain distance of the dockside meeting, and along the line of probable travel into the country. She sent a quick thought of gratitude Barbara’s way. The way things stood, with the nondescripts on her tail, the real CIA agents who believed her guilty of the shooting, and MI6 no doubt pressuring Chan
dler, she’d need a lot more time than she had to check out even the top-rated places on the list.

After waiting longer than she herself might have allowed in his circumstances, Chandler said quietly, “You haven’t really told me anything yet. I know you’re looking for something, and I very much imagine it’s something Lyeta put you onto before she died. But…” He trailed off, shrugging at her and leaving
but you owe me more
unspoken.

On the one hand, she did. She owed him for this safe place, for the shower she was about to take, for the chance to catch her breath. On the other hand…

She owed him nothing. They were both doing their jobs, and the only reason she was here was because he hoped to learn something from her. That didn’t mean he
would.
With a decisive poke of the PDA stylus, she shut down the invaluable little tool, tossing it onto the bed to finish recharging. It was safe enough. He might try, but he’d never get through Stony Man’s security protocols. She rubbed her fingertips over her tired eyelids and said abruptly, finally responding to his last comments, “I’m still thinking.”

“Weighing options,” he said, interpreting her words fairly accurately this time. “Desperately searching for a choice you consider to be better than actually telling me anything.” He’d definitely got her that time.

She didn’t deny it. “Yes,” she said ruefully. “And I’m tired and I’m not thinking clearly. So I’m going to take a shower and hope that helps.” She stood, stretched in a way that was meant to test her bruises more than loosen muscles, and then snagged the bathrobe off the closet hanger on the way to the bathroom.

“I’m going to order dinner,” he said, so conversationally that she got the definite impression he was lying low,
studying her…trying to figure her out. That when the time was right, he’d pounce. “Would you like something?”

“God, yes,” she said. “Something that comes from a cow. Or a water buffalo, or whatever passes for red meat on their menu.”

“You’re a carnivore,” he said. “Got it.”

She looked back at him as she entered the bathroom, robe bundled in her arms. “For tonight I am,” she said, as much to herself as to him. “I’m an oyster…adventurous.”

Chapter 6

T
he water hit Beth between the shoulder blades just the way she liked it…hard and pulsing. But she didn’t allow herself the luxury of a long shower; she hit the soap and shampoo in quick succession, cranked the water off with a decisive twist of wrist, and stepped out to reach for one of the hotel’s thick, cream-colored towels.

She almost missed it. Jason’s voice, stiff and formal and quite clearly in mid-conversation. “—tomorrow morning,” he said. “I’ll see you then.”

Ahh, so he couldn’t help playing by the rules after all.

Beth tried to ignore the bitter disappointment biting at her throat. It had been stupid to trust him this far, and if she hadn’t been so intent on finding the keycard that she was willing to compromise her work-alone habits…

Or face it, if she hadn’t been in over her head, with so little in the way of leads and meanwhile Egorov’s men all over her…

Whatever. It was time to go. She gave her wet hair a
brusque toweling, the kind that made it dry with a bed-head look instead of a sleek, shiny bob, and cinched the bathrobe tightly around her waist. It was too big, of course—one-size-fits-all rarely
did.
She’d give her pack a quick check, throw the dress back on, and make her way back to the theater.

But she paused, looking at herself in the mirror as she rubbed lotion into her face and hands. Beth of the wet hair, flushed cheeks, and lotion-smeared face stared back at her. “Dinner first,” she said to that Beth. On MI6’s nickel. That suited her just fine.

“Did you say something?” Chandler asked her, muffled enough that he must have been across the room. Playing with his laptop while he had the chance, she figured.

“Talking to myself,” she called back, cheered by the thought of a nice juicy steak. The restaurant here was like the rest of the hotel—it thought much of itself, and purported to have fine dining. She hoped Chandler had ordered dessert, too. She’d eat…and then she’d run. And early tomorrow she’d start in on her prioritized list, hoping for more intel from Barbara and keeping her eye out for Egorov’s mole and his buddies. Or his subordinates—they might well be honest CIA, manipulated by an expert. She’d have to update Barbara, let her know the Chandler thing wasn’t working out and the CIA had been infiltrated thoroughly enough to keep Beth on the run. Hmm. Might as well do it right under Chandler’s nose.

But when she breezed out of the bathroom, releasing a cloud of steamy air and shampoo scent into the room, she found next to the PDA a pair of dark green sweats and basic flip-flops. Chandler, sitting in one of the comfy armchairs by the drapes, glanced away from the items, as if he’d somehow had nothing to do with their presence. He, too, had changed, from the sleekly tailored suit to plain
green fatigue pants belted over a heavy V-neck that draped so beautifully over the hard planes of his chest that she suspected it had to be silk. He told her, “Food’ll be up in twenty minutes, they said.”

“Great. I’m starved.” She looked at the sweats, looked at him, and ran a finger down the sleeve at the edge of the bed. “Nice,” she said. “Thank you.”

He lifted a shoulder. “The best the gift shop could do on short notice.”

“After hours, no doubt. You must have been convincing. And somehow they got one of my best colors.” The green brought out her eyes, always had. “Give it up, Chandler…it was thoughtful. Or is it against the rule book to be thoughtful to someone who’s not on your team?”

He gave it up. “You’re welcome.” And then looked directly at her, somehow giving her the impression that he wanted nothing more than to get up from his chair and come over for a closer look, a most intimate look…although when she blinked, there he was, relaxed and quiet in the chair.

Whew. Tired. Imagining things.
Or possibly not, but she didn’t want to go there.

There was a second chair by the bed. She sat in it, pulling the PDA over for a few stylus-scrawled words to Barbara, which she prefaced with the symbol that meant she wasn’t in a position for video communication and needed to stick to text. There were no intrusion alerts as she fired up the PDA, so apparently Chandler had kept his hands to himself.

Hmm. Perhaps not the best turn of phrase for the circumstances. Beth put her mind to business and finished with the PDA, then scooped up the sweats, disappearing into the bathroom to change so quickly the door barely had time to latch. She finger-combed her hair—not doing
a thing to change the bed-head look—and emerged just as room service knocked on the door. With an about-face, she disappeared back into the bathroom, leaving the door casually half-closed and making sure she wasn’t visible in the mirror. When she came out again, she attacked dinner with a vengeance. Venison loin over a cinnamon and butternut waffle…heavenly. Halfway through the meal, she looked up at Chandler and, with no premeditation whatsoever, said, “Who was it?”

He gave her a startled glance, as well he might. Placing his fork and its cargo of crispy duck at the side of his plate, he said, “Who was who?” and then winced. “Pretend I didn’t say it that way.”

She grinned at him. He wasn’t so bad when he wasn’t taking himself so seriously. She remembered his words, used them back on him. “What
fiery creative type
pissed you off so badly that you’re still taking it out on the rest of us?”

“Ah.” Instantly he sobered. He played with the fork a moment and then pushed the plate away. With obvious effort, he kept his voice light. He didn’t fool Beth for an instant. He said, “Someone I was involved with. She made a decision without consulting me. I guess I still wonder…daughter or son? So did she, I gather…she couldn’t face what she’d done, in the end.”

Beth couldn’t help her aghast expression. “She—” and then didn’t finish. There was no point. It was obvious what the woman had done…and what it had done to him. She watched the play of muscle in his cheek and jaw and then said, “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have asked if I’d thought…”
If I’d thought I would get such a straight answer.

He managed to look at her. “You owe me one, then.
Who was it? Who made you so resentful of us poor schmucks and our rules?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” she said, and smiled beatifically at him. “Everyone. But at some point I figured out it never works when you try to play it someone else’s way. You can’t ever truly fit what it is they have in mind. Much easier to go my own way.”

“Lonely, I should think,” he said.

Okay, that stung a little. “Sometimes, maybe. But the price is too high to do it any other way.” She flexed her bare toes and used a finely controlled foot to snatch the flip-flips from the bed even as she eyed the last item on her plate. Dessert.
Mmm, thank you for that.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have savored it so openly…every spoonful of the crème brûlée allowed to melt away in her mouth, relished to the fullest. She knew he watched, but only when she glanced up with the last spoonful in her mouth did she see the intensity of his gaze.

She thought he probably didn’t do much undercover work. Not with his nature, not with the way his feelings showed so clearly on his face and on every line of his body. A second glance confirmed it. Oh, yes, every line.

Beth sighed. Another day, another mission, and she might not be so eager to get out of this room.

Or on the other hand, maybe she would. Spending time with Jason Chandler…she didn’t think it could be just another fling. Not with that face, telling her everything she needed to know. Not with the way she felt herself responding to him, even now. That lovely sweatsuit suddenly seemed just a little too warm, and her pulse pounded in places that took her by surprise.

Lucky for her it was time to run. Not to make a big deal of it, as she put the food tray on the floor and shoved it aside with her foot so she could stand and bend over
the bed, folding the dress away in a neat roll, and looping the heel straps of the shoes through the clip on the sling pack strap meant for keys. The PDA wasn’t charged yet, but she unplugged it and stashed it away in its neat leather wallet. “You’re not asking me questions,” she said, and went into the bathroom to brush her teeth with hotel toothpaste and her finger.

He sounded a little strained, which made her smile around her finger. “You’ve made it clear you’ll talk when you bloody well please. And I, like a civilized person, am digesting.”

Yeah, a half-eaten dinner. Perhaps guilt had ruined his conversation, as well as recollection of his impulsive ex-girlfriend.
Tomorrow morning,
indeed. This was one spy-girl who’d be on her own by then. Again.

She almost made it without any incident at all. She came out of the bathroom still drying her hands, tossed the towel on the bed, snagged her sling pack and parka, and headed for the door. She caught him flat-footed, but not so flat-footed he couldn’t bound across the room and stiff-arm the door closed just as it was wide enough to slip through.

“Ah, damn,” she muttered. She rested her forehead against the door. “We’ve had this conversation before,” she said. “Remember how it ended?”

“Bugger that,” he said, his harsh breath stirring the hair at the back of her neck, raising goose bumps. He demanded, “Where do you think you’re going?”

At that she whirled to glare at him, very like that moment at the dock. So close…but not close in spirit, oh not at all. “Don’t even try to play that game,” she told him, taking in the cold anger of his gray eyes and not quailing before it, not in the least. “‘Tomorrow morning? See you then?’ What happened? Aren’t you used to women who
can take a fast shower? When were you going to tell me about your little date? Is he bringing drugs for me, or just a new set of handcuffs?”

He came right back at her. “I’m doing my best to protect you, damn it, and that means playing my own people just as much as it means playing you. I might have told you, and I might not have. I wasn’t prepared to make the decision right then.”

“Well, thank you so much for your honesty. Goodbye.” She would have turned, but his hand came off the door and pushed against her shoulder—not quite pinning her there, but making the point.

“Don’t do this,” he said, earnest and angry all at once, and all of it right there on his face, so close to her. “You’re wasting your energy evading me instead of accomplishing anything—”

“—or
you
accomplishing anything.”

He glared. “Or that. But damn it, I don’t want you out there alone!”

“That’s your problem,” she snapped back at him. “Now let me go, or things will get downright hostile in here!”

He didn’t. He moved in on her, reaching for her. Possessive. Only at the last moment did her fighting brain realize what had happened, and by then her kissing brain was hard at work. By then she’d moved in against him like she’d wanted to since…face it, since those first moments on the dock, fingers clutching his shirt at the shoulders, lips and mouth and tongue busy and happy and thrilling the rest of her body. He cupped the back of her head in one strong hand, protecting her as he pushed her up against the door, capturing her more thoroughly than any MI6 trickiness could ever manage. She didn’t care. She liked it. She reveled in it. Her fingers explored the
short, bristly hair at his nape and then the longer hair above his ears, feeling the texture of curl hidden by the cut. She found the hard-cut muscles of his shoulders, had the impulse to tug his shirt free of his belt—and wasn’t quite quick enough. He slipped a hand down the tight curves of her body, down to her bottom, where he got demanding, pulling her in against him as he rocked into her. She groaned into his mouth, startled by the shock of pleasure.

And then he broke away. Resting his forehead against hers, breathing raggedly and with his fingers clenching in her hair with the effort of the self-control, he said, “There, now you won’t be alone. You’ll bloody well take some part of me with you.”

After a stunned moment, a moment when both her mind and her body gasped in response, she gave a laugh as ragged as his breathing. “Don’t tell me—it’s a new superspy technique.”

“Yes,” he said. “Absolutely. Can’t fool you.”

She took a deep breath. A steadying breath. A thoughtful breath.

She didn’t think him capable of such fervent deception. Differing objectives, yes—but he’d been up-front about that, even to the point of immediate honesty when she’d confronted his intention to bring in a colleague the next morning. This mission had turned into a confusing muddle of morphing objectives, newly discovered enemies and a frustration of lost time, but of one thing Beth was sure.

He’d meant every bit of that kiss.

And so had she.

 

Her expression gave him hope. She hadn’t rejected him, laughed at him or injured him. Face flushed, mouth swollen and definitely been-kissed, she considered him. Her
lips parted slightly, words she wasn’t quite certain of hesitating there a moment; she licked them and looked away. But…

Still thinking.

All
he’d
been thinking was about how close she was, and how he didn’t want to let her go. And in how, having little choice, he wasn’t going to miss his only chance to taste those lips. It hadn’t turned out badly at that. Not badly at all. Crucial parts of him still twitched with reaction. He turned away from her, smiling slightly.

Headlights flashed through a gap in the curtains; for all there were three layers, they hadn’t meshed neatly. He reached a hand up to twitch them into place and caught a glimpse of the well-lit parking lot, of several hurried figures tumbling out of a dark sedan. Another look confirmed it; he swore, dark and low.

She understood immediately. “Come with me,” she said, even as she slipped off her flip-flops. Preparing. “This room is no longer secure.” She eased her hand into the sling pack and removed the Sig’s discreet carrying case, belting it around her waist and unzipping the pocket; then she slid into her lightweight parka.

Jason took it in on the move. He reached the desk in one swift stride, jamming the laptop in its briefcase, not bothering with anything else but the Browning and its ammo. Where he’d go from here was almost irrelevant; he—
they
—had to get out of the hotel first. “Whoever they are, they’re not shy of using up resources to keep track of you,” he grunted, jamming his arms through the shoulder holster straps, double-checking the two ammo pouches to make sure they were occupied even though he’d inspected the rig upon taking it off as a matter of course.

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