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Authors: Jordan McCollum

Tags: #Romance, #Spy, #Espionage

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BOOK: Mr. Nice Spy
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Won’t keep you in suspense: I park illegally and wait, idling in the middle of the street, alternating between scanning my rearview for traffic and watching the window for Talia.

“Turn left at the corner,” I tell her.

“No, I was going to waltz into the embassy and ask for their private correspondence.”

“Ha.” I make up an imaginary countdown to stave off the panic clawing at my mind, closing my lungs. She’ll be here in three seconds. Two.

Headlights appear in my rearview. Less than a block away.

Come on, come on. “Come on.” One slips out. My eyes flick from the window to the mirror and back. Come. On.

Talia steps into sight at the corner of the building, twenty feet away. Finally. I shift into drive and wait for her to register me.

She doesn’t check the street. She slides into the apartment building’s shadow, away from the streetlight, away from me.

“No.”

I don’t realize I said it out loud until her shadow stops and she speaks. “Huh?”

“Street.”

She turns. And sighs. And heads over to the van.

I check the headlights. Thirty feet. No time. My fingers tighten on the wheel. “Hurry.”

“They’ll hear me running.”

Girls and their noisy heels. I can’t tell anything about hers from here, but stilettos aren’t usually her style.

“How far behind you are they?” I ask.

“Fifteen feet.”

I check the headlights. Slowing down for me.

Talia hops in the van and folds herself over to hide from view. Before the car behind me can stop, I hit the gas. I glance down the street for the guards. For half a second, I swear I make eye contact with Dude Number One. My heart catches.

And then we’re out of sight. Once we pass the embassy, Talia waits a few minutes longer than strictly necessary to pop up. “They never would’ve interrupted if you’d listened to me and we were both up in that apartment.”

“Gee, thanks for the offer, sweetheart.”

“Ugh.” Talia rolls her eyes and pushes her dark brown bangs out of her face. She’s cute enough, though her best asset is her legs.

Not that I’m looking. Now or ever. But it’s like she’s reading my mind. “Elliott, you’re an idiot.”

“I love you, too.” I take us back to the last safe topic of discussion. “The mic lines from up there were all wrong.”

She shakes her head. And then it sets in: we’re both clear. The only headlights visible are that same car behind me on a one-lane one way. I don’t have that sixth-sense, bad-news tingle.

The sweet taste of satisfaction replaces the adrenaline in my bloodstream and I puff out a breath. Talia’s safe. I’m safe. And we might have something.

I check to see if Talia’s as relieved as I am. Nope. She’s staring at me in that we-need-to-talk way all women master at age five.

“I can take care of myself.” Her words sound like a child’s, but her voice doesn’t. Calm. A little too calm.

When Shanna talks that way, it’s always,
always
trouble. And I’ve been with Shanna long enough to know when to give up. “I know you can.”

“Then let me.”

I focus on the road, and we wend our way through the clusters of embassies. I know Talia’s been through the same training as the rest of us, and she’s been here longer than me, but . . . I can’t help it. I change the subject. “Got plans for the night?”

She laughs. “Work.”

I can never tell if that’s for the Agency or her cover job as a law intern, but I’m sure they’re both equally uninteresting.

“You?” Talia asks.

I check the time on the dash. Eight thirty. “If I can get home fast enough, Shanna has a ten o’clock flight.”

“Fun.”

Though I’d never admit this out loud, I’m a little relieved to see her go. Shanna’s been on edge lately, and it’ll be nice to catch a break from watching everything I say while she’s gone. Her final destination, visiting her mom in Chicago, isn’t a good thing — Mumsie doesn’t like me — but a week apart might help fix things.

I stop for a red light and Talia, princess of paranoia, watches out the window while I watch her. Long dark hair, black leather that looks way too good on her, and the legs I don’t need a reminder of.

Sorry. I
am
a guy.

She’s not my type, the South Pole to Shanna’s Swedish model looks. Which makes Talia the perfect woman to work with. And yeah, the whole she-can-take-care-of-herself thing definitely helps in that department.

“What are you doing with the recording?” she asks.

“Friend at Langley owes me a favor.”

She casts me a glance, sidelong and watchful. “Trust him?”

Valid question, considering how off-the-books this case is. But wrong assumption. “Her. She’s good for it. I know too much about her.” I turn the tone of the last bit more playful, like I’ll be blackmailing Talia the next time I need her to translate Russian or Hindi or whatever else she speaks.

“Pfft.” The sound effect is Talia's only response, but it says enough. She’ll pick up the banter next time.

In a dark corner of my mind, a little tiny thought of
this is how it used to be with Shanna
flickers between the shadows.

But it isn’t anymore.

In record time, we finish our surveillance detection route and get back to the office to send off our tapes. Unfortunately, “record time” still means I walk into my apartment forty-five minutes later, already bracing myself for the fight. I’ve made Shanna late. Again.

My hello echoes. I look around, like she’s hiding behind the pictures. But the only things here are those frozen memories of ourselves smiling and snuggling in Spain and Scotland and Sea World. What happened to those people?

Shanna appears in the hall: tall, blonde, beautiful. She doesn’t see me at first, too busy wiping her cheeks. Wiping away tears.

The little stab of guilt makes me flinch, but I swallow the pain and bury it the best I can. “There you are.”

The second Shanna sees me, her face changes. “Oh.” One little syllable. A volume in disappointment. “When did you get home?”

“Just now. I was worried you’d left. Ready?”

She narrows her red-rimmed eyes at me, and then the carry-on by the door. Waiting. “I already called a cab.”

“Well, call them back.”

Shanna presses her lips together, like it’s sad that I’m attempting this little gesture. “They should be here any minute.”

I don’t know what to say. I’ve always taken her to the airport. She’s always let me take care of her. It’s my job. And yeah, I’m late, but Shanna knows what I was doing. Vaguely.

Her phone rings and she answers. “Okay,” she says after a pause, then ends the call and turns to me. “He’s downstairs.”

For one brief, irrational second, a pop of panic says “he” is more than a cab driver, but even I’m not that paranoid. “Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you?”

She gives me that sad little it’s-cute-when-you’re-trying one-corner smile again.

“At least let me carry your bag.”

Shanna doesn’t say yes, but she doesn’t say no, either. She’s quiet to the elevator landing. The awkward clock starts up again. The longer I let it go, the harder it is to break the silence.

“How long is the flight to Toronto?” Like I don’t already know.

“An hour. Hour layover. Hour to Chicago.”

“Getting in a little late.”

“I’ll take a cab to Mom’s, too.” Shanna shrugs, her eyes still straight ahead. She doesn’t look like she’s waiting for an elevator. More like an execution.

But the conversation’s the only one getting the ax. We reach the lobby and head to the yellow taxi waiting outside. I load her suitcase.

She’s still standing on the sidewalk, like she’s waiting for me. I guess I expected her to get in and drive off without a goodbye.

Two years ago, we were going through this same ritual, driving her to the airport to visit her mom. I can never forget the way she looked at me, the way the sun caught her hair. She was all light and happiness, and the thought of letting her go drove me just about crazy. Or all the way crazy — before she could get out of the car, I’d asked her to marry me. And she’d said yes. And laughed. And cried.

And stayed.

All the same pieces are here: the suitcase, me, her. Especially the tears. I have to pretend I can’t see them shining in her eyes.

“Elliott.” Normally I love when she says my name, but this has a reluctant note of
you won’t like what I’m about to say
. “I love you, but — it’s starting to feel like this is as far as you’re willing to go. I’ve tried to be patient, and I don’t want to push you, but . . . I’m ready for the next stage.”

“The next stage? The next stage of what?”

A sigh escapes her, a mix of exasperated and exhausted. “How about actually getting married? Buying a home? Starting a family?”

The words sock me in the stomach like a fist of ice. I know she wants all those things, and I guess I do, too, but I can’t help the terror resurging in my brain. I thought we had time — I thought
I
had time.

I’m not stupid. I know that when you ask someone to marry you, they kind of expect to
get married
. But in the minute I asked, all I wanted was for her to not leave.

I’m all out of relationship-saving tricks, and this time I don’t think even they could fix things.

A dull light gleams in Shanna’s eyes beyond the tears. She’s hoping for an answer, for something I don’t know how to give her.

“Like I said,” she continues when I don’t, “I don’t want to pressure you. I think maybe we both need a little time. A break.” She’s looking at me, still hoping I have the solution to save us from this madness.

I don’t.

So Shanna finishes, still focused on the waiting car. “I need you to step up. If you can’t . . . I’ll make it easy. If you’re not at the airport when I get back, that’s all the discussion we need. I’ll understand.”

She might as well clean out my chest cavity with a spoon.

Like an idiot, I nod. That’s all I can do. Shanna looks to me one last time, like suddenly now I’ll figure out how to fix this. Then she folds her long legs into the cab, and it pulls away from me. I’m supposed to wave until she’s out of sight, an old family tradition of hers, but it’s all I can do to stand on the sidewalk and watch her disappear.

I don’t know how things broke this badly.

 

 

The next day, I am really off my game. My morning didn’t go well. At the gym, I was barely able to get two words with the visiting Lebanese scientist I’m trying to recruit, though he doesn’t know that part yet. Then I spent way too much time trying to figure out why the recording didn’t go through to Angela last night. And now I’m sitting at my desk, hitting refresh like a desperate teenager who wishes he could rewind the sad turns of his little life and take back . . . something. Like Shanna will leap out of bed after her late night to reply to my email and unsay what she’s obviously been holding in for too long.

“Bad news?” Talia’s voice yanks me out of my thoughts. I didn’t know she was here already. If she’s finished with her law intern cover job, that means it’s after 3 PM.

“Sort of. The recording didn’t make it through last night. Had to figure out why.” I shift in my seat and hope that covers the real reason, too pitiful to share.

Talia eyes my computer, though she can’t read my screen from her desk. “If you need anything, you know who to call.”

“Tech support?”

Without taking her gaze off me for a second, Talia flips a pen in my direction. I bat it away and dial up the charm. “Oh, was that an offer?”

I can tell she’s sliding into that I’m-tough-enough-to-keep-up-with-you mode that forms the basis of basically our entire relationship when she smirks. “It’s an offer, but I doubt you could handle it.”

“Believe me, sweetheart, I’d handle it.”

The flirting edge of the playfulness in her eyes melts, leaving something a little harder, a little sharper, though her words are still in our juvenile joking mode. “I’ll handle your face.”

That’s definitely an offer — but not in a good way. I crossed a line. Shanna would’ve played along, but here, now, I need to play this off. “My face would love to see you try.”

“Your face will have to remain sadly disappointing. I mean, disappointed.”

BOOK: Mr. Nice Spy
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