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Authors: Jordan McCollum

Tags: #Romance, #Spy, #Espionage

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BOOK: Mr. Nice Spy
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“Right.” The ambassador sighs. “What about them?”

“The Toronto landing rights issue. We need to get James to see reason, or things will keep going downhill.”

Who is this guy who calls Rhodes by a nickname, knows his diplomatic schedule and is in his house at this hour? Got to be a secretary or something. And pushing him toward the Emiratis’ side? This. Is. Our. Guy.

“Fine,” the ambassador says. “After the reception next week. Get everyone in a better mood first.”

“I’ll set it up.”

Yep, secretary. And unless they’re going to hash out the time now — well, even if they are — I’m out of time myself.

I tuck the mic away and pull my legs up to try to blend into the branch better. It registers that I haven’t heard from Talia, not even the little rustle of maneuvering out of sight. She hasn’t gotten down. She’s still in the branches like me. Still vulnerable.

My breath slowly strangles in my throat. We’re both dead.

The flashlight beams sweep closer. This brings back too many memories of last night. Worked out okay, but it’s not a performance I’m looking to repeat.

Especially not when I’m not the only one at risk. She put herself on the line for me, and I’ve got a responsibility to her. And I’m not sure I can save Talia tonight.

The tones of small talk drift up to us, a few feet above the guards’ heads. I close my eyes and try to swallow against a dry throat. They’ve peered up through the branches on two prior sweeps. Both times, Talia and I had moved behind the trunk, some small measure of cover.

Now we’re still in the open. We’ve got nothing but luck. I believe in it, but I’m not about to risk my life and my job on a gamble.

No other choice. I open my eyes. They guards have passed me, and now they’re right below Talia’s tree. The tree she could have and should have climbed down five minutes ago. But she stayed to stick by me.

In what universe did I think dragging someone down with me was the better alternative?

The flashlight beams start up the trunk. I don’t dare scan the branches for her. I doubt these guys are dumb enough to fall for the old pebble thrown across the yard, and my pockets are empty except for the parabolic. Somehow, I think throwing that would make more trouble.

Those beams pause a yard or two below Talia. My fingers want to tighten around the branch, but I can’t move even that much. Can’t risk it. Can’t breathe.

The lights drop.

The guards pass.

My heart starts again.

We’re in the clear. I draw silent breaths until the daring ambassadorial guard duo round the corner. I hear the thin rustle of Talia moving, and I do the same, easing myself behind the trunk, then down the branches.

Tree climbing wasn’t a skill twelve-year-old me anticipated using in a career, but I’m glad I practiced anyway.

I catch up with Talia half a second before she reaches the low rock retaining wall separating us from the road. If they turned, the roof guards could still see us, not shielded by the leaves, but I’m pretty sure the shadows have us covered.

“You don’t have to stick your neck out for me,” I whisper.

“Don’t I?” she counters with a hushed hint of humor, but I’m not joking.

I start picking through the underbrush and she follows. The trees aren’t thick, but we parked our cover — bikes — a ways off. “I don’t want you getting hurt for my sake.”

“Every choice I make is mine. I can take care of myself.”

“I know.” Lame answer, again, but I think we both know the truth: I know she can take care of herself. I just want to help.

“Not out of the woods yet. Literally,” Talia murmurs.

I see what she means immediately. Our bikes are not alone. Two more men in black.

Like I haven’t seen enough of these guys.

“I got this.” I can only hope the 95-mph racetrack in my brain doesn’t show through my voice.

I’d better get this.

I grasp Talia’s hand. “Laugh like we’re flirting.”

If she’s not happy with this change, she doesn’t show it. She obeys, breaking into a giggle that sounds convincing and flirty. Or I’ve been out of the game too long. And I’m pathetic.

Two guys in black look up at the sound of her laughter. I join her, though there’s nothing funny about my third close call with patrolling security in two days.

Those all-too-familiar flashlight beams focus on our faces, and we both raise a hand to shield our eyes.

“These bikes belong to you?” asks one of the guys in a very American, very “cop” voice.

Importing home security for the ambassador? How much does that cost? I try not to think about my last denied requisition.

“I’m sorry.” I round off my vowel like a western Canadian, the most harmless accent I can pull off — local-ish, but not local enough to know this isn’t a good place for a late-night walk. “Did we do something wrong?”

“This land is the property of the American government,” First Guy informs me.

If my eyes get any rounder, they’ll roll away. Talia and I glance at one another in mock horror. “We are so sorry,” I apologize again.

Other Guy frowns at me. “And what are you doing here?”

“Just out for a walk.” I swing our interlaced fingers between us.

“And you had to hide your bikes?” First Guy turns to cast a meaningful look at the paved path next to the road.

“We didn’t know,” Talia says. “We didn’t want someone to drive off with them, you know.”

“Sorry.” I hope they’ve been here long enough to recognize the classic accommodating attitude.

First Guy frowns at Other Guy this time. Kind of ironic that we’re out here trying to protect Americans, while these guys are protecting the people inside, including the real threat.

At a minimum, the guards could probably get away with frisking us, and the parabolic mic is bound to raise a red flag. I can’t help the thought drumming a steady beat in my mind, like I can telepathically push them: let us go, let us go, let us go.

But their silent conversation has my signal jammed. My heartbeat echoes in my ears. Not. Safe.

The guards continue their wordless debate. I edge a little closer to Talia. Not sure whether it’s from our cover or real protectiveness.

She goes with it, leaning against me. I let go of her hand to slide my arm around her. Again, the cover mixes with reality. Fake-me and real-me both want to get her out of here safe. I’m the second priority.

I focus on Talia. In my peripheral vision, I can see the guards still scrutinizing us. If we sell this hard enough, we can get away unscathed.

Talia plays her role — or not — to the hilt, too. She looks up to me, all innocence and fear and take-me-home-and-protect-me-forever-ness on her face.

“It’s okay,” I whisper. I tuck her loose, soft hair behind her ear. Something in her eyes changes, slips somehow, like she’s struggling to separate the cover from who we really are.

Because I’m a totally objective observer here. A click in my chest echoes that change in her eyes, and suddenly the guards aren’t the only reason for my racing pulse.

After a good two minutes, one of the guards breaks their conference. “All right. We’ll let you off with a warning — this time.”

“Oh, thank you.” Talia slathers on the gratitude thick, pulling away from me. She grabs her bike, and I do the same.

We made it. “Satisfaction” doesn’t begin to describe the relief, sweet and free, flowing into my veins as my heartbeat settles back into the right rhythm.

We walk a few more feet, then Talia hops on her bike. I have to follow suit fast to keep up with her, which is kind of important, given our cover.

It’s half a mile to our first stop, a casual sweep through a convenience store where our agency sedan waits. We load our bikes onto the rack on the trunk and leave for the next stop. In silence.

Spies make a career out of reading people, but sometimes the people closest to you are open books in a foreign language. I can’t even tell what alphabet Talia’s using tonight with all the mixed signals. Folded arms, neutral-to-friendly expression, crossed legs, bouncing foot.

Something is happening here, something I’m not quite getting. Something I’m not sure I mind.

I catch Talia watching the dash clock. “You’ll make your meeting,” I reassure her.

“I’m not worried.” Her tone isn’t nervous or unusual. Unremarkable. Like nothing happened, like nothing’s going on.

That little moment in the glare of the guards’ flashlights replays in my mind, the way the cover slipped behind her eyes. They’re hazel. I’d never noticed.

We run through the rest of the SDR — nobody’s following us — and reach our original rendezvous.

I park and turn to her. Do I say something or let it ride?

“What’s the next step?” She’s not quite looking me, but not quite avoiding it, either.

“Weekend off. Regroup and strategize Monday.”

She nods, but doesn’t move toward the door handle yet.

“Big plans this weekend?” I ask. Because I certainly don’t have any. Maybe . . . ?

“Catching up on casework.”

Her cover job sucks. I don’t know how she has a life outside the CIA and her 80-hour law firm weeks. I guess she doesn’t have one.

She might not need one. She meets my gaze, a smile behind her eyes.

I still don’t know what’s happening here, but it’s steadily becoming something I’m okay with.

Shanna’s face pops into my mind — but she needs time. So I’m giving it to her. For all I know, she might say “time” but mean “forever.” She might dump me.

Okay, not super likely, but things are definitely up in the air.

Talia bails to begin the SDR on her way to her meeting with an asset. I almost head into the office to start on the report — until I remember how much we need to stay away from Congress and off the books.

Even with a free weekend, I don’t know if I’ll have enough time to figure out the next move before it’s too late, before the next meeting or that reception —

The reception.

I don’t bother to hide the grin slipping onto my lips. That might be our ticket out of this mess.

 

 

Monday afternoon, I’m waiting for Angela’s translation of my weekend tapes when Talia practically bounds into our “law firm,” done putting in her time at her
real
firm. Could be a little spring in her step, but it’s hard not to notice every time she crosses the office in that skirt, even if it’s not short or tight.

I’m guessing her weekend case file catch-up went well, since she didn’t answer my texts Saturday afternoon. My weekend was pretty good. If avoiding cosmic justice and a fourth set of guards while flying solo outside the Emirati embassy Saturday night, getting another promising recording of the ambassador and his wife, and sending that to Angela without anyone noticing counts as “pretty good.”

Hint: it’s better than “pretty good.”

And Monday’s looking better than pretty good, too, even when I catch myself watching Talia cross the office again.

Whoa. No. Can’t do that here. Too many eyes.

She’s playing it much cooler. Already been in half an hour and hasn’t found a reason to talk to me. I turn to my email and luck out with a distraction windfall: Angela’s reply. The subject line alone is enough for me to motion Talia over:
you SURE we don’t need approval for this?

Talia waits until Will is fully engaged with Justin and César in his office to bounce over to my desk.

“How was your meeting Friday night?” I ask, like I don’t have anything important to share, though the look on my face probably betrays me.

She purses her lips. “Routine.” Which sounds more like
too routine
— throwing good money after old facts, old tips, old news. “Figured out our next move?”

“Almost.” I open the email, and we both lean in to read the monitor.

Once again, one line in particular jumps out at me:
they’ll meet again after the rights reception. Perhaps you can make a good impression there
.

The wife again. How could she know that already?

Talia repeats my question.

I shake my head. “I doubt Jamesy even knows they’re meeting again yet.”

“I don’t like this.”

Neither do I. The Emiratis might be our friends, but no matter how close we need to keep them to make sure they stay that way, they should
not
know about every little meeting with our ambassador’s staff. That feeling
of something’s really, really wrong here
creeps down my neck like a millipede with frostbite.

“I tracked down James. The Transport Canada guy.” Talia pauses, glancing up, recalling something. “He’s the Assistant Deputy Minister over Policy.”

“Policy, huh? Like deciding how many Emirati flights to let in–type policy?” I raise my eyebrows, though I’m not sure whether I’m more impressed with her research or the guy’s on-the-money-and-the-landing-rights position.

Talia mimics my expression, making it into a perfect inside joke. I swear, for a second, this is way more than a coworkers’ connection.

And then Will’s door swings open. “I’ll work on the next step,” I say.

She returns to her desk. What’s the next step? Not eavesdropping on another meeting at the ambassador’s, and there’s got to be something that’ll yield results faster than listening to the Emirati ambassador’s fireside chats with his wife.

BOOK: Mr. Nice Spy
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