Authors: Jordan McCollum
Tags: #Romance, #Spy, #Espionage
If they’ll all be at this reception . . . maybe we can watch a little more closely there. Maybe,
, we’ll get a step closer to the Emiratis’ hotline to the heart of our embassy.
Not ten minutes later, I’m trying to get Talia’s attention again — and I catch it. No, I catch
. She’s still grinning, but this time it’s like she doesn’t know she’s doing it. Like she’s remembering something and can’t help that little shadow of a smile.
She finally catches my telepathic signal and checks the office. Everybody’s absorbed in their files. After a minute, she makes a silent show of needing a break and strolls to my desk.
I switch to the browser tab showing the agenda for this week’s only diplomatic-sounding reception: a gala for the end of the summit on human rights. Talia leans over my shoulder to navigate around the gala site. I act like the contact doesn’t give me the slightest chills.
My automatic guilt reflex kicks in, flashing Shanna’s face across my brain. I never, ever want to hurt her. Ever. But she’s the one who wants to get away from me. I mean . . . right?
“Looks perfect,” Talia half-murmurs. “Just need an invitation.”
“What, now you’re too good for the service elevator?” Pretending to be an anonymous handyman to slip in sometimes works, but this long after normal repairman hours, it’s likely to raise more than eyebrows.
“What about someone else who doesn’t need to be on the guest list?” She gestures at my screen. “A step up from the jump-suited masses.”
The entertainment. “You up for karaoke?”
“Uh, no.” She leans a hip against my desk, and my eyes trail down to those legs.
I catch myself before she can and cover with questions. “Then what? Stupid pet tricks? Your traveling magic show?”
“I’m sure you’re the next Criss Angel,” she says. “Closest I’ve got is piano.”
Didn’t know that. “You any good?”
“Been playing for twenty years.” But she furrows her brow.
I glance at the schedule again. “Think you can pull together something for twenty minutes?”
Her tough exterior cracks, the usual confidence we all try to put on in the office faltering for a minute, revealing the smallest nerves. “Enough to impress these people?”
I give the standard answer. “Enough to make sure they don’t really notice you.”
“Guess I can do that.” Talia smirks, and I grin back. A couple phone calls, and I’ll have our in.
Now we have to figure out our real objective.
That same little smile is still lingering on Talia’s lips by the time I finish my phone calls half an hour later. This time I head to her desk. “You’re all lined up. Seven forty to eight.”
Her smile hides behind a grimace for a second. “Better get practicing.”
I jerk my chin at her. “What’s got you all giddy?”
“Hm?” One hand instantly lands on the back of her neck, and Talia can’t hide the blush. She knows exactly what I’m talking about.
“You keep drifting back to La La Land whenever you’re working, and no case is that good.”
“I — ah — no idea what you’re talking about.” She turns to her computer way too quickly.
It’s like watching a movie you’ve seen a thousand times, only with the sound off or the colors inverted. I know Talia better than anybody here, but two hours ago I couldn’t have imagined her like this. Embarrassed. Flustered. Twitterpated.
“Is this about a guy?” I take a stab and add a jab. “What are you, twelve?”
Talia rubs two fingertips across her forehead, but doesn’t answer.
Like I can’t read that body language. “You meet someone in your case files this weekend?”
“No, no — I — it’s nothing.”
I was fishing before, but now there’s blood in the water. “So it
a guy. New friend?”
“Not exactly, not really.” She tries to wave me away. “It’s nothing. Won’t go anywhere.”
“So one-night stand material?”
She levels me with a glare to say I know her better than that, and I do. I’m trying to get a rise out of her, and
knows that. And it’s working.
“You know you’re going to have to tell me sometime.”
Talia cocks her head, daring me to push her. But when she speaks, the defenses are still high in her voice. “It was just — I don’t know — a little . . . moment.”
Finally, that thing people are supposed to have — you know, “better judgment” — kicks in, and I see that if I tease her more, she’ll shut down. I slide back into business mode. “Okay, they’ll be expecting us at seven—”
“‘Us,’ Kemosabe?” The nerves are gone, replaced by an excuse-me eyebrow.
“Yeah, you and your driver.” I gesture at myself.
She gives me a
look. “Thursday night?”
“Okay.” Talia reaches under her desk and grabs those ever-present case files. “Well, my Turkmen friend is holding a forum on natural gas pipelines this afternoon, and I’d better get down there to support him.”
who’s got you all giggly?”
This time it doesn’t faze her. “I’m not giggly. If I were, it’d have nothing to do with him.”
Talia rolls her eyes and packs up for the day. “I’ll practice after that. See you tomorrow.”
I nod my goodbye. And yes, I watch her walk away.
She’s only gone for a minute when it hits me.
A guy. Someone she’s known. A “moment.” Little, nothing, no future.
That split second in front of the guards Friday night flashes through my mind again. Tucking her hair behind her ear. The cover in her eyes falling away. The real need, the real protectiveness showing through both our stories. The boa constrictor slowly closing around my ribs feels every bit as real.
I love Shanna. I do. But she’s been pulling away for a long time, and she’s the one who needed time more than she needed me.
And I’m a guy. And Talia’s a cute girl. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had a thing for her. A little thing. A thing I was going to ignore.
Until she needed me.
Work just got a whole lot more complicated.
After our surveillance detection route Thursday night, we still manage to arrive comfortably early — not just for Talia’s performance, but the whole reception. The Ottawa Convention Centre looks like a glowing glass zeppelin landed in the middle of downtown. Impressive, but the security isn’t nearly as rigorous as we expected. They barely glance at us or the list before they wave us into the garage.
Maybe we didn’t have to jump through all these hoops, cancelling another act and getting Talia all set up as the designated replacement. But as long as they wave us through to the party that easily, and don’t kick us out once her twenty minutes are up, it’ll all be worthwhile.
We follow the garage guards’ directions to the greenroom on the second floor, and we don’t recap our objectives. We don’t touch. We don’t make eye contact.
Okay, my gaze does kind of drift elsewhere. I don’t know much about women’s clothes, but I like Talia’s dress — black, long sleeved, past her knees but not too long to cover most of her calves. I think she spots me looking this time, but she says nothing.
Then I catch the way she’s biting her lip, the adjustment to her red updo wig. Jitters.
This is exactly why I’m here. “Stage fright?”
Talia doesn’t answer. Doesn’t have to.
“Break a leg.”
She doesn’t make a comment about me keeping an eye on them for both of us. She doesn’t do anything but maneuver a foot closer to me as we approach the token security guard at the top of the escalator. We have a legitimate excuse to be here, so there’s no reason for nerves now. And security’s hardly interested in us anyway, especially when Talia flashes her folder of music at them.
As soon as we’re cleared, I slide a little closer to her. “I thought pros don’t need music.”
“I’m a replacement.” She shoots me a sarcastic look, but when she looks away, that same semi-secret smile she’s worn all week wins out. And all week, the same mini-defibrillator response has kicked in my chest.
That’s because of me.
And I like it.
We reach the greenroom, but there’s no time to talk with the singer, a folk dancing troupe, and the “headliner” for the night, a string quartet, all hanging around.
Suddenly this feels more like something Shanna would drag me to than an op I designed. I haven’t forgotten Shanna, not for a minute — but when somebody
you to forget them,
to get away from you, it could be the right thing to let them. Maybe.
Talia settles into one of the chairs ringing the room, running through imaginary scales on her lap. I take a seat next to her and take her hand to stop the nervous movement. At least that’s what I tell myself. But I tell Talia, “You’ll do great.”
She slides free to flex her fingers. “Just staying warmed up.”
Good idea, since we have a while to wait. One of those obnoxious headset-and-PDA-hardwired-to-her-nervous-system wedding planner types strides in and collects the performers to practice their entrances and exits.
I take the time to plan my next move. And not on Talia.
We’re in, but from here, it gets tougher. I’ve done my best to memorize the face of every Emirati staffer, Talia’s taken the Americans, and we’ve both been over the ranking members of Transport Canada. Now we just have to find some connection between somebody inside our embassy and the Emiratis’. Right. They could have the same cleaning lady for all we know.
Okay, we’ve checked that, so not any local-hired staff. And the American side has to be somebody close to the ambassador.
With the rehearsals finished, it’s up to me to keep Talia’s nerves in check — although she’s not that nervous anymore, so could be just me. All of a sudden, the first act is up, the singer. Twenty minutes seem to simultaneously crawl and fly until the folk dancers leave and the singer returns to pack up her stuff. Our turn. Without looking over her shoulder, Talia disappears.
This is my cue, before the dancers get back. I’m supposed to slip out of the greenroom and into the party like I belong there, mingling with and monitoring the guests to find anybody who looks familiar. Talia, no longer in disguise, will hit the floor, too, to try to read people and find that invisible connection.
Not my most efficient plan, but one night of my life is worth a shot.
Drinks with the ambassador may not be on my weekly schedule, but the CIA trains you early on in this scenario, so it’s not too difficult to blend in. Talia’s doing a good job, too, playing some piece that even I vaguely know. At least nobody’s staring at the stage in horror.
She finishes, curtsies to the polite applause and leaves the stage. Now the real show begins. I make the rounds of small talk, trying to scope out any Emiratis, but the ballroom is too big and too dim to make this effective — especially without Talia.
The string quartet that followed her finishes their second number. It’s been way too long. She should be here.
I check the doors again. Still no sign of her. Before I can grab my operational phone to check the time or give hers a call, I spot someone else in my line of sight. Someone I need to see. Someone who isn’t alone.
The Emirati deputy ambassador and his wife. They keep up the traditional dress here, but despite the shroud of the
, she’s obviously not too happy with her husband. She holds up a hand to cut off his protests, then swoops into the hall. The same hall Talia should be coming down any minute.
She doesn’t need any rescuing, but a heads-up might be appreciated. I text the only real number programmed into my operational phone with the word
How much trouble could she get into? She’s probably stuck primping her post-wig hair or something, though that sounds a lot more like Shanna than Talia. I keep mixing and mingling and monitoring the door every other minute. Where is she?
After five minutes that feel like forever, I get the text back. One word, like mine, but definitely not the word I want to see.