Copyright © 2011 Leah Braemel
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
[L]auren stepped from the Brigade’s jet onto the tarmac, glad to be standing on firm earth after being in the air for almost ten hours. The smog-shrouded Washington Monument across the Potomac drew her attention, a calming beacon saluting her return. Would its people be as welcoming?
A sleek, black stretch Humvee limo sat with its engine running less than thirty feet away. The driver got out, his windbreaker unbuttoned to allow easy access to the weapon he always wore. After a quick check of the area, he opened the back door, allowing the devil himself to step out.
Cooper Davis straightened his French cuffs and smoothed his perfectly pressed Armani suit before nodding to his driver. Anyone meeting him for the first time might buy his cover as an unassuming businessman, intent only on making a killing on Wall Street; she knew better. He strolled across the pavement with confidence and nonchalance, as if he were about to greet an old lover. Something he’d once suggested. To this day she hadn’t decided if it had been a test or a sincere proposition.
She turned her face when he bent down to kiss her so his lips brushed her cheek. One dark eyebrow quirked up at her evasion. “Welcome back, Lauren.”
“I’m done, Cooper. I want out.” Saying the words both soothed the jumbled thoughts in her brain while setting free the butterflies in her stomach.
“I figured you’d say that.” He gestured toward the Humvee. “Let’s sit inside while we discuss your future, shall we?”
She followed him to the Humvee, taking a seat facing him so she could read his facial expressions. As soon as the door closed behind them, sealing them into Cooper’s bulletproof, soundproof world, he leaned forward. “There’s a problem you should know about before you start planning on retiring.”
Problem to Cooper could mean anything from a paperwork snafu to the start of the next world war. From the way every cell in her body went on alert, it was probably more the latter than the former. “I was right, wasn’t I? Someone in the Brigade was behind those attacks.”
“Yes.” He stared out the window, his eyes narrowed. “Frank Harris.”
She sucked in her breath. Of all the Brigade’s operatives, Harris was both their best marksman and their best tracker. He was also currently the most unstable.
“From what we can gather, he discovered it was you who filed the complaint. He’s declared war on you, Lauren.”
“I need to leave then. Find a bolt hole. New York. L.A. San Francisco. Somewhere I can get lost in a crowd.”
Cooper nodded slowly. “It might work. But it’s also possible that Harris will try to get at you through people you care about, Lauren. What’ll you do then?”
People she cared about? She’d long been estranged from her only sister and her mother had died a decade ago. Which left… “Chad?”
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No. It couldn’t be. Hadn’t she screwed up Chad’s life enough without making him the target of a vengeful ex-CIA operative? “But we’re divorced. We’ve been divorced for almost seven years now.”
“Harris was there when you and Thalia had that blow-up a couple months ago. He knows you didn’t want the divorce, and he knows you still love Chad. It’s possible he’ll use Chad as a way to control you or hurt you.”
“I never said I love Chad.” She’d never admitted it in words but… She thought back, desperate to remember exactly what had been said that day. Was the fight itself enough to tell Harris—and everyone else who’d overheard—how she felt?
“Maybe not in so many words that day, but you did discuss it with Doc Brewer at your last assessment, didn’t you?”
“Those files are private.” Her eyes widened at his implication. “Harris read them?”
He nodded. “We just discovered someone accessed them last month. We can only assume it was Harris.”
“You’ve read them too,” she whispered.
“I’m in charge of the unit, Lauren. I read everyone’s reports. But I didn’t need a report to tell me you still had strong feelings for Chad.” He chuckled darkly. “Luckily for you, the way you insisted on not being stationed back here in the States led everyone else to assume it was out of hatred for Chad, not love.”
“I didn’t want to come back because I wanted to avoid Thalia.” Not to mention avoiding the park where she used to take Emily for walks. The hospital where she was born. The Mall where Chad had proposed on the steps of the Lincoln Monument. The condo they had worked so hard to buy that had later become their prison thanks to the media frenzy after Chad had defied Bureau protocol.
“I didn’t know what Thalia had done until you two had that fight, Lauren,” Cooper said quietly. “If I had, I would have said something sooner.”
“Do you know what she did?” She blew out her breath in a slow stream, forcing her shoulders down.
“I know that she was the one who recommended you to Sir Ian when he was running the Brigade and arranged for you to stay out of the country. And I know she hired the solicitor in London so it would look to Chad as if you were seeking the divorce, not him.” He tilted his head as he observed her. “Am I right in assuming she’s the one who recommended you stay at Tranquil Pastures?”
“Yes. Damn it, I should have flown back here and talked to him face-to-face instead of believing her or that damned lawyer. I had no idea she hated me that much.”
“It’s not that she hated you, it’s that she loves her brother over everything else. And why wouldn’t you believe her? What reason would you have had to suspect she was lying when she told you Chad was with someone else, that they were living together?”
Not to mention how he’d never replied to any of the letters she’d sent him that first year or the ones from Dr. Maudsley either. Had Thalia found some way to prevent Chad from getting them? Did it matter anymore?
She closed her eyes in an effort to calm the maelstrom raging inside. At her anger at Thalia for interfering. Her disgust at not discovering the deception for all these years burned with glowing embers of long-simmering resentment. Her rage against Harris burned brightly, its flames licking hungrily at her patience
“Maybe she wasn’t lying. Maybe she just saw the inevitable. We were already in counseling. Neither of us handled Emily’s death well. With Chad facing the inquiry and all that press…he was better off without having me distracting him.” She settled back in her seat.
She’d mourned the loss of her marriage as much as she’d mourned her daughter.
“So you’re not interested in resolving any issues between you and Chad? Seeing if there’s still a chance of having a relationship with him?”
God, don’t give her hope. It would only be torn from her the way it had been before. She couldn’t take losing Chad again. “Just how would we do that after all this time?”
Cooper laid out his plans quickly and succinctly, hope rising in her soul with each step he revealed. The hopes mingled with the thought that he was crazy. Or brilliant. Maybe both. His plan would keep her safe, as well as Chad. Plus, it would let her finally see Chad again, to find out if he hated her for being so weak that she’d walked away when he’d needed her most. No, not walked. She’d run away with her tail tucked between her legs. Cooper was right—she needed to see Chad face-to-face one last time. If for no other reason, to apologize. And explain.
Icy fingers of fear doused the flames. What if Cooper’s plan didn’t work?