The bullet hit with enough force to make me stumble back. I glanced down at the spreading red stain on my chest, utterly dismayed.
A hail of bullets had me ducking behind the door of the shack. So much for escaping through the front door.
“They’re advancing!” someone yelled, and a thrill of fear went through me.
I checked my ammo. Only one magazine left. Damn it. This had gone from bad to worse pretty darn quick. Time was running out. And it hurt to breathe.
There was a shout from outside. More bullets. But not directed at my team, holed up inside the musty shack. I heard a yell and dared to peek outside. The attackers were falling, cut down with deadly accuracy by someone I couldn’t see.
It happened so fast, then there was silence. Tentatively, I stepped outside and lifted my mask.
“Your team sucks.”
Clark was leaning casually against the wall, not a mark on him.
I tossed my paint gun down in exasperation. “It’s not my fault. Yari had an asthma attack. Cindy tripped and sprained her ankle. Bint had a text from work and had to remote in from his phone.”
“What about Georgie?”
I sighed. “He tried to bravely sacrifice himself so we could escape.”
“And they got him in the crotch.”
Clark grimaced in sympathy. “Man, those accountants play hardball. No pun intended.”
That got a snort of laughter from me. “Yeah, and now we owe them a pizza-and-beer Friday lunch.”
“But you won.”
“We cheated,” I said, poking him in the chest. “You’re not an official team member.”
“Playing by the rules isn’t one of my strengths.”
“China,” a voice interrupted, and I looked around to see Yari helping Cindy hobble from the shack. “We’re calling it a day. You in for dinner?”
That’s me. China Mackenzie followed by a last name fifteen letters long and mangled by all who tried to pronounce it. So everyone knew me as just China Mack, or simplified even further, China.
“Sorry. I have plans tonight.”
Yari and Cindy both stared.
“But we always go to Cracker Barrel after,” Cindy said.
She was right. My small squad of fellow gamers and bad paintballers always stopped by the local Cracker Barrel for dinner after paintball. Not only did they serve pancakes for dinner, but they didn’t bat an eye at our paint-splattered camo gear. But I’d promised Bonnie that I would be her guinea pig tonight for a new dish she was trying. Never ceasing in her attempts to graduate from culinary school, she was determined to master the technique of something called sous vide.
My friends knew how set in my ways I was, so my deviation from a tradition that wouldn’t make a “normal” person bat an eye had them looking at me as though I’d just announced plans to give up my IT consultant career in favor of yodeling for a living.
I shrugged. “Trying to, you know, be more flexible.”
“More?” Yari said. “I’ve never known you to be flexible at all.”
“Hey,” I protested, “you’re one to talk.” Yari’s consternation at unannounced visitors was legendary. You had to make an appointment to stop by his apartment. Literally.
That shut them up and they all muttered their goodbyes, grumbling as they left about how they shouldn’t have done this in the spring with the pollen count so high. After a few moments, Clark and I were alone.
“You didn’t have to do that, you know,” I said, turning to him. “We would’ve made it out.”
He raised a dark eyebrow. “Yeah, but not without being covered in paint and bruises.”
His dry assessment made me grimace, though he wasn’t wrong. But I was distracted when he pushed his fingers through his hair. His very black, very soft hair that fell over his forehead just so. Eyes the color of the Blue Screen of Death studied me beneath winged eyebrows that arched just enough to make you wonder if his Supermanesque looks were at odds with a wicked streak.
In short, he was gorgeous and someone I—a five-foot-two, average girl who wore glasses and whose greatest hairstyling achievement was a ponytail—would never have dared to speak to just six months ago. But things change. Clark had gone from enemy, to employee, to friend, to . . . something else. I wasn’t sure what to name that something else, though I’d broken up with Jackson Cooper—my erstwhile fiancé—to see if Clark and I could be that something else that would turn into something more.
But making the decision and then having the courage to act on it were two entirely different things. Guilt ate at me from breaking up with Jackson. It paralyzed me in my relationship with Clark, whose penetrating gaze saw too much, and I glanced away.
“I should say thank you,” I said, trying to cover up the sudden awkwardness I felt. “It’s the socially accepted protocol.”
“Well, we must always do what’s socially acceptable, mustn’t we.” His voice had an edge to it that I didn’t understand, but when I looked back at him, he was gathering my gear. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. “Before the accountants recover.”
Having a man to carry my stuff was still relatively new to me. I’d been mostly friendless and absolutely boyfriendless before Jackson and Clark had come along. Speeding through high school and graduating college, then MIT for grad school by the time you were nineteen, had a negative effect on developing social skills. While other people my age had been shopping for prom dresses, I’d been building my own computer.
I led the way out of the place, stopping to discard my paint gun and splattered armor. I’d ridden here with Cindy, so I followed Clark to his car. He stowed my gear in the trunk while I climbed into the passenger seat.
I was a car aficionado—something I’d picked up in an effort to have a subject in common with my older brothers, Bill and Oslo—so I could appreciate a nice set of wheels. Clark’s didn’t disappoint. A fully loaded Porsche Cayenne in steel gray, which suited him. Sleek, fast, and decadent. And yes, I was still talking about the car and not Clark. I think. Maybe.
“So you’re at Bonnie’s tonight?” he asked, distracting me from my mental comparison, which had morphed into “riding” euphemisms.
I adjusted my ponytail, a nervous tic I couldn’t break. “Yeah,” I answered absently, mentally switching gears to what cut of meat Bonnie would be massacring tonight. “Though I’ll probably need to grab a Big Mac afterward.”
Clark chuckled, a low, throaty sound that made butterflies swirl in my stomach. Reaching over, he slotted his fingers through mine. His palm was rough and his fingers were calloused. I had the wayward fantasy of what those hands would feel like touching me . . .
“Yeah, what?” I asked, startled from my fantasy.
“I said your name twice,” Clark said, shooting me a glance. “Where were you?”
My cheeks flooded with heat and I hurriedly looked away. “Just thinking about work.”
“Damn. I was hoping you were thinking about sex.”
My gaze shot back to him, and I nervously pushed my glasses up my nose. If I was bad at social skills, I was downright miserable at witty repartee, so a comeback was beyond me, not to mention any kind of sexual innuendo. Though judging by the glint in Clark’s eyes, he wasn’t expecting me to say something so much as do something.
The problem was, we hadn’t had sex yet.
I mean, yes, we’d kissed and cuddled on the couch, and I’d been all hot and bothered, but something was holding me back. I just didn’t know what it was. So I’d kept Clark at arm’s length the past few weeks, at least, physically. We’d gone on dates and I’d made him watch the entire first season of Star Trek: The Original Series, which honestly hadn’t done me any favors. The women’s dresses were so skimpy and short on that show that he’d teased me mercilessly until I’d put on my Uhura dress to model for him.
As if sensing my discomfort, Clark’s wicked grin faded. “What’s going on, China?”
I pretended to misunderstand. “About what?”
“Every time I try to get close to you, you push me away.”
I looked out the windshield so I didn’t have to meet the accusation in his eyes.
“Why?” he asked. “I thought you decided to give us a shot.”
“I am,” I protested. “We’ve been spending a lot of time together.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it.” There was a bitterness in his voice that made me swallow hard.
The sun came out from behind the clouds, and I winced at the sudden glare. Clark let go of my hand and slid on his sunglasses. He didn’t take my hand again.
We didn’t speak for the rest of the ride home, which was incredibly uncomfortable, and that’s coming from someone for whom a lack of conversation was usually a relief.
Clark grabbed my stuff from the trunk and walked me to my door. I unlocked it and stood hesitantly in the doorway.
“Do you want to come in?” I asked. “I don’t have to be at Bonnie’s for another hour.”
“Are you going to talk to me?”
I blinked. “I’m talking to you right now.”
He snatched his sunglasses off, and the look on his face instinctively made me take a step back.
Clark could turn on the nice-guy, take-me-home-to-meet-your-mama persona in a blink, but it was just that—a persona. In reality, the life he’d led had carved him into steel and stone, clothed in cynicism and suspicion. Those with any sense took one look at him and quickly looked away, unnerved by the innate menace that oozed from his pores. He was dangerous and he didn’t bother hiding it.
“Stop deliberately misunderstanding,” he snapped. “You’ve put us on hold and refuse to tell me why.” He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was softer. “I took a chance on you. I haven’t tried to have an actual relationship in years. You’re keeping me at arm’s length with no explanation.”
“I-I don’t know what to tell you,” I stammered.
He slid his sunglasses back on. “If you figure it out, call me.”
Before I could think of anything else to say, he was gone.
Bonnie’s dinner was as bad as I thought it’d be, not that it mattered. I wasn’t particularly hungry anyway. Which was a good thing, considering that her dream to become a chef was about as likely as her discovering dark matter. Grams would’ve followed that up with a Bless her heart. But I still showed up weekly, like clockwork, to try out her latest experiments.
“All right, what’s wrong?” she finally asked. I’d been half listening to her rattle on about her latest troubles in her pastry class and how she’d repeatedly asked for additional assistance because the teacher was “smokin’ hot.”
“What do you mean?”
She rested her chin in her hand and her elbow on the table. “You’ve hardly spoken since you got here, and the only thing you’ve eaten is the polenta.”
“It was really good,” I said. I always tried to compliment at least one of the dishes she served me.
“Whatever.” She dismissed my comment with a wave of her hand. “You’re having boyfriend trouble. I can tell.” She narrowed her eyes. “Is Clark being an ass?”
Clark wasn’t her favorite person, not least because his and my relationship had started out so rocky. Then again, pretending to be interested in me as a cover—Clark’s intro into the Life of China—hadn’t endeared him to me either. (At least, not for a while.) But she’d given him her reluctant blessing when I told her I’d broken off my engagement with Jackson because I thought I might be falling for Clark.
“No, no,” I hurriedly replied. “He’s been great. It’s just . . . We had an argument today. He says I’m holding back from him.”
She frowned. “Holding back how? Like feelings and stuff? He knows you’re not someone who can just spill her guts.”
“No, I mean maybe that’s part of it. But sex, too.” I was embarrassed to be talking about sex with Bonnie, but who else was I going to talk to about it? Grams? She’d probably give me advice and tips and step-by-step how-tos, which would lead to mental images I’d never be able to unsee.
Bonnie leaned closer across the table, her eyes like saucers. “Oh my God, is he bad in bed?”
I rolled my eyes. “You have seen him, right?”
She shrugged. “It happens. All looks and no game.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know. Yet.”
Bonnie’s mouth gaped. “You mean you haven’t slept together?”
I shook my head.
“Why not?” she asked.
Examining my feelings wasn’t my strong suit, but I tried to put into words what went through my head when Clark began kissing me. “I think it’s guilt,” I said. “I still feel so much guilt for hurting Jackson. And with Clark, it almost feels like I’m cheating, because all I can think about is how I was selfish and hurt an amazing guy who loves me. What if I made the wrong decision? What if Clark and I don’t work out, and I end up regretting breaking up with Jackson? Once we sleep together, there’s really no going back.”
With that last sentence, I felt relieved. Yes, that was what was at the heart of it all. Uncertainty. The looming possibility of regret. It was keeping me frozen in place.
Bonnie mulled this over for a minute, taking another sip of her wine and refilling both our glasses.
“I get it,” she said at last. “Impulsive isn’t your thing. You’re always sure of outcomes when you make choices. But love isn’t a sure thing. And you’re never going to know if you don’t try.”
“But what if I’m wrong?” I couldn’t get past that what-if.
“You can’t go into a relationship with one eye on what you’re going to do if it doesn’t work out,” she said. “You have to be all-in. And if it doesn’t work out . . . Yeah, it totally sucks. But there’s always a chance that it will work out.”
It was common sense, but hearing words of wisdom and feeling it inside were two different things.
“And as for Jackson,” she continued, “you have to trust in love at some point. Say you go all-in with Clark and it’s great for six months, then it blows up in your face. You don’t know what Jackson will be feeling, or what you’ll be feeling. Relationships aren’t black-and-white. If you and Jackson are meant to be, then it’ll happen.”
Trusting in ephemeral things like fate and love was as unthinkable to me as wearing my summer Endor Star Wars pajamas in the dead of winter.
“I mean, after what Clark did, I think he really cares about you, China.”
What she was talking about was when he demanded that medics take blood from him to put in me as they were taking us both to the hospital via medevac helicopters. Injured himself, he couldn’t really afford to lose the blood either, but since I was much smaller and had lost more, the medics had made a decision. Helped along quite a bit by Clark’s threats of bodily harm to them if they didn’t do as he said. This, I’d been told afterward by one of them as he’d come to check my status.
Of course, we’d both nearly died that night at the hands of his brother, once thought dead, but who’d been released from captivity by the Libyan regime. Tortured for years, he’d lost his grip on reality and had been consumed with the desire for revenge. Unluckily for me, one of those torture methods he’d learned had been nicking the carotid and letting someone almost bleed to death. You could do that to someone again and again, never quite letting them die each time.
Once had been enough for me. And Jackson had ended up saving both Clark and me that horrible night. I’d repaid him by breaking his heart.
Guilt clawed at me again. “Jackson’s never going to forgive me,” I said glumly.
“Do you need him to?”
I shrugged. “Selfishly, I’d feel better. But I know it’s not going to happen.”
“How about if you forgive yourself,” she said, reaching across the table and taking my hand in a strong grip. “You did what you needed to do. Sometimes people get hurt. It doesn’t mean the time you had together wasn’t worth the pain in the end.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Now you sound like that Garth Brooks song.”
“I love that song!” Bonnie started singing as she rose and picked up our plates.
She was off-key and definitely tone-deaf, but it still made me smile.
I was still smiling when I drove back home, even humming the tune as I unlocked my door. Bonnie was right and she gave good advice. I was thinking too hard about all this, and maybe—just maybe—being too hard on myself.
It was dark inside and I felt a pang at the emptiness. Mia, my niece, still lived with me, but she was gone for the next two weeks on vacation with a friend who’d invited her to her family’s beach house in Florida. School had gotten out early this year due to a lack of snow days to make up, and she’d left two days ago. I already missed her cheerful presence, even if she did have a propensity for not putting the dishes in the dishwasher correctly.
The glow of my fish tank beckoned, and I wandered over. The Doctor—by now his eleventh incarnation—swam lazily in the blue depths. I’d gotten him because supposedly it was relaxing to watch fish swim. In reality, it was just more stressful because invariably I forgot to feed him or I overfed him, resulting in too many floating goldfish I’d had to dispose of. The thought of what I’d do—or forget to do—if I had an actual kid made me shudder.
The hair suddenly prickled on the back of my neck, and I froze. It felt as though I wasn’t the only person in the room. As if I was being watched.
I broke out in a cold sweat, remembering all too well when Clark’s brother had ambushed me and my dad in the dead of night. Dad had lost his life protecting me, a scene that still played out in my nightmares.
A lamp flipped on, and I screamed, nearly jumping out of my skin as I spun around. My terror morphed into shock, then anger.
Kade Dennon was sitting in an armchair, one ankle resting on the opposite knee, and he looked utterly at ease, despite my scream.
“Do you always have to make an entrance?” I snapped, my pulse still racing. My knees were about to buckle, so I made it to the couch before collapsing. “You scared me to death.”
“A hyperbole? Coming from Ms. Literal?”
I shot him a look. “An often-used hyperbole to express extreme terror. What do you want?” Because no way was he here just to say hello.
Kade Dennon was some kind of special assistant/BFF to President Blane Kirk. He’d taken over Vigilance—the government’s very own supersecret spy software that tracked users online and in meatspace—after the assassination attempt on Kirk, and we’d struck up a tenuous working relationship. Whereas you knew instinctively that Clark could and probably had killed people, with Kade, you knew he had and didn’t lose any sleep over it. Their looks were remarkably similar, though Kade was a good decade or so older than Clark.
Now he had the gall to look hurt. “Can’t I just be checking up on you? My favorite five-foot hacker?”
“I’m five two.” Even my driver’s license said so.
A ghost of a smile. “Of course you are.”
“I’m fine. Just peachy. So you can go now. Lock the door on your way out.” Though obviously locks weren’t a deterrent to unwanted government visitors.
His slight smile faded. “I’m here with information.”
Kade’s “information” had never done anything but put me in mortal danger, so it was with a heavy sense of trepidation that I asked, “What kind of information?”
“It’s about Mark Danvers. Daddy Dearest.”
The name was the equivalent of a stun gun. I felt like I had been suddenly submerged in subzero water. Everything inside me seized up—muscles, lungs, brain.
“My dad is dead,” I said in a voice I barely recognized as my own. “He was shot to death in his own home.”
“Yeah, I’m no psychiatrist, but you might want to see someone about that.” Kade’s feet dropped to the floor, and he leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Whatever you want to call him—sperm donor, whatever.”
“Why should I care?”
“Wanted to give you the heads-up,” he said. Leaning back casually in the chair, he shrugged. “We think he’s back in the country. Given his reputation and skills, you should keep an eye out.”
“An eye out for what?” I asked.
Kade looked at me. “This guy has been around a long time in a profession with a life expectancy a decade less than most third-world countries. Ever wonder how he managed that?”
I shrugged. “Not really.”
“The guy is a shadow. You won’t see him when he’s coming, and you won’t have any warning. He’s got the instincts and training of a professional killer. And he’s extremely good at staying alive.”
I frowned. “Why are you telling me this? Do you know something I don’t?”
“That list is long,” he quipped, “but in this instance, I know something very important that you don’t.”
I waited, barely breathing.
“Such as . . . Mark Danvers is the man who murdered your mother.”
Kade had explained what he knew—that Danvers and my mom hadn’t been in touch after they’d met in China. That he had no knowledge that she’d gotten pregnant with me. And although my mom had worked as a sleeper agent for the CIA for years, for some unknown reason, the agency had decided to terminate her a few years later.
“Why would they do that?” I asked. “The CIA isn’t some third-world mafia you can’t ever leave. She was a sleeper agent.”
“I don’t know,” Kade replied. “What I do know is they instructed Danvers to do the job, and he reported it as complete after the car accident.”
The car accident that hadn’t been a car accident.
Now I stared up at the ceiling of my bedroom, blankets tucked up precisely just so under my arms. I’d managed to choke down my two Fig Newtons before bed tonight, even though I didn’t really want them. Routine was comforting. Usually. Not tonight though.
Unable to sleep, I dug in my bedside drawer for the letter Grams had given to me. A letter my mom had written just before she died.
My dearest China,
I know this must come as a shock to you, after all this time. The first thing I want you to know is that your dad—the man you know as your father and who raised you—is a good, good man. He loved me far more than I deserved. I was lucky indeed to have met him, and I didn’t regret a day we spent together, or the two wonderful boys we had.
I didn’t—until I met Mark.
He was everything I’d ever dreamed of. Dashing and charming. Exciting and dangerous. We instantly made a connection. The job we were doing was dangerous, which probably contributed to the intensity of our feelings. It was then that I regretted choosing security over a dream.
You were the product of our love, Mark’s and mine. I would have done almost anything to be with him—anything except leave your brothers without a mother, and break your dad’s heart.
I told no one but Grams what had happened, though of course your dad figured things out. He was never a stupid man. He should have divorced me, but God love his soul, he loved me too much. I wish I could have loved him as much as he loved me.
I think that there may be people who would like to use you for their own ends, my dear. Mark had many enemies within the CIA and other agencies. I’ve been worried, lately, that I may have been discovered here, in the backwoods country of Nebraska. Which is why I’m writing you this letter. Just in case I’m not around to tell you all of this. I hope I am, but the future is never guaranteed. I hope I’ve hidden you and your true parentage well enough.
Please take care, dear China, and know that while your biology may have been a falsehood, the love of those closest to you has always been true.
All my love,
My mother had been murdered. It hadn’t been my fault she’d died in that car wreck.
The idea was difficult to wrap my head around. I’d harbored guilt for being the only survivor that night all my life. My mother had been everything good in my world. And in a horrifying instant, my life had changed forever.
And to think the man she’d been so madly in love with—my biological father—had killed her . . . it was too much to process.
Love. Bonnie said I should trust in love. My mother had loved Mark, and he’d betrayed her. I’d loved her more than anything, and she’d died. Jackson said he loved me, but he couldn’t forgive me for ending us, which I thought was something you did when you loved someone.
Love opened you up to being hurt. It was akin to not only someone pointing a loaded gun at you, but handing it to them, too. You just had no idea how long you’d have until they pulled the trigger.
Clark and I had something, there was no denying that. I liked him and cared about him. But there was a thick wall between us that had Jackson written all over it.
I glanced at my phone for the fiftieth time in the past thirty minutes. I hadn’t heard from Clark all evening. He usually texted to at least say good night, no matter where he was, and he’d been in a few different time zones the past several weeks. But tonight . . . nothing.
It made me ache inside. The wall said Jackson, but the hurt inside my chest was all Clark.
I’d been told I was more like a guy than a girl, which sounded rather insulting, but was more a reflection on how I could turn off one side of my brain and completely focus on work. An ability I put to use the next morning. Although Sunday was technically laundry and admin day, I spent a few hours working on a consulting gig I had writing a mobile app. Maybe it was because that meant I didn’t have to think about anything other than the code on the screen.
The growling in my stomach come late afternoon made me realize I’d forgotten to eat lunch. A glance in the fridge showed only a box of leftover Thai, various condiments, Red Bull, and ingredients for Mia’s salads that were slowly decomposing.
My one indulgence to “spontaneity” was going through the drive-through of Freddy’s, a fast-food burger joint that had the best french fries on the planet. Thinking of it gave me a pang, as Jackson had loved Freddy’s, too. Then I had an idea.
Freddy’s wasn’t just up the block, and by the time I went through the drive-through, put everything inside a cooler (I hated when my car wafted with the odor of grease), then drove to Jackson’s neighborhood, twilight was nearing.
I still had the key code to open the imposing gates to Jackson’s upscale neighborhood. Well, upscale was putting it lightly when faced with multimillion-dollar estates with things like personal tennis courts, heated pools, and guesthouses.
As I drove the winding road that meandered through the neighborhood, I started to rethink this oh-so-great idea. Was I just going to show up at Jackson’s house, after not seeing or speaking to him for more than two months, with a bag of Freddy’s and pretend we were buddies?
I approached Jackson’s driveway . . . then kept going. I’d loop around the neighborhood one more time and rethink this plan.
That looping “one more time” became six more times, then seven, as I agonized over what to do. By the time I’d decided to just forget it—because by now I was sure the food was cold, despite being in a cooler—I was on loop ten. I was just passing Jackson’s house for the last time when someone stepped into the street in front of my car.
I slammed on my brakes, my wheels screeching to a stop a mere foot from him. Headlights cut through the gathering shadows to the figure standing in front of me.