Half a year can be a long, long time.
A long time to get used to the fact that money can’t buy you the most important thing in the world—peace of mind. A sense of security. A good night’s sleep.
A long time to get used to not having enough money for what used to be everyday luxuries—that sinfully soft silk dress. Shoes that cost more than the average twenty-something makes in a month—and are still as uncomfortable as they are stunning. Food so rich in flavor that it melts in your mouth in a tiny, delicious orgasm on your tongue.
It is just about long enough to turn new behaviors into habits. Like never staying anywhere longer than a week or two, always on the run, always looking over your shoulder. Falling—and staying—asleep is not something I do anymore, but lying awake, alone with the thoughts and memories that haunt me, is easier with a strong body wrapped around me that provides warmth to seep into me—if only skin deep.
Half a year is by far not long enough to forgive and to forget and to move on—particularly if you have no intention of doing so. Ever.
I thought I wanted to move on. Actually managed to delude myself into believing it—maybe just so that I wouldn’t be lying when I kept telling Adam that I was going to be okay, and that I would never let anyone—least of all the man who haunts me in my every living moment—destroy me. Maybe I even wanted to believe it myself. But that day when Agent Smith tracked us down and offered me a deal that I simply couldn’t refuse, I realized that, deep down, I had been hungering for an excuse to stop running.
Seven weeks had passed since then. Seven. Endless. Weeks. I couldn’t say what I’d expected—I wasn’t stupid enough to believe that any operation of any scope planned by any of the usual three-letter agencies would receive an instant “go” order—but I hadn’t counted on them chasing their own tails for quite so long. This was torture, and as someone who had been tortured in the past, I felt qualified to say that.
But it hadn’t just been seven weeks of me sitting around, twiddling my thumbs. The first thing they’d done was actually help enable me to twiddle my thumbs again by taking care of my mangled right hand. It still ached awfully some days, my grip remained weak, and I’d long since accepted that I would never regain feeling in my pinkie, but the most dramatic changes were cosmetic. The scars were still there—old and new ones alike—but now my hand no longer looked like a prop for some under-budgeted horror flick. Or that’s what I was trying to tell myself as I looked down at what used to be well-manicured fingers that knew exactly how to stroke, brush, and caress, now idly twitching on top of my crossed knees.
Checking the clock displayed on one of the computers in the surveillance van, I couldn’t help but heave a sigh. It came out shaky, speaking of emotion that I tried hard to suppress more so than fear. Agent Smith was busy hammering last minute details into her underlings’ minds, then sent them off. Through the closing door of the van I saw them scurrying into the beat-up old Civic parked next to us. To make it harder for anyone to track us—not that I thought that was necessary. Yet—we had parked a good twenty miles outside the city, and would leave from here via separate routes to arrive at our destination. I still had a good hour before it was my time, but that didn’t help calm me down. On the contrary.
I checked my reflection in the small hand mirror for what felt like the millionth time. That estimation was likely not that far off. I hated what I saw. Three botched dye jobs—two of them deliberately so—had ruined my hair to the point where a good five inches would have to go. I’d tried to re-dye it my natural color over the past weeks but parts were still too light, and the ends held that terrible reddish hue that needed to go. To underline my cover story, I’d hit the tanning bed—the drive-thru, five-bucks-a-pop, insta-cancer version—last week, and blown what was left of my budget on makeup to try to make the best of it. The end result was pretty decent, but “decent” wasn’t anything I had settled for since I hit twenty—and not just in the J-O-B department.
One would think that setting out to tear down one of the most powerful men in Chicago came with a certain budget, but there hadn’t even been enough to invest in decent shapewear.
Not that money really was my concern. Tonight, I would make do. And depending on how that went, tomorrow I’d start playing an entirely different game than what Agent Smith thought we were here to engage in.
Closing the mirror with an audible snap, I glared at the clock again. My gaze flitted over to Adam, finding him frowning back at me, worry heavy in every line of his face. I could tell that he wanted to apologize; he had done so at least daily over the course of the past weeks. Why, I still didn’t understand—it wasn’t his fault that I was sitting here, now. In fact, without him, I would likely not be living any longer. That I’d struck the deal that would grant him immunity to save his ass was a detail, but far from my main motivation. I owed him—always would, really—but that alone hadn’t been enough to sway my “fuck you!” attitude toward his CIA-now-turned-Homeland-Security handler.
What had was a can of worms I’d not dared to touch, let alone open, so far.
As always at this point in our silent conversation, I averted my gaze and instead tried to clear my mind, hoping that would slow down my racing heart. Until I’d dressed this afternoon and crawled into the then crowded space in the back of the van, I’d thought that the unnatural calm that had besieged my mind would last, driving me insane on its own. But, no. As soon as my mind had realized that the endless waiting was over, it had jump-started my fight-or-flight response, and I’d felt close to passing out from adrenaline overload ever since.
And now, with only fifty-eight minutes to go—
“Let’s go over the details again,” Agent Smith barked at me, her fierce glare holding me captive. I couldn’t help but admire her dedication, even if I still didn’t like the woman one last bit.
Like the trooper that I was, I repeated back her instructions. Check in with our undercover people in catering—who had left an hour ago, just after I sneaked in via the side entrance—very glamorous. Make sure to stay in the public areas of the hotel at all times, mingling with the guests but be only where they could easily cover me. Make eye contact with the mark, but stay at the fringe at all times. Leave as soon as that was accomplished. Just the good ol’ in-and-out, in the least sexually loaded way possible.
Suffice it to say, I had no intention whatsoever of following that plan.
Twice more she made me repeat her instructions back to her, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t fooling her for a second. But really, she had no choice but to trust me, and I could see how that rankled. Sure, it was her best bet—after all, she had tracked Adam and me down against all odds, had managed to ensure our cooperation, and except for the occasional barb, neither of us had protested—but sometimes that wasn’t much better than not having anything to work with.
Finally, the passive waiting phase was over, and when Michaels gave me a curt nod from where he’d just slid open the van door, I mentally gathered myself and physically hugged my coat closer to my body.
“It’s time,” Adam said, his voice husky, pressed.
Looking up, I gave him a small, private smile as I reached for his hand—with my left, always my left—and squeezed his fingers for a moment.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” I promised, knowing only too well that neither of us believed that lie. But it was all I could give him, and it had to be enough.
Michaels held the door of the dark limousine for me, not making a move to actually help me inside. That was what I loved about him—always to the point, never a single motion that was too much. We’d barely exchanged ten sentences since he’d handcuffed Adam in front of the entire audience of the diner where they’d accosted us, and I had absolutely no idea what agency he was working for, or whether he had family and loved ones waiting for him while he played chauffeur for me. I was sure that he’d do his best to preserve me—his asset—to the best of his abilities, but he wouldn’t take a bullet for me. In short, he was an impersonal dick who couldn’t be rid of me a second too soon but refrained from outright rubbing that in my face. Just the way I liked it.
He would have made a phenomenal client.
I settled into the back seat of the car and watched the scenery change as we drove toward the city. Not into the city, sadly—I would have given a lot to see the soaring spires of the skyscrapers, cross the Chicago River again, stroll through Millennium Park—but close enough. And, come tomorrow, I would take back what was mine.
I waited until about ten minutes into the drive before I rearranged my crossed legs so I could slide my fingers up the side of my right thigh, below the tight dress, and to the top of my thigh-highs. The entire mission should have made me feel like a bona fide spy, but it was hiding this single piece of contraband that did the trick. A simple cell phone, crappy plastic wrapped around a pre-paid SIM card, terribly outdated and clashing with every single item of my outfit. And still, it was this little piece of equipment that got my mind racing as I typed a quick text and hit “send,” then stowed it back in its previous hiding place, Michaels hopefully none the wiser of what I’d just done.
And then we drove by the grand, sweeping entrance of the hotel where already a line of limousines and expensive sports cars was idling at the curb, waiting for the fleet of valets to help the very important persons embark and stow the millions of dollars on four wheels away for the time being. We pulled up to the much less frequented and far simpler side entrance, where Michaels stopped just long enough to let me shimmy out and slam the door shut behind me before he took off.
Not bothering with a look around, I hurried into the building, then traversed the maze of back hallways that facilitated the smooth, seemingly effortless, grand goings-on at the front, following the mental map Adam had prepared for me. Static crackling in my earpiece reminded me that I was not as on my own as the paranoid part of my brain was screaming at me. On the way to the other side of the building, I ducked into a maintenance closet where I ditched my coat, then continued on my trek.
A last corner, and I found myself in a much more lavishly carpeted hallway than the corridor by the kitchens that I’d just come out of, with only the restrooms branching off ahead of me, and beyond, the great ballroom. Exhaling slowly, I took a first step, then another, feeling jitters start in my legs and quickly pick up along my spine.
I could do this, I knew that; I had spent ample hours preparing myself for this—that, and what amounted to at least a week of private sessions with a psychologist who thought her mission was to prime me to conquer my trauma head-on. She had been so quick to diagnose me with PTSD and dismiss the few mistakes I made in our initial interview for stress-related responses. What could I say? After half a year of not reading people and pandering to their every expectation, I’d been a little rusty. It had still been easy enough to convince her of the fact that I was a hapless victim, my spirit broken just like the bones of my right hand had been. In the end, she’d been hard-pressed to give me the clearing Agent Smith so adamantly required; why anyone cared whether I was a mental wreck or not was beyond me, but playing her had been good practice. Playing them both, really, although I doubted that my ploy had worked on Adam’s former handler.
“Could” was not the issue. “Would” was more like it, as every step that carried me closer to my destination proved. My conviction was still strong, burning like a beacon in my heart, churning the acid in my stomach, but my mind wasn’t so far gone yet that fear wasn’t choking me, apprehension so strong that it was nearly impossible to go on. So I did what any woman in my situation would have done—I fled into the bathroom and locked myself in the last stall, blissfully unoccupied at the time. And there I sat, knees spread, head between them, trying to breathe away the panic that had been my constant companion for seven months and three weeks. I could have supplied the exact number of days, too. Hours, really, but even I knew that this kind of obsessive behavior would not let me follow through with my plan.
Static sparked in my ear, followed by the cold, grating voice of my favorite agent. “Why aren’t you in position yet?”
True enough, the nine minutes should have been plenty of time to walk through the short connective hallway where my handlers were supposed to be waiting for me, pretending to be waiters and likely tipping everyone off who had ever donned a white jacket for work. Even if they started looking for me now, they wouldn’t find me before I’d accomplished what I’d come here for. Or so I thought. Provided they weren’t tracking me.
Standing up, I fished the earpiece out and dropped it into the toilet, quickly followed by the wire Agent Smith had plastered to my left tit and ribs, and, on second thought, I also tossed the other crappy pre-paid phone I’d been carrying in my purse. Flushing them all felt childish, but also oddly vindicating.
Stepping out of the stall, I calmly walked over to the sinks, washed my hands, and applied another layer of lipstick, careful not to smudge the perfectly drawn edges. The woman staring back at me in the mirror was unrecognizable, but she certainly meant business.
I was just about to put away my lipstick when another of the stall doors opened and spilled out a woman—a shock in the ladies’ restroom, I know. I was already mentally dismissing her, but as she turned on the sink next to me, my gaze was inadvertently drawn to her left hand—and the white-gold band on her ring finger.
I knew that ring. Intimately. I wore one—exactly the same, I was sure—on my right hand, on the one finger that was crooked now and looked almost untouched by plastic surgery. Like the veterinarian who had initially splintered my hand, the doctors had insisted on removing the ring and straightening the crookedly healed joints. Just the same, I had vetoed them, and it had taken me threatening to walk out on Agent Smith to let me have my way. She, at least, had seen my point—he’d made damn sure that I would never be able to slip the ring off. Having my finger straightened would send a message—a message I hadn’t been ready to send. Not yet.
I told myself that if not for my addled thoughts and racing heart, I should have recognized the woman—girl, really—at first sight, but I had been too caught up in congratulating myself on my first step to regaining my freedom, so I had ignored her. Even now, with my mind screaming at me to stop staring and get my shit together, it was hard to force my thoughts along the lines they belonged. I likely ended up staring way too long, but then she looked rather busy working up a good lather. She would—as a nursing student, it made sense that hygiene wasn’t just a token thing for her. And her profession was only one of way too many things I knew about her—and so many more that I suspected, haunting my every waking second when I tossed and turned at night.
How he was touching her. Smiling at her. Kissing her. Blowing her away with the exact same moves that thirteen other women—among others—had taught him, turning him into the perfect lover. That she had fallen for him was obvious. I’d seen the pictures, and Agent Smith had been diligent with heaping the entire lot of them on me, forcing me to read and memorize every fucking detail. Daliah, her name was. And he was calling her “his little flower” in interviews, different spelling notwithstanding. The cuteness of it was giving me cavities, but the anger rising from the pit of my stomach swept away any disdain of another kind.
She caught me staring—I was sure that I hadn’t been that obvious, but maybe my inactivity had given me away—a hesitant smile coming to her face, making her green eyes sparkle.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” she asked, her nose scrunching up in that cute way no woman past her twenties could pull off anymore. Oh, how easy she made it for me to detest her.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, turning away to add another layer of lipstick.
“I’m sure I’ve seen your face somewhere,” she insisted as she cocked her head to the side. “Are you an actress? On a commercial maybe?”
For a second, I glared at my own reflection, wondering what about my “frumpy chic” style could have led her to that assumption—and then wondered if she’d just turned it into a slap in the face. Commercial, really? I was the first to admit that I was a very long shot from Hollywood standards still—even having lost some of my curves, all the wrong ones, of course—but that sounded kind of insulting.
It was all the easier to make my smile that very special blend of condescending and open that I’d perfected years ago.
“Oh, no, I work in human relations.”
My tone had been a little too sharp, making her eyes widen just a fraction, but her cute smile took the hint of annoyance out of her gaze. For just a moment I wondered if there was more to her, but discarded the thought immediately. Sure, she was a bright little cookie—I couldn’t fathom how he’d stand someone truly insipid for just a day, let alone fuck her—but that was all there was to her.
“I hope I haven’t offended you somehow,” she went on, as if my dismissive looking away hadn’t been plain enough. “I’m just still so out of it. Do you ever feel like you’re losing your mind from how happy you are?”
Her words cut into me like a knife, but that only made it easier to continue smiling back at her. If she only knew…
“Let me guess. He proposed? In Paris?”
Her eyes widened further. “How did you—“ And then reality caught up with her, bringing her back down from her high, if onto the same soft cushions she still seemed to float on. “I forgot, you must have read it in the news. This is still all so new to me. That people recognize me, you know?”
I didn’t, but then I had made a point out of never being anywhere in the limelight.
“I wouldn’t know,” I admitted, and added—because I truly was a glutton for punishment—“Congratulations.”
That was about as far as the raging bitch inside of me would let me go. Then I had to turn away and make my exit. There was only so much lying and acting I could do before I would grab her head and smash her pretty face into the marble counter.
“Thank you!” she called after me, because really, Daliah Jones must have been the first, and only, nice woman that the bastard had managed to make fall for him. Exhaling slowly, I ignored her as I reached for the doorknob. The door swung inward before my fingers could close on it, making me sidestep. I found myself face to face with one of the last people I’d expected to meet tonight—but then the moment my eyes met with Nya’s, I chided myself for being so shortsighted.
It only took her a split second to take me in and I knew that her I wouldn’t be able to fool. One of Brigitte’s top earners—really, the only competition I’d had for years—she was flawless, as usual, from her black hair to the healthy glow of her dark skin, her sheath dress included, of course. Why seeing her here threw me off-balance for a moment, I couldn’t say, but it made things easier in many ways. I was sure that, five minutes from now, my former madam would be well-informed of my return. As much as surprising Brigitte had been something I’d been looking forward to, in the end, this would likely further my cause.
I gave Nya the barest of nods—that she returned, just as subtle—and walked around her through the door, not lingering anymore. She was clearly here to work, and it would have been highly unprofessional of me to chat with her—maybe even reveal who and what she was—and while I might be a little rusty, I wasn’t that far off my game. But meeting her here forced me to face again how far off my game I was. Suddenly, those endless seven weeks seemed rushed, barely enough to prepare myself mentally, let alone physically. But therein lay the crux of my dilemma—until I kicked loose the pebble that might very well become the avalanche that would bury me, I couldn’t access all the means needed to pull off my plan.
And even I could admit that my moment of hesitation was borne of fear and apprehension, not necessarily a real need to prepare better.
Staying close to the walls, I exited the hallway and ducked around the corner and into the great ballroom where the event was held. I couldn’t even remember what it was about—some fundraiser or other, I was sure. Something I knew he’d attend—and Little Miss Daliah’s presence confirmed that. I grabbed a champagne flute from a waiter’s tray and downed it, forcing my mind to quit fretting.
The task ahead of me was easy, really, if not quite what Agent Smith had had in mind. It would only take me a few minutes, five at tops. I likely wouldn’t even have to talk much. So why was my hand shaking around the stem of the flute, my throat dry despite the liquid having just run past it?
Exhaling slowly, I forced my mind to quiet down further. Scanning the people mingling all over the room, I realized that my time for stalling was over. It was only a matter of time until my security detail would find me—after all, what I had chosen to stand out would make me stick out like a sore thumb, too—and I needed to wrap this up before they got a chance to track me down.
A dream in peach skipped by in my peripheral vision, alerting me to the fact that I didn’t even have to track down my objective—I could just follow Daliah’s path through the mostly dark-clad masses. And, true enough, when she was only about halfway through the room, it was easy to extrapolate her path and find the cluster of people she was aiming for.
My breath caught in my throat and I felt myself go cold, quickly averting my gaze.
So this was it. The moment of truth. Agreeing to help Agent Smith accomplish her goal was one thing; actually being able to do so was quite another.
And as I started weaving my way through the mass of people—spine straight, shoulders pushed back, hips swaying lightly—I felt my confidence return. Suddenly, making eye contact with that man who was eyeing me wasn’t hard anymore. On the contrary, it gave me a little boost. The irritation in that woman’s eyes was a compliment, not a reason to fidget self-consciously. With every step I took, I felt a little more of my former self return, shaking off months of hiding and pretending.
Ray Moss was the first who noticed me, but then he would. He hadn’t changed at all—but then why should he have? Still the same slightly sleazy smile and superficial demeanor that hid what I gathered was a bright mind that got off on others falling for his pretense. He only looked startled for a second before he beamed that signature grin of his at me that, even months later, still made me want to wash myself repeatedly. But of the people gathered in that cluster, he was the only one I could—maybe—count as my unlikely ally, so it wasn’t hard to give him the smallest, intimate smirk back.
When you’ve been a whore for long enough, you learn that you don’t just sell your body, but also your soul. And he definitely was buying.
His wife Alison was next. Unlike her husband, she hadn’t been busy ogling random women’s tits and asses, but his sudden focused attention drew her interest. Her eyes went wide as she recognized me, followed by a muscle jumping in her temple. Was that irritation I saw in her gaze? But it was gone before I could categorize it, replaced by a typical lawyer look of neutrality.
Daliah I ignored, although I noticed that her eyes briefly flitted to me as well, but then to her I was just the woman she’d just met in the bathroom.
No, it was the tall, handsome man who was currently talking animatedly above her head who drew my focus. He must have missed Alison’s brief non-reaction because he hadn’t turned to fully face me yet, letting me get a good, long look at him in profile.
Unlike his companions, he had changed, but almost bleeding out after being stabbed in the side of the neck would do that to anyone. He looked gaunter, harder somehow, the line of his jaw more pronounced than before.
But after drinking in his features, I felt my mind focus on how he acted around Daliah. That she was only a tool was obvious—she was bait to lure me back to him, or at least out into the open where he could finish what he had started. I knew that he was a good actor—phenomenal even, considering how long he had managed to fool me—but I knew that he had his limits when he wasn’t a hundred percent behind something. I’d exploited that very fact, else I wouldn’t have been here, able to walk toward him, with my heart hammering in my throat. Yet, there was no tension in the lines of his body, and, while somewhat subdued, his smile was a real one, also reaching his eyes. Could it be—actually be—that he had fallen in love with this… this… child?
I was sure that my mind would have come up with a slew of much less favorable designations for the poor girl if given a chance, but just then his head turned and our gazes connected, wiping my mental slate clean. I barely noticed that my body kept walking, my gait still secure, no stumble or hesitation, but I couldn’t exactly claim responsibility for that—although I was insanely glad that I didn’t fall flat on my face.
It wasn’t just me who was affected like that, no. Clearly, my efforts—hampered by my limited budget as they had been—were paying off. Subtlety had never been my thing, and the bright red fuck-me heels and matching lipstick screamed for attention. Besides that, I’d kept my appearance simple; just black, winged eyeliner, and a white dress that left my shoulders and arms bare and hit my thighs midway. It was sleek and screaming sex, but it was still a white dress—and he’d never seen me in white before. It definitely served its purpose.
From one second to the next, the civil mask he wore around—day in, day out—dropped away, letting me see what lurked underneath. I’d become very familiar with that during the last days of our acquaintance, and seeing that same hard, intense look in his eyes gave me the creeps—
And, at the same time, I felt like part of me that had lain dormant, submerged, inactive for all those months since then, finally broke the surface again and drew her first deep, real breath.
Standing before him, seeing him watch me like that, made me feel alive again.
Our connection lasted for only a moment, because I forced myself to break contact as I rocked to a halt in front of the cluster of people. Never minding the sudden positive energy coursing through my veins, the survival-instinct-driven part of me still wanted to run. It took the self-control learned from years of pretending to be someone else to keep me rooted in my spot, smiling at the power couple as if I meant it—because when my eyes flitted to him again, I didn’t need to force myself.
“Alison, Ray, so good to meet you again,” I enthused, then offered only a sidelong glance at the third, very interested party. “Darren.”
Ray was smirking now, while his wife still seemed on the fence about my presence. The girl was confused, but as no one seemed ready to deliver her from her oblivious state, I didn’t see why that should have fallen to me. And Darren… well, Darren continued to devour me with his eyes as if I was the water to his dehydrated self.
“Penelope, what a surprise,” Alison said, a hint of a smile appearing on her face.
“I can imagine,” I agreed with her. “I don’t think anyone here expected to see me again. Ever.” Another glance at Darren wasn’t warranted, but I still added it, just for show. He was still staring back at me, unmoving, not even blinking.
Proving that she was a top-notch lawyer not just because of the money she brought into the business to start with but because she was observant as hell, Alison’s eyes latched onto my right hand that was wrapped around my clutch—both to hide the occasional involuntary spasm and the fact that I needed to sink my fingers into something I could hold on to for dear life.
“What happened to your fingers?”
“Oh, this?” I said, looking down at the scars and crooked bits as if it was nothing. I caught her gaze again, feeling emotion leak out of my face although I tried to keep it there. “You wouldn’t believe the whole story if I told you, trust me.” That part was true. But because I was here for a purpose, I couldn’t leave it at that. “But the short version is, I was in a skiing accident.”
“A skiing accident?” Alison echoed, sounding that perfect bit of concerned that told me that she didn’t buy my bullshit.
“As I said, it’s terribly complicated.” I added a light laugh that choked my soul but sounded moderately convincing. “You know how these things go.” Then I flicked my eyes to Darren again, letting my gaze latch onto the scar that was visible above the collar of his shirt. It had healed well—as had to be expected, if it healed at all—but didn’t have a tampered look to it. Not that I had expected him to hide it, but it still gave me immense satisfaction to see it there. Pitching my tone to a light simper, I caught his gaze again. “I see you’ve recovered well from your, what was it? Rafting accident, right?”
I almost had given up on getting a reaction out of him, but he gave a curt nod, his eyes still aflame. Oh, he really didn’t like me being here, behaving like this. But then I had a very good idea of how and where he wanted me.
“How is life treating you these days?” Ray questioned when no one else said anything, turning the tension between us up several notches. Only a blind man—or woman—would have been oblivious to it. With his action, Ray was giving me the perfect stage. The smile he got for that was real—something I hadn’t thought possible before all the shit hit the fan. That he seemed terribly amused by my mere presence I didn’t mind.
“Good, good. I spent some time on vacation. Lazing around on the beach, basking in the sun, enjoying life…”
The polar opposite of what life had been like for me since I’d last seen these people, but I sounded convincing enough with my simper. Looking back to Darren, I let my lips curve into a teasing smile. “But, you know how it is with us workaholic types. We can only let go for so long. Now that I’m back in the city, I thought I should tell my nearest and dearest about the good news.”
That got me a momentary sarcastic grin from Alison, reminding me of our conversations. She had absolutely no illusions about my job, and that deeply ingrained sense of realism was something I’d always admired about her.
“So it is business rather than pleasure that brings you back?” she asked, letting that grin turn back into a jovial smile.
“I don’t see why there has to be a distinction between the two,” I said, laughing softly. Part of me wanted to glance at Ray, but I respected Alison too much to do that. With Darren, I had fewer reservations there, and the flare of anger in his eyes I got in return was most satisfying.
“Back to the daily grind it is?” Ray asked, stressing “grind” so much that I felt like rolling my eyes at him, but of course I didn’t. Instead I shrugged.
“Actually, I think I’ll switch into upper management. You know how it goes—when you’re young, you don’t mind working yourself until you’re sore and worn out, but once you get as old as I am—“
“You don’t look a day over twenty-five,” Ray replied, snickering. “Or at least parts of you don’t.”
It didn’t go by me unnoticed that a muscle jumped in Alison’s jaw, but the joke was so bad that I didn’t even deign to respond to it. I was also running out of time, and, quite frankly, my nerves were as taut as steel cables; there was only so much they could take before they’d snap—and standing no more than three feet away from Darren was wearing down my defenses quicker than I could rebuild them.
“Well, it was charming to see you all again, but I’m afraid I have places to be. I am positively sure that we will run into each other again, very soon.”
I allowed myself a last look at each of them, my eyes lingering on Darren. He hadn’t said a single word, but then he didn’t need to. The look on his face—in his eyes—spoke volumes, the intensity only increasing when I caught his gaze and held it levelly.
I’d been afraid that this exact look would make me cringe away and want to run scared, but while part of me wanted to curl up in a corner and scream, I found it surprisingly easy to remain strong and confident in front of him. After all, I didn’t need to play the victim here, caught in the headlights. I’d been the one to almost bring him down, equalizing the playing field between us.
And I was the one who got away—and continued to elude him as I turned to go and walked toward the front exit, my spine straight, my shoulders relaxed, feeling his eyes like a white-hot laser beam boring into the back of my skull.
Halfway across the room, I felt my nerves snap like that thick steel cable under too much tension, making it hard not to stumble and fall down onto my knees. But I forced myself to keep walking, not to betray an ounce of my distress in the lines of my body. It was impossible to maintain a pleasant smile so I let my features even out, not giving a shit about the cold, hard mask that my face turned into. I knew exactly how I looked—it was that very face that stared back at me every time I glanced into a mirror. Eyes hard but lifeless; lips pressed together, not a hint of an alluring curve left. Fifteen years of my life I had devoted to always cultivating an open, approachable look, and a week in Darren’s basement had been enough to destroy all my efforts for good.
Six months I’d spent running, but the time for hiding was over.
The bitch is back, baby, and she has come to bring you down.