The insistent pounding on my hotel room door was loud enough that it easily broke through the din of the hairdryer, which I turned off with a frown. A glance at my watch confirmed it was way too early for someone to be looking for me. I sighed and set the hairdryer on the bathroom counter as I moved to answer the summons.
“Coming,” my sister Rory called and flashed me a gleeful grin as she breezed by the bathroom and reached for the door. She was already decked out in her running gear, a dark-blue United States Secret Service baseball cap on her head, her perfectly coiffed mane of blond hair tamed into a ponytail sticking out the back. It was a good thing at least one of us was a morning person. My answer to that beckoning would definitely have been less chipper.
Rory opened the door and turned the full force of her cheerful—if not slightly bewildered—smile on the man lurking in the hallway.
Marcus Cressap, tall and lanky with jet-black hair and big, brown eyes, blinked at my sister from behind his rimless glasses and flinched. He fidgeted a bit, fiddling with the zipper on his lightweight windbreaker, and chewed on his lower lip. He appeared wan in the unflattering light of the hotel hallway, and that was saying something, considering he was probably the palest person I’d ever met. And if I’m the one throwing that term around, you know it’s true. I’m not exactly infused with color myself.
“Hey, Ryan,” Marcus said, almost shyly. He ducked his head and peered at Rory from underneath his thick, dark eyelashes.
“It’s Rory, actually.” My sister stuck out a hand in greeting.
Marcus blinked at her, obviously lost. I debated leaving him to puzzle the situation out on his own, but that might take a while, which’d prolong his presence in my doorway. Best to help him along, so I could get back to my morning routine. I did have places to be and things to do.
I stepped out of the bathroom and into the cramped little hotel-room hallway behind my sister and watched, thoroughly amused, as Marcus’s eyes darted back and forth between the two of us. I could see him mentally connecting the dots.
“Yup. I see you’ve met my sister, Rory.”
“Uh. Yeah.” He blinked again, his eyes continuing to flicker back and forth. “I didn’t know you had a twin.”
“I try to keep that quiet. Black sheep of the family and all that.”
Rory’s only reply was a sharp elbow to my ribs.
“So, what can we do for you, Marcus?”
His cheeks flushed, and he dropped his eyes. His body language screamed that he wasn’t looking forward to answering my question.
I barely managed to rein in my eye roll and sigh of exasperation. He didn’t need to say anything. In that moment, as I took in how uncomfortable he was, I knew why he was there. The rest of the group—an interesting conglomeration of agents out of the New York Field Office—was ready to go and wanted me to hurry the hell up. They’d sent poor Marcus because he had a huge crush on me—a fact everyone in the entire office knew about—and they were banking that I wouldn’t tear his head off when he came to rush me along. They were right about one thing at least. If any of the rest of them had been on the other side of that door, my reaction would’ve been considerably more caustic than the “Tell them I’ll be right down” I mumbled at Marcus just now.
Marcus nodded once and smiled, that faint blush still coloring his cheeks as he shoved his hands into his pockets and ambled away. I shut the door to my suite with deliberate gentleness and allowed my eyes free rein to express their frustration as soon as my sister and I were alone. Rory chuckled and moved back into the heart of the room to fetch her iPod. I wrinkled my nose in disgust and went back to the bathroom to pull my still-damp hair into a ponytail and brush my teeth. What a way to start a morning.
When we finally appeared downstairs, all of the guys were standing in the parking lot next to their cars, practically vibrating with barely contained energy. It didn’t appear to be your garden-variety anxiety over being late—which we weren’t. Nor was it as simple as the desire to get on the road. No, they were up to something. The question was what?
“Hey, guys,” I called to the group as we approached, taking in their postures and their facial expressions as I tried to divine what was going on. Some of them appeared uneasy, others secretive, still others almost smug. What the hell?
A chorus of hellos from everyone greeted us as people immediately started breaking into smaller groups and getting into nearby vehicles. I gaped at them before latching onto Rico Corazon’s arm as he tried to scoot by me. Another quick glance at him confirmed he was one of the uneasy ones.
“Where’s the rest of the girls’ team?” I asked him.
“Uh…I think they left already. They said they’d see you there.”
“They left without me?”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“What’s going on, Rico?” This wasn’t like him. Normally, he was one of my favorite people to bicker with, and he lunged into that activity with an enthusiasm most people usually reserved for roller coasters or the Super Bowl. Today, however, it was a colossal effort to get him to utter a word.
As if in response to my silent accusation, Rico averted his dark eyes and dug into the pocket of his pullover sweatshirt for the keys to his Volvo. He didn’t reply.
“Rico.” As I continued to glare at him, something struck me, and I whirled back to where the rest of the guys were mounting up to take off to confirm my suspicions.
The guys all wore identical black running shorts underneath non-matching long-sleeved sweatshirts, windbreakers, or jackets. But what I could see of their shirts underneath their cover-ups indicated they might be wearing matching gray T-shirts as well.
I glanced down at my own outfit of navy-blue lightweight capri pants and a short-sleeved white tee and frowned. It was chilly, sure, but I didn’t think it was that cold out. Why were the guys all dressed like it was freezing? And had there been some sort of discussion regarding a team uniform I hadn’t been privy to?
I hopped into the front passenger seat of Rico’s car and turned the radio off, twisting myself so I was facing him head-on. Rory, who’d jumped into the backseat just behind Rico, wisely busied herself with some mysterious task on her phone.
“Just tell me,” I said, feeling a flutter in the pit of my stomach at his facial expression.
Rico Corazon was an old friend. We’d known each other for years and had been partners on countless undercover operations during which our agency had been attempting to take down a nightclub owner who’d been running a counterfeit-currency plant. Rico and I apparently looked good together, so we’d posed as a couple lots of times and had ended up becoming pretty good buddies. It’s hard to spend that much time pretending to like someone without it actually happening on some level.
And Rico was a great guy. Typically, I enjoyed his sparkling wit, easy smile, and razor-sharp sense of humor. Rare were the days I’d seen Rico that he didn’t have a grin on his handsome face. The fact that today was one of those struck discordant pangs of unease deep inside me.
My heart whizzed inside my chest like a cartoon Tasmanian Devil, and I clamped my hand down on my thigh. “Oh, my God. Is it Paige?” I wanted to know. Paige was Rico’s wife. I knew her almost as well as I knew him, and the idea of something happening to her was making me sick to my stomach. “Is she okay?”
Something flickered in Rico’s eyes as he finally dared to look at me. Guilt? Regret? It was difficult for me to decipher.
“Paige is fine,” he said, letting slip a small sigh and redirecting his attention back out the windshield.
The wave of relief that crashed over me at his words quickly ebbed, replaced by a flood of annoyance and a drop of something not unlike fear. “Rico, what the hell is going on?” He refused to answer me, and I growled in frustration. “I swear to God, if you don’t tell me why everyone’s acting so weird, I’ll get out of this car and scour the side of the road for a stick to beat it out of you with.”
Ignoring my sister’s guffaw, I folded my arms across my chest and glared at him, rigid with tension. An eternity passed before Rico finally spoke, and when he did, his words made less than no sense to me.
“The backseat,” he said, jerking his head in indication.
I glanced over my shoulder and then back at him. “Yup. There it is.”
Rico rolled his eyes, and the corners of his mouth twitched. “The bag on the backseat.”
I twisted around to look at Rory, who located the parcel he was talking about and handed it up to me. When he didn’t say anything further, I opened it and reached inside. It contained a gray tank top and a pair of black running shorts.
“Are these for me?” I asked, unfolding the shirt to reveal the New York Field Office logo screen-printed in black letters on the left breast.
Rico nodded, but his eyes were cloudy, and his grip on the steering wheel was tight enough to make his knuckles white. His jaw was clenched as well, if the subtle cord of muscle standing out on it was any clue.
“Thanks,” I said. “That was really nice.”
“Turn it around,” Rico all but hissed. I’d picked up that he was conflicted about something. This obvious anger was new.
Slowly, I flipped the garment over and held it up so I could get the full effect of the logo on the back. I was struck dumb.
In bold, black script painted low across the shoulder blades were the words, “Faster than a speeding…” Under the words in two spots, one about a hand’s width to the right of center and one slightly lower, were what appeared to be realistic-looking ragged, black bullet holes. I stared at the tank top for a moment longer as it suddenly occurred to me my shoulders would be bare if I donned it. The implications of that realization hit me with all the subtlety of a softball to the back of the head.
Dumbly, I glanced at Rico for an explanation, but none appeared to be forthcoming. With a mounting sense of dread, I removed the shorts from the bag and inspected them. Sure enough, on the back right side, approximately two inches below the elastic waistband was a silver “bullet hole.”
I heard Rory gasp as I shifted my gaze back and forth from the shorts to the shirt for a second. Then I threw my head back and laughed. Whether I was laughing because I truly found it funny or because the exact opposite was true, I wasn’t sure. But laughter seemed like a much more preferable reaction to breaking something, so I went with it.
Confusion colored Rico’s eyes and warred with something like relief. “You’re not mad?” he asked, his voice small.
“You thought I’d be mad?” I was still chuckling. That explained a lot. No wonder all the guys were acting odd this morning.
“It’s a little inappropriate, don’t you think?”
I considered that possibility. “Well, it certainly isn’t something I’d have thought to do myself.”
Rico rushed to defend his friends. “The guys didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just, you know, everyone kind of thinks of you as a hero—”
My snort of derision interrupted his words, and I clenched the shirt between my fists.
“They’re all really proud of you,” Rico went on. “They thought you’d like them.”
It made sense, in a strange sort of way. Folks in law enforcement tended to have twisted senses of humor and a firm belief that what didn’t kill us made us stronger and was therefore fair game for any sort of sick joke that came to mind. Which didn’t necessarily mean I was thrilled, but it did make it forgivable. Sort of.
I took a deep breath and let out a slow sigh, keeping my eyes riveted to the outfit in my hands but not really seeing it. “You’re all wearing them, aren’t you? That’s why the sweatshirts? You didn’t want me to see.”
Rico nodded. “We have T-shirts.”
I mulled that over. “And why’d you all feel the need to rush me out this morning and sideswipe me with this while we were in the car on the way to the race? Couldn’t you have brought the outfit to my room this morning or even last night?”
Rico cleared his throat and appeared a little embarrassed. “Well, we talked about that, but the consensus was if you had the clothes beforehand, you wouldn’t put them on.”
“And you all figured I’d be more inclined to wear them if you surprised me with them the day of.”
Rico shrugged. “It seemed logical while we were discussing it.”
“You were all drunk, weren’t you?”
“No! Well, maybe a little.” Rico inhaled deeply and then took a moment to really look at me as we waited for the cars to pass, so we could make the turn into the training center. “Are you sure it’s okay?”
Was it? Really? No. I’d much rather have tossed the clothes out the window as we cruised down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway than put them on. But the rest of my team was under the impression they’d done something thoughtful, and they were all wearing them, so they’d be seen regardless of what I chose to do. It’d probably be petulant of me to refuse. Check and mate.
“Any chance you guys have an extra T-shirt?” I asked, gazing out the window toward the trees as I held up my commission book for the guard at the gate.
“No. I’m sorry. The girls all have tank tops. The guys thought you’d want them because they were more feminine. Plus, we all know you don’t like to be hot and confined when you run, so…”
The car started moving again, and I swallowed hard, thinking about what wearing the tank top would mean for me: my newly acquired shoulder scar would be prominently on display.
Like I said, one hell of a way to start the morning.
The James J. Rowley Training Center—where the men and women of the United States Secret Service are shaped and molded into the dedicated agents responsible for the physical protection of numerous politicians, heads of state, and foreign dignitaries—is located in Maryland and stretches over almost five hundred acres. Its six miles of roadway make it the perfect place to host the NPC-50.
The National Police Challenge Relay, or the NPC-50, is an annual competition among local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies from all over the world. The race is run by teams of ten, each participant of which runs five kilometers, hence the “50” in the race’s name. Each team’s entry fee benefits the COPS and HEROES foundations, both of which are very law-enforcement-officer-supportive organizations.
My attitude toward running had never been what one would describe as enthusiastic, and as Rico navigated the car through the hordes of other participants for today’s event, I couldn’t help but wonder for at least the fifteenth time that week exactly how I’d let myself be talked into this.
The heavy examination of my inner feelings would have to wait until after I killed myself trying to run this stupid race because the rest of the guys were already in the parking lot waiting, and if their facial expressions were any indication, the subject of our uniforms was about to become a hot-button topic. I sighed.
“What do you think?” Allen Cross wanted to know, accosting me with the question before I even had time to set foot out of the car.
The guys all had their jackets and sweatshirts off now and seemed rather proud of their shirts and shorts, but they also all looked as though they wouldn’t be able to take a deep breath until I weighed in with my opinion.
I opened my mouth to comment but faltered when I noticed that their T-shirts included an extra “bullet hole” that my tank top, with its missing material, didn’t have: the one that represented the shot I’d taken to the shoulder. I snuck a quick glance around to confirm my suspicion that the illustration was accurate and that there were faux shots on both the front and the back of the shirt, high on the shoulder, to show how the bullet had passed through the muscle. It was and there were. Fantastic.
Gathering all my wildly careening emotions together into a tight little ball and pasting what I hoped was a somewhat convincing smile on my face, I got out of the car and held my own outfit aloft.
“These are great, guys. Thanks.” The brightness of my tone didn’t ring true to my ears, but the guys all breathed a collective sigh of relief, so it must’ve been credible enough.
“See?” Keith Abelard shouted smugly, snaking one arm around my shoulders and giving me a squeeze. “I told you she wouldn’t mind.”
Mind? I thought to myself somewhat bitterly. No, why the hell should I mind? I mean, hey, I got shot five times in the line of duty and almost died, but by all means, let’s put my wounds on a T-shirt and parade me around in front of the public like some sort of performing monkey in cross trainers. What’s to mind?
What I actually said was, “Nah. It was sweet. In a fucked-up sort of way.” I freed myself from Keith’s grasp and headed toward the women’s locker room inside the PT building. “See you guys in a minute,” I called over my shoulder, ignoring their shouts of protest and suggestions that I could change in the parking lot. Perverts.
Rory followed me silently into the locker room, her face reflecting her unease. She continued to stare at me while I prepared to change clothes, which only enflamed my irritation with life in general. That’s why I ignored her and began the ritual of getting undressed without uttering a word.
“You okay?” Rory finally asked.
I paused in the act of placing my now-folded sweatpants into a locker so I could consider the question, glad the locker room was empty, so we could have this discussion in private. I turned back to face her, holding my hand out, wordlessly asking for the black shorts.
“Would it make any sense to you if I said I didn’t know?”
At the moment I had focused all my attention on how much of the scar on my thigh might be visible beneath the extremely high hemline of the shorts I was about to don. I slid them up over my legs and settled them as low on my hips as I could get away with without them falling off, frowning as I leaned over to inspect their length. The scar showed a lot, as it turned out. The whole damn thing was clearly on display.
Rory sighed and straddled the bench that was sitting between us, resting her elbows on the tops of her knees. Her sea-foam-green eyes shifted to the tank top she was wringing between her hands, and she stole quick, nervous glances at me from underneath her eyebrows. The sound of the locker room door opening marred the silence and reminded me there were other people in the world besides my sister and me. People I was going to have to face in a few minutes. People who would likely be staring at me in this get-up. My stomach rolled violently.
“Do you think the rest of the girls’ team is actually wearing these?” The question was rhetorical. Rory couldn’t have possibly known the answer, as she’d come straight to the locker room with me, and we hadn’t seen anyone from the girls’ team on our way in. I wasn’t even sure why I’d bothered to ask, and I winced at the distinct tremor in my voice as I spoke.
“Yes,” a familiar voice spat harshly. “They are.”
Allison Reynolds stomped into the locker room, her inky black eyes blazing with a righteous fury. I almost felt the click as her gaze locked onto me, and my pulse sped up. It seemed like every single time I saw her, she appeared even more heart-stoppingly beautiful than the time before.
Allison and I hadn’t seen one another in weeks. Between her crazy work schedule and my physical-therapy appointments, connecting in person had been difficult, to say the least. I’d missed her terribly. I’d also been under the impression she wouldn’t be able to make it back to DC in time for the race, so it hadn’t even occurred to me she might make a cameo. To say I was pleasantly surprised didn’t begin to cover it.
“Hi. When did you get back?” The trembling in my voice now was due to a completely different reason. I pulled the corners of my mouth up into a genuine smile as my tension ebbed. No matter how many times I lived through it, it never failed to amaze me how just seeing her could make everything in my world all right.
Allison, however, was not experiencing a similar sensation, if her dark facial expression was any indication. In fact, she appeared to be growing more agitated as she took in my shorts and the tank top in Rory’s hands.
Rory abruptly stood and handed me the shirt. “I’m gonna go find Joanna,” she mumbled, referring to my friend Jamie Dorchester’s girlfriend. Jo was running on the team of doctors who worked at St. Elizabeth’s, a mental-health facility located in DC. They’d needed an extra body to make a full team, so I’d volunteered my sister, seeing as how she was a doctor herself. Perhaps her hasty departure was payback for that. Traitor!
If Allison noticed her presence or subsequent lightning-quick retreat, she never said. What did come out of her mouth was, “Fucking assholes!”
The venom in her normally honeyed voice took me aback, and I stepped closer so I could rest my hand on her arm.
“It’s not that big a deal.” I wasn’t sure which of us I was trying to convince with that shaky declaration.
Allison glowered at me. “Bullshit!”
“Wanna help me take off my shirt?” I asked, trying to lighten the mood.
Allison set her jaw and drew a deep breath, obviously physically reining in whatever her first response had been. I allowed my hand to slide down her forearm so I could grip her fingers in mine and tugged her a little closer. I then pressed the palm of her hand to my side.
After a long moment, Allison’s gaze softened, and she scoured my face with her eyes. What she was searching for, I didn’t know, but I remained quiet, content to bask in her attention for the time being. Her fingers started tracing distracting circles on my ribs, and my heart picked up its tempo even more.
“They shouldn’t have done that,” she whispered, her tone more agonized now than angry.
“It’s okay, sweetheart.”
“No, it’s not!” Her earlier ire flickered back to life briefly before sputtering back out again. “You almost died. That’s not something to joke about.”
I dropped the tank top onto the bench, forgotten, and lifted my hands to cup her cheeks. Maybe I hadn’t been one hundred percent okay with my new attire, but the thought of Allison being distressed about it didn’t sit well with me. She was already on edge too much as it was, talking about the events of a few weeks ago and dragging both of us forcibly on guilt trips far too often for my liking, as if I weren’t already taking enough solo voyages. For her, I’d pretend this didn’t bother me.
Whatever I’d been about to say in an effort to ease Allison’s mind slipped my own as her eyes drifted down to rest heavily on my mouth. Her tongue darted out to caress her bottom lip, and I sucked in a startled breath as the familiar heat sparked between us. The expression on her face now as she allowed her gaze to once again meet mine made my heart stop.
Agonizingly slowly, Allison slid her hands down my sides to grasp the hem of my T-shirt and slipped it up over my head. Once it was gone, she shifted her attention to the scar marring the skin halfway between my shoulder and my neck. I couldn’t help shivering as she caressed it gently with the pad of her thumb. Goose bumps broke out over my entire body when she ghosted her lips over that scar immediately after.
She closed her lips around it and stroked it lightly with the tip of her tongue, making me moan. I tangled my fingers into her silken ebony locks and pulled her closer. The bench between us made it impossible for us to make full contact, and I cursed it in my head.
“Allison.” I sighed as her teeth began lightly grazing the sensitive skin of my neck. My eyes fluttered closed, and I let my head fall back to allow her greater access.
“Oops, sorry!” A voice interrupted us.
Allison and I flew apart, and I flushed hotly, unable to meet the mortified stare of Special Agent Meaghan Bates, who’d apparently entered the locker room silently, like some sort of stealthy, twat-swatting ninja.
“They’re asking all the teams to line up so they can get started,” Meaghan said, her tone thick with embarrassment.
“Okay,” I mumbled, keeping my eyes fixed intently on the tile floor.
The three of us stood there not looking at one another for at least an eon before Meaghan muttered something under her breath I didn’t quite catch and fled the scene without looking back. The silence between Allison and me stretched out for another long moment.
“Sorry,” Allison finally said, shooting me the barest traces of a grin.
I shrugged and retrieved my T-shirt from the floor so I could stow it in the locker with the rest of my belongings. When I turned back, she was holding the tank top out to me. I accepted it gratefully and slipped it over my head.
“For what?” I strode over to the mirror hanging above the line of sinks so I could study my reflection. The tank top had medium-width straps situated toward the outer edges of my shoulder blades, which meant my shoulder scar was visible in its entirety. Perfect. I frowned.
“For Meaghan walking in on that. I’m sorry. I wasn’t paying attention to our surroundings. I guess I got carried away.”
I snagged my NYFO hat and my iPod out of the locker and slammed the door shut, relishing the hollow clang in the almost empty room. I set to work arranging my running headphones and my armband so they were perfectly configured. I needed the wires to be tucked out of the way and not flopping around and the iPod within reach, so I could easily indulge my short attention span and change songs as often as necessary.
Allison took over settling the armband around my right bicep, and I was immediately distracted by the feel of her fingertips brushing against my skin. A rush of arousal flooded me, and I fought not to moan. If she wasn’t careful, we were going to get a lot more carried away in the not-too-distant future.
She cleared her throat. “Well, I know neither of us is too keen on being the subject of gossip.”
“Meaghan won’t say anything to anyone,” I assured her, as she strapped the Velcro around my arm tight. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Allison snatched the baseball cap out of my hand effortlessly and plopped it onto her own head.
“Hey! What am I going to wear?”
Allison grinned at me and handed over her own baseball hat, which she’d had tucked into the back waistband of her running shorts and which was adorned with the logo for the detail she was assigned to. I eyed the symbol for the Presidential Protective Division ornamenting the front of the hat with a certain level of wariness.
“You really expect me to wear this? Like outside? Where people can see me?”
“Yes,” Allison stated without looking at me. She was busy adjusting my NYFO hat so none of her hair was sticking out the sides of it.
“I could get kicked off the team for this sort of betrayal. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” she drawled sarcastically. “We’re a regular Romeo and Juliet.”
I rolled my eyes at her. “Always with the dramatics. I’m just saying your PPD buddies aren’t going to take too kindly to me wearing their swag, that’s all.”
She gestured to the hat she was now wearing. “Hey, I’m not going to be winning any popularity points with this thing on, either. But look at it this way. If they kick you off the team, we can have the rest of the morning alone to engage in our own private workout.”
My knees almost buckled, and I closed my eyes. “Why wait?”
Allison chuckled throatily, which didn’t help my predicament. She leaned in, and her lips brushed the shell of my ear as she spoke. “I’ll give you a nice, thorough rubdown after the run,” she whispered, taking my earlobe into her mouth and sucking on it briefly to punctuate her promise. “How’s that?”
I moaned and turned my head to capture her lips in a searing kiss. Every nerve ending in my body was on fire, screaming for her to do something—anything—to douse the flames of passion she’d stoked within me. All I wanted, more than I wanted my next breath, was to take Allison someplace quiet where I could spend several uninterrupted hours mapping the contours of her body and making them mine. At that exact moment, I didn’t think I’d ever been so bitterly resentful of an engagement in all my life as I was of the race.
When we finally pulled back, I was dizzy and gasping for air. I studied her expression for a long moment, pleased to note she seemed almost as out of sorts as I felt. I pulled her closer and wrapped my arms around her, inhaling the clean scent of her hair as though it held the key to my sanity, desperate to put off facing the rest of the world for just a little while longer.
The sound of the locker room door opening intruded on the moment, catapulting me back to reality.
“Uh…Ryan?” Meaghan called, presumably from just outside the door. “We have a slight problem.”
“I’ll be right there.”
With a heavy sigh, I reluctantly untangled myself from Allison’s embrace. A small, amused smile was adorning her perfect lips.
“What?” I asked as I started toward the door to the locker room.
“Have I ever told you how adorable you are?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve heard beautiful, wonderful, and brilliant from you. As well as the most incredibly sexy woman you’ve ever laid eyes on. But, no, I don’t remember you ever mentioning adorable.”
Allison scoffed and gave me a playful slap on the butt as we stepped into the hallway. “Run fast, smart-ass. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can go back to my place and cool down.”
“The roadrunner has nothing on me. That, I can promise you.”
Allison and I threaded our way through the crowd in the general direction of the starting line. I was searching the throng for Meaghan, but she’d somehow managed to disappear. Well, whatever the problem was, it couldn’t have been too important. Otherwise she would’ve stuck around.
Rory stood chatting easily with Jamie Dorchester and Joanna Sheahan, and I made my way over, noticing some stares and whispers aimed in my general direction as I went—some covert, others not so much. I clenched my fists and my jaw against my rising discomfort.
Allison’s hand sketched a light line across the small of my back, and I turned to shoot her a grateful smile. The grin I received in return went a long way toward distracting me from my anxiety.
“Oh, get a room, you two,” Jamie said loudly, rolling her eyes as I spun to scowl at her.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the man standing closest to her—though not exactly part of the group—blinked, obviously startled, and favored me with a cool, appraising look. He looked somewhat familiar, but I couldn’t place him.
Joanna elbowed her girlfriend hard enough to elicit a grunt and leaned in to give me a brief, welcoming hug. “How are you, Ryan?”
“Good, thanks. How are you?”
“Fine, fine.” Her eyes dropped to examine both of my visible scars briefly. “You’ve healed up well. Any lingering soreness or stiffness?”
I rolled my injured shoulder a little, as though her words had either brought on or perhaps made me more aware of the ever-present ache that stubbornly refused to abate completely. “Some. But it could always be worse.”
“Yeah, you could be dead,” Rory muttered. Clearly, my sister hadn’t yet worked through all her issues surrounding what’d happened. She and I should probably talk about that at some point, but this was neither the time nor the place.
“Ryan!” Meaghan shouted behind me. When I pivoted to face her, she was weaving in and out of the horde of runners and appeared out of breath. “There you are. Listen, Shannon’s son was in a car accident late last night—”
A veritable chorus of exclamations on the theme of, “Oh, my God! Is he okay?” interrupted her.
Meaghan appeared simultaneously worried and lost. “I don’t know. He was in surgery when she called me to let me know she had to go. She promised to hit me up as soon as she heard anything.”
“That’s awful,” I said, wishing I could do something for Shannon and her family.
“I know,” Meaghan said. “It is terrible. And it also leaves us a man down for the run today. Without Shannon, we don’t have a full team.”
“Oh.” I considered that fact. “I wonder where we can find a replacement on such short notice.”
Allison shrugged. “I’ll run with you guys.”
I stared at her, puzzled. I was curious to see how she planned to get away with running for the PPD team and our team at the same time. I opened my mouth to ask her but didn’t even get a word in before the man who’d been lurking around the edges of our group interjected.
“No,” he barked, his voice harsh and authoritative.
It was my turn to blink, taken aback. I couldn’t pinpoint what had me immediately bristling and ready for a fight. It might’ve been his tone or the rigidity of his posture. Or maybe it was his expression as he eyed Allison. I wasn’t sure, but he’d rubbed me the wrong way right off the bat.
“Excuse me?” He couldn’t possibly have been talking to us.
He sneered at me, his derision plain. “Stay out of this,” he ordered me before refocusing on Allison. “Absolutely not.”
“I’m sorry.” I was both baffled by and annoyed that this unknown man had inserted himself into our private conversation. “Have we met?”
“Beau,” Allison said softly, her tone thick with warning.
At the sound of the name, his identity clicked. This was Allison’s boss, Beau Byers, the one who’d been giving her such a hard time lately. Well, that certainly explained why I’d instantly disliked him.
Byers ignored my question. Instead, he ran his eyes slowly down my body and back up again. The inspection made my skin crawl, and I had to fight not to snarl at him to keep his fucking leers to himself. However, I was more pissed that he’d been making my girlfriend miserable for months.
Byers’s attentions finally wandered up to the top of my head, and he took in my hat. For some inexplicable reason, he faltered, and then his eyes darted over to Allison’s hat. When he noticed the logo on her ball cap, his expression became stony.
“You’re not running for their team.” Byers’s voice was a low growl. “It’s out of the question.”
“I was unaware you had the authority to decide that for me,” Allison replied, her words laced with disdain. “Oh, wait. That’s right. You don’t.” She glared at him.
“Allison,” I murmured so only she could hear me, gripping her wrist lightly. I didn’t disagree with either her take on the subject or the fact that this guy clearly deserved to be reminded of his place in her life—or lack thereof—but I wasn’t positive that getting into a pointless argument with him in front of all these people wouldn’t adversely affect her career somewhere down the line. This wasn’t worth it.
Allison turned the full force of her glare on me. “No. He doesn’t get to make that call. If I want to run with you guys, I will.”
“But won’t the PPD team be down a man then?” I asked.
Allison shook her head. “No. I was never on the roster because I wasn’t supposed to be back until tomorrow. I’m not actually running at all.”
“Then why are you here? For that matter, why are you back so early? I forgot to ask you before.”
“Because I wanted to see you, smart-ass.” The smile she favored me with and her affectionate tone took any sting out of those words. “Are you complaining?”
I grinned back and brushed my thumb over the skin of her arm where I was still holding it. “Nope. Definitely not.”
“Well, then, stop asking so many questions.”
“Your wish is my command.”
“Awww,” Jamie gushed. “You guys are so sickeningly adorable it makes me want to vomit.” She made several dramatic retching sounds, and I stuck my tongue out.
“You’re on PPD,” Byers stated loudly enough to draw our attention back to him, as well as capture the interest of several bystanders, who looked at him, then at us, then at each other uncomfortably. “So you can’t run for the NYFO team.”
“I used to be in NYFO,” Allison snapped back. “And I’m going back there as soon as my time on the detail is up.”
“You are?” I couldn’t help but interrupt. We hadn’t discussed any of our future plans. It’d seemed way too soon. But hearing that she’d obviously thought about it, that she wanted to come back, made me giddy. I beamed.
Allison shot me a fondly exasperated glance that told me she thought I was an idiot for even asking, and I grinned wider. She shook her head and went back to glaring at Byers.
“I’m a former New Yorker,” Allison pointed out again. “I don’t see why I can’t run for the NYFO team if they need me.”
“It doesn’t matter that you’re a former New Yorker.” Byers’s countenance had darkened considerably since the start of this conversation. “You can only run for them if none of the other teams objects. And one does.”
“Why?” Allison demanded. “This is a charity run. What difference does it make who I run for?”
“I said no!”
“Jesus fucking Christ.” Allison shot him one last furious glare before she stomped off.
“Allison,” I called after her. I shot Byers a vengeful look of my own, barely besting the urge to punch him in the face, before starting after her. Meaghan’s hand on my arm stopped my getaway.
“That still doesn’t solve our problem,” Meaghan said. She appeared to be truly sorry that she couldn’t allow me to go after Allison just yet.
“I know it doesn’t. I just don’t have any other solution. Not if someone is going to stop Allison from running.” I favored Byers with another pointed glance, making my voice loud enough so the bystanders could hear me as well. “I can’t think of another option. Everyone here is already on a team.”
“Well, since we don’t have a viable replacement, one of us will have to run two legs if we still want to compete.” Meaghan was peering at me intently.
“Ah,” I said. “I see where this is going.”
Meaghan’s expression was an interesting mix of apologetic and sympathetic. “You’re the only one with any hope of being able to run that far in a competitive time.”
I sighed heavily and glanced away, only to meet the concerned eyes of Joanna and Jamie. Was I up to six miles today? I hadn’t done more than four since “the incident” but once and had cursed whoever had invented any pace faster than a meander the entire time, even though I’d run both extra miles as slowly and leisurely as possible.
I was just about to express my reservations and apologize to the team when I caught sight of Byers’s smug face. He was definitely gloating, and seeing his beady little eyes glimmering with satisfaction made my blood boil.
“Fine.” I stared directly at him as I assented. “I’ll do it.”
“Ryan?” Rory said softly. I didn’t look at her, but she was clearly worried.
Byers’s expression morphed from one of self-righteous jubilation to shock to disbelief in the space of about three seconds. “You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, I’m always serious.”
“No, you’re not.” Jamie laughed as though the very idea were uproariously funny.
I rounded on her and gave her a warning glance. “Well, I am about this.”
“You really think you can run six miles?” Byers asked incredulously. “In a time fast enough to be competitive? You’re crazy.” He let out a grating laugh that set my teeth on edge.
The crowd around us had gradually started taking more interest in our little showdown until a circle of people surrounded us, all watching the exchange with a sort of sick fascination. It reminded me of a schoolyard brawl. I wouldn’t have been surprised if people had started chanting, “Fight, fight, fight.”
Byers seemed to notice our audience about the same time, and he stood up straighter and puffed his chest out. He clearly thought he had something to prove to someone, though I couldn’t imagine it was me.
“Care to wager?” The words were a definite taunt.
I rested my hands on my hips. “This is a charity run. Doesn’t adding a side bet seem rather gauche?”
“Yeah. Do you need me to define it? It means tacky, uncouth, tasteless. I’m surprised you’re not more familiar with the term.”
I heard an “Ooooh” and a faint chuckle from different parts of the crowd. Byers’s jaw clenched, and his left eye twitched. He took a step closer and stared down at me. If his proximity coupled with our height differences was supposed to intimidate me, he was about to be disappointed.
Prolonging this altercation was a spectacularly terrible idea. Beau Byers wasn’t just a boss; he was Allison’s boss. The consequences for insulting him the way I just had could be nearly catastrophic for her, to say nothing of what could happen to either of us if I did something even worse. Like kick him in the balls. But something inside me wouldn’t let me walk away anymore. This man was an absolute douche bag, in a way the definition of the term doesn’t quite prepare you for. I wanted so badly to humiliate him at this point I could almost taste it.
Byers took a deep breath. He was clearly attempting to save face and appear unaffected by my careless quip, but I could tell he was fuming. “What’s the matter? Afraid to put your money where your mouth is?”
I grinned at him. “Not at all. What’d you have in mind?”
“Five thousand. And I’ll even make it sporting. Your team doesn’t have to win, but the combined time for both your legs does have to be faster than our two fastest girls’ times put together.”
The bystanders gasped and exclaimed, everybody appearing to balk at the amount. I tried hard not to gape at him myself, but it was tough. Five thousand dollars was a lot of money to spend on anything, let alone a pointless wager. I wasn’t sure saving face in front of him was worth that much.
I stared at him for a long moment, and as I did, some of the comments of the people lingering nearby drifted through the angry haze I’d been floating in and penetrated my awareness. In addition to the opinion that the terms of the bet might be a little steep and the questions regarding what each of us was trying to prove, a lot of people were speculating whether I was actually up to the challenge. Whether I’d be up to any other kind of challenge ever again. Or whether I should just accept complete disability and call it a day.
Something unidentifiable inside of me burst and then curdled. My heart shriveled, broken because Rico’s claim that everyone thought I was a hero had been a wild exaggeration, because I’d just found out some of my colleagues now doubted my ability to perform my job. But something else resonated within me on a deep and primal and urgent level. And it fractured some unknown part at the very core of me.
I tried not to let any of that agony show on my face, relying on my fury in the face of Byers’s arrogance and my disappointment in the rest of my coworkers’ reservations to see me through. I tilted my chin up in defiance as I held my hand out.
“Five thousand,” I repeated. “You’re on.”
Again, Byers appeared shocked, but he covered quickly and took my hand, effectively sealing the deal. I dropped it like a hot rock and wiped my palm on the front of my shirt as I turned to walk away, determined to find Allison and talk to her before this debacle started. The announcer was already on the PA explaining the heat system to everyone, so we didn’t have too many people running at any one time lest the going be unbelievably slow. I needed to be quick.
Byers roughly grabbed my arm. I fixed the offending appendage with a dark glare before shifting it so I included him in my extreme displeasure.
“What?” I shook him off.
“How do I know you’re not going to cheat?”
I goggled at him. “Excuse me?”
“How do I know you’re not going to cheat?” he repeated with exaggerated slowness, as though I were a moron.
I folded my arms across my chest and fumed, shaking. Who the hell did he think he was? “And just how do you think I’m going to cheat?”
Byers inclined his head in my sister’s direction. “Get her to run for you.”
“What?” He had to be the stupidest man alive.
“I’m just saying, it’d be pretty easy for her to run in your place.”
I rolled my eyes so hard I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d gotten stuck in the back of my head. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“Beau, come on.” One of the guys in the crowd tried to intervene. “Let’s just go get the team lined up.”
Byers and I never broke eye contact. “I need some assurances that you won’t pull some sort of switcheroo on us, that’s all.”
I breathed in so long and so deep that my lungs should have exploded. I counted the beats of both my inhale and my exhale, attempting to calm my boiling temper. It didn’t work.
“First of all,” I said, my voice low, my words careful and deliberate, as though that would help me keep my tenuous grip on my slippery disposition. “I don’t know in what universe you think it’s appropriate to impugn someone’s honor with absolutely no facts or evidence to back the accusation up—especially someone you work with—but seeing as how you obviously missed the memo, let me clue you in on something: that’s not how we roll here in the Secret Service.”
Byers’s brow pulled down in a scowl, but he didn’t reply.
“Secondly,” I said, when it became clear he had no comeback. “In case you haven’t noticed, Rory’s running for another team. She won’t be able to run for me, as she’ll be busy with her own race.
“Thirdly, Rory would never in a million years be able to get away with pretending to be me, as there are a few surefire ways to tell us apart. Starting with our outfits.”
“You could always duck off the path into the woods and switch clothes.”
“Oh, my God. Do you even hear yourself? What is the matter with you?”
“Stranger things have happened. And desperate people have done more for less.” Byers appeared devoted to his argument, although I wasn’t positive he really believed it. I suspected he was simply sticking to it to disagree with me. If I’d said the sky was blue, I’m sure he would’ve challenged that assertion.
“Yeah,” I said, allowing the sarcasm to bleed through and taint the word. “I can see that.”
Byers’s face contorted, and he clenched his hands into fists. If I were a smarter woman, it might’ve occurred to me to tread lightly, as he appeared to be considering whether to take a swing at me. But I was on a roll.
“And while we’re out in the woods changing clothes so she can run my extra leg of the charity race that has no real impact on our lives outside of today, we’ll be sure to put in colored contacts to change the color of our eyes. Oh, and I’ll have to get out the professional makeup kit. You know, to cover up the very visible scars I’m sporting and give her matching ones.”
The surety in Byers’s gaze flickered a little, and I used the opportunity to go in for the kill. I stepped even closer to him so our toes were almost touching. My head was swimming, and my ire was making it difficult for me to see straight.
“But lastly, and probably most importantly of all…” I all but whispered, so both he and our ever-present crowd of voyeurs would have to lean in and hold their breath to hear me. I paused to ensure I had everyone’s attention. I wanted them all to hear this last declaration. “I don’t need to cheat. Not to beat you, at any rate.”
Byers looked as though I’d slapped him. Hard. He even reeled and took half a step back before his jaw dropped. His eyes bulged and his lips started moving, but nothing even remotely coherent came out of this mouth.
And with that, I turned and stalked away from the crowd and in the direction I’d last seen Allison headed, leaving a din of voices behind me.
As I stomped away from the scene with all the grace and dignity of a pouting four-year-old just informed she couldn’t have a cookie before dinner, I tried to calm myself. I searched the crowd as I went but didn’t see Allison. Dejected and resigned to give her the space she obviously needed right now, I gripped the back of my neck with the palms of my hands so hard it hurt.
I paced back and forth, back and forth, turning the scenario over in my mind again and again, analyzing everything I’d said, everything I hadn’t said, and everything I felt like I should’ve. Furious, both with Byers for getting me all riled up and with myself for allowing him to push my buttons like that, I kicked at the ground. A huge wad of dirt flew through the air, and I watched the remaining dust float slowly back to the ground.
“Ay-vo!” Rory called angrily, causing me to freeze. She didn’t often slip back into addressing me by her nickname for me from when we were kids, but when she did, she was almost always serious.
“What?” I couldn’t restrain my annoyance.
“Are you crazy?” Rory demanded once she’d caught up with me.
Without taking my hands off my neck or lifting my head, I raised an eyebrow at her and glanced around to see whether anyone was paying any attention to us, but they didn’t appear to be. I still took a few steps closer to the tree line. You could never be too careful.
“Not now, Rory.”
“Yes, now. What the hell is the matter with you?”
“That guy’s a fucking prick,” I practically shouted, wincing when I heard how loud I’d been. I took a deep breath and tried again at a more reasonable volume. “He’s a complete and total asshole, Rory.”
“That may very well be, but he’s also a boss.” At my pointed look of disbelief, she went on. “Jamie told me who he was after you left.”
“So what?” I shoved my hands deep into the pockets of my shorts. “That doesn’t give him the right to be a dick.”
Rory’s lips twitched, and I could tell she was trying not to smile. Instead, she rested her hand on my shoulder. “No, you’re right. It doesn’t. But you don’t have to make it clear you feel that way about him, either.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, really? And why’s that?”
“Because what’s done is done. And my time machine is on the fritz, so I guess I’ll just have to live with the consequences. Speaking of which, I need you to pace me.”
“For the race. I need you to pace me.”
Rory had run track all through middle school, high school, and college. Somewhere along the line, she’d developed an uncanny ability to divine at exactly what speed she was running without the use of a watch or any sort of electronic tracking device. Even though she’d more or less cajoled me into training with her for most of that time, I’d never managed to pick up that particular skill. I found it more than a little eerie, actually. But today it seemed her odd superpower would come in handy.
“I didn’t want you running at all.” Rory regarded me with a dark look. “I still don’t think you’re healed enough. No way in hell will I condone you running twice the original distance.”
“I don’t need you to condone it. I just need you to help me do it.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Why’s it so important to you that you do this? You could really hurt yourself, you know.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said automatically.
Rory scoffed. “You’re not invincible, Ryan.”
“I know that.”
“And you don’t have anything to prove to that asshole.”
“I know that, too,” I said quietly, though that wasn’t strictly true.
“So why the hell are you letting him push you into this?”
“It isn’t him. Not entirely, anyway.”
“Well, then what is it?”
I let out a long breath as I considered how to explain it to her so she’d truly understand. “Rory, you work in a male-dominated field. You have to know what it’s like trying to get along as a woman in a man’s world.”
“I do. Believe me, I do. But that’s no reason to risk your health just to prove some sort of sadistic point to a bunch of jerk-offs.”
“They’re like sharks, and I’m bleeding in the water. It’s sink or swim now, and none of them will throw me a life preserver.” I was mixing my metaphors and, judging by her puzzled expression, not making a whole lot of sense.
“Look. My entire job rests heavily on my reputation, earned or unearned. It doesn’t really matter which. Popular opinion can make or break you, and word travels faster than the speed of sound in this agency. If I back out now, that’s all anyone will remember. If I fail now, that’s all anyone will remember. From what I just heard back there, a lot of the guys already doubt my ability to recover from what happened. If I were a man, they probably wouldn’t focus on it as much. But I’m a woman, which means they’re all watching me, holding their breath, just waiting for me to crack.”
I paused and stepped closer, resting my hand on her upper arm to ensure she’d be looking at me when I explained. I needed her to understand. I needed her to get it, not just intellectually but on a gut level. I needed her to help me, and if I couldn’t make her see why I had to do this, I had no hope of pulling it off.
“One tiny slip is all it’ll take, Rory. One wrong word. One tear welling up in my eye that I don’t wipe away fast enough. One grimace of pain that the wrong person sees. One reaction deemed just a tad too sensitive for the situation.” I waved my free hand in the direction of the rest of the rest of the runners and spared them a quick glance. “One mistake, and I’ll end up branded an overly emotional woman. The guys won’t even see me as an agent anymore. They’ll just define me by my gender. Everyone will treat me with kid gloves to my face and talk shit about me behind my back.”
“Ryan, you were shot. Your ex-girlfriend basically died in your arms. You almost died. Surely they’ll cut you a little slack.”
I shook my head, saddened. “It doesn’t work that way. And I think deep down you know that. As long as I stay strong, the guys will think I’m a hero. But if I show even the barest hint of weakness—of humanness—suddenly everything I’ve ever done to secure my reputation as a competent agent no longer matters, and they’ll look at me as someone who isn’t up to snuff.”
“So you’re saying that everyone you work with is an asshole?”
I laughed. “No. I’m saying despite the fact that we’re more than a decade into the twenty-first century, this is still very much a good-old-boys club. And if I expect them to accept me and let me play—really let me play—I have to prove that I’m tougher and more stubborn and better than they are, over and over again, every single day.”
Rory studied me for a long moment. I regarded her back, nervously. Clearly she was still torn on the issue. I didn’t think it was because she didn’t believe me. She was apparently still just worried about how physically taxing this run would be for me.
I waited as patiently as I could, which just about killed me. Patience may be a virtue, but it’d never been one of mine. Yet I also knew my sister well enough to realize when to keep quiet and not push. Now was definitely one of those times.
She narrowed her eyes at me and cocked her head to one side. Strands of blond hair that’d escaped her ponytail peeked out from under her hat and created a sort of wispy halo. She exhaled forcefully.
“That’s fucked up, Ryan.”
I shrugged. “I know. But what else can I do except vastly exceed their expectations and look fabulous doing it?”
“This is really that important to you, what these guys think?”
“How fast do you want to run this in?” she asked finally, resignation seeping into her voice.
I smiled and tried not to appear too relieved. “Uh…I’d be happy if I could keep it under forty.”
Rory’s countenance relaxed. “Oh, good. I was afraid you’d push yourself too hard. That’s a nice, easy pace for—”
“For both legs.”
My sister froze and gaped at me like I’d just told her I was the result of a virgin birth. “What?”
“I want to run the entire 10K in under forty minutes.”
“That’s a sub-seven-minute mile.”
“See? That’s why I need you. It would’ve taken me forever to do that math.” I flashed her a grin.
“You couldn’t have done that before you were shot! You expect to be able to do that now when you’re still recovering from a serious injury and have barely gotten back into running?”
“I’m counting on adrenaline.”
“You’re out of your damn mind.”
“That may very well be, but I fail to see how that impacts this situation.”
“I’m not going to help you.”
“What? Why not?”
“I’m not going to help you run yourself into the ground. I refuse. Absolutely not.”
“Asha.” I was hoping my use of her old nickname would sway her opinion.
“Ná. Ná gída ma korá. It won’t work.”
I sighed, defeated. She’d lapsed into full sentences of our special twin language—which was an interesting combination of what Gaelic obviously sounded like to toddlers blended with made-up words—and told me not to bother. When she was in this frame of mind, nothing I could say would get through to her. Perhaps I needed to consider a compromise. Maybe if I agreed to a slower pace she’d capitulate. But then I wasn’t sure I’d be able to win. What to do?
“I’ll do it,” a soft voice said behind me.
I turned, startled to find Allison standing a few feet away. Her face was an impassive mask, and my heart dropped into my stomach with a spectacular splat. I hadn’t seen her this closed off in a while.
Unfortunately, Rory was much less adept at reading the subtle nuances of my girlfriend’s facial expressions and found it a perfectly good time to berate her. “You absolutely will not.”
Allison raised one eyebrow and pursed her lips. “Excuse me?”
“Allison, you didn’t hear what she just asked. She’ll hurt herself if she tries to do this.”
“I can hear you,” I said, annoyed that she was talking about me like I wasn’t standing right there.
Allison waved one hand dismissively. “She’ll be fine. I’m sure her body will give out long before she does any major, lasting damage to it.”
“See?” I chimed in. “Wait. What?”
“And if she does fall out, it’s not like there aren’t a veritable slew of EMTs and paramedics wandering around all over the damn place. Ryan will get the best care available.”
I frowned. I wasn’t thrilled with the specific points she was making, but they did appear to be silencing my sister’s objections.
“Look, Rory, I know you’re worried about her. But she’s a big girl, and she’s stubborn as hell. She’s like a junkyard dog with a bone.”
Allison ignored me. “We both know she’s going to do this whether we help her or not. At least this way, I can keep an eye on her and make sure she gets immediate medical care if it comes to that.”
Rory scowled at both of us and hesitated for a long moment, clearly debating whether she wanted to argue with us, but she must’ve thought better of it. She gave Allison a curt nod, spun around, and stalked away, muttering something under her breath. She and I were going to have to have a come-to-Jesus about that habit. It was grating, to say the least.
Once my sister had left, I refocused on Allison. She was staring off in the general direction of the starting line, refusing to look at me. Seeing her expression and how it didn’t thaw even slightly increased my anxiety.
“Thanks. You know, for standing up for me with my sister. Sort of.”
“Oh, make no mistake, it’s a stupid idea. You had a collapsed lung, for crying out loud.”
“It isn’t collapsed anymore, I don’t think. I mean, it’s probably not.”
“Very good, Ryan,” Allison said, her tone acerbic. “By all means, let’s joke about it some more. Because the entire situation was absolutely hilarious.”
Allison’s dark eyes were flashing, but beneath that, I caught fleeting glimpses of fear and guilt. I was a moron. I should’ve realized what she was doing sooner. She was picking a fight in an attempt to avoid talking about whatever was really bothering her. Old habits die hard, it would seem. But that didn’t mean I had to let her get away with it.
I smiled at her and took a step closer. I brushed the tips of my fingers across her upper arm. “Hey. Come on.”
Allison blinked, obviously surprised, and slowly dragged her eyes over to meet mine. I saw no warmth there, no sparkle. None of the usual light and life I associated with those rich, brown orbs. Only the barest hint of a cold, burgeoning fury that chilled me.
I took another step closer and caressed her biceps with both of my hands. They were trembling as a result of my wildly vacillating emotions, but I couldn’t do much about that. Instead, I chose to focus on how to get Allison to reconnect with me.
“You promised,” I reminded her. “You promised you’d talk to me about the things that were bothering you. Really talk. Not just pick a fight with me to push me away.”
At my words, Allison’s cold expression started to melt. Not a lot, but enough to loosen the knot that’d taken up residence in the hollow of my chest so I could breathe. More or less.
“You’re right. I owe you an apology. I’m sorry.”
“Funny. I was just thinking the same thing.”
Her eyes narrowed into slits, and her anger threatened to return. “You were thinking that I owed you an apology?”
I laughed. “No. I was thinking I owed you one.”
“Oh. For what?”
I chewed on my lower lip and averted my gaze. “I…uh…may’ve accidentally made things worse with your boss.”
“How? What’d you do?”
“I may’ve insulted him. A little. Or kind of a lot. In front of a whole bunch of people.”
Both of Allison’s perfectly arched eyebrows went up, and she stared at me. “Really?”
“Well, he probably deserved it.”
“You’re not mad?”
“Of course not. Why would I be mad?”
“I was afraid you’d think I was trying to fight your battles for you. And that really isn’t my place.”
“That’s right. I don’t need you to defend me. I can handle him.”
“I know you can.”
“Is that what you were doing?”
I shook my head. “No. I wasn’t. My initial dislike of him may’ve hinged on his recent treatment of you, but believe me, when he and I were getting into it just now, it was all for me.”
“What’d you say, exactly?”
I fidgeted, adjusting my borrowed ball cap unnecessarily. “I might’ve implied that he was stupid.”
“Then, when he all but accused me of being a cheater, I asked him what the hell was wrong with him.”
“And it’s entirely possible I made a bet with him that I could beat both him and your two fastest female runners. Hence me needing someone to pace me. Who’s your fastest female runner, anyway?”
Allison shook her head, a look of disbelief scored with undertones of smug satisfaction painting her features. “Me.”
“Well, lucky for me you aren’t running, or I might have a serious problem. Who’s the next fastest after you? Who do I need to be concentrating on?”
“Oh. That’ll be fine, then. She’s easily distracted. All I have to do is smack her on the ass or pull up my shirt as I run by, and she’ll trip and fall on her face.” When Allison looked confused, I went on with a shrug. “Jamie’s a boob girl.”
Allison’s countenance became sinister. “I don’t suppose you’d care to explain how you could possibly know that?”
“It’s come up in conversation,” I lied, cursing myself for my slip. Allison didn’t appear to believe me, so I hastened to drag the conversation back on topic before she could pursue that line of questioning any further. “Anyway, the bet was five thousand dollars, and I plan to use it on those five dates I owe you to woo you like you’ve never been wooed before, thus securing my chance at getting into your pants and bestowing upon you the most mind-blowing orgasm in the history of orgasms. So it’s really in your best interest to help me win.”
“Do you even have five thousand dollars?”
“Not yet. But I hope to by the end of the day.”
“Ryan!” Her tone was pure exasperation. “What if you lose?”
“Haven’t you been listening? That’s why I need you.”
“You’re a mess, you know that?”
“I do. So, you’re okay with helping me further humiliate your boss, then?”
“Absolutely. I’m looking forward to it.”
I hesitated. “Is it going to get you into more trouble with him?”
“Don’t worry about it. I told you I can handle him. The question is, can you?”
“Oh, I’ve got this.”
The announcer got back on the PA and asked everyone running in the first heat to line up. I looked around and caught sight of Meaghan waving at me frantically. I nodded and held up one finger, silently asking her to wait a second.
Allison grinned at me. “Good. I like a girl who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself, and I’d hate to think I was dating a pushover.”
“You most definitely aren’t. You may be dating an idiot, but not a pushover. I really feel terrible about this, Allison. Baiting your boss like that was akin to poking a hornet’s nest with a stick. In a garage. Whose door is nailed shut. While covered entirely in liquid sugar. Not my best plan. And while I’m not too worried about me, it’s possible he’s going to hammer you for this. Which should’ve been enough to give me pause and shut me the hell up. So, I apologize in advance for whatever the fallout is.”
Allison scowled. “Fuck him.”
I wrinkled my nose and made a face. “Gross. No, thank you.”
Allison froze and pinned me with an odd look. I smiled and leaned in so I could whisper in her ear. “Not really my type. Although someone else has managed to pique my interest.”
“Is it Jamie?” Allison demanded. “I’ll kill her.”
“It’s not Jamie,” I murmured, grazing her lips a little with my ear as I hummed, enjoying the resulting shiver. “I have a very specific type, and Jamie definitely doesn’t fit the bill.”
“She’d better not.” Allison stepped back out of my reach and took my chin between her thumb and forefinger so she could look at me. I relished the furious glint in her eyes.
“Why, Agent Reynolds.” I gasped in mock surprise. “Are you jealous?”
“Do I have any reason to be?” Uncertainty flickered across her face.
I pretended to consider the question, which earned me another glare and a playful smack on the arm. “Absolutely not.”
“Good.” She surprised me by giving me a quick, sweet peck on the lips and taking my hand in hers to swing it between us as we ambled toward the starting line. It was a far cry from the way we used to interact when we were out together, and I was still adjusting.
“Ryan.” Meaghan panted as she emerged from the thundering horde.
I took my place among the starters and started fiddling with the settings on my iPod, searching for a good, fast song to run to. “What?”
“You’re all set. You sure you’re good to run two legs? Really? Because I could do it if you’re not up to it. It’s not a big deal. I just won’t be as fast.”
Allison and I exchanged a meaningful glance. “I’m good,” I assured her. Or maybe I was trying to assure me. Hopefully one of us believed me, at any rate.
“Okay. Well, you have the option of doing the legs back-to-back or resting in between. Your choice. Just let me know, so I can tell the guys recording the times.”
“I’ll do them in succession. I’m afraid if I rest, I won’t be able to make myself start running again.”
“All right,” Meaghan said, clapping me on the back. “Good luck.”
“Thanks. I’m gonna need it,” I mumbled to myself as she strode away.