By Emmy Curtis
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Abby Baston told herself it was a hit and quit, a one-nighter with a hot, handsome stranger whose hands were trained to take action. Working undercover for the CIA, she can’t risk anything more. But when an international crisis ignites, Abby must make a call: trust Mal with her secret-and her heart-and partner up, or lose everything in a split second . . .
Officer: Malone Garrett
Principal: Abigail Baston
Ops Update: Baston is still unaware. Her days have a routine that anyone could follow. And I mean anyone. My grandmother for instance. Each day she goes for a three-mile run, drives to the orphanage, and returns home.
I have been able to raise my skill level in Candy Crush, though, so I try to look on the bright side. I’m on level 1038 now. I’m a fucking genius at this. Have you tried it? I have to say, though, if I have to stay here much longer, the skills you really hired me for will be dormant. So…sorry about that. And that’s the British “sorry.” The one that means that I’m not sorry because it’s all your fault.*
Date of completion: Level 1039 here I come.
* Wasn’t sure if you’d understand that finer detail in print, so I thought I’d better explain. Probably made it less funny, didn’t it?
He hit ENTER and then had a pang of…something. He’d sworn to himself that he wouldn’t make fun of his boss’s concern about his daughter, but fifteen reports later and it was frankly too hard to keep a lid on his frustration. The sooner his boss realized that she was safe, the sooner Mal could go on to his next job—which would hopefully be more interesting than following the most bloody boring woman in the world around the most bloody boring town in Ukraine.
Abby Baston was one of life’s do-gooders. She’d dropped out of college in her first semester to join Aide Internationale and was currently working at a Ukrainian orphanage. She’d been there about six months, and her father was getting increasingly concerned for her safety, after the recent saber rattling of the Russians.
Mal’s instructions were to get her out if the Russians did anything aggressive, like storming the Ukrainian border. Of course the silly woman had chosen an orphanage less than five klicks from the Russian border.
And, of course, Mal was spinning his wheels, following her sorry arse around: apartment, run, apartment, orphanage, and apartment again. He wanted to shout at her to get a fucking life. Go somewhere interesting, do something dubious—anything to make this job less boring. She barely smiled or broke stride to even look in a shop window.
And it was fucking hard work, sitting there doing nothing. Under normal circumstances, he’d just engineer a meeting, seduce her, and pretend to be her boyfriend until the job was over. It was a method he’d perfected over time, and by far the easiest way to keep an unsuspecting principal close and safe.
Not to mention the most fun. But she wasn’t interesting enough to warrant even entertaining that idea.
Besides, he valued his job. Baston was one of the few people who didn’t bat an eye at Mal’s heavily redacted employment record. So this was a job worth keeping, and seducing the boss’s daughter was out of the question. Which meant that he actually had to do his job and follow her everywhere she went. And now his life was effectively as boring as hers.
He checked that the sitrep had been received, checked his watch and yawned, leaned back in his plastic lawn chair, and propped his feet on the windowsill of his apartment. A camera was set up on a tripod, for all the good it did. The girl closed the curtains when she came home from the orphanage at night. He sighed and closed his eyes. He’d never been as tired on a job as he was here.
There was just nothing to keep his brain occupied. In the two weeks he’d been in the flat, he’d tried crosswords, sudoku, and mahjong. He hadn’t actually tried Candy Crush. He was saving that as a last resort. Even his damn PC was complaining at the shit he was making it do. A quiet buzzer went off beside him and he reluctantly took his feet off the sill and leaned forward, his hand on the remote for the camera.
He’d put the alarm under the carpet in her doorway so that he’d be alerted to anyone entering her flat. Even if it was just her. He checked his watch again. Yup. She was bang on time.
His boss was a wizened old dog who had any number of awful and awesome stories to tell after a drink and a cigar. What the hell had happened to his offspring? His son was some kind of corporate lawyer and his daughter was…well, an aid worker. Where was this generation’s love of danger, excitement, and risk?
Okay, it wasn’t exactly a different generation; she was only six years younger than him. But still. He leaned back in his rickety chair and contemplated the women he’d had who’d been about six years younger. And then he wondered what Danielle was up to now—she’d been every bit of six years older than him…and those six years were all she’d admitted to. But she’d been a classy—and very dirty—lady. He grinned at the memory. They’d been in the Sinai; he’d been collecting intel, and she did work for the embassy. She’d opened doors for him in Egyptian society that would have remained closed to someone like him. She was—
He got up so fast that the lawn chair snapped closed and fell to the floor. Abby was opening the window, despite the chilly evening air. She was jumping up and down. What the…?
The floor-to-ceiling windows showed virtually all her apartment except the bedroom, which he’d already looked at the first time he’d broken in. He grinned as she waved her hands around. She’d burned something. Ouch, looked like it had spilled down her. For a second something panged in him, seeing her with red all down her shirt. A wafer-thin sliver of his brain thought she might’ve been shot, but the rest of his brain’s experience reminded him that gunshot victims rarely flapped around like that.
For a second something else flickered across his mind. That tiny sliver of his brain hadn’t been surprised at the prospect of her being shot. Mal’s eyes flickered to the right for a second as he tried to solidify that thought. There was something about her. Was anyone really that dull in real life? Especially a relative of his boss? Was she hiding something?
He’d survived years of combat and enemy activity just listening to his gut. And his gut was now singing a song that had been alien to him before Abby had spilled tomato sauce down her front. Accepting that maybe she wasn’t exactly as she seemed relaxed him. It was as if his instinct had been waiting for his brain to catch up. He was going to have to meet her.
Eyes on Abby, he opened a bag of strangely flavored Ukrainian crisps…no chance of burning anything in here. He hadn’t even touched the kitchen—such as it was—since he’d arrived. He watched the windows of her apartment, newly alert to any possibility.
She disappeared for a few minutes, and he picked up his binoculars.
He looked back up as a movement caught his eye. She’d taken her shirt off and was waving it around her head, trying to get the smoke out of the apartment. In her underwear. He fumbled the binoculars and they fell on his foot. He winced and picked them up, carefully stretching his foot to make sure there was no lasting damage.
Looking across the road, he could still see her waving the smoke away. His fingers twitched toward the binoculars again. Every cell in his body wanted to see her in her underwear, but he knew he shouldn’t.
Except…he had a hook in his brain now. Something wasn’t right. He just couldn’t figure out what.
He peered through the window. Yes, he could have gone all zoom lens on her, but knowing she was in her underwear kind of made him feel sketchy about looking. All he needed to do was make sure she was okay and try to figure out what was starting to bother him about her.
She was laughing at herself. Waving her arms around the room like a crazy person. He smiled. He’d seen her smile only a couple of times, and once had been in an ID photo that was in her file.
She started dancing like a crazy person, still wafting smoke out the window. She wriggled out of her skirt and started wafting that around her head, making her look like she was twirling duo lassos from a distance. It was like watching a totally different person. In virtually no clothes. He looked away again, but his eyes were inevitably drawn back to the tableau.
She coughed, covering her mouth with her skirt, and he tensed. Was there gas? Was the smoke too much for her? But she just turned back to the kitchen. Then she popped open a few other windows and continued waving her arms to get rid of the residual burning smell probably, laughing and singing, seemingly at the top of her voice. This was totally not the Abby he’d been following for weeks. Not even close. She looked fun.
She also looked okay. Determined not to invade her privacy anymore, he grabbed his phone and paged through the news. A flash from Abby’s window caught his eye and he looked up again. She was closing the windows and swishing the curtains shut. All but one that didn’t go all the way. He watched for a second and then went back to the news—such as it was. Celebrities, politics, and wars. He sighed and clicked through to a story about the G20 meetings that were being held in Athens. He knew a few operatives working there, so he scanned the article for anything familiar.
He took one more cursory look at Abby’s apartment.
Oh my God, what is she doing now? This was obviously a part of her evening routine that he hadn’t seen before.
Abby stretched like a cat, yawned, and held some kind of yoga pose. He saw only half her body between the curtains that hadn’t completely shut, but still, he couldn’t help but notice her breasts move together as she did.
He swallowed. Look away, look away.
He looked back.
She turned around and touched her toes. Jesus fucking Christ. Impossibly small panties covered barely anything. His eyes flicked to the binoculars. No way, Garrett. He wasn’t going to start being a Peeping Tom at this advanced age. God, he wanted to see her, though. What did that make him?
And did he really care?
It was like seeing her with a whole new perspective. Okay, she was almost naked, but still—he had to find out more about her, if only to quell his gut. He started to second-guess himself. Was he reaching for an excuse to actually meet her? Was he fooling himself into believing he had a gut feeling that something wasn’t as it seemed?
He looked again, resolutely leaving the binoculars on the floor.
He was a fucking saint.
Her wavy dark hair was pinned up in some kind of bun, and the reading glasses she wore seriously made Mal think he was watching True Confessions of a Librarian Behind Closed Doors. There must be a reality show like that somewhere in the world.
Between the swaying curtains that half hid her, she slid gently and slowly into the splits. She bent and touched her arms to her left foot, and then to her right, and then to her left again.
She brought her legs together in front of her and stood. Turning so her back was toward the window, she swung her arms around, holding each shoulder with her other hand, as if they were sore. Rolling her neck from side to side, she took out whatever was holding her hair up and let the curls fall down her back.
His mouth went dry. She was beautiful. Not her hair, or face, or body—although now that he was getting a good look, he couldn’t deny their allure—but it was her grace that really took a hold of him. It was as if there were two Abbys. The one who never cracked a smile, who followed a precise routine and never seemed as if she was capable of fun. The other could laugh at herself, even when the kitchen was on fire. She danced and sang and laughed. And then the way she held her arms, the legs that were obviously as strong as they were long. How her back looked when she stretched, long muscles moving under her skin.
He wondered what her skin felt like.
And wondered why he’d briefly thought it normal that she might have been shot.
She turned back to the window and reached behind her back as if she were about to take off her bra. He stood, stock-still, almost holding his breath. But her head jerked to the side, and she stopped what she was doing and picked up the phone from a sofa cushion.
Damn that caller to hell. Damn him.
He took a breath, realizing he was as hard as he’d ever been, not actually physically touching someone.
He wanted to meet her. To explore his gut feeling about her.
Sure. That was why.
Abby closed the curtains all the way, suddenly realizing that if anyone in the opposite building was home, which judging by the lack of lights didn’t look possible, they’d be able to see straight into her apartment, and probably judge her for her lack of cooking skills. To be honest, it could only loosely be called cooking.
How do you burn tomato soup? Then, how was it possible to move it so fast from the stove that it slopped over onto your only white blouse? She had no idea what was up with her today, but cooking was not in the cards. The smoke had already blackened the ceiling over the stove and she wondered for a second what would happen if the CIA couldn’t get their deposit back. She snorted softly to herself. Drone strike? A visit from “the guys”?
The smoke had left the apartment, leaving a sweet charred smell that she hoped would also dissipate soon. Good thing she wasn’t fieldstripping guns or having to pass aptitude tests. She’d been so clumsy recently. She was out of practice. With everything.
She’d had this insane idea that someone had been watching her, but she’d never seen anyone, and no one had intercepted her when she left to dead-drop information under the guise of going for a run. She’d looked for a good week before deciding that she was imagining it. The problem with being a covert officer—a solitary profession at the best of times—was that it made you slightly paranoid. Sometimes correctly, but most often not.
She stretched again and grinned to herself as she turned on the water in the shower. She never imagined she’d be given a job so dull that an imaginary tail would be a welcome distraction. Regardless, the Russian border and whoever crossed it was her only focus.
The orphanage—her cover—held a surveillance point, what she called her little watchtower, so she could keep her eye on the border.
She was just north of the “Russian-backed fighters” and the Ukrainians, who were having sporadic firefights in the towns and countryside. Thing was—no one knew if the fighters were really “Russian-backed” or if they were part of Russia’s legitimate army. If it was the latter and Abby could get proof, then the might of NATO’s combined armies would converge to get Ukraine’s back. It was probably the most important job she’d ever been given and she was going to effing ace it. Even if her hosts were less than impressed that she was there.
She switched off the water and stood staring at the shower wall for a second. For these six months, she’d only had contact with her landlord, Tanoff, and his disapproving wife, Brigda. Well, and the kids in the orphanage, but that didn’t really count since she was somewhat rusty on the hybrid Ukrainian/Russian that they spoke in the area.
Six long months on her own. She wanted to talk to someone. Just to see if she could smile still. If those muscles even worked. She wanted to touch someone. Even if it was an accidental brush of fingers.
As she dried her hair, she practiced smiling in the mirror. It was pitiful. Fake, and not to put too fine a point on it, it looked as if it pained her to smile.
Once, she’d worked from the US embassy in Moscow. She’d arrived in winter and the first thing she’d noticed was that no one smiled. Not in the street, not in the stores, not even in the embassy. It was as if an air of suppression rested on everyone in the country. An arctic freeze, she supposed. Only vodka brought smiles. And that was only if it was the good stuff. And those smiles only lasted until the bottle became empty. It was the same here. She blamed the proximity to the Russian border.
Maybe she’d go out tomorrow night. To that bar a few streets away that she passed on her way to the orphanage. She’d double-check the street name on her way to work tomorrow. Even if she only spoke to the bartender, it would be one more person on her scant list of contacts that she was supposed to fill out daily. She hated to think just how boring the analysts at Langley must think her. Or maybe she’d go to the restaurant she’d been to a couple of times when she’d had no food in the house. Whatever she did, she needed to socialize with someone. Anyone.
She suspected that her clumsiness, her off-center feeling, wasn’t coming from Russia but from her complete isolation.
Maybe she could pick a fight at the bar. If she had to punch someone to get skin-on-skin contact, she’d take that too. Fighting might be the closest contact she’d have had with another human being since— Crap, how long had it been? Maybe three years?
And that was nothing to sniff at.
Mal awoke to the familiar sound of a jackhammer outside his window. There were no noise ordinances in this town, and he’d basically started to use the noise as a morning alarm. Sometimes they started at six; sometimes it was closer to nine. He suspected it was down to the amount of vodka consumed the night before, and once or twice he’d considered dropping off a crate of booze for them when he needed a lie-in.
Abigail Baston didn’t usually leave until eight, so he still had—he looked at his cell phone—half an hour before he had to be in his car. A combat shower and a cup of instant coffee with hot tap water only set him back five minutes, so he stretched and thought about the previous night. He visualized her with the red stains on her shirt and tried to organize his initial gut reaction into something solid. What had changed?
He didn’t think it was the guy she worked with at the orphanage—he was married to a terrifyingly stern-looking woman. No one in his right mind would mess with her. And Abby hadn’t crossed paths with anyone else in the three weeks he’d been there.
Stretching on the thin mattress he’d bought and thrown on the floor when he rented the apartment, Mal went over her last day again. Nope. There had been nothing.
He closed his eyes and went through her routine again. So ordinary. So boring. Was it planned that way? Was she deliberately being routine-driven so as to lull anyone watching into a stupor? He sighed. If so, it had definitely worked. His mind shifted to her dancing around her apartment wafting smoke away with her blouse and skirt. He smiled. It was a different side to her, an appealing side.
He heaved himself up, and as estimated, in ten minutes he was showered, dressed, and working on being caffeinated.
His job was surveillance, but that didn’t mean he was following her every minute of the day. He basically checked in with her, making sure she was approximately where she was supposed to be when she was supposed to be there. Although from time to time he did follow her on her three-mile run, to the store, and to the orphanage, mostly he just sat back making sure no one else was watching her.
Why did his boss think someone might be watching her? At first he thought it was a normal daddy paranoia—not having kids, or anyone that he felt close to, Mal had no frame of reference for that—but maybe it wasn’t? He shook his head at himself. He was going to meet with her and assess her that way. If nothing twanged his Spidey sense, then he was going to go hard with his campaign to get off this case. Or lack-of-case. But right now—it was back to following her.
In truth, most people could tell when they were being watched. Whether they consciously understood it or not, some little voice whispered unease to them. And that was definitely not his intention with Baston’s daughter. Uneasy people did stupid things, and he had no desire to push her into any trouble that he’d have to extricate her from.
He got in his 1986 maroon Škoda and made his way out of town, about one klick away from the orphanage, where he parallel parked outside a used car lot and sat there, watching for her own Škoda to pass.
It did, and Mal sighed. Half relief, half sadness that this woman was so predictable. He felt very sorry for her. But that wasn’t his problem. In fact, the more boring her life, the faster he could return to doing a proper job.
God, he hoped Baston didn’t keep him here indefinitely to look out for his daughter. If only she’d given him an opportunity to hit on her, this long wait to be reassigned would have been easy. And probably fun. Yup, even though she was Baston’s daughter, if he’d become her friend, maybe even kissed her, it would have lightened the job somewhat. As it was, it was probably going to be the death of him.
Fuck this. He’d been watching her for three weeks and had seen her smile exactly twice. Once through a zoom lens when one of the orphans broke out of the house to welcome her and once last night. He’d watched, squinting, as the little kid had run into her arms. She’d smiled, once, and that one smile had chipped a sliver of ice from his cold, black heart. Then last night. He’d seen her bra, goddammit. Fuck this all to hell. He was going to meet her, come hell or high water. Screw Baston. He wanted out of this crazy assignment.
It was going to happen today. He had eight hours to figure out how.
Abby played with Lana, the little three-year-old, brown-eyed girl, while World War III raged in the kitchen. Tanoff and Brigda were arguing again about harboring an American. Well, to be more precise, an American government employee. That’s as much as the CIA liaison had told them when he’d handed over enough cash to keep the orphanage, and the children, going for a few years.
Brigda wasn’t happy about the arrangement, wanted more money for the perceived danger or wanted Abby gone. Tanoff was pleading with her not to do anything stupid. Abby’s ears pricked up. She’d never told them that she understood their language. Enough people in this part of Ukraine spoke English. Right now she was happy she hadn’t let on. But if he was talking her out of doing something stupid, then they must have already discussed maybe turning her in to the authorities.
The couple’s older son was a member of the local police. More like a town sheriff. He was a good-looking young man whose eyes had lit up when he’d met the American aid worker who was volunteering at his parents’ orphanage. But she had no doubt he would arrest her if Brigda voiced any suspicions about her to him. The problem with that part of Ukraine was that you could never be sure about anyone’s allegiance. He could be a Russian sympathizer, wanting to reintegrate with the mother country, or he could be a fierce separatist. Either way, if Brigda broke the confidentiality clause in the contract, all their money would disappear, and the orphanage would effectively be shut down. Abby didn’t want that either.
She listened until the argument wore itself out. She had a hunch that Tanoff knew that Aide Internationale was a front for the CIA. Why else would he get paid for taking in a volunteer? But she also sensed that he didn’t mind.
She carefully put Lana into her high chair as the eleven other children came running in from different parts of the farmhouse.
“No, no, no. Wash your hands first,” she chided. She motioned hand washing and pointed to the sink in the corner of the room, and they all lined up, taking turns stepping on the upturned crate she’d placed there so they could reach the soap and faucet. One by one, they stepped down and held their hands out to Abby so she could dry their little fingers with a towel. Secretly she reveled in the feel of their tiny trusting hands in hers. Half of her wished she were only here to help at the orphanage, that she had no ulterior motive that kept her up at night. No reason for Brigda to be suspicious of her and no reason to fear being sent to prison for spying.
The children took their seats around the table, and she kissed the heads closest to her before she slipped into her North Face jacket. Tanoff barreled into the room with plates, shouting, “Who’s hungry?” with a broad smile across his face.
Hands went up and shouts of “Me!” filled the room along with loud giggles.
Tanoff caught her eye. “You should go. Have some fun in town.” His eyes twinkled as she rolled her eyes.
“Sure thing!” She buttoned her jacket and grabbed her backpack.
“Drive with safety,” he said, placing plates in front of the rowdy children.
“I always do,” she replied as she did every day. “See you tomorrow.”
He smiled and nodded, directing his attention to little Leonid, who was tugging at his sleeve.
- "Risk of Exposure was so fun! Fluffy, sexy, romantic suspense goodness. Everything about this one was a good time. From characters to setting to the little bit of danger and some hot lovin'...Curtis held me captive."—Herding Cats & Burning Soup
- On Sale
- May 3, 2016
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Forever Yours