Authors: Doranna Durgin
Because she did want a child. And she wanted a child with Cole. But…
Hard truth…she didn’t know what she wanted. She just knew the hope of it made her ache in so many ways she couldn’t begin to count.
Try as she might, she couldn’t reconcile his presence in the park with his CIA position. By definition, Cole’s work was done on foreign soil. And foreign soil was exactly where he should have been—not right under her nose in D.C. Kissing.
Gah. She trusted him completely…and not at all. No way to start a family—no way at all. Not unless she wanted to continue the streak of the Amazing Divorcing Shaws. Grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles…siblings. A divorce-enabled clan.
Selena growled a little under her breath. When she realized what she’d done she swiftly checked the Kemenis, but they were busy showing each other pictures and telling exaggerated stories of their family loyalty to the Berzhaan that should be. Not so busy they didn’t have an eye on her, but a little growling was apparently only to be expected.
She shoved the MRE trash aside, licked a last crumb of cookie from the corner of her mouth and cradled her head in her arms. Athena training had started her young…endurance courses, survival in the White Tank Mountains of Arizona…they’d taught her she could do more than she thought she could. Always. Always one more sit-up, one more mile, one more day. But now, with this very long day and several terrorists behind her, drained by illness and lack of food, she thought she’d just take advantage of the quiet moment she’d been given.
And then she’d find some way to get Allori, Razidae and the kids to safety. Poor, scared kids. They were holding up well….
But then, to judge by the Kemenis’supplies, this had only just started.
“—hadn’t expected you’d trust us enough to sleep so deeply.”
Say what? Selena opened her eyes, got an up-close-and-personal view of the tabletop, and discovered her head had slipped from her arms, her cheek mashed against the surface, her breath misting the lamination with each exhalation. She blinked, took a deep breath and lifted her head with as much dignity as possible. “You said you wanted me unhurt. I didn’t think they’d dare defy you.”
Besides, they probably figure they’ll get their chance later.
She didn’t know how long she’d slept, but to judge by the crick in her neck and her grumpy frame of mind, it had been a while. She rubbed the side of her face, swept her hair back and stretched as though she didn’t have a care in the world. Huge mistake, because she had plenty of cares—and as soon as she moved her battered arm, pain swelled in protest. She couldn’t help but wince.
His expression remained unreadable. “You’re right about that much. They won’t touch you until I say they can.”
“I would apologize for keeping you waiting, but I see you’ve made good use of the time.” He nodded at the MRE trash as he reached for a chair, putting it opposite her and so close that their knees nearly touched.
“No problem,” Selena said, carefully bending her arm so as to get a glimpse at her watch—5 a.m. A nice little nap at that. “I’m sure you keep pretty busy with all your terrorist things. You know, phone calls to Berzhaan to make threats, phone calls to various embassies to make threats, strangling puppies and boiling rabbits….”
The corner of his mouth twitched. Ire or amusement, she couldn’t tell—and that imposing set of features gave nothing else away. Not even a smudge of fatigue…how unfair. She decided he must have had a nice nap, too, and felt better immediately.
Quite abruptly, he asked, “Who are you?”
She grinned. Her face had stiffened, but she grinned anyway. “Can’t figure me out at all, can you?”
“American woman,” he said. “You came with Allori, and the guards knew you. You speak Berzhaani as fluently as I’ve heard from any foreign tongue. No doubt you’re from the embassy…one of their CIA plants, perhaps.”
Selena snorted with such expressive spontaneity that he suppressed a smile and said, “No, then. Their loss, perhaps.”
“Thank you. For that, you can call me Athena.” She hadn’t thought ahead…it had just come out. But she supposed there was no harm in it. In fact, it bolstered her—made her think of the strength she’d found at the Athena Academy…the way the young women there never gave up. “And for the record, I also speak Russian, Euskara, Portuguese and probably any other language you care to name offhand.”
“Athena.” This time he downright smiled, as dry as it remained. “Appropriate.”
She didn’t respond. She let the silence stretch between them, tight as it was. Until he finally broke it, quite matter-of-factly. “You’re going to help me,” he said, and sat back in the chair as though it were a done deal, his knees still close to hers. He’d changed, she suddenly realized—he no longer wore his expensive suit, but blended in with the others in Kemeni chic—an olive-green military sweater that he wore like a cover model, and khaki cargo pants not unlike her own.
Quite reasonably, Selena told him, “No, I’m going to stop you.”
He smiled, a tight expression but this time true amusement. “Unlike your government, you say what you mean. If you continue to do so, you might not find your death so unpleasant after all.” He nodded at her, and his expression hardened. “What did you do with the man who once wore that shirt?”
She’d told Atif…
if they get close enough to see the blood, I’ll already be in trouble.
And she was.
“Does it matter?” she asked, thinking of Atif hiding in the cooler. Leading Ashurbeyli to the body would lead him straight to the injured cook. “He doesn’t need the shirt anymore.”
“And the others who have gone missing? Are they all dead?”
After a moment, Selena shook her head—a minute gesture. And then to forestall the next question, she raised an eyebrow at him. “You imply otherwise, but my country has been perfectly honest with you. We never supplied you with arms. We never supported the Kemenis with one hand and Razidae with the other. So when your funding dried up, that wasn’t us, either.” She nodded at the spot where she’d earlier seen Jonas White, a little huddle of chairs next to which still sat the remains of a substantial meal. “Where’s Jonas White? Why don’t you ask him about the way your supplies and funding dried up? Ask him about Frank Black, who also used the names Richard Dunst and Roscoe Dupree, especially when he was doing White’s dirty work. Ask him, why don’t you, about those ridiculous Abakan rifles. Why do you think you have them? Because he got his hands on them and needed to unload them, and he did it in a way that let him jerk the Kemenis around.”
He sat straight up, his expression shifting from indulgent to furious before she finished forming the last word.
Oops. Went too far.
He slapped her. Backhanded, heavy…powerful. And then he sat back as though he hadn’t lost his temper at all, the only signs of it lurking in his flared nostrils and the fire banked in his eyes. “Be respectful, or pay the immediate consequences.”
“You want respect?” Selena found her hand on her cheek, the existing bruise reawakened, blood trickling anew. “Then earn it. Let those kids go. They don’t have anything to do with your problems.”
“They represent countries who have interfered with us. They’ll stay.” He flicked a hand in dismissal. “Now. You work for the United States. You work with Razidae and his government. You understand them both.
can make them understand how serious we are. Make this real to them. At the moment they simply play games with us. They watched bin Kuwaji die, and yet they don’t take us seriously.”
“Oh, they take you seriously all right,” Selena said readily. “Let me guess—Berzhaan won’t even respond to your communication. The U.S. is stalling and pretending not to.”
Ashurbeyli pressed his lips together. Hard. Sensuousness thinned to nothing. “Essentially.”
“It’s like this,” she said, and then hesitated, her thoughts tugged by awareness of the chaos on the other side of those halogen lamps—the discord between the countries involved, the struggle for control. Berzhaan capitol, U.S. personnel, hostages scattered across a handful of national lines.
She thought, too, of Cole, still waiting to hear from her…no doubt imagining the worst.
And probably close to being right.
As long as she’d been able to reach him, he served as her secret weapon. Her off-site backup. The man she trusted to cut through red tape and national barriers to get her the information she needed and to pass along the inside intel she provided, tidbits that would help keep them all safe.
The deep voice she’d counted on to fill her ears and bolster her confidence. She didn’t need it; she could depend on herself.
But she wanted it.
Ashurbeyli hadn’t so much as cleared his throat…just the slightest rise of a single eyebrow. But it was enough to rivet her attention back where it belonged.
She said, “Berzhaan won’t deal with you. They’ll sacrifice all of us before they let this country fall into Kemeni control. I can’t believe you don’t know that. And Berzhaan won’t ask for help from the States. The U.S. is planning something anyway…several somethings, probably. Things they can put into play and apologize for later. They’ll claim it’s for Razidae, but they can’t afford the bad juju of losing those kids.”
“Juju,” he repeated.
She ignored that and added thoughtfully, “In fact, I really wouldn’t touch the kids. There’s not much you can do to rile up the U.S. more than picking on kids.”
He tipped his head to send a sardonic look her way. “So you’d have me believe Berzhaan is prepared to let you all die, and your United States is playing quiet but ready to spring. That we’re doomed either way. That if I take you to that front door and add your blood to bin Kuwaji’s, no one will be moved by the death of a woman.”
Selena wanted to swallow hard. She wanted to bite her lip. She wanted to make a run for it right then and there.
But she cleared her throat and said, “Essentially, yes. The success of your action here rests on the belief that someone with influence will bend to your demands. That’s not the case. Berzhaan will either wait or have the Elite Guard storm the place, and the States will pick their moment and mow you down with SEALs.”
He simply stared at her. Not startled, not angry. Just watching. Waiting to see if she’d hold on to those words.
But she’d meant it, every bit of it. She gave him the slightest of smiles, as though none of it was any concern of hers. In truth, she knew herself in the presence of a man so strong that little she could say would affect her fate one way or the other. He already knew his ultimate plans for her. With words, she might change the exact events that got her there…but only with action would she save her own life.
And the hostages. Those frightened children. Hadn’t she gotten into the counterterrorism racket just precisely to prevent this sort of situation?
She just had to pick her time. She had to hope she lived long enough to find that time.
Ashurbeyli nodded, a precise gesture. “I see. This is your final assessment of the situation? Are you certain you wouldn’t like to try some fancy Western lies to talk your way out of trouble?”
She snorted. “I don’t lie very well. And frankly, I’m surprised you expected anything different.” She hesitated, considering him—wondering just what he had expected, and what he truly hoped to accomplish here. “And U.S. policy is spread all over the news, every day. We’ve dedicated ourselves to taking down groups like yours.” She didn’t hide her regard, looking at him much as he’d looked at her. Thoughtfully. With much assessment. It seemed to amuse him. The byplay in general seemed to entertain him, a fact for which she was mighty grateful. As long as he stayed amused, he wasn’t likely to throw her to his men.
Just a matter of time.
A matter of time, too, before another hostage died. But for now, she’d try to ride that thin balance of being useful and annoying and, yes, of being amusing…and just possibly, making a point. “Who talked you into this, anyway? White? What did he dangle in front of you? Something better than those rifles he provided? Better than the nonhalal MREs?”
His eyes narrowed.
Ah, struck a nerve.
He leaned forward; she had to steel herself to avoid reaction. Knee to knee, sheer charisma carrying between them like a direct connection…if only this man had thought to dedicate himself to
With the first heat of the conversation, he said, “Those rifles came from
people. From the United States.”
She raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You’re kidding, right? Abakans? It’s a Russian rifle.”
He waved away the words. “Exactly. No ties to the States.”
“Not only that, it’s a
rifle for basic troop use.” Selena crossed her arms, unable to suppress a wince but not hesitating over it. “No, those rifles came from Frank Black. The recently deceased Frank Black. At least, that’s the name you knew him by, and far from being a U.S. rep, he actually spent his dearly departed days running errands and playing evil henchman for Jonas White. We’ve learned quite a lot about Frank Black lately, as it happens. It was Jonas White who gave you those nasty rifles, Jonas White who diverted those MREs your way. And then he lost his empire because sometimes life is good and just, and he came looking for a new power base.” She nodded at him. “That would be you. If you’re successful. But you won’t be.”
He stood so abruptly that the chair scooted away behind his legs. “That’s enough.” But he scowled, a definite and outright scowl over her words about White.
“Bring him in for a little conversation, just the three of us,” Selena suggested. “See how hard he sweats.”
“The time for talking is over.” Ashurbeyli looked at the door separating the ballroom from the function room, and Selena instantly knew what he was thinking.
“No,” she said, her cool calm dissolved into desperation. “Not yet. Not until you understand how you’ve been used—”