Read Athena Force 12: Checkmate Online

Authors: Doranna Durgin

Tags: #Romance

Athena Force 12: Checkmate (3 page)

Chapter 3

ut the e-mail warning hadn’t stopped Allori, only delayed them a few more crucial moments while he listened to Selena’s concerns. And then he’d issued a few quick orders and they’d headed for the Berzhaan capitol.

Late, late and later.

With one careful finger, Selena rubbed the bridge of her nose, not sure if she should have had lunch or if she actually regretted having breakfast. The scene in the lobby of the Berzhaan capitol building momentarily swam in her vision—but the moment passed and then the situation was all too clear: if they’d arrived on time, they would have gotten here before this busload of excited but respectful college students. Their bright winter coats would have proclaimed them foreigners if the quick whispers in English hadn’t; Selena heard all manner of accents, from American to Canadian to British. They clustered around the reception desk, trickling through the weapons detector arch one by one.

She and Ambassador Allori weren’t the only displaced arrivals. Off to the side, two smiling Berzhaani women—modern women in neat business suits and modest heels, uncovered by either chador or hijab—watched the procession with patience, while a tall Berzhaani man in a designer casual jacket over silk had a distractedly pleased expression. He was worth a second look, sleek and groomed and all cutting edges, his dark complexion giving him the same smoldering good looks that had earned Omar Sharif a generation and more of worshippers. He caught Selena’s gaze and raised an eyebrow; the gesture revealed more than he probably ever imagined. Regardless of his trendy appearance, her directness had surprised him, and to some extent offended him—but he saw nothing wrong with letting his gaze linger on her in return, judging her too-casual dress and her edgy red-piped, black leather coat, appreciating her long legs and the way that same tailored coat revealed her figure.

She gave him the slightest of nods, turned away with an ease that probably also offended him and considered the best way to discreetly cut the line.

She didn’t have to. The uniformed man behind the standing height lobby desk glimpsed Selena through the crowd, and then spotted the slightly shorter ambassador. He raised a hand high, gesturing to the familiar guard at the security arch. With practiced ease, the guard created a break in the line and then nodded at the ambassador. Selena followed, automatically sorting through the young people they pushed past, hunting potential threats.

There weren’t any, of course. Just a slew of impressed and curious expressions.
Who are they? Why are they getting special treatment?
One bold young man gave her the same appreciative once-over she’d just gotten from the Berzhaani man near the entrance, albeit with none of the finesse. The visual equivalent of
hey, baby.

Selena smiled at him, a knowing smile, and it startled him into a blush; he hadn’t expected to get caught. Blond hair, blue eyes; he could have been Cole a dozen years earlier.
Except Cole wouldn’t have been caught.

been caught.

A young woman poked the bold young man’s arm in silent vigor, blushing even harder than her friend…and sweetheart? Selena thought she saw a flash of jealousy in those wide-set eyes. She turned away, back to business, leaving the young woman a little space for dignity—and already methodically pulling her briefcase shoulder strap free, stripping herself of her gun and ejecting the clip to hand it over to the guard along with the extra magazines. As an afterthought she pulled the knife from the special inside sheath she’d had sewn into the coat. “Sorry,” she said. “I meant to get that one before we left.”

She thought she heard a stifled noise from her bold young admirer.
Bit off more than you could chew, eh?
She met the amusement in the guard’s eyes as he placed her things in a small lockbox and set them aside for retrieval upon exit, and then performed a quick scan on her black leather satchel briefcase. Within moments they’d passed through the security check, where one of the capitol’s nameless gofers met them with a smile and apologized for the delay as if Selena and Allori hadn’t been late in the first place. As the young man escorted them toward the prime minister’s office, he nodded at a hallway that led in the opposite direction. “We’re hosting a casual reception this afternoon. The college students, as you saw. And others to meet them, from the government and some of our own learning institutions.”

Selena glanced down the hall in question, finding a bustle of people in dignified dark green jackets such as their escort’s, pushing serving carts into position and pouring water into crystal glasses. A brief, loud argument between one of the capitol’s gofers and a cook took over the hallway just long enough for a woman in an exotic punjabi trouser-dress to intervene. The events coordinator. Selena had seen her before, though she’d never been in that part of the embassy herself. The chaotic nature of the event troubled her; she wished she knew more about it.

But then, she wasn’t here as the ambassador’s bodyguard.

Allori himself showed no sign of worry on his face—a round face made even more so by the extra weight he carried. He smiled at their escort. “I recall reading about the reception. Excellent idea.”

Their escort nodded. He, too, was of dark complexion, an olive cast as opposed to the rich brown tones of the Berzhaani in the lobby. Small, unimposing and unremarkable, he played his role with quiet perfection—drawing no undue attention, making or taking no easy offense. “If the young people of other countries see how forward-thinking we are…then we will have no need to change their minds when they are older.” He stopped beside an open door and gestured them in. “The prime minister begs your pardon, but was unable to avoid tending other matters. He’ll be with you as soon as possible.”

Selena didn’t need a translation.
You were late, and he had to move on to other things.
She nodded her thanks and followed Allori into the room—a lush room, the floor soft with a Sekha carpet over the wall-to-wall beneath, the wood accents of ceiling and trim dark and gleaming. A neat serving cart of wrought iron sat against the wall, offering everything from ice water to the finest leaf tea. Allori set his briefcase on one of the round-bottomed chairs and helped himself to some tea, fixing it in familiar ritual as Selena prowled the edges of the small room. He said, “You must have had an interesting morning. You’re as jumpy as I’ve ever seen you.”

She frowned at him. The room was undoubtedly bugged, and he was too experienced to have forgotten it.

He looked up from the steeping tea, the corners of his eyes crinkled slightly. Did she or did she not, he seemed to ask, want the prime minister to have terrorism on his mind—as well as the need to cooperate while countering it?

Selena sighed, closing her eyes in apology. The truth was, she
jumpy. And she had good reason. Following Allori’s lead, she spoke frankly. “I wish you’d taken my warning a little more seriously.”

“A warning with no specific source?” He waved her off.

“It’s my job to gather just such warnings,” she reminded him, arms crossed even with the briefcase dangling from one hand.

“Yes. Of course it is. And I’ll consider it later this afternoon, by which time you should have even more information for me.”

“You yourself showed me the warden’s notice—”

He dangled the tea egg a few times, then laid it neatly aside. “And I’ve taken it into account. Bonita’s packing her bags as we speak. We’ll make do with a skeleton staff for now.”

“Ambassador—” Selena rubbed the bridge of her nose again, right above the little bump Cole liked so much.
Don’t think about Cole.
Fatigue washed over her in a startling rush, turning her stomach. She closed her mouth on indiscreet words, a reiteration of the warning from Oracle—the alarming intel from the CIA, along with other military and agency listening posts with which an FBI legate such as Selena should have no direct connection. Word that the Kemeni rebels were indeed desperate in the wake of their lost faux U.S. support—that they had to grab power
or concede it forever.

There were reports of skirmishes, of dead Berzhaani citizens and one major bombing. The Kemenis had acted as if jabbed with a cattle prod, from quiescence in the shocked wake of Frank Black’s death to powerful intent.

Selena doubted the cheerful college students had so much as a clue of Berzhaan’s suddenly increased unrest. She herself knew only through Delphi—and the luck to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time this morning. Off to the shrine to seek peace of mind, and she’d found only violence.

“Selena?” Allori set his teacup in the saucer, brow drawing together. “Are you quite all right?”

And just like that, she wasn’t. Just like that, her stomach spasmed beyond even her iron control, and she blurted “Excuse me!” and bolted from the room, briefcase clutched in her hand. She remembered the bathroom as a barely marked door down the hall and only hoped she was right as she slammed it open.
Thank God.
Most of the room was a blur but she honed in on an open stall door, grateful for the lavish, updated fixture—

Better than a hole in the floor.
Been there, done that.

And when she leaned back against the marbleized stall wall, marveling at the sudden violence her system had wreaked upon her, the thought flashed unbidden and unexpected through her mind:
we were trying to start a family.

No. Not here, not
Not with Cole half a world away and an even bigger emotional gap between them. She knew he hid things from her; she’d thought she could live with that.
Maybe not.
Selena clenched down on her thoughts the same way she’d tried to clench down on her stomach and stumbled out to the pristine sink to crank the cold water on full and splash her face and rinse her mouth. She raised her head to find herself in the gilt-edged mirror, deathly pale, deep blue-green eyes bewildered—and then those eyes widened and she dashed back to the toilet.

When she lifted her head again, her trembling hand numbly reaching to flush the toilet, she didn’t have the strength to make it to the sink. She reeled a clumsy length of tissue from the dispenser and sat against the marble partition, overwhelmingly grateful for the impeccably clean nature of the capitol. She scrubbed her mouth and chin and then the thought came again:
we were trying to start a family.

Maybe they had.

Selena, only remotely in touch with the members of her divorce-torn family, had never had any heartwarming chats about pregnancy. Not with friends, not with her sisters-in-law, not with her coworkers. But she’d never gotten the impression that morning sickness—whenever it came—was quite this vigorous. Violent, even.

Maybe she’d just eaten the wrong thing for breakfast. Or maybe she’d finally have to admit to herself that in spite of her cool, collected self-image, once her emotions hit a certain amount of turmoil, her digestive system often did the same.

She had to know. To
First chance, she’d hit the little store that catered to the diplomatic staff and she’d get herself one of those little sticks and she’d pee on it. It didn’t matter that her period was a little late; that meant nothing. She was notoriously irregular when she traveled. Not until she had the little stick would she know for sure.

And then what?

She climbed to her feet, heading for the sink on wobbly legs. There she repeated the rinse-and-spit routine, unable to get the acrid taste of her sickness from the back of her throat. When she dared to look at her image again, she found that it reflected what she felt: she looked stronger, less green. This particular storm, whatever the cause, was over.

And then what?

What if she was pregnant in a strife-torn Berzhaan, her estranged husband not even knowing he was estranged? Theoretically he was still deeply undercover in wherever it was that he’d gone, unable to do more than send a sporadic e-mail or two.

Except she’d seen him in D.C.

Kissing someone else.

And now he’d sent her e-mail from his home address—and she hadn’t even had time to read it. But just looking at it confirmed that the one stable, steady thing they’d had between them in their four years of unspoken secrets and long absences was no longer stable or steady at all. That maybe it never had been.

No, no reason for emotional turmoil, not in the least.

Usually she and Cole managed to maintain steady communication when their jobs separated them. But this particular assignment had been a dark one, dark enough that if something happened to him, she’d learn only that he’d died in an auto accident while traveling. The dark assignments came along now and then, especially with the contract employees like Cole. With a two-year re-up on contract employees, the CIA station chiefs were willing to push them to the edge of burnout. It had damaged Cole and Selena’s marriage, in spite of their mutual understanding of the unique stresses in each of their careers. It had damaged Selena’s trust in Cole, watching him switch ably from role to role, ducking questions and hiding nightmares until she couldn’t help but wonder if their marriage was just one of the many parts he played.

Not that it surprised her. In her world, families didn’t stay together. People went their own ways when relationships became difficult, whether beset upon by emotional or logistical problems. She and Cole had overcome all manner of logistical difficulties—long-term assignments in different countries, frequent travel, the occasional international crisis. Recently she’d even thought he’d been lost…and afterward, they’d renewed their commitment to one another. Made up in a big way, celebrating the things they loved about one another, the ineffable chemistry that Selena’s ordered mind had never come close to explaining.

Even now she could feel it. Leaning against this sink with her throat burning and legs still weak, she could close her eyes and see the way he looked at her, remember the way he touched her…and yearn for him.

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