Authors: Doranna Durgin
“No need to remind me,” Kimmer said, voice dry. “But don’t you suppose someone might just recognize me? Why not use my own name?”
“That would virtually guarantee recognition, which would provide too much of the distraction you’re worried about.” Owen gestured to encompass her from head to toe. “You were only a girl when you left. Now…no more wild hair, no birthmark, clothes that fit…no one’s likely to connect you to Kimmer Reed.”
Did she dare go back? Was Owen right, that her habitual distance wasn’t the strength she’d always considered it? Kimmer knew, suddenly, that she was indeed headed for Mill Springs. Back to western Pennsylvania. Back where memories lurked, waiting to pounce, and where she might well even be recognized.
But they were old memories from a young girl, and she was grown now.
She would pounce back.
obtained a degree in wildlife illustration and environmental education, then spent a number of years deep in the Appalachian Mountains, riding the trails and writing science fiction and fantasy books. This award-winning author eventually moved to the Northern Arizona Mountains, where she still rides and writes, focusing on classical dressage with her Lipizzan. There’s a mountain looming outside her office window, a pack of dogs running around the house and a laptop sitting on her desk—and that’s just the way she likes it. You can contact her at [email protected] or P.O. Box 31123, Flagstaff, AZ 86003–1123 (SASE please) or visit www.doranna.net.
For Mona and Chuck Durgin, my cheerleading parents
With thanks to Matrice
And to William Sanders, Robert Brown,
Nancy Durgin, Clint C, Chase Brandon,
Tom-who-read-it-first and Judith-who-read-it-fast.
Mistakes are all mine, mine, mine!
Exception to the Rule
“Shaken and Stirred”
ou’re going to Mill Springs.”
Owen Hunter could have reached across his desk and struck Kimmer without startling her any more deeply. She froze, stuck in a moment of pure inability to comprehend. And then she realized her hands had clenched around the curving wooden arms of the chair, and she made an effort to relax them.
It worked for about three seconds before her knuckles went white again.
She hadn’t expected that ambush. Not from Owen. He’d been on the team that had first picked her up: a runaway, caught in the middle of a Hunter operation and piquing his interest with her instant realization of—and appropriate reaction to—that fact. He knew what she’d been. How hard she’d worked to leave it behind.
This was her world, now—a world where laser sur
gery had taken care of her nearsighted eyes and facial birthmark, expert shears had tamed her relentlessly curly hair and experience and training had taken instinct and honed it into professional expertise.
I’m not going back
The first time Kimmer opened her mouth in response to Owen’s pronouncement, nothing came out. The second time she unleashed biting words. “Couldn’t you find anyone else who can pronounce ‘crick’ or ‘worsh’ or ‘Pinsivania’?”
“It’s more than that, and you know it.” Owen interlaced his fingers atop the papers on his desk, understanding her outburst but not yielding before it. His craggy features remained deceptively impassive. “If we had more time, any of our people could handle this case—other than the need to blend into the environment, there’s nothing particularly challenging about it. But we don’t have time, or I wouldn’t have pulled you off the Australia assignment in the middle of the night. And we’re not asking you to return home. Mill Springs isn’t home.”
“It’s not far away.” The shock began to fade, replaced by anger. But it was a cold anger, an expectant anger. People used Kimmer Reed for their own ends—they always had, and always would. She had simply failed to anticipate that this particular man would use her in this particular way. Not when he as much as anyone in her current life knew what and where she’d come from. And not when he shifted his gaze away. Only for an instant…but long enough. “You’re up to something. Spit it out, Owen, or I walk.”
The air tightened down around them. It wasn’t a
threat she’d ever made…and it wasn’t empty. He couldn’t have been ready for it—though neither had she been ready for him to withhold something so crucial.
“I’m sorry.” He ran his knuckles under his chin, gave a short shake of his head. “I should have known better. But you won’t like the answer any better than the prevarication.”
Owen sighed. “We’re worried about you, Kimmer. We think this is a good opportunity for you to…face yourself.”
For once Kimmer found herself flummoxed. “I look in the mirror all the time.”
“Exactly,” he said dryly. “And what do you see there? Characters you become for our needs. Faces you assume so not only do the others never see who you really are, but you never really have to look at
, either. You’re not connected to the people in our work—not even to yourself.”
She very nearly sputtered. She managed to merely narrow her eyes. “That’s possibly the most arrogant thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
He shrugged with no apparent offense. “You know people in your way,” he said, “and I know them in mine. The family agrees.” As she stiffened, he gave a slight nod. “Yes, of course we’ve been discussing it. We’re worried, as I said. And when this assignment came through, we all agreed—it’s something you need to do.”
He had to be kidding. Or insane. “What if being back in that area is just so distracting that I screw up the job? What if I lose
the client loses? What if this messes with my ability to play the roles? There’s a
you call me Chimera.”
This time he held her gaze steadily. “Those are risks.”
“And if I refuse?”
“I’m asking you not to.”
“And what if I refuse anyway?”
He leaned back in his chair. It gave way behind him, tilting on sturdy springs. “It would change things,” he admitted, and the fluorescent lighting came down harshly on his face at this angle, making shadows out of the least opportunity. “We would have to reprioritize your assignments, so we didn’t waste time when we had no time to waste. On a job like this, for instance. We’d have to reevaluate how we’re going to use your skills, if we feel you’re hindered by the distance you’re putting between yourself and those you work with—whether it’s a client or our own people.”
It would change things
. And changing things would change her life—a life for which her mother had unknowingly prepared her. Her mother, rocking her to sleep, bruises covering her face and tears smudging her cheeks, exhorting her only daughter to be strong. To be her own champion. To live by rules of survival. And showing Kimmer by example what would happen otherwise.
Kimmer’s father had made sure she’d know, too. And her brothers, cruel boys who took after their father in every way—they’d driven those lessons home. Kimmer had been lucky to escape so young.
Luck, nothing. You ran like hell
But she wasn’t running now. From Owen…or from herself. She’d make her choices and she’d live with them.
Kimmer regarded Owen for a long, silent moment, which he ended by letting out a sigh and using two fin
gers to push the paper across the desk to her. “Just look at the particulars.”
She kept her gaze on his face as she picked it up, not letting him off the hook.
Mill Springs bed and breakfast, think tank computer wizard currently assigned to a military contract on the run for what she’s discovered, boyfriend concerned and wants her protected
“As you can see, she’s got primary protection,” Owen said, interrupting at just the right moment after she’d skimmed through her cover identity, the names and details of the client, the subject, and the man named Rio Carlsen.
She tossed the paper back on his desk. “He’s ex-CIA. She’s in good hands. What do you need me for?”
“Don’t be disingenuous,” he said, the first signs of true annoyance showing in his frown. “He’s basically a bodyguard. He can’t afford the necessary time away from her side to know if they’ve been found or if action is imminent. And there’s some question about his physical condition.”
“So you want someone watching their backs until she thinks it’s safe to resurface. Which will be when she patches whatever problem she’s discovered.”
“Exactly. Her boyfriend knew next to nothing about it, but we’ve interviewed her boss, and that’s what we’ve been able to piece together. For all her boss keeps reminding us it’s a guess, he’s sure it has something to do with the laser-guided missiles they’ve been troubleshooting. The real twist is that the facility is under a very quiet internal investigation—they suspect they’ve got an active leak. If so, there are endless international and political factions who will hunt for Carolyne
Carlsen—and she definitely won’t come out in the open until she’s solved the problem.”
“And who knows how long that will be. Should I have packed for spring, too?”
A glint of humor replaced his frown, although Kimmer hadn’t intended to amuse him. Not when dread sat so heavily in her stomach. He said, “Her boyfriend seems quite confident of her abilities to wrap things up quickly. So does her boss. Anyone with an interest in this material will feel the same—thus the rush. We need you in place as soon as they get there. That means you’ll need to be on the road this morning.”
“Running from my boyfriend the next county over,” she said darkly, referring to the paper she’d read. “Nice cover.”
“It’s simple. It’ll get sympathy. It’ll give you a reason to be concerned about anyone else new coming into town.”
True. All of it true.
She nodded at the paper. “I want to talk to the fiancé. In person.”
Owen gave a single regretful shake of his head. “No time for that. He’s still up north of Albany. I’ve got a phone conversation—”
“It’s not the same.” But he knew that; it was the cause of his regret. She sighed, and gestured at the computer station to the side of his desk, a sleek, huge LCD screen over a tucked-away keyboard and CPU, peripherals stacked neatly on the shelves. Owen pulled the keyboard tray out and tapped in a few commands; in moments, the conversation played back over the computer speakers.
Scott Boyle. Concerned. Tense. A little peremptory,
obviously protective and used to playing the role. He spoke of Carolyne Carlsen’s peril, and of the stakes above and beyond her life. He mentioned a few facts about Ryobe Carlsen. Clearly he didn’t like Ryobe—or Rio, as he quickly shortened the man’s name—but didn’t seem to distrust him.
She couldn’t glean much else. Nothing that wasn’t in the report. “How’d you find out about the B&B? Boyle doesn’t have any idea where she’s headed.”
“The cousin’s cell phone records,” Owen said promptly. “No doubt Carlsen thought he was secure to use his own phone—only Boyle knows the cousin is involved.”
“What else have you got?” For the single piece of paper wasn’t it; that paper held only a summary of the players and situation.
He reached into a side desk drawer and pulled out a black leather accordion folder. Within there was a file on Carolyne; that could wait. It was the cousin she wanted to see—his background details, a sense of his ability—the person she’d be working with, albeit without his knowledge. And if he was
-CIA, perhaps there was a reason.
She pulled out his file, flipped it open to an 8x10 printer image of Ryobe Carlsen, and blinked in surprise. What an odd expression for a portrait, impatient and a little annoyed and yet still the hint of charm around a smile caught in the forming. She looked up at Owen, who, in a rare moment, appeared somewhat abashed. “It’s a blowup of his driver’s-license photo from a year or so ago. Other images seem…hard to come by.”
Good. That means he’s careful.
She took another look, glancing at the physical description on the page. Six foot three, a brawny build, born of a Danish American family, currently engaged part-time in repairing, cleaning, and storing boats with his brother in Michigan. Danish American…? She looked from the text to the picture. Not with that combination of features. Dark wheat hair, thick and straight and cut tight at his neck and over his ears. The upper section of hair grew long enough so his forelock fell rather fetchingly over one brow, lifted slightly by a cowlick. His brows themselves were dark, dark enough to make Kimmer wonder if the wheaty blond came naturally. She glanced into Carolyne’s folder, finding a young woman of sweetly pretty features on a longish face and the very same hair—perhaps not quite so thick, perhaps with a little bit of wave that was absent from his, but the color was identical. She too had those dark brows.
But she didn’t have her cousin’s tilted eyes, rich brown irises rimmed with black. And she didn’t have the bone structure that reflected those eyes, the angular cheekbones over an equally angular jaw.
“His maternal grandparents met in Japan,” Owen said, perfectly aware of the contradictions in Carlsen’s appearance that had caught her eye. “He was a sailor. She worked in a factory. They came over here and settled in with the Danish side of the family who’d already established themselves on Lake Michigan. It’s all in there, buried beneath his training, his performance, his hobbies.” Pen and brush calligraphy. A handy skill for covert identity creation in the field. And Carlsen had a weakness for crossword puzzles…no doubt he liked to
play with ciphers, too. Though he’d have no need for either in Mill Springs, Pennsylvania.
Owen jabbed a finger at the paper. “Written neatly between the lines is a scandal over his retirement—almost certainly he was hurt and has some kind of pension—but no one seems willing to talk about it. Someone messed up, and Carlsen paid the price.”
“Scandal.” She flipped the folder closed and stuffed it back into the accordion envelope. “That sounds promising.”
“His cousin trusts him with her life.”
“And her fiancé
He shrugged. “True. But I think we can figure he’ll be more than adequate in neutralizing close-range threats. As for you, it’s a simple cover. Forget all that work you did to drop your childhood speech patterns and you’re set. You already know more about the area than anyone else we’ve got, even if Mill Springs isn’t quite Munroville. There’s a car waiting in the visitor’s lot, and it’s got identification, a credit card, and quite a bit of cash waiting for you. Keep your phone charged.” He ignored the face she made, and she didn’t blame him. Not with her track record of cell phones and batteries. “Be frugal—your cover persona isn’t used to having an expense account.”
“No need to remind me,” Kimmer said, voice dry. “But don’t you suppose someone might just recognize me, even the next town over from home? Why not use my own name?”
“That would virtually guarantee recognition, which would provide too much of the distraction you’re worried about.” Owen gave her an amused look, gesturing
to encompass her from head to toe. “You were only a girl when you left. Now, no more wild hair, no birthmark, clothes that fit…No one’s likely to connect you to Kimmer Reed even if you walked into downtown Munroville.”
Kimmer snorted. Not likely to happen. But Mill Springs? Did she dare Mill Springs? Was Owen right, that her habitual distance represented a problem and not the strength she’d always considered it? Kimmer bit the corner of her lip hard as she came head-to-head with the decision and knew, suddenly, that she was indeed headed for Mill Springs. Back to western Pennsylvania. Back where memories lurked, waiting to pounce, and where she might well even be recognized.
But they were old memories from a young girl, and she was grown now.
She would pounce back.
Her assigned car, an older Taurus wagon with enough dings and scratches to suit her struggling cover persona, waited in the visitor’s lot as promised, looking sad and battered in the predawn darkness. Kimmer gave it a resentful stare and couldn’t quite yet open the door. She glared out over the facility, not needing sunlight or even breaking dawn to perfectly visualize the grounds.