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Exception To The Rule
By Doranna Durgin
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"You'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 surgery 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 them, 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 and the client loses? What if this messes with my ability to play the roles? There's a reason 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 fingers 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."
Excerpted from Exception To The Rule by Doranna Durgin Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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