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Asheville, North Carolina--September 25th
Clay's ears ached, his head hurt and, after the flight, he was in no mood for a cheerful greeting. He could see he was about to get one, though. The candidate was waiting for him, wearing that same wide smile she wore in her photos. No one had told her yet that she was being considered for COMPASS. As far as she knew, he was only there as a rep from Homeland Security, come to assist her in the investigation.
She held up a hand-lettered sign with his name on it and looked straight at him. He nodded and strode over to her, his most intimidating glare daring her to be chipper.
She stuck out her hand. "Agent Senate? Thanks for coming, sir. I'm Vanessa Walker."
Cate had been right--this one was small, probably 105 pounds, and she looked about eighteen years old. He knew better, though. She was twenty-seven.
"Agent Walker," he acknowledged, shaking her hand. Hers felt delicate, but her grip was strong. Not surprising. She had graduated second in her class at the FBI Academy and weak-lings didn't get through there.
She laughed self-consciously and broke the connection, tossed the sign into a nearby trash receptacle and tried to take his carry-on away from him. It weighed a ton, so he held on. She let go with a shrug. "Okay. Off to baggage claim. You have a nice flight?"
He grimaced ahead of them at the young mother dragging the five-year-old with the whine and the twitchy feet, who'd performed a horizontal River Dance on the back of his seat. "Not really."
"Turbulance?" she persisted, following his line of sight to the kid. She didn't bother suppressing a chuckle.
"You might saythat."
"Sorry. Would you like a drink?"
He stared at her as if she had lost her mind.
"Can you? Drink, that is?" Perky. Too perky.
"Of course I can drink."
"Not much. Why?"
She shrugged. "Some people have a problem with alcohol. I like to identify the ones who do and avoid them in working situations. Got shot once when I didn't. Friendly fire, too."
Clay mumbled a curse. "Don't get touchy. It's a fact. Do you smoke?"
"An occasional cigar, never around loaded weapons." She laughed, a low sensual sound that did something salacious to his insides. "Ah, a sense of humor. Here we are!" As if reaching the baggage ramp were a feat to celebrate.
They stood silently as they waited for the baggage to begin making its slow circle. But silence seemed more than she could stand for long. She took a deep breath and released it. "So, where are you from?"
Her lips tightened with exasperation. "I'm making polite conversation. Is it a secret?"
He focused on the empty baggage ramp. "McLean,Virginia." She raised an eyebrow. "Conoy, Manahoac or Delaware?"
"Do you really need the family history?" God, he sounded grumpy, even to himself. He tried to temper the question with a smile. It wasn't her fault he was exhausted.
"Nope." Again she shrugged. "Just wondered. My mother was Italian, by the way. Daddy met and married her when he was in service. Most of us aren't full-bloods. And with those eyes of yours, it's pretty obvious--"
Clay couldn't believe her lack of tact. "Why would you care?"
"No reason. I just think it's good they sent an Indian. You'll understand what I mean when I say I've got a feeling some-thing's gonna pop."
"Oh, right," he said cynically. "That mystical thing we have going. How could I forget all those movies I watched?"
"You like to scoff, don't you? But you know it's so. My boss thinks my informant's just a woman taking potshots, trying to get this guy locked up because she found out he was an ex-con and he scares her. Me? I take it seriously when somebody discovers a possible threat and bothers to call it in."
She took a breath, something he was beginning to wonder whether she ever needed. "I believe her. Bad vibes on this one."
"Vibes. Lovely," Clay muttered.
Her smile had disappeared. "I know Hightower. He's capable of this."
"You know him personally? Should be a piece of cake then."
"Don't bet on that, but we'll get him sooner or later. Just hope it's sooner."
Clay closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose, trying to relieve his headache. With a resigned sigh, he opened them and saw he had missed his bag and would have to either run after it or wait for it to come around again. "Damn."
"Was that one yours?" She chased it down before he could answer. All that energy of hers was making him tired.
Watching her struggle with the heavy suitcase suddenly struck Clay as funny. Since he'd just returned from an assignment in Seattle, maybe he was spazzed out from lack of sleep. By the time she had thumped it down on the terminal floor, he had sobered. He walked over and picked it up. "That's it. Let's go."
"You won't need a rental car, by the way," she told him.
"We have an unmarked you can use, or I'll cart you around since we'll be working together. I like to drive."
Yeah, she looked young enough to have just taken her first driving test. Her tailored red pantsuit fit a body any sixteen-year-old would envy, breasts high and firm, waist tiny and hips slender. She wore her ink-black hair slicked back into a braided knot. No jewelry besides the small silver studs in her earlobes. Her nails were bare, short and beautifully shaped. She wore no makeup that he could discern except for a touch of lip gloss.
Either she was a natural beauty or very skillful with the war paint. He suspected the former and approved her apparent lack of vanity. Oddly, that made him wish he could compliment her, but he didn't. It would be highly un-PC to say anything that might be considered a come-on to a prospective hire or a fellow agent.
His dark mood had improved by the time they reached her vehicle. It was a tan Ford Explorer with only a couple of years on it. Comfy and cool. He stretched his legs, leaned his head back, closed his eyes. To his surprise, she remained quiet for a good half hour. A really good one, during which he grabbed a few z's. He wasn't interested in scenery and sleeping kept him from staring at her.
When he woke up and checked his watch, he realized he felt a little better. At least his headache was gone and his ears had popped so he could hear normally again.
"Had you rather go straight to your home away from home or the office?" she asked, sounding a bit tired herself now. She was no longer smiling, no longer perky.
"Office. Might as well get the show on the road.Will I be able to interview your caller today?" It was already midafternoon.
"No problem. She lives in Cool Spring on the way to where you'll be staying."
Clay noted the change in his new temporary partner grow even more marked as they approached her place of work. So marked that he felt compelled to ask "Is something wrong?"
"Agent Roan sent me to pick you up but he'll offer you one of the guys to work with instead of me. Count on it."
"Because you're female? That's ridiculous," Clay said vehemently. Vehement only because he had already entertained some reservations about her himself since meeting her. Her size, her flagrant optimism, her lack of broader experience in law enforcement. But she was a well-trained agent, and according to her record, beyond simply capable. He hated any kind of discrimination and would not be a party to it. Walker was getting her chance.
He had to work with her. How else would he determine whether she would fit in COMPASS? Even if she wasn't quite ready, she would have months of extra training to prepare her for that job if he did recruit her. As for her boss trying to edge her out of this investigation, Clay set her mind at rest. "Don't worry. I'll take care of it."
She shot him a wry glance. "It's not the boy-girl thing if that's what you're thinking," she admitted. "See, I sort of overstepped my bounds by conferring with the chief out at Qualla about the case. It was hard not to since we're related. The boss is still ticked off that I discussed it. We butt heads pretty regularly."
Clay smiled at her moxie. "Nothing scares you, I guess." She treated him to a blinding white smile that showed dimples. "Not much, no, but I have to admit, you're a little scary. I'm glad you're on my side. You got a wife?"
Damn, she kept throwing him curveballs. "No," he said. "No wife."
"Not surprised," she commented just as they parked. She popped her seat belt and hopped out of the car, energy crackling around her like static electricity. "You're the best-looking man I've seen in a long time, but that scowl of yours would terrify the bejesus out of most women."
But not her, obviously. Clay could only shake his head in wonder. The girl was outrageous, without a smidgen of diplomacy, and sort of exhausting to be around. He imagined the local Bureau would be delighted, or at least a little relieved, if he did steal her away from them.
"AgentWalker?" he called as she started up the steps, intending to advise her to let him do the talking when they went inside.
She stopped to wait for him at the top. "Might as well call me Van," she said, pausing with her hand on the door. "Everyone else here does. I think they like to pretend I'm a guy." She wrinkled her nose.
"Then they must have excellent imaginations," Clay said, without thinking that the comment sounded sexist until it was already out there. "Thanks. May I call you Clay? Not in there, of course," she assured him, gesturing at the door with a quick lift of her chin.
"No problem." What else could he say without sounding unfriendly, even pretentious?
A glance at his watch told him it was nearly four o'clock. "Let's get this out of the way and then get busy. If that informant of yours is not jerking us all around, we don't need to lose any time on useless networking."
Her smile flashed again. "Hey, my kind of man." She swept open the door and indicated he should precede her.
A quarter hour later, Van cradled her coffee cup and sat with one hip hitched up on her desk, trying to hear what was going on in the boss's office. The walls were thin, but not thin enough to catch the words, only to hear that the argument to replace her was subtle, noncombative, but intense.
Two of her fellow agents, Buddy Dean and Joe Middle-brooks, listened with her unabashedly, watching for her reactions.
In defense of her boss, Vanessa knew half his reasons for disliking her were probably valid. He would be telling Agent Senate how she was too outspoken, too ambitious and that she tried entirely too hard. How those things caused resentment.
Dammit, she had to be an overachiever. How else could she prove herself? Everybody in the world knew that a woman had to work twice as hard to prove herself in a male-dominated field. In a same-case scenario, a man was applauded for his initiative while a woman was labeled overly aggressive and presumptuous.
Not that they meant to be chauvinistic around here. The men she worked with were good people, dedicated and conscientious. They worked hard and made a difference. All she wanted was to keep up with them and gain their respect.
She tried to keep a low profile. Not that she was all that modest and certainly not lacking in ambition, butVan was afraid the boss would think she was trying to beef up her participation into something that might get her promoted. This time she was going all out, begging for the lead on the case, even if it meant working with another agency on it. This threat was very real.
Hightower wasn't finished. But even with that considered, it had been a homemade bomb, not even a large one. Even she knew it was a local problem, technically not warranting FBI intervention. She wouldn't be in on it if Lisa hadn't called her directly and gotten her involved. So Van had to wonder why the powers-that-be had sent Agent Senate down here to assist. Scary as it was, this was not a national threat.
The door opened and Clay came out wearing that scary frown she hoped to have a chance to get used to. Vanessa stood and put down her coffee cup, ready to bow out gracefully if Roan had changed Senate's mind. Buddy and Joe stood, too, fully expecting to be called to duty in her place.
"We're burning daylight, Agent Walker. Let's go," Senate said, looking straight at her. She caught the almost undetectable hint of a smile in his eyes.
Van gave herself a mental high five and barely contained a whoop. Instead, she calmly picked up her purse and slung it over her shoulder. "Yes, sir."
The urge to wink at Buddy and Joe almost overwhelmed her, but she refrained. Decorum had suddenly become important, at least until she was outside the building.
On the way to the car, she gave him a pat on the arm and thanked him. He cut those steely gray eyes at her and Van got the distinct feeling she had overstepped again. Maybe he didn't like to be touched.