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Outnumbered, five to one. A single woman, standing against the enemy. Alisha darted to the left, as much to gauge her opponents' actions as to gain ground. They were women, all of them, unusual in Alisha's line of experience. A decade as a CIA agent had exposed her to facets of the world most people never saw, and those who did tended to be the the male part of the population. Maybe it was the thrill of the chase, or that the underworld she'd seen so much of was often violent, and men were fonder of danger.
But not today. Today it was just the girls, as if the agencies behind Mr. & Mrs. Smith had come out of the woodwork to play in the real world. There was a certain exhilaration to pitting herself against trained warriors of her own gender. The only disappointment was being unable to use her own secret weapon, an upper body strength that outstripped many women and men alike.
Get your mind in the game, Leesh.
The group around her surged and closed in, as if hearing Alisha's inwardly directed reprimand. A broad-shouldered redhead smashed into her path.Alisha cursed, stomach muscles clenching as she slid in mud and grass, searching for escape.
A quick glance around told her it was fruitless. The only way out was retreat, and under the circumstances, Alisha couldn't bring herself to do it. Voices bellowed in the background, carried on the wind. Preternatural hearing, the honed result of years of combat training, allowed her to pick out individuals from the cacophony, but the words and phrases all came down to the same directive: go!
A possible escape route opened up, two of her opponents spreading out farther than was wise.Alisha feinted, crashing her shoulder into another woman's.A whistle blew somewhere in the distance, a shrill reminder that time was growing short.
Mud spattered between her fingers and a yell sounded above her, muscular calves and muddy shins suddenly everywhere as she slid through the redhead's legs. Cleated shoes danced around her, instinct preventing their wearers from stepping on her, and then Alisha was on her feet again, one giant mud slick from chin to knees. It was a matter of yards now, less than ten. Eight. Five. My life, came the familiar thought, is a series of countdowns.
A projectile flew at her head. She whipped toward it, pushing all the strength in her body downward so she could shove herself skyward. Her own airborne velocity met the thing flying at her and she smashed her forehead against it, driving it toward the earth. Through brightness brought on by the impact she saw startlement, then dismay cross her last opponent's face.
The ball hit the ground with a wet splat. Alisha dropped after it, making a roundhouse kick that smashed its checkered surface past the goalie and into the net behind her.
Cheers and laughter and good-natured grumbling erupted around her. The goalie climbed to her feet, shins covered in muck from hitting the ground a moment too late to stop the ball. "Anybody ever mention you've got a competitive streak, Ali? Good game."
"Thanks." Alisha wiped a muddy arm across her face, compounding the damage done by the soccer ball, then put a hand up for help in rising. Three hands closed around her wrist and forearm and she was pulled to her feet as if she weighed nothing. "You played a good game, too."
"Ali doesn't think it's a game." The big redhead--Valerie, captain of the Sacramento suburb's Women's League team, fondly called the Soccer Moms--came up beside her, panting for air as she grinned. "It's all life and death with you, isn't it?"
Alisha tilted her head toward the goalie. "Like Kendra said, I've got a competitive streak. Keeps me young. Or maybe that's the yoga. I get confused." She winked, then turned as a trio of boys broke away from a crowd of children at the edge of the field. They rushed over, wrapping themselves around her ribs, hips and thighs, whatever could be reached according to their height. Alisha laughed, ruffling muddy hands through their hair. "Your mother's going to kill me.You guys are filthy now."
"That was cool,AuntAlisha!You totally kicked their butts!" The oldest boy looked up with sheer adoration in his eyes.
"I had a little help, Timothy. I wasn't the only one on the field." Alisha nodded toward her teammates, reaching over Timothy's head to shake hands with the losing scrimmage team.
"You were best," he said with an eight-year-old's loyalty.
"You're just saying that because you hope I'll take you out for ice cream once we're all cleaned up."
"Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!" The clamor rose up as though the trio were boy-shaped bells, jumping up and down around her. Alisha laughed and swatted at Timothy's backside. "Go get yourselves washed up, and promise not to tell your mother I've ruined your dinners, okay? Timothy, hold Jeremy's hand, all right? I don't want him near the cars without someone big keeping an eye on him."
They charged across the field, Timothy's longer legs giving him enough of a lead that he all but dragged the other two in his wake. Alisha grinned broadly, watching them go.
"Surprised you don't have any of your own, the way you dote on those three." Valerie knocked her shoulder against Alisha's. "You could take mine, if you wanted."
Alisha glanced toward twin girls as red-headed as their mother, part of the playgroup Alisha's nephews had broken away from. One twin chased a blond boy about their own age, while the other girl stood directly in their path. Concentrating on the one behind him, the boy didn't notice the twin in front of him until it was too late. They went down in a flailing tumble that she emerged triumphant from, planting a fat kiss on the boy's mouth. He scrambled to his feet and ran off wailing while the girls grabbed each other, giggling. Alisha turned back to Valerie, grinning.
"The best part is being able to give them back to their mother when they're all wound up like that and I'm tired." She winked, offering a hand. "Great game. It was a blast."
Val huffed a laugh and shook hands. "Nice dodge. Yeah, good game. Will you and Teresa be at the barbecue on Saturday?"
"Along with the whole crew," Alisha said with a nod. Val waved her off and Alisha strode across the field, watching her nephews slide in the mud and spatter themselves further. An unfamiliar burble welled up inside her, bubbles of delight she allowed to come forth as laughter. Not entirely unfamiliar: she'd known laughter in her life, but contentment had been a rare gift. A young adulthood spent as a spy had given her many things--adventure, excitement, thrills--but contentment hadn't been a part of it. It had been a high-stakes job, and the feeling associated with doing it well had been pride and--Alisha twisted her mouth in a wry smile--arrogance. Arrogance, if that's what being better than the bad guys was. That life had been satisfying, too, in its way, but it had been anything but relaxing. After ten months away from that world, moments of missing it could be soothed by a good soccer game.
Keep telling yourself that, Leesh. "Aunt Ali, hurry up!"
Alisha smiled, glad for the distraction. She'd thought the old habit of her own nickname was something that would fade away as she took part in a civilian life, but even now the dichotomy struck her. To everyone--her family, her friends, even her former coworkers, who should have known better--she was Ali, a soft-sounding name that went with heart-shaped features and tawny curls that were growing out after having being burnt away in the mission-gone-wrong that had driven her to walk away from the Agency. ButAlisha thought of herself as Leesh, a combat-trained tough girl who outthought and outfought her opponents in the field. Ali was useful, superficially frothy, the sort of delicate-seeming woman that a man might hold open a door for, but Leesh would kick the door down and never look back. That was the woman Alisha MacAleer knew herself to be, and the facade that everyone else seemed to see never failed to surprise her.
Not everyone. The thought intruded, semi-welcome. One man had hit on her secret nickname, seeing her the way Alisha saw herself. His insight into her psyche had been part of Frank Reichart's appeal, though the long legs and dark, knowing gaze hadn't hurt either. Nor had the untamed intelligence mercenary lifestyle he'd chosen, for that matter. He had been things Alisha'd thought she'd wanted--until their engagement had ended with him putting a bullet in her shoulder.
Alisha twisted a smile at herself and picked up her pace. "I'm old!" she yelled at her nephew. "Old people are slow!"
"You're not old," Timothy shouted in disgust. "Mom is old!" Alisha burst out laughing as she caught up with the muddy trio. "Your mom's younger than I am, Timmy."
Consternation wrinkled the boy's forehead. "My name's Timothy, Aunt Ali, I told you that a zillion times."
"A zillion, huh? Were you counting?"
"Yeah." Timothy looked affronted and Alisha lifted her hands in acquiescence, grinning.
"Okay. Timothy. Help your brothers wash up, Timothy." Alisha pulled the steel cord on the closest shower, sending a deluge of sun-warm water over her outstretched hands. It hit the ground already brown with mud, and she splashed the cooling liquid over her face, removing the worst of her game scars.
Scars. A funny choice of words. She pushed water through her hair, letting her fingers come to rest at the base of her neck for just an instant. A tiny block of real scar tissue lay there, remnant of one of her narrowest escapes. Testament, too, to having trusted the wrong man, though it hadn't been Reichart that time. It'd been a man she'd wanted badly to trust, in part because he shared none of Reichart's bad-boy appeal. Brandon Parker.
Alisha barely let herself form the name even in her thoughts, aware that her lips wanted to shape the words and make them real. Parker--it was safer to think of him as Parker, removing herself from the intimacy of first names-- had been her CIA handler's son, and the semi-willing agent of a deadly secret organization that had nearly cost Alisha her life more than once. Alisha breathed a laugh and turned the water off. Her unutterably lousy taste in men would be the stuff of enormous teasing at her sister's hands, if Alisha dared share the stories with her family. "Everybody clean? Jer, you have a mud stripe on your nose." Alisha reached across the shower to wipe her hand over the littlest boy's nose, leaving a wet streak of muddy water there. He squealed indignantly, rubbing his face, and glowered up at her with such enthusiasm that she laughed and scooped him up. "Mean ol'Aunt Ali. Should I buy ice cream to make up for it?"
"Chess," he said with satisfaction. Alisha turned him upside down, ignoring his happy howls of protest as she lugged him toward the car.
Car. It's a minivan, Leesh. How far the studly have fallen. The only thing saving her dignity was that the vehicle belonged to her sister, borrowed today for the purpose of driving three children around. Alisha strapped Rodney, the middle boy, into his car seat with the ease of long practice, though she couldn't remember doing it more than half a dozen times. Body memory was a wonderful thing, honed both through years of yoga and a decade's training to physical action that could save her life if performed without a thought.
"I wanna sit in front, Aunt Ali!" Timothy turned a hopeful, guileless gaze on her, expression turning to evident heartfelt devastation when she snorted and pointed to the back seat.
"I'm not getting a ticket just so you can prove you're a big boy, Timothy. What kind of ice cream do you want?"
The question led to cheerful bickering all the way to the ice cream shop, with Timothy making up flavors of ice cream and Jeremy, usually quiet, adamantly repeating, "Vanilla," without regard to Timothy's increasingly exotic suggestions.
Alisha, still smiling at the boys, pulled up to a drive-through window she was grateful for, and leaned out. "A scoop of anything with mud in the name," she requested, "a scoop of vanilla, a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of pralines and cream. All kid-sized and all on sugar cones, please."
"But I want a big cone!" Timothy objected.
Alisha arched an eyebrow at him in the rearview mirror.
"It's a kid-sized scoop or nothing, buddy. Take your pick."
"Kid-sized," he said promptly. Alisha nodded an I-thought-so and paid for the ice cream, handing the cones back as they came in and keeping the last for herself. "Try not to get ice cream all over yourselves," she pleaded. "Or your mom's car. Okay?"
One out of two wasn't bad, she decided several minutes later, as the boys tumbled out of the minivan and thundered into her house. The car, at least, was more or less unscathed, though the children were shedding dried mud and drips of ice cream as they went. "So this is a normal life," she said out loud, garnering a wry enjoyment from the words.
"I'd say it suits you."