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It wasn't that she didn't like nerds. It wasn't. Odelia Frank eyed Cullen McQueen and the new guy, Jagger Benney, mixed with angst and resignation. She was tired of Cullen's teasing and Jag's quiet absorption of it all. She couldn't even complain. Normally it was her doing the teasing, but now it was coming back around.
"I didn't love him," she argued, realizing she'd folded her arms. It was so uncharacteristically defensive of her. She lowered them to her sides. What did she care what these two thought?
"Didn't you know that before you were standing on the altar next to him?" Cullen asked, his grin annoying the crap out of her.
No. She'd thought she loved him up until then.
Jag hadn't said anything since Cullen started in on her. He never said much, only when he had to. He never responded to her well-placed barbs, either, and she suspected that was because he didn't like it or hadn't quite figured her out yet. Didn't matter. He was the epitome of what had driven her to nearly marry a nerd.
Standing about an inch shorter than Cullen's towering six-five, he had the same he-man build. His arms bulged and that white T-shirt stretched over his impressive chest. And was he trying to be stylish with those holes in the thigh and knee of his faded jeans? Please. It was almost funny. Big, bad special ops dude, looking good enough for a Calvin Klein ad.
He watched her with glowing green eyes, as if he was always sizing her up. That's why she was leaning toward hadn't figured her out yet. If she wasn't so immune to guys like him she'd be uncomfortable. He studied her like a textbook.
"What no comment?" Cullen said. "Don't tell me I've actually cracked that shell of yours."
Odie swung her attention back to him. "You're enjoying this."
"Oh, yeah." His smile spread wider across his face.
"All right, so I took pity on him."
"Took pity?" He chuckled. "I doubt he'll ever recover. You blew into his life like a hurricane and then blew right back out."
"It wasn't that bad." Was it? Had she hurt her sweet nerdy boyfriend that much?
"No, not that bad. At least you took him off the altar to break his heart."
She'd taken him to an antechamber in the church and told him she couldn't marry him. She thought he'd handled it pretty well. He'd be upset for a little while, but he'd get over it. "I did the right thing."
Cullen didn't even have to say anything. The way he shook his head said it all. She should have broken if off before the wedding. The Odie he knew didn't make mistakes like that.
But what he wasn't giving her credit for was that her fiancé thought she was good for him, when she wasn't. He was lucky she'd come to her senses. Once the honeymoon was over he'd have seen the unabridged, tenacious, controlling side of her. She'd have made him miserable. It didn't pain her to admit that.
"He would have spent the rest of his life doing what I told him." She tried to make him understand. "What man wants that from a woman? I did him a favor."
"Don't get me wrongI agree."
Odie took no insult. That was the way she and Cullen communicated. He knew her better than anyone.
Jag walked over to the window and looked outside, presenting the back of his head and thick, light brown hair. He appeared bored, but she knew he wasn't. She'd like to know what was going on in his head. The fact that she was curious disconcerted her a little.
She followed his feigned interest through the window. It was a spectacular late September day in the Rockies. A comfortable sixty-five degrees at more than nine-thousand feet. Colorado was a great place to live that way. There were days in the middle of winter when the temperature warmed enough to go without a jacket, even up here. As soon as the sun set, however, all bets were off. She found that she liked the unpredictable weather here. But she could do without the isolation of small mountain town living. Maybe she'd never forgive Cullen for locating his headquarters here. She preferred the pollution and busy rudeness of Washington, D.C.
Jag turned to look at her then, catching her watching him. Their gazes caught and he grew more alert, aware of her. Was that curiosity she saw? It was the first time she'd ever seen any kind of reaction in those watchful green eyes of his. Usually they revealed nothing but the shrewd workings of a daring mind.
He'd been here a month and already he'd gone on one mission. It hadn't taken him long. Just a few days to find and take out their target. She wondered what his story was. What had driven him to become an American hero? Cullen had found him through a friend at the CIA. Jag was a Navy SEAL who'd moved on to work with the CIA. Good with languages. Familiar with the Middle East. He had all the prerequisites Cullen demanded from his team. And everything Odie refused to involve herself with romantically. No man like that could give her what she needed. Least of all marriage. Although lately Cullen's operatives had been marrying left and right. First Cullenand boy had that been a shockerthen Elam Rhule, and most recently Haley Engen. The love they had for their partners appeared to be strong enough to last, too.
Maybe it was just she who couldn't marry a TES operative. None of them could handle her sarcasm, for one thing, and daredevil egos drove her insane for another. She should know. She'd tried it once. She'd married an operative and a few months later he was killed in action. It had affected her more deeply than she'd ever imagined. How much she'd loved him. If it hadn't been for his damn career, they'd still be married because he'd still be alive. That's what always got to her, the thoughts of what might have been. There would never be another Sage for her.
Realizing she'd been staring at Jag this whole time and that he hadn't missed a second of it, she turned away.
"I'll be honored to meet the man who can handle you," Cullen said, his face sober now. He knew her history and had probably guessed where her thoughts had wandered.
"When are you going to tell me why you dragged me in here on my day off?" she snapped. Enough of all this focus on her personal affairs. They had work to do.
Cullen grunted a short laugh and shook his head. "You're an amazing woman, Odie. You know that?"
She rolled her eyes, though his compliments always made her feel good.
"I need you to brief Jag on the Defense Initiatives assignment," he said.
That got her brow lifting. She slid her gaze to Jag and his appearance of cool observation. "Are you going to work that one for Cullen?"
There he went again, full of words. Some day she was going to have to make him say more. While she wondered why she even had the urge, she asked, "What has Cullen told you so far?"
"He said you'd fill me in."
Vague reply for something she was sure he knew more about than he was letting on. Sage had been like that. Smart.
Getting aggravated with her wandering interest, Odie opened her file cabinet and pulled out the correct file. She had everything on her computer, but paper copies were always handy at times like this. She gave Jag the file.
"Hersch is founder and CEO of Defense Initiatives," she began to narrate. "He's got an office in Washington, D.C., apparently to stay close to his political clientele, but he has houses in other places. A real winner of a guy. Records himself having sex with more than one woman at a time. Has an entire library of videos locked away in his house, in fact. Been arrested for drugs. Two DUIs. Married and divorced three times. He's forty-nine but in pretty good physical shape if you can ignore his growing stomach. Not the most attractive fellow. Probably had to pay all those women to sleep with him and I bet none of them knew they were porn stars for a day."
"How did he get into arms brokering?" Jag asked.
"Ex-military. Army lieutenant. Before he was slapped on the hand and discharged for sexual misconduct, anyway."
"What is of concern, here," Cullen interrupted, "is that a lot of his contracts come from the U.S. government to legitimately sell arms to places like Afghanistan."
"Right," Odie said. "But we got a tip that he's been doing business with an Albanian military export company that frequently obtains their inventory from China to save money. The buyer doesn't always know."
"As you can imagine, we can't have that hitting the press," Cullen said.
Jag looked at Odie while he appeared to absorb it all. "How did you find out he had the recordings?"
Of all the questions she'd expected, that wasn't one of them. "I have more friends than he does."
"In other words, don't ask," Cullen said.
Jag glanced from him to her.
"She's got contacts in places you'll never guess, so don't even try. She won't give their names or identities away, either, for obvious reasons. They trust her. Nobody who talks to her is going to die because of it."
"So I've heard," Jag said, sounding strangely complimentary. But was it professional respect or personal interest she heard?
Who had he been talking to? She looked at Cullen. She wouldn't put it past him. But what bothered her was that she liked it. Jag had asked about her. He must have. And she liked that? Her armor rose up.
"I don't mix business with pleasure," she said. Just in case.
A half grin lifted his mouth. "I've heard that, too."
She was too stunned by the transformation on his face to respond. Intending to ignore him, she picked up her work tote and slung the strap over her shoulder. Before heading to the door, she stopped in front of Cullen.
"What are you planning to do with Hersch?"
"Send Jag for a job interview. Once he's inside he can confirm or put to rest our suspicions. Based on what he finds, we'll take action from there."
A recon mission. She glanced at Jag. Was that going to be enough of a rush for him? It didn't seem very dangerous for a man like him. This assignment was small-scale compared to most TES missions.
"And I want you to work with him. I want you available 24/7. This isn't like our other assignments. We're on U.S. soil and Jag is going to need access to information whenever he needs it. Morning. Noon. Night."
"I'm available 24/7 now, so why would Jag's job be any different?" At least she'd only have to communicate with him over the phone and in email.
"I want it to be your only focus."
The small scale of the mission didn't match the urgency. But she knew Cullen and how he operated. So she didn't question him.
"Is that it for today?"
"See you later, then." Without acknowledging Jag, she reached the door.
"Oh, and Odie?"
She paused and turned back.
"See if you can find someone close to Hersch. Someone who'd talk if we gave them a little push."
"Already on my to-do list." She tapped the side of her head with a smile.
She left the building, trying to dismiss the effect Jag had on her. Somehow he seemed different than other TES operatives. Usually they tried to hit on her, backing off only when they discovered her tongue was too sharp for kissing. Jag had not only never hit on her, he seemed to see right through her. Did he already know it was futile? The very idea of that tantalized her. She thought about it all the way home. It was only a two-minute drive in this puny mountain town.
Pulling into her driveway, Odie parked in the garage and went to get the mail. There was a lot. Mostly junk, but a couple of bills and a thick manila envelope. Closing the garage door, she entered the house. In the kitchen, she dumped her tote and mail on the snack bar and went to the refrigerator for a beer.
After sipping the Warsteiner, she set the bottle on the snack bar and went to her bedroom to change her clothes. Once inside she stopped and turned back to the open door. She usually shut it in the mornings. She liked her bedroom cool at night, so she closed the registers. She searched the room. Nothing seemed out of place.
Something flapping on the other side of the window caught her eye. She moved closer. The screen was torn. She touched the lock on the window. It was secure.
She stared at the bedroom door. Maybe she'd just forgotten. Even though she never did .
She didn't own a gun anymore and had stopped practicing firing one. Everyone at TES would be surprised to know that. When her husband was killed, guns had become a symbol of loss. But now she wished she'd been able to let go of that old tenet.
Shaking that thought away along with all it threatened to dredge up, she decided to stay in her short-sleeved purple blouse, faded jeans and hiking boots. She walked out of the bedroom, feeling like an idiot for being scared. This was Roaring Creek, for God's sake. The only crime that happened here was jaywalking. Well, ever since Cullen had arrived, that is. No one dared to misbehave with him around.
She peeked into her office. Nothing out of place. No one lurking in the bathroom, either. She entered her living room. No sounds. No shadows. No sign of movement.
She breathed a sigh of relief. Shaking her head, she went to the snack bar and took a sip of her beer. The package in the pile of mail caught her attention. It was addressed to her, of course, but it was the return address that made her go still for a second. It was a P.O. Box from Washington, D.C. One she knew very well. The initials above it gave her hand a tremor as she put the beer down. Brow tightening, she lifted the package and tore open the top.
Creaking floorboards sent her heart skittering. She dropped the package and spun to face the living room. The sound had come from behind her in the hallway. She looked toward the dining area. It had two entrances, one from the living room and the other from the kitchen. A wall partially blocked her view of the dining area. She moved to peer around the wall. Nothing.
She shut her eyes and breathed deep a few times. What had her so spooked? Nobody was after her. Her identity was protected through TES. She gathered information from trusted sources, sources that were anonymous and would never expose her. She made sure of that. There was no reason for anyone to come after her.