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Her eyes enchanted him.
Crystal clear, blue with a hint of silver. Griffin Black studied the doll, set behind the protective glass, and hoped she wasn't the one he'd have to carve into pieces to accomplish his mission.
Pressing the two-inch digital reader to the glass, he waited to see if it registered integrated circuit activity. So far he'd struck out with most of the dolls on display. The D.R. read negative on the black-haired beauty, as well.
He glanced at the remaining dolls left to scan in the Seattle suburban museum, trying to determine which was the perfect one in which to hide the microchip. The bastards had been clever to use such an innocent vehicle to transport their contraband. They were determined to wreak havoc on their enemy: Americans.
"Can I help you?" a female voice said.
Griff slipped the reader into his pocket and turned to the source of the question, a petite woman with shoulder-length, striking red hair and emerald green eyes. She looked like she belonged behind glass.
"No." He paused. "Thank you."
He'd been so absorbed by the dolls that he hadn't sensed her approach. Lately he wondered if he was losing his edge.
"Do you have any questions?" she asked.
What she probably wanted to know was what a guy like Griff was doing in a doll museum.
"Where did they all come from?" A fairly innocuous question, he hoped. He didn't want to draw attention to himself. Then again, he couldn't be more out of place surrounded by the delicate creatures on display.
"Our dolls come from all over the world," she said with excitement in her voice. "Some we purchase and some are donated. Collectors are passionate about their dolls and want to make sure theirpassion lives on after they're gone."
She glanced at Griff with those beautiful emerald eyes, perfect enough to be a doll's. He must have been staring because she blinked and glanced at a Native American doll in the next case.
"My daughter collects dolls," he offered as an excuse for being here. There was no daughter. "I'm in town on business and thought I might pick her up something."
"How old is she?"
"Ten," he answered. Well, he might have had a ten-year-old daughter if he and Mary had stayed together. His engagement was one of the many casualties of the job.
"Ten is a nice age." She glanced at the blue-eyed doll in the case as if drifting back to her own childhood.
The nostalgic look in her eyes made him uncomfortable. He couldn't remember anything before his tour in Bosnia.
"We have a gift shop downstairs," she offered. "Stop in before you leave. I'm sure we can find the perfect gift for her."
"I'll do that, thanks. Are you the curator?" he asked.
"I'm the owner, actually."
A shame. He hoped he'd happened upon an innocent, maybe even someone who could help him identify the criminals involved in this conspiracy. Instead he was looking into the eyes of a deceitful, but beautiful, spy. Recent Intel indicated that the smuggling activities had continued after Ruth O'Malley's death, which meant she must have passed down the responsibility to this woman. Her granddaughter?
"I'm Ciara O'Malley."
She extended her hand and he shook it, aware of how delicate it felt in his.
"Nice to meet you."
He held on to her hand for a second longer than necessary. Her cheeks flushed, and with a nervous smile she snatched back her hand.
"I heard about your place from my aunt," he said. "She was friends with Ruth. Your grandmother, I'm assuming?"
Her face brightened, and she nodded. "Who's your aunt?"
"I remember Mrs. Anderson. Nice lady with the fourteen cats. How's she doing in Phoenix?"
This is where Griff hoped his people had done their jobs.
"Not well, I'm afraid. She's had some health issues. She was sorry to hear about Ruth's passing. Sudden, was it?"
"Yes, sort of. She got pneumonia and everyone thought she'd make it, but she didn't."
But she could have. Griff wondered if her death had anything to do with her extracurricular activities. Did she screw up one too many shipments? Or betray a buyer?
"I'm sorry," he said.
She glanced at him. "Thanks. It's been hard, but each day gets a little better. Well, I'll be downstairs working and stuff." She smiled and disappeared around the corner.
Griff sensed her apprehension around him. Good, he would use that to keep her off balance.
At that moment he knew that if she weren't his enemy, she'd make the perfect mark. Either way he needed her in order to complete this mission, find the microchip and destroy it before the terrorists put it to use.
He'd start by completing a more extensive background check on Ciara, find out where she lived, what kind of coffee she drank, what she did for fun. He had some thoughts of his own on that subject.
"Not with this one," he muttered.
She was a mark and a spy, not a plaything, not a fellow agent who could use some meaningless sex to release the inner demons. No, Ciara was more important than that.
Important, but in the end, disposable.
They all were. Even Griff, he reminded himself. The minute he was no longer useful to AW-21, a covert branch of the National Security Administration, they'd red-tag him, or worse: ship him out to some isolated part of the world like they had done to Dalton Keen. AW-21 had sent Keen to a remote spot on the Olympic Peninsula to contemplate the error in judgment that nearly got him and a hostage killed. Good thing Griff had been able to rescue the kid from terrorist hell. Dalton Keen was a decent agent who'd made a bad call by trusting the wrong person.
Since trust wasn't in Griff's vocabulary, he would never make that mistake.
He wandered to the next display case to consider the remaining possibilities for smuggling the microchip. The plaque at the base of the glass read: Dolls are a reflection of our humanity.
He eyed the bride and groom dolls, the man dressed in a black tuxedo and his bride in a white gown holding a bouquet of red roses. Their expressions were peaceful, blissful. Was that supposed to be a reflection of humanity? Nah, just a fantasy, Griff thought, remembering the day he realized his commitment to fighting terrorism and avenging his sister Beth's death would prevent him from living a normal life.
The image of Mary lying in a hospital bed filled his thoughts. That was the reflection of his humanity: violence. Knowing she deserved better and fearing he was the cause of her accident, Griff, who she knew as Nicholas Drake, planned his own death. Three months later, Nicholas Drake officially died in a car crash and Griffin Black, a man with no ties to another living soul, was born.
His buddy, Carter, also an AW-21 agent, accused Griff of being cruel to the love of his life. Was it cruel to want to protect Mary from the ugliness of his world? The same type of ugliness that took his sister's life on 9/11?
Hell, he was in a dark place today, he realized, moving on to the next display case. Shaking it off, he focused on his mission. Pulling out a small notebook, he jotted notes about the dolls' origins, who donated them and when.
Ambling to the next display, he couldn't help but think about the redhead, so pleasant and innocent. Yet she'd been unable to maintain eye contact, indicating she wasn't comfortable chatting with him. He sensed she didn't have a lot of experience with men.
Griff stopped in front of the next display case and studied the doll, a young Japanese warrior who led a rebel army to defend his religious beliefs.
At least the kid was fighting for something honorable.
Griff's work had been honorable at the beginning, but somehow over the past few years it had grown twisted and confusing. The term bad guy could be used to describe Griff on days when he manipulated and lied to achieve his mission.
The mission of protecting innocents was all that mattered, Griff reminded himself. Who better to slay demons than Griff, a man with nothing to lose?
His gaze drifted to the next case, displaying a mini scene of a soda shop from the 1960s. The dolls looked so alive and cheerful. Two little girls sat at the counter, one eyeing a glass goblet filled with ice cream.
Yes, he could see why people were drawn to this fantasy world of pleasantries and hope. Creating these scenes gave one the illusion of being in control, made all the wrongs right.
He may never be able to make things right in his own life, but he could make things right for his country by finding the microchip and saving lives.
He'd start by getting more details about the redhead's life, her fears, hopes and desires, using that information to get close to her. Hell, maybe he'd even make her fall in love with himGriffin Black, the software engineer, eligible bachelor and all-around gentleman. He enjoyed getting into character, pretending to be something he definitely was not.
"Time to get started," he whispered and headed downstairs.
"'I'll be downstairs working and stuff?'" Ciara repeated, adjusting the gold, shimmering gown on the Tonner doll in the gift shop. "I sounded like an idiot."
The handsome stranger with the piercing blue eyes had rattled her. First of all, few men risked venturing into a doll museum. She thought it sweet he was interested in a doll for his daughter.
She realized she was grossly out of practice communicating with the opposite sex. Truth was she hadn't had much time for conversation with men since she took over the museum.
She fingered the fairy charm at the base of her neck and eyed the doll. "Perfect."
"Kind of like our male visitor?" Adele said, walking into the room.
"Stop," Ciara warned.
Adele, bless her, was one of Gran's best friends and worked for practically nothing.
Tipping her head to the side, Ciara studied her most recent delivery. The Tonner dolls were going to be a big seller. They had to be.
"Well?" Adele asked, organizing the display of miniature hairbrushes, purses and scarves on the glass counter.
"Well, what?" Ciara said, glancing at the elderly woman.
"What did you find out about Frank Sinatra?"
"The man upstairs?"
"He looks nothing like Frank Sinatra." And he didn't. Sinatra had a young, mischievous look to him, whereas the man named Griffin looked dangerous.
Girl, at this point they all seem dangerous.
They'd continue to seem dangerous unless she got some practice and threw herself into the dating pool. She wasn't looking forward to getting hurt again. Thom's betrayal still stung, even though it had been eight months ago.
"His eyes were sky blue like Frank's," Adele argued.
"So, you noticed?" Adele smiled.
Ciara planted her hands to her hips. "He's in town on business and is going to buy a doll for his daughter. He's married."
"Did he say he was married?"
"No, but, just stop. I'm not interested."
"Why on earth not? You need some recreation in your life. You've turned into a workaholic."
"No lectures. I get enough of those from mom." Even though her mother had retired to Arizona with her new boyfriend, the phone lines still burned with lectures on her not living forever and Ciara needing to produce some cute, cuddly grandchildren. It was, after all, always about Mom, not about Ciara's needs or desires. Sure she wanted children, but first she'd have to find a man she could trust enough in order to fall in love. Not likely.
"Not to change the subject, but the furnace is making those noises again," Adele warned.
"The clicking ones?"
"The coughing-gagging ones. If you don't replace that thing it's going to blow up the entire block."
"It's tops on the list."
"Have you got Amelia's party on your list? My granddaughter is so passionate about dolls. She's a sweet girl, like you."
Yep, that was Ciara: sweet, caring and determined to keep Gran's doll-shop dream alive.
"It's on my calendar," Ciara said, avoiding a direct answer. She didn't want to hurt the woman's feelings, but she had so much paperwork to catch up on, plus she had to prepare for the board meeting Monday, and still had the menu to go over for the Prendegrast party.
She wondered what Gran would think of her opening the lower level for private parties. Well, Ciara had to do something to keep Ruth's Doll Emporium in the black. When she'd taken over six months ago, it was apparent that Gran wasn't the best bookkeeper or manager, but she loved her museum and had left it to Ciara as an act of love.
Adele leaned into the counter. "Ruth wouldn't have wanted you to sacrifice your life for her dream."
"No worries. I'm not sacrificing. For your information, I have a date Sunday with Dean Monroe."
"No kidding?" Adele's eyes lit up.
Ciara didn't mention that Dean was her accountant and they were going to discuss how to keep the museum profitable for another month.
"I can see it now," Ciara said. "You're already picking out china."
"It's been so long since I've been to a wedding," Adele said.
"Well, mine isn't happening anytime soon."
The telephone rang, thank goodness. Ciara didn't like conflict, especially with a friend like Adele.
Ciara answered the phone. "Ruth's Doll Emporium."
"Ciara, it's Pete Desai. There's a problem with your server, so I'll be shutting down the Web site this afternoon for an hour to tweak some things. That work for you?"
"Sure, thanks, Pete. By the way, I'm still waiting on your bill from last month."
"Buy me lunch?"
She smiled to herself. Pete was a nice kid, although a little young for her. Besides, she wasn't ready for another romantic disaster. Coward.
"How about next week?" Ciara winked at Adele.
She hung up and smiled at Adele. "Pete and I are going to lunch next week."
"The computer geek? Isn't he a little young for you?"
"Now you're screening my prospects?" she joked.
"Of course not." Adele glanced out the glass window into the hallway and sighed. "Here comes the queen."
Ciara glanced up to greet Lucinda, an attractive middle-aged woman with too much time on her hands and enough money to support a small country. Ciara was lucky to have her as a benefactor.
"Girls, girls, girls," Lucinda said, with a dramatic wave of her manicured fingers. "Have I got news "
"Another fiancé?" Adele offered.
Adele and Lucinda never got along, even though Lucinda had done so much for the museum.
"Good to see you, Lucinda," Ciara said. "What's the news?"