Read Die Run Hide Online

Authors: P. M. Kavanaugh

Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal

Die Run Hide (4 page)

Anika gripped the chair like a drowning man grabbing a life raft.

Jewel’s face pulled back. A different pair of hands swooped into view. Male, strong, with a dusting of blond hair across the backs. Shockingly familiar. They curved around the operative and lifted her up against the shower wall.

Curls plastered Jewel’s forehead and cheeks. Water sprayed over her breasts as she thrust them forward, lush and pink.

“Gianni.” Her pupils dilated with desire and a smile spread across her face. “I’ve missed you too, baby.”

“Pause.” The monitor froze on Jewel’s seductive grin. Second called for the lights and turned to Anika. “Had enough?”

“What is this?” Anika clamped down on the chair to keep herself in check. She was in enough trouble without body slamming U.N.I.T.’s number two officer.

“A souvenir video, of course. We retrieved it from Gianni’s office vault.”

“It looks like video from a prep session. For the honeymoon mission.”

Second’s eyes flared. “You’re not permitted to know about missions that don’t involve you. Gianni will be disciplined for that.”

“Gianni didn’t tell me.” Anika shot the words like a warning volley. “Talk gets around, even in here. And Jewel Sheridan’s behavior isn’t exactly subtle.”

Second glared at her but Anika didn’t back down, enjoying the temporary stand-off. It helped take her mind off the sickening images. When she looked back at the screen, she concentrated on a swirl in the lower far corner.

“Jewel looks very convincing.” She struggled to keep her voice steady. “I’m sure the mission will be a success.”

“It’s true that we held a number of sessions to prepare Gianni and Jewel for the mission,” Second said. “But this wasn’t one of them. We canceled the honeymoon mission, as you call it. Three days ago.” She nodded at the monitor. “This took place yesterday.”

At Second’s instructions, a black square materialized in the corner where Anika had fixed her gaze. Gianni’s name, identification number, and clearance level appeared along with a read-out of the date and time. The image of Jewel’s face, still frozen on the monitor, had been recorded yesterday, within minutes of her walking down the corridor with Gianni, her arm tucked in his.

And Gianni
had
arrived at the detention chamber cleaned and fresh shaven. Surely he hadn’t come to her right after being with Jewel? The tightness in Anika’s throat threatened to choke her.

Her mind fought against accepting the information as true, even as she knew it had to be. The technology hadn’t been invented yet that could produce fake souvenir videos. Some editing of existing content, yes. But not full-scale creation.

“Need more?” Second asked.

Anika shook her head. She had seen more than enough. At least now she knew she hadn’t been imagining Gianni’s recent emotional distance. It had been as real as the content on the video.

Second nodded her approval. “Monitor off.”

The lights returned to full strength and the wall art resurfaced. Anika’s chair swung back to its original position facing Command’s desk.

She trained her eyes on a tiny spot on the carpet and willed the lightheadedness to pass. She couldn’t — wouldn’t — break in front of them.

“You can’t blame Gianni.” Second’s tone was almost soothing. “Like all of us, he’s driven by his deepest desires. For him, that means family.”

Anika wanted to put her head between her knees and breathe in pure oxygen.

“His promotion —
if
he earns it — will entitle him to certain privileges. He’ll be permitted to marry, to father children, to create a family. His profile indicates that he will pursue those objectives. Your profile,” she said, “does not.”

Anika looked up, her throat burning with dry heat. She craved something cool, preferably with a buzz-kick.

“People raised in federal orphanages are not good family material.” The lights gleamed on Second’s blond cap of hair, shiny red lips, perfect teeth. She looked like a retouched image from a fashion zine as she delivered her devastating pronouncement. “The numbers bear that out. We know it. So does Gianni. He also knows that Jewel Sheridan’s profile is different from yours. Family ranks high on her needs hierarchy. She — ”

Anika held up her hand, like a shield. “I get it.”

Second was right. She didn’t know about family. How to be part of one. Her childhood hadn’t taught her that. She visualized the St. Jude medal lying on Gianni’s chest. He would have an heir for it after all.

She focused her attention on Command.

“I accept your offer. When do I start?”

“You can start now by reporting to Clinic,” Second said.

“Clinic?”

“The computer has calculated that the most stringent test of Gianni’s loyalty requires extra incentive for him to help you escape. Protecting your life alone is insufficient reason for him to betray the agency. Fortunately, your decision to reject sterilization at the conclusion of your training has facilitated the ideal incentive.”

“I don’t understand.” Dread crept up Anika’s spine.

“You’re not usually so obtuse.” Second gave an impatient sigh. “You’ll be given hormone implants to simulate pregnancy. You’ll tell Gianni you’re carrying his baby and you have to escape because … well, there are a number of scenarios we can use from that point. But first, we need to move ahead with the medical procedure.”

“No.” Anika shot up from the chair, her hands in tight fists. Second stepped closer to Command in a protective move. “I’ll go along with your plan, but I’m not going to fake a pregnancy.”

“That
is
part of the plan.” Command spoke up. “A non-negotiable part.”

“As soon as you’ve completed the mission, you can flush the implants. The techs in Clinic will go over all of that.” Second flicked her hand in dismissal. “There will be no lasting effects.”

Anika took a few deep breaths and reined in her emotions. Uncurled her fists. Nodded.

She’d let the techs administer the implants. But she wasn’t going to lie to Gianni. Not about this.

• • •

The diamond stud vibrated in Anika’s ear. She slid her fingers through her hair in a rhythmic move and touched the comm device. Over the thumping bass of the band, she heard the go-ahead to leave the party and ascend to the rooftop. With a well-aimed thrust of one hip, she knocked her dance partner into a gyrating mix of arms and legs. Then she strode off the floor, filled an oversized glass from the champagne fountain and slipped out of the room.

In the dim stairwell, she hiked up her glittering dress, snagged her painful four-inch heels in one hand and sprinted up the steps. The heavy bass receded into the background. She held the glass away from her, careful not to spill the liquid. She wished she could drink some of it. Hell, she wished she could drink
all
of it and go back for more.

Instead, she told herself to stay focused on the mission as she had dozens of times before. The rest would take care of itself.

So why did her insides feel like balled up razor wire?

On the roof, she hurried over to the utilities closet. Her eyes swept the area before she keyed in the code and removed the parts of the P-16. Another sweep, then she bent to her task assembling the old-style rifle. She tested the balance, the feel of the trigger, the scope. Everything was in order. Everything was as it should be.

Except that once she sighted the target and fired, the life she had known for the past three years would be over. She would have crossed the line. No going back. Even though she had agreed to do it, she wondered now if she had made the right decision.

It’s the only way.

Her mind grabbed hold of the words like fingertips clutching the edge of a cliff. It
was
the only way to get what she wanted. To give Gianni what he wanted. Even if what they wanted would drive them apart.

She removed the jeweled rings from her fingers and settled into a crouch at the far corner of the roof. Sixty-five seconds later, the doors of the building across the alley opened. Her target stepped into view. She lined him up in the scope, drew in a breath, held it, and squeezed. The bullet ripped through the air, then ricocheted off the side of the building, spraying concrete dust millimeters above the Palestinian ambassador’s head.

Perfect
. Close enough to be convincing, but still a miss. No familiar tingle of pride ran up her spine.

Down below, bodyguards hustled the ambassador into a car that sped off in an evasive maneuver. More guards erupted from the building and fanned out. Some headed in the direction from which the bullet had been fired. Her direction.

She picked up the glass of champagne. Still cold and bubbly, it removed any trace of discharge from her hands. She shook off the excess liquid, slipped the rings over her wet fingers and stepped back into the killer shoes.

“Abort, abort.”
Evan’s voice sounded through her ear. “Evade and retreat.”

Mission accomplished. Line crossed.

Chapter 5

“Why?”

The single word jabbed Anika like a fist when she stepped inside her loft. She didn’t know Gianni had returned. It had been five miserable weeks since he had left for what she thought was the honeymoon mission with Jewel. The one she now knew had been canceled.

“How long have you been back?” She dropped her gear on the low table in the middle of her living room.

“Long enough to learn you missed the target. What happened?” The vein in Gianni’s lower jaw pulsed an angry beat.

What she had to tell him wouldn’t improve his mood. As her vision adjusted to the indoor light, she noted fatigue lines around his mouth and a hollowing underneath his eyes.

“I’ve already explained what happened to the debriefing team. It’s all on disc.” She walked into the kitchen where she
grabbed a tube of herb water out of the cold cell and took several swallows.

Stop stalling and tell him.

Gianni loomed in the doorway. “What about your promise? The one about you lying low?”

“I thought I had the target.” She finished off the tube and tossed it into the recycler. “I missed. That’s all.”

“You don’t miss.” His words lashed across the room.

“The P-16 isn’t as precise as laser.”
Do it now. Before you lose your nerve.

“You’ve been on P-16 intensive for the past two weeks.”

“How would you know?” The question burst from her, a substitute for all the other questions chasing through her mind.
Where have you been these past weeks? Was the mission canceled, but not the honeymoon? Is that why you look so tired?

When it became clear he wasn’t going to answer, she reverted to the script Second had outlined for her.

“I want you to recommend me for a solo.” She kept her voice even, despite the tightness in her scalp, like someone had twisted her braid into knots. “Then help me survive it and escape from U.N.I.T. once and for all.”

Gianni grew even more still, a dark silent shape. His anger hijacked her effort to stay calm.

“I have to get out,” she whispered. “I can’t do it anymore. This life isn’t … living.” She bit down on her lip, her eyes filling with tears.
What the hell is wrong with me? This isn’t convincing. He’s never going to believe me.


Cara
.” His voice softened. “We’ve had this talk before. What’s changed? What’s different now?”

“Since the museum mission, the girl … I just can’t … ”
Say it! Get it over with. You’ll be free.
She placed the heels of her palms against her eyes, shook her head.

“It’s all right.” Gianni’s words wrapped around her. “You can tell me.”

His tenderness almost broke her. She wanted to fall into his arms and confess everything. The souvenir video, Command’s offer.

Then Jewel’s face flashed through her mind, followed by Second’s words. Not good family material.

Gianni pulled something out of his pocket, opened his hand, and held it out. “I found this.”

She stared in disbelief at his upturned palm and the wristband lying there. “How?” Her mind spun. “Where did you get that?”

“Bathroom floor. Next to the waste chute.”

Impossible
. She had destroyed the band. The instant the chemicals had reacted to her sweat and covered the plastic surface with dozens of tiny plus signs in shades of baby blue and pink, she had yanked the band off her wrist. Chopped it into tiny pieces, dissolved the bits in an acid compound, and flushed the whole thing down the toilet.

This had to be a different band.

Second must have suspected she wouldn’t follow through on this part of the plan and given orders for a positive read-out band to be planted where Gianni would find it.

“You should have told me.” His voice whispered the rebuke as tenderly as a kiss.

“What?” She wanted to snatch the band out of his hand. Take back the lie.

“You should have told me,” he repeated, “this is why you want out.”

“I should have chosen sterilization,” she said, veering off script. “When I finished my training and was given the choice. The Clinic techs warned me the injections weren’t foolproof. I should have — ”

“Don’t.” Gianni cut her off. “Don’t say it.”

“Why not?” She shifted her gaze to meet his.

“Because it’s about family,” he said. “Family is everything.”

The look in his eyes was one she had never seen before, a longing so deep it caused the denial to die in her throat.

Damn Second. Damn her and her profiles.
Anika swallowed hard.
“So you’ll help me get a solo, then escape?”

“Come sit for a while. Let’s talk it through.”

He drew her away from the counter and into the living room. Settled her on the couch, then disappeared into the kitchen. Minutes later, he reappeared with a tray of cheese, olives, and bread.

It seemed like weeks since she had eaten. She reached for the food before Gianni set the tray down.

“Hungry?” He quirked an eyebrow at her.

She nodded, her mouth too full to speak.

“Evan mentioned you’ve been off. Moody, distracted. And you’ve slipped to 92 percent effectiveness. Even before this most recent mission.”

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