Authors: Naomi Stone
“Okay… What will you be doing?”
“Recon.” He moved around to where the trunk’s lid shielded him from sight and ducked even lower. She pulled her one purple overnight bag out and set it on the tarmac beside her, hoisted out Fluke’s black carryon bag, and stayed bent over the open trunk. Only a few items remained, the practical gear Fluke had mentioned plus small containers of oil and wiper fluid. She began shifting them around.
~ * ~
Fluke ducked low enough to move unseen between the parked cars. He’d spotted the blue Toyota parking half a dozen cars down their row. Staying low, working around from the next row, he approached his quarry from behind.
The driver appeared only in silhouette beyond the reflection-veiled glass of the car’s windows, but sat positioned facing the Porsche where Rachel busied herself at the trunk.
Dropping to hands and knees, Fluke came up close enough to read the numbers of the license plate. He opened a link to the Team secretary. What was her name? Trina. He read them out to her. “See if you can get us some info on the driver.”
With that, he stood, brushed off the knees of his hundred dollar jeans and approached the driver’s side door. He tapped on the glass. “Excuse me.”
The window rolled down a couple inches. The face peering out at him couldn’t be Albert Johnson. For one thing, her tightly curled gray hair looked nothing like that of the balding man in the sketch produced after Rachel’s session with the police artist.
“Yes? What is it?” No recognition showed in her narrowed eyes.
“Sorry, ma’am, but I saw you behind us on the highway. Have you been following me?”
“What? I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“The red Porsche? You seemed to be watching it just now.”
“Nonsense. I’m just taking a minute before I go in to the Bingo games. Now get away from my car before I report you to the police.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Fluke backed off, holding his hands out in a placating gesture, and returned to Rachel
~ * ~
“The car belongs to Mabel Atkins, 451-33rd Street South, Minneapolis.” Trina reported over a conferenced specs channel.
“That’s right around the corner from the ashram!” Rachel leaned against the car, all the strength gone out of her legs.
“He must have recruited one of your neighbors to follow us, and to find some logical reason for going wherever we wound up—she thinks she’s here to play bingo.”
“He must have instructed her to report back somehow, too.”
“If she has a cell phone, which she probably does, she’s already made the report.” Fluke took Rachel’s elbow, helping her stand without the support of the vehicle. He grabbed both bags, slinging the straps over a nicely broad shoulder, took her elbow again and propelled her toward the hotel. And a good thing he did. The thought of an innocent neighbor being dragged into this flooded her with guilt she worked to defuse. She wasn’t responsible for Johnson’s behavior, she reminded herself. She meant to stop him anyhow she could.
“The question,” Fluke went on, steering her through the wide main doors into the hotel lobby, “is what’s he up to while Mabel keep tabs on us?”
Centered again, Rachel freed her elbow. “At a guess, something to
do with his original targets. He’s got it in for the Capital Finance board.”
“True, and that’s enough to show he’s not firing on all cylinders—
the board has whole new members since the company foreclosed on his house ten years ago. But now he knows the Team is on to him and will interfere if he makes a move on any of them.” Before he joined the queue of guests waiting to check in at the hotel’s front desk, Fluke approached an older woman who stood uncertainly nearby.
“The bingo games are next door in the casino, Mabel,” he told her. “You can tell him we’re checking in here under the name ‘Coward.’“
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she snapped. “I was just wondering whether to plan on staying overnight, Mr. Coward.” She sniffed and turned away.
Rachel noted the exchange with some amusement. When the name reached Johnson it would be as good as a taunt. Fluke rejoined her.
“My guess is Johnson’s doing his research—finding out everything he can about the local Team, looking for vulnerabilities, for ways to distract or circumvent us.”
“Hmm.” Rachel stood aside while he spoke with the concierge at the highly polished slab of black granite serving as the desktop. He didn’t register as Coward, but gave the man his own name. Her gaze wandered the lavish décor, from glittering crystal chandeliers to marble tiles and scattered seating arrangements on oriental carpets, but she took none of it in. Johnson could be stalking one of her friends—or David—at this very moment. But surely David would be safe. His talent consisted principally of immunity to the special talents of others.
“What can we do if he gets to someone else on the Team? He’ll know all our plans. He can sabotage us from within.”
She realized her anxiety had spiked again and focused on easing it.
Fluke went on, “David has thought of all this already. We talked while you were with the police artist. He’s got team members paired up to make sure Johnson won’t catch anyone alone—we’re on the buddy system.” He gave her a grin as they made their way to the elevators. “Just so you know, you and I are buddies.”
“Perfect.” Rachel muttered to herself.
Proximity to Fluke presented an increasing challenge to her inner peace. Every small touch, the heat and scent of him beside her, all ignited physical reactions she’d so far only marginally managed to contain. Her nervousness over affecting the people around them made it easier to keep her reactions in check. What would happen when she found herself alone with him? What did she want to happen?
As they ascended, a placard on the wall of the elevator advertised the spa. No way. Not as wired as she felt right now; she’d undo all the relaxing anyone else there had achieved.
“We’ve got the penthouse suite on the top floor of the hotel, and the two floors directly below,” Fluke reminded her.
She relaxed a bit. No one but Fluke would be near enough to feel the full brunt of her emotional overflow.
“There, that’s better isn’t it?” He led her into the living room of the suite, a room large enough to be measured in acreage rather than square feet, with floor to ceiling windows offering a panoramic view of the sun setting over the surrounding countryside.
“Much.” She stretched and eased previously unnoticed tension from her neck and shoulders.
“Can I help with that?” Fluke moved in close behind her, bringing strong hands to the taut muscles either side of where neck and shoulders joined. His thumbs pressed down and away while his fingers and sides of his hands pressed expertly upward.
She melted into his touch. “Mmm—that’s good. No matter how well I keep up with my yoga practice I can’t seem to keep the stiffness out of my neck.”
“Everyone needs a little help now and then.” He tugged her toward a low couch that looked about a mile long. “Let’s sit, relax, and order room service…”
“I couldn’t eat.” She sank to the couch. He stayed close beside her, his hands still soothing the tension from her neck. “And I want to get used to the idea that my emotions aren’t on public display.”
“Nobody here but me. Is this really so new for you?”
“We—David and I—have lived in the city since we met Tamara—about seven years now. There have always been neighbors, and her students, and passers-by…”
“And before that?” The heat of his thigh close to hers at once comforted and excited her. He had to feel her excitement too, though somehow that didn’t bother her as it would if there’d been dozens of people around, picking up the same thing.
“We spent about three years in hiding, on the run, evading the freak hunters. We spent time away from population centers. Hiding out in abandoned industrial buildings and barns—when the dogs didn’t chase us out—camping in makeshift shelters in the woods where no one could pick up on my personal broadcasts. But I was usually too hungry, cold, or plain scared to enjoy it. This is better.” She tilted back her head to give him a grateful smile
~ * ~
As she spoke, Fluke caught echoes of her remembered feelings—the chronic worry over being discovered, being chased by vicious guard dogs, or separated from her brother. He’d certainly caught her earlier sense of comfort and excitement. He only wanted to give her more of that after seeing—and feeling—the grateful look she gave him for this small vacation away from constantly guarding her emotions. He wished he’d been there for her much, much earlier, and saved her from all she’d endured.
“Even being hungry and alone in the woods was better than what happened when we tried to fit in around other people,” she continued as his fingers found and eased each little knot along the upper reaches of her spine. “We tried staying at a few homeless shelters. I was always on edge, always afraid of being noticed—”
“Afraid there’d be some kind of witch hunt by peasants armed with pitchforks and torches?” He teased.
She laughed. “Not exactly, but we heard those stories about experiments the government did on Freaks and they scared me. And so everyone around me felt afraid. Fear tends to bring out the worst in people.”
“Don’t I know it.” He’d met more than a few who treated him like a threat when they learned he was talented.
“People never realized what I was, but nobody liked to be around me. We couldn’t fit in anywhere. We ended up shunned anywhere we tried to stay—until we met Tamara. She faced the fear and transformed it, and showed me how to do the same.”
“Must’ve been your lucky day, finding her.”
“It was. I don’t know what I’d be now without her. She taught me to meditate, to take charge of my feelings, to have compassion for myself—I owe her everything.” She straightened on the couch, moving away from his hands. “In fact, I feel guilty leaving her with no one to do meals and keep the house—”
“Relax.” Fluke tugged her back against the cushions. “I spoke to her while you packed your bag upstairs. She said you’ve run the household for a good five years now with hardly a day off. She said to tell you to relax and enjoy yourself, she can handle things while you’re gone.”
Rachel sighed. “I know it. I really do. She did it all before I took some of it off her hands.”
“So you know she can do it now. She wants you to have this time for yourself. Why don’t you take it?”
She gave a rueful laugh. “Seems like I’ve forgotten how—how to let go—and I’m afraid I’d be taking advantage of you if I did.”
His laugh carried an edge of incredulity. “Here I was thinking you’d be worried about the opposite.”
“I was—at first—but I’m lost if I can’t be honest with myself about my feelings. And if I feel attracted to you, it’s not your fault if you feel the attraction too.”
“You’re a beautiful woman—I’d be attracted to you regardless of your talent. You might take advantage of the situation—in fact, I encourage you to do so—but you won’t be taking advantage of
She lifted a hand to rest on his where he still soothed her neck. “I know you can’t help but be concerned about my feelings, but I don’t have the
same… impetus to be concerned about yours—I hardly know you.”
“Let me worry about me.”
Her serenity now seemed like a sand castle in the tide, insubstantial walls giving way before a deeper, more powerful force. Behind those walls he caught hints of fragility, doubt, childlike curiosity, a growing hunger. But no relentless tide broke down her walls; somehow she lowered them deliberately. She wanted to let him in, despite herself, despite the doubts.