“Joe and Retter understand why you did what you did. It’s not that I don’t understand. It’s that I don’t care. I only care about our missions and our agents.”
He had nothing to gain by trying to bullshit her. “You’re right. No one should take the autonomy I did.”
She angled her head a fraction and raised one fine black eyebrow. “Why didn’t you realize that before now?”
“I wanted to kill the person who had taken Eliot from me.” He hadn’t expected to be talking about this, but he owed Joe and Retter for blowing the chance they’d given him to prove he could be a part of the team. If Joe was willing to speak up for him then Hunter could tell Tee the truth. “That was rage speaking. Eliot would have been pissed if he’d known. He wouldn’t care about stopping one assassin for payback. He worked for BAD to stop groups like the Fratelli, to make this country safe for the people he loved. I’ve finally realized I was actually doing a disservice to him and what he lived for by going after one assassin. If he was standing here today he’d kick my ass across this building and back for losing sight of the big picture.”
She didn’t speak, just kept piercing him with a stiletto-pointed gaze, so he continued.
“Regardless of what you decide, I’d like to attend Korbin’s memorial. I don’t know if he’s got any family, but I’m in if we’re doing something for them.” He wasn’t going to flaunt his money and say he’d cover it all. That would insult the rest of the team. He’d pay his share. That’s what a team member would do.
“I wouldn’t have believed it,” she murmured.
“What? That I could be honest?”
“No, that you could change my mind.” Her lips curved softly into a smile with only a hint of evil hiding. “You’re back on the team, but what about this Abbie? She’s in the media. Not our favorite people.”
“She lost her job with the media.”
“Make sure she doesn’t get another one.”
“How do you expect me to do that?”
“I don’t care how you do it.” Tee got up and walked around the desk, then leaned forward with her hands supporting her. “She knows about you and what you do.”
“She’s not going to say anything,” Hunter argued. “She doesn’t know anything about this location, the name of our organization, nothing that she could tell anyone, even if she would, which she won’t.”
“You sound pretty certain.”
“I am certain. I trust her with my-”
“Life?” Tee smirked.
Hunter didn’t have to think before answering this time. “Yes.”
“Really.” Tee straightened away from the desk and crossed her arms. “Did you get a new safe house?”
“Going to share that location with us?”
“Not unless you want to be tied to the fallout if the CIA ever finds out about my houseguest.”
“No, we don’t, which is why we never pressed you before. Anyone else know about the location?”
“But Eliot knew, didn’t he?”
Hunter shrugged. “Yes. What’s your point?”
“You don’t trust Abbie, so I don’t trust her. How do you plan to assure us she isn’t going to be a threat to our security?”
You need plenty of fluids.” Abbie held the cup so her mother could take a sip of vitamin-infused water. Dr. Murphy had released her mother two days ago to come home.
Abbie’s apartment still stank of tear gas, which reminded her of the deep fear she’d lived through. She’d packed a bag of clothes she washed as soon as she reached her mother’s house.
Her mother took the cup from her hand. “Don’t ignore me, Abigail. This is the first chance we’ve had to talk without Hannah in the room. What happened? Why did you lose your job?”
“Because the station is still spinning this to fix the backlash from me being involved when Gwen Wentworth was shot. They gave me a chance to save my name if I’d write an exclusive on my ordeal. I refused. When I started, I thought I’d like working for television, but I don’t want to share intimate details of what happened to me, so I can’t see myself asking someone else to do that. My reputation is shot in television.”
“I’m sorry, honey.”
“The only upside is that I hated working for a scumbag.” She smiled at her mother. “But I did hear some good news. Brittany’s grandfather fired Stuey. And I did get an offer from a regional magazine to report on Chicago’s who’s who in business and where they’re seen around town. They seem to think since I was seen with a Thornton-Payne I must be ‘in the know.’ ” She did the air quotes with her fingers. Filming documentaries might not happen in this lifetime with the dark cloud hanging over her television career.
“Why do you sound disappointed, Mom?” Not that Abbie was doing backflips over this job offer or that she believed anyone in the Thornton-Payne league would ever speak to her, but it was a paying gig if she got it and meant reporting on the cream of the corporate world.
She might run into a Thorton-Payne, as in Todd, but not Hunter. The tug of pain caught her by surprise again.
“What about that idea you had to film children at different times in their lives for a couple-”
“No.” Abbie had once thought about creating video scrapbooks for parents. She’d saved the idea to start with her own family, because filming documentaries had always been her true passion. What was the chance she’d ever have little ones of her own? Zilch if she couldn’t have a family with the man she loved.
Falling for Hunter proved trust and love didn’t go hand in hand as she’d always believed.
Worse, she still loved that bastard.
He’d said he loved her, but he hadn’t trusted her.
She couldn’t accept one without the other and Hunter lived a life that didn’t allow for opening himself up totally to a woman.
“You’re awake.” Hannah strolled into the bedroom eating a dish of ice cream and carrying a second one she handed to her mother.
“I don’t get one?” Abbie asked, annoyed.
“You’ve got laundry to do.” Hannah shoved another spoonful in her mouth and moaned.
“I thought you wanted to stay a size six.” Abbie grabbed for the bowl. Hannah stuck it high in the air.
“Plumping up a few curves didn’t hurt you. I’ll take someone like that Hunter guy you were running around with anytime.”
Over my dead body. Abbie clamped her lips shut to keep from speaking her thoughts.
“Besides, Dr. Murphy said to be careful what you ate for a few days.” Hannah stepped back and lowered the bowl to mouth level, watching Abbie for any sudden moves.
“I’m fine. I didn’t get the crap Mom had. Dr. Murphy meant I shouldn’t eat anything abrasive to my stomach.” She glared at Hannah.
“Okay, all right. I’ll get you a bowl.” Hannah left.
Thin fingers touched Abbie’s hand. She turned to her mother, whose eyes were watery. “I’m sorry you were hurt-”
“Mom, you didn’t do anything wrong. You only gave birth to him. You didn’t raise Royce to be a killer. Sigmund Jack did that to him and he put you in danger. You were set up from the beginning.” Abbie would have nightmares forever about thinking she was going to die with no way to stop the killer or save her mother. “I was more scared for you. I still shake when I think about how close we came to losing you. If they hadn’t sedated Royce so heavily, he’d have committed suicide before Dr. Murphy had a chance to do the transfusion.”
“I would have done anything to keep you safe,” her mother said. “Sigmund threatened the one thing that would keep me from ever telling about him or my son when he said he’d kill you if I did. Or if I pointed a finger at the Kore Women’s Center.”
Abbie couldn’t imagine being given that choice. She’d have fought the world to protect a child… which she’d never have to worry about since she was never getting married.
“Abbie, uh…” Hannah called from the bedroom door.
“I don’t see a bowl of ice cream in your hand,” Abbie pointed out, though she laughed to lighten her accusation.
“Yeah, well, you might not have time to eat it.”
“There’s a man at the door asking for you. When I wouldn’t let him talk to you unless he told me what he wanted, he said there’s a private jet waiting on you at Midway Airport. He’s driving a stretch, and I mean stretch, limousine. He has a sealed envelope for you.”
Hunter paced the tarmac at Lambert-St. Louis airport. He’d never been nervous in his life, but he was damned nervous now.
The limo driver stood at the ready next to the rear door of the black limousine.
The jet Hunter had sent for Abbie was finally taxiing in his direction. He’d debated meeting her at her mother’s house to fly with her. But that would have allowed Abbie to dig in her heels at her mother’s house or at Midway airport.
Nothing but the note he sent would have gotten her this far. He’d written that he’d share the story behind the karabiner he carried if she’d come to St. Louis to hear it.
He had the karabiner with him, hanging from his belt loop, where he’d clipped it the night he pulled Eliot’s climbing gear off his body.
What he hadn’t told Abbie was that she’d have to hear the story while she was riding in a car.
When the jet Todd loaned him, again, finally stopped and the steps were lowered, Hunter had to force himself to wait by the car and not go to her. He hadn’t seen Abbie in five days.
He’d never realized how long five days could be.
When she emerged from the airplane and started down the steps he just stared, soaking her up from head to toe. She wore jeans and a turquoise sweater. Her eyes were bluer than her sweater. Black boots padded down the steps. Her hair was free, curling to her shoulders.
The only thing missing was her smile.
When she reached him she said, “I’m here because I’m naturally curious. Not because I’m willing to compromise.”
“I understand and won’t ask you to change the way you feel.”
Her gaze faltered, as if she might have wanted him to at least try. “Glad you understand. What’s with the car?”
“I thought we could take a drive while I told you the story.”
She considered it slowly, her eyes going from him to the car. “Okay, but do not take me out of St. Louis or this state or the country.”
“I won’t take you anywhere you aren’t willing to go.”
Again, she gave him a curious look. The wind lifted her hair and floated her scent over to him. Hunter couldn’t imagine not feeling her in his hands again or waking up next to her to make love. But she’d made her position clear when she said she would not stay with someone who didn’t trust her.
Just saying he trusted her would never work with Abbie.
She walked to the car and climbed into the backseat. When Hunter slid in, she moved to the seat across from him. “Start talking.”
When the car motored away, Hunter said, “I met Eliot in college.” He told her about things he and Eliot had done and how his friend had died, leaving out classified details, but sharing that Eliot had entrusted Hunter with protecting Cynthia and little Theo. That Cynthia was the person Hunter went to see in at the cemetery.
“I can understand your caution with Cynthia’s identity, especially given the responsibility Eliot left in your hands,” Abbie said. “I’m sorry about him. I can’t imagine losing someone the way you lost him.”
She’d been clutching the side of the seat and lifted her hand. He thought she might reach for him in a gesture of comfort, but the limo pulled to the curb in front of a brick home at that moment and she pulled her fingers back.
He hid the twist of misery he felt over her withdrawal again, but he had brought her here for a reason and would not let her reticence stop him now. “I want you to meet someone.”
Abbie looked around but made no comment on the quiet neighborhood with sidewalks and trees in the front yards. Children played next door.
Hunter got out of the car and stood in sunshine that warmed the air to the mid-sixties. He offered Abbie his hand. She hesitated, then put her hand in his. Touching her again struck him like a lightning bolt. He wanted to feel her in his arms but would take what she gave him. When he turned her toward the ranch-style brick house, the front door opened and Cynthia stepped out onto the small porch. She smiled at him, expecting them since Hunter had called in advance.
When he walked Abbie to the house, he said, “This is Cynthia, Eliot’s wife.”
Abbie’s mouth opened. She couldn’t believe he was bringing her here, but she was at the steps and meeting Cynthia before she could put her thoughts in words.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Abbie,” Cynthia said, stepping back so they could enter.
“You too,” Abbie mumbled. Hunter had explained how important it was to protect this woman’s identity. What was he thinking? When she remembered her manners, she said, “Your home is beautiful.” The toasty smell of baked cookies filled the house.
“Thank you. I’d love for you to come back when you can stay longer, but I understand you’re on a tight schedule today,” Cynthia said, turning to lead the way.
Abbie followed her through rooms decorated in down-to-earth chic. They walked through a kitchen in white and blue, then outside to a back screened porch, where a beautiful little boy played with plastic building blocks.
Hunter stepped up next to Abbie. His gaze was fixed on the little cherub with blond hair.
“Theo?” Cynthia said.
Her son raised powder-blue eyes and smiled at her.
“There’s someone here to see you, Theo.”
He stood up and walked to his mother, who said, “This is Abbie.” Theo shook Abbie’s hand like a little gentleman.
“And this is Hunter, your godfather.”
Abbie couldn’t speak. Hunter had clearly not met this child before today. She held her breath as Hunter walked over and dropped down on his knees, closer to eye level with Theo.
Hunter smiled at Theo. “Your daddy was a great man and he was my best friend. When you’re older, I’ll tell you stories about your dad, but you only need to know two things. Your daddy loved you very much…” He paused, his throat working as he swallowed, then added quietly, “And he was a hero.”
Abbie’s heart thumped wildly.
“This belonged to him,” Hunter said, unhooking the carabiner from where it hung on his belt loop. “It’s yours now.”
Theo touched the karabiner with his little hands, then he looked up at Hunter with wonder in his eyes. He leaned forward, arms wide. Hunter lifted him into his arms, hugging the tiny boy.
Abbie’s heart was breaking over the loss these three had shared, but she had a feeling Hunter hadn’t healed at all from that awful night on the cliff.
He was healing now with Eliot’s child in his arms. Hunter sat Theo back on his feet, then hooked the karabiner through a loop in Theo’s jeans. The little boy’s smile filled the room like bottled sunshine. Being a tiny person who didn’t understand everything, he sat down to play again.