"I need a background clearance on one Anna Wu," Casey growled into his cell phone, his eyes never leaving the Cage. Using a camera tripod from a floor display for support, Wu's momentum carried her up the back of the Cage and over the head of the Mighty Jock goon who'd made a career recently of harassing her boyfriend. From the looks of it, a very brief career – she took him out at the knees.
"Yes, sir, Major Casey. We'll get that to you A.S.A.P."
Casey flipped the phone closed and settled back against the wall to enjoy the show.
The night air was cool, ghostly fingers ruffling her hair and tugging at her skirt as she walked. Stupid Emmett. He knew she had a date and still he kept her late to go over Nerd Herd incident reports. And that was Chuck's job, not hers.
She pushed her key into the lock, but a prickly feeling made her stop and listen. Pretending she dropped something, Anna bent down, saw in her peripheral vision a man watching her from the corner of the Buy More. He melted into the shadows and she straightened, hurried to lock herself into her car.
Casey bounced his head against the cinderblock wall, torn between being pissed off at himself for getting made and feeling vindicated in his instincts.
Watching Wu's taillights as she sped away, satisfaction spread throughout Casey's body. Pushing away from the wall, he nodded once to himself and headed toward the Crown Vic, parked in the shadows behind the Buy More, out of sight of prying eyes.
Who would've expected anything good might come out of the Burbank Buy More? But Anna Wu could become a serious asset for the NSA, if the Agency didn't send some idiot to recruit her.
General Beckman looked up from her paperwork at the intrusion; realizing it was Casey, she frowned and removed her reading glasses.
"Major Casey. Is there something wrong with the asset?"
Casey shifted in his chair, Wu's background check in hand. "No, General. Bartowski is fine." Beckman's brows rose, her gaze flattened, and her right hand, index finger extended, reached for the disconnect button. Before she cut him off, he said, "I'm calling about one of his co-workers at the Buy More."
Beckman relaxed, finger of doom taken out of play for the moment. "I'm listening."
"Her name is Anna Wu…"
Anna watched Morgan tell Emmett off, slapping the ridiculous headset into his hands, following it up with vest, tie, and… And shirt. Maybe a shirtless victory march wasn't Morgan's best choice, but she didn't care; she had never loved him more.
She hurried to catch up and he surprised her, swung her up into his arms, carried her from the Nerd Herd desk. Halfway to the front of the store, his arms slipped and she made him release her so that at least one of them could retain a little dignity.
Hand in hand, they walked from the Buy More.
"Box looks awfully heavy for such a pretty little girl."
Anna stopped cold, hands filled with all she and Morgan had left at the Buy More. Maybe the box was a little heavy: nothing she couldn't handle. She turned toward the man, someone she'd seen talking to John Casey in the appliance department, to tell him to back off, when the guy lifted the box from her hands.
"Got a proposition…" he began, but Anna had already had enough. A quick knee to the groin – How's that for a little girl? – and she had no trouble taking her box back.
Morgan skidded to a stop and leaped from his bicycle, sending it crashing to their tiny front lawn.
"Morgan? Is everything okay?" Anna asked, concerned until she saw the expression of utter glee on his bearded face.
"Okay? Okay? Everything is more than okay!" He ran to her, hands landing on her shoulders and then sliding down her arms. "I'm in!" he exclaimed, grasping her hands and twirling her around. "We're going to Hawai'i!"
His excitement was contagious; Anna laughed with him as they spun. "Benihana?"
"Yes! I'm going to be the greatest hibachi chef the world has ever known!"
Morgan's phone rang. At least it's turned on, this time, Anna thought. The last three times she'd called, it had gone directly to voicemail. And just as she thought it would do so again, Morgan answered, his voice breathless. "Hello?"
"Morgan, where the hell are you? You were supposed to be home almost two hours ago." She hadn't meant to sound so sharp, but he'd been at school for more than twelve hours straight; he could as easily practice his knife work at home.
"Anna!" he sounded surprised. "I'm sorry. Talia asked me to stay and give her a tour."
A woman's voice stopped them just short of the door. "Going somewhere, Morgan?" Anna looked at Morgan and then over at the tall woman who had just entered from the other side of the classroom.
"Talia, this is my girlfriend." Talia walked over to them, looking like some kind of runway model. Anna felt a wave of jealousy, wondered if this was the real reason Morgan was spending so much time at the school. "Anna Wu, meet Talia Mendelssohn."
The two women sized each other up while Morgan stood nearby smiling, clueless. After that brief hesitation, Anna shook Talia's hand.
Anna felt Morgan's gaze as he watched from the bar, waiting for refills. Still laughing at Talia's imitation of one of the Benihana instructors, she started to turn toward him when the other woman's light touch on Anna's wrist distracted her.
"How long have you and Morgan been together?" Talia asked, her light brown eyes intent on Anna's. "You two are serious?"
She meant to reply that of course they were serious, she'd followed Morgan all the way from California to be with him, but she hesitated, suddenly uncertain.
Talia smiled and sat back, her fingers trailing over Anna's palm.
"Are you leaving me?"
Anna looked up. "What?"
Morgan stood in the doorway, dishtowel hanging from his hand. "I saw the way you and Talia looked at each other."
She bit back a hasty reply and he returned to the sink, draping the towel over his shoulder. "You'd be better off with her anyway. At least she has a job. Prep chef for Benihana is nothing to sneeze at."
"Morgan…" She tossed her magazine to the coffee table and stood, walked into the kitchen. The dread on his face drained away her exasperation, softened her tone. "I'm not leaving you."
"Coming…" Anna called, hurrying to the front door and opening it as far as the chain allowed.
Talia held up the six-piece knife set from Global that Anna had given Morgan in honor of his acceptance to the Benihana School. "Morgan forgot these. Is he here?"
"No, he's not. I don't know where he is." Anna unchained the door and gestured her in, accepting the proffered knife case. "Would you like a glass of wine? A beer?"
"A beer would be good." Talia stepped in and shut the door. "I have to confess, I really came to talk to you."
While Morgan slept peacefully beside her, Anna stared at the ceiling, her mind reeling from all the things Talia had said, the words she'd thrown at Anna rapid-fire, wanting to get them all out before Morgan walked in on them.
…National Security Agency…
…natural-born field operative…
…juvenile police record expunged…
Morgan turned over in his sleep, flung an arm over Anna's stomach and snuggled into her side.
…everyone you love will be kept safe…
…your country needs you…
Anna carefully extracted herself from Morgan's sleeping embrace. Not bothering with lights, she padded into the living room to think.
"I don't even know why I'm here." Feeling sick, Anna headed for the door, but Talia's hand on her arm, there and then gone, stopped her.
"I do," Talia said, moving up behind Anna. "Do you want me to tell you why?"
Anna crossed her arms under her breasts. "Why?"
"You're here because—"
"I know why I'm here." She turned to face the NSA agent/Benihana prep chef, suddenly angry. "Why did you do this to Morgan?"
Rather than answering Anna's spoken question, Talia responded, "Morgan will be fine. You have my word."
Silently, Anna stalked from the Benihana School.
For half a second, Anna thought of simply walking out, saying nothing to Morgan, disappearing from his life. But she couldn't do that to him; she loved him too much. Blanking her expression, she shouldered her Army surplus duffel. "I'm leaving you."
He gaped at her, spluttering; she blinked once, hard, quelling the tears as he protested, "But you said…"
She forced a coldness she didn't feel. "I lied."
He didn't resist when she brushed past him and walked to her car. It was only when she reached the end of the street that she let the tears fall.
Talia Mendelssohn met her at Dulles. "You made it!" Smiling, she grabbed up Anna's duffel.
Anna took it back from her. "I'm not talking to you."
Walking backwards, Talia grinned. "Sorry about your luck, Agent-in-Training Wu. General Beckman says you're stuck with me."
It took Talia a couple of seconds to realize Anna had stopped in the middle of the concourse. When she returned, she took Anna's hand in hers. "I promise you, Anna, Morgan will be fine. He's already back with his friends in Burbank."
Anna sighed, mollified. "So what's your call sign, anyway?"
"Koo koo ka choo, baby."