19 OCTOBER 2007
Steam curled seductively off of the top of the to-go clutched in her hand as she sauntered up to the front door of Goldie’s Gym, a back-alley little establishment that would suit her needs. She could walk—her legs were lethal objects, given the number of things she could do with them, actually—but saunter was her chosen method of transportation. Just another way of saying “Screw you, world,” which had been her anthem since roughly the age of seven or so.
Carina Miller believed in getting a head-start on some things.
The day was not one of them. Most days, if there wasn’t a mission seducing a drug kingpin or whatever the hell they wanted her to do, she only dragged herself out of bed well after the butt-crack of noon had passed.
The things she did for her friends.
She didn’t snarl at the attendant working the front desk at Goldie’s Gym. For one thing, he was hot in that too-pretty L.A. beefcake sort of way, and for another, he was ripped in a way that indicated he not only worked at Goldie’s, he played there, too. So she fixed on a sultry smirk and, switching her coffee to her coffee, dug around in her Louis Vuitton gym bag for a second, and slapped two c-notes down.
“You’ve got a private squash court, right?” she asked, cranking up the smirk a notch.
It could have been the money putting that stunned look on his face, but she liked to think it was her new work-out top. Oh, and the fact that she was pretty damned hot.
Either way, he nodded, and he nodded quickly.
“Good. I need it for the hour.” She paused, considered, tilted her head a little bit. “Maybe two. No questions asked.”
“It’s yours,” Cute-If-A-Bit-Mindless Employee said quickly. It really was amusing sometimes, Carina thought, about how men always seemed to fall all over themselves to do her bidding. “Upstairs, to the left. Do you need, ah, any equipment or anything?”
Carina gave him a blank look. “What the hell would I need equipment for?”
Carina just laughed and hitched her gym bag over her shoulder. “Who the hell said anything about playing racquetball? One more thing: in about five minutes, a blonde’s gonna walk in. Tall, leggy, not as pretty as me but wholesome if you’re into that sort of thing, looks like she needs to get laid, like, two weeks ago. Send her up?”
Leaving the money on the desk, she sauntered off toward the stairs. Goldie’s Gym really was a sinkhole, reeking of sweat and chlorine like these places typically did. She could admire the nice array of toned bodies put on display on the weightlifting equipment as she passed by, but she ultimately preferred the exclusive day spa just down the street from her crash-pad in South Beach, and of course the magical hands of Sven, the head masseuse. Gay as Clay Aiken, she mused, tapping an idle beat on the banister as she climbed the stairs two at a time, and God did the man have magical hands.
Maybe she could book a massage before she had to meet up with her mark this afternoon. It had been awhile, and Peyman Alahi’s men hadn’t exactly been gentle the night before. Her tennis elbow—though she’d never played a game of tennis in her life—was acting up a bit. She drained her coffee on the way up the stairs and tossed the to-go cup idly at a trash can in passing. Because she was Carina Hot Damn Miller, it hit nothing but net.
Carina found the racquetball court in question and had to smirk as she left her present on the doorknob.
Oh, Walker was gonna be pissed. Carina couldn’t wait.
She figured she had about four minutes before Sarah arrived, which was plenty of time. Carina tossed her gym bag to the side and peeled her over-shirt off, revealing the body-hugging black workout tank that yes, did emphasize the assets nicely. She kicked off her shoes and began the process of peeling off her layers of weapons. She usually kept them in cases in her trunk, but Peyman had connections that she wasn’t willing to risk at the moment, so right now, she had to pull off her calf-sheath, and remove her Smith&Wesson Ladysmith from the holster at the back of her yoga pants (the only reason she had been wearing an over-shirt at all), and remove the three other knives from various places that the DEA always had her redact in her reports.
The door slammed open just as she finished lining up the last of her knives by her gym bag. She didn’t look up. “Right on time, I see. Punctuality is still a virtue.”
“Stuff it, Carina.” There was the slap of a gym bag hitting the floor.
“Pissy, pissy.” Now Carina did look up. The blonde woman was actually beyond pissed. She was furious in a way she hadn’t been able to show during clean-up a few hours before at the warehouse. And to Carina’s delight, it wasn’t the beaten-down-by-life sort of anger she’d seen from Sarah over the past eighteen months or so. No, this anger was kinetic, it had teeth. Sarah was seething, her fists clenching and unclenching, her feet shuffling, her back straight but her eyes promising revenge.
It was about damn time.
“Hiya, Walker,” Carina said, rising languidly to her full height.
Sarah tossed the lacy bra clutched in her left hand onto the laminated floor between them. “I assume this is yours?”
“What, you don’t like your present?” Carina began to stretch out her arms, starting with her left.
“Don’t. Just don’t.” Real anger shimmered in Sarah’s eyes before the blonde turned away. She was about two seconds away from letting out a groan of frustration, by Carina’s estimation. Indeed, the explosion came right on schedule. Sarah whipped around. “What the hell is your problem?” she demanded, all fury and sharp elbows. “Seriously, what the hell?”
Carina tilted her head coquettishly because she knew it would infuriate Sarah beyond words. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said, deliberately toying with the end of her hair.
“You tried to ransom my partner!”
“You could have mentioned he was Bunker Boy. I wouldn’t have ransomed him then.”
And there, that was what she had been looking for. That split-second hesitation before the frost shield descended. Sometimes Carina wondered how Sarah Walker had survived as long in the spy game as she had since the woman was a terrible poker player.
“I already told you I’m not going to talk about this with you,” Sarah said, and her voice was deathly calm.
“So Bunker Boy’s name is Chuck, huh? That surprised me. I was expecting something exotic. Pierre or something. Francois. Not quite as…blue-collar.”
Sarah gave her the ice queen look. “You held my partner at gunpoint.”
“I wasn’t ever going to shoot him.” Carina stretched out her quads. “Are you mad about that?” she wondered, keeping her voice idle. “Or are you angry because I got Bunker Boy kidnapped by a drug dealer and you weren’t the one who got to rescue him? Beaten out by Bryce yet again.”
Sarah’s hand clenched into a fist.
“Awesome,” Carina said, and laughed. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a good fight.”
“I’m not going to fight you,” Sarah said through gritted teeth. She finally seemed to look around at the long, echoing room. She had before, no doubt, an engrained habit to check for cameras, escape routes, weak points in the infrastructure, hiding spots, but now Carina could see her fully process the room and its meaning. Sarah turned back to Carina, head tilted, face puzzled and furious. “Even so, you couldn’t have picked some place with mats?”
“Why would I do that?”
Sarah made a disgusted noise that Carina remembered well from their days together at the Point. “I wonder why I even bother to ask.”
“Me too.” Bored now, Carina’s conscience informed her. If she were at all introspective, she would have observed that this boredom happened a lot, but right now, she only listened. They were talking a bit much and letting Sarah talk was bad. She was far too clever at getting long-winded in situations that could be solved with a simple scissor-kick to the face. Carina upped her smirk, tilted her head in a dead-on imitation of Sarah, and sing-songed, “Somebody needs to get laaaaaaaid.”
“Carina, for the ten thousandth time, I am not interested.”
“Why would you be? You’ve got Bunker Boy to service your needs now.”
The flicker across Sarah’s face told Carina that that was exactly the right bruise to poke.
“So, just how good is he in bed?” Carina watched Sarah’s fist tighten until her knuckles were striped red and white. “I have to admit, I’ve wondered. I mean, all that time in the bunker, away from everything, all that tension, I bet he’s a maniac in the sack.”
Sarah said nothing. In fact, she had gone utterly still.
“Oh-ho-ho,” Carina said. “You haven’t slept with him yet! Are you starting to rust down there? I can help with that.”
“I know what you’re doing,” Sarah said.
“So it’s not going to work. This isn’t a point system, or an accounting log, Carina. I can beat the hell out of you and we still won’t be even.”
If she’d had a heart, Carina thought, that might have hurt, but since at least five people had called her heartless in the last six months, she didn’t worry. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Who said anything about even? It’s been awhile since I’ve had a good fight—or a good lay, really, but since I know you won’t help with that because you’re stubbornly heterosexual, the former will have to do. You should be flattered that I consider you a decent fighting partner.”
“Decent?” Sarah asked.
“It’s probably not just your lady parts that are rusty,” Carina mused.
The fist twitched.
A bit more prodding, Carina thought, idly popping her shoulder (she had dislocated it in Pakistan, and Sarah knew that, which could be a problem if things got vicious). And then it wouldn’t be a matter of even. Just a matter of adrenaline and pain and the pleasure of a good brawl.
God, Carina missed brawling. Sarah hadn’t even put up a good fight in the bedroom the day before—she’d been too focused on not letting her precious Bunker Boy and his civilian sister hear them. What a freaking prude. Where had all that damned spirit gone? The Sarah she’d known at the Point, and before Bryce The Tool Larkin had gotten his claws into her, had loved a good brawl. She’d dived right in during the one bar fight Carina had been allowed to start out at Dirty Phil’s on one of their rare nights off. And she’d laughed just as loud as Carina when the hardened salts had failed to best two slender-at-best young women still in college.
“But if you’re too chicken to prove me wrong, I could go warm your Bunker Boy for you, get him primed for some Walker lovin’. I’ve got some time on my hands. Of course, once he’s done with me, he might not want you anymore and—whoa!”
Sarah gave absolutely no warning. Later on, Carina would admire her for that, but now she was too busy dodging. Sarah lashed out, leading with her right fist as she always did. Carina ripped her left arm up from where it had been crossed over her chest, barely raising the forearm block in time. She nearly let out a yelp when Sarah immediately followed the first punch with her left fist. Carina’s right elbow raised on instinct, blocking the second fist. The follow-through put the women shoulder to shoulder, facing opposite directions. Carina reached across her body and shoved Sarah’s shoulder with her left hand, sending her sideways a couple of steps.
“Oh,” she said, laughing and bouncing on the balls of her feet as excitement and adrenaline mixed a deadly cocktail in her blood, “it’s on, bitch.”
Sarah responded with one of her famous roundhouses. Carina went backward, using her knees as a leverage and putting Neo to shame. She immediately rebounded, springing up—
Sarah slapped her across the face, open-palmed. And damn it to hell, it stung. What hurt more, though, was her pride. Her hand flew to the corner of her mouth and she nearly blinked to see blood gathered on her fingers. “You hit me like a girl!”
There wasn’t an ounce of smugness in Sarah’s face. “You’re bleeding like a girl, then.”
Uh-oh, Carina realized. She’d more than struck a nerve. She’d run over it with a Panzer tank. Still, in for the penny, in for the pound, which was a phrase she had never personally understood, but damn if it didn’t fit now. Carina swiped at the blood and purposely gave Sarah her biggest grin. “So that’s how it’s going to be?”
“You started it,” Sarah said, and dropped down into her combat stance, something between a boxer and a street-fighter. Fire-style with a touch of earth, Carina had always thought of it, whereas she used her own willowy build to kick ass in the water and wind styles.
“So I did.” Mocking now, Carina raised her right hand, palm up and out, and did the typical Matrix come-on, which naturally transformed itself into giving Sarah the finger.
Sarah returned the gesture and chased it with a punch. Carina blocked that one, and the next, and the follow-up. The knee to the thigh, however, she didn’t see coming. She grunted at the flash of pain, automatically throwing up a block to stop the short-armed blow to the gut. The momentum from the block carried into a punch-shove hybrid. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to throw Sarah off-balance. Carina grabbed the nearest forearm and yanked, hauling the blonde toward her. Her free hand slammed down on Sarah’s shoulder and she launched herself up, an absurd game of leapfrog, making Sarah stumble. The other woman immediately returned with another roundhouse, but years of sparring had taught Carina to expect that. She ducked.
Sarah’s kick ruffled Carina’s hair as it passed over her.
Usually, they were evenly matched in a fight. Well, that wasn’t entirely accurate, Carina could admit if she were being honest with herself (a very rare occurrence). Sarah was the stronger fighter, but she cared about too damn much like some sad-sack bleeding heart. It really held her back, which meant that Carina, who was by no means a slacker herself, could keep up. That was the norm.
Today, however, was not the norm. Sarah had left the bleeding heart at the door. Maybe it was just buried under layers of rage and fury and things that, yes, propelled Sarah Walker on any given day, except that that rage was now a living thing.
Sarah set in on her like a wild woman, fury giving her speed and strength but robbing her of the precision that usually made her lethal. Carina’s only option was to throw up as many blocks as she could, though she landed a satisfying kick to the ribcage that would give Sarah pause for quite some time. Sarah was angry enough to return to her brawling roots, which meant she wanted a close and dirty fight. Carina, being a finesse fighter, knew she was finished if it came to that, so she kept moving, kept sending Sarah flying whenever she could.
They used every single inch of the court. Sarah’s advances backed Carina toward a corner, away from the door. When she spun in a low kick, intending to sweep Carina’s legs out from under her, Carina threw herself at the wall, rebounding off and vaulting clean over her friend’s head. She landed, spun around, and didn’t throw up her arm in time. Sarah’s punch caught her dead-center, a vicious starburst of pain right through her abdomen so bright that Carina saw sparkles at the edges of her vision. She tumbled like a damned first-year trainee, and the fall jarred her freaking elbow.
Instead of setting in on her prey, however, Sarah stood her ground, hands clenched at her sides, shoulders squared and heaving, face flushed from the fight and eyes furious.
She was like an avenging angel.
“God, that’s hot,” Carina said, wheezing, one arm clutched over her aching midsection. She added just enough salaciousness to make Sarah smile, hoping to diffuse the tension in her friend.
There was no reaction.
It was, Carina saw as she climbed to her feet, time for a new tactic. The fight was not serving as the catharsis she had hoped for, and if this kept up, Sarah would truly be able to claim she had wiped the floor with Carina. Carina’s ego was a beautiful and steely thing, but she didn’t think it would survive a beating like the one Sarah’s eyes promised.
She took a breath, centering herself. With her exhalation, she pushed the pain, the twinge at the corner of her mouth, the ache in her thigh, the fatigue in her muscles and that annoying fireburst in her stomach, she pushed all of that out. She had quite a bit of fight left in her, but if she didn’t get this move right the first time, the novelty would be gone. So she took another breath and deliberately raised both hands in a mockery of a crane stance.
She might have missed it, if she weren’t looking for it: Sarah’s eyes flickered with just the tiniest hint of amusement.
Finally. Damn it, Walker.
Sarah raced forward, vicious enough to aim for the face. Carina let the jab get within an inch of her nose as she snapped her head back and swung out with her right arm, trapping Sarah’s right arm over Carina’s right shoulder. Instead of slapping Sarah across the face like she wanted to, she flicked Sarah’s nose.
Carina used the split-second reflex to chop her hand down on Sarah’s shoulder. Her free hand reached across her own body and grabbed Sarah’s extended wrist. Sarah hit the laminated floorboards hard, and Carina shoved until the other woman was on her stomach, her arm pinned behind her back.
Without any prompting, Carina sat on her friend, breathing hard. “We need to talk,” she said.
Sarah tried to buck her off. Carina increased the torque on the other woman’s wrist.
“That’s not talking,” she chided.
Sarah’s reply was in Polish. It was also not appropriate for polite audiences. Thankfully, Carina had forgotten the meaning of polite around the same time she had forgotten the meaning of virginity. She grinned.
“Yes, well,” she said after the tirade had died down, “any goat that tried to do that to my mother would be a pretty damn stupid goat, don’t you think? Now, are you going to actually listen to me, or would you like to insult my parentage more? Cos I’ve got,” and Carina made a point of blithely checking her watch, “at least three hours before my mark is supposed to pick me up, and trust me, nothing better than to do than to listen to you besmirch my mother’s honor some more. God, I hate that bitch.”
Sarah grumbled, but since Carina was literally sitting on top of her friend, she felt the tremor of a suppressed laugh jerk through Sarah’s diaphragm. Sarah muttered something into the tiles below her.
“What was that?” Carina asked.
“I said what the hell have you been eating? You’ve gained like twenty pounds.”
“I have not!” Carina did not give Sarah the satisfaction by checking to see if there was any truth to her taunt. History and repetition had taught her that Sarah could be quite small when the situation arose. The CIA agent could be straight-laced, priggish, and as boring as the day was long, but Carina respected two things about her: she was great to have at your side in a fight, and she could get downright mean when backed into a corner. It kept life interesting.
Sarah scowled, her cheek resting against the tiles. At least she had stopped fighting it. “Katie,” she said, and Carina barely suppressed the scowl. She’d introduced herself to Sarah as Katrina all those years ago at the Point, and it hadn’t taken much for Sarah to realize that, like most cover names, the name was similar to Carina’s real name. She wasn’t sure if it was Katherine or Kathleen, but Katie fit for both, and Carina hated that nickname.
Even worse, she had yet to figure out Sarah’s real name, but it had to be close to Sarah. Her current theory was Sadie. Naturally, it would be short for sadist.
“If you don’t let me up right now, I’m going to set up a Facebook page in the name of Katie—”
“Okay, okay,” Carina said, and rolled off of her friend. She knew there wasn’t surveillance nearby—she hadn’t had any tails on the way into Goldie’s Gym—but hearing her name gave her the jitters. She glared at Sarah as the other woman rose to her feet. “That was low, Walker.”
“You were sitting on me.”
“Also kind of a strange threat,” Carina said. “Usually with you, it’s all, I’m going to beat your face in or I’m gonna make you wish I really had left you behind in Pakistan. A Facebook page?”
“I had my horizons broadened recently. Facebook, for the record, is a social networking website on the Internet that—”
“Smartass,” Carina said, laughing. She crossed to her gym bag and pulled out a bottle of water, which she tossed to Sarah. The wince as the other woman caught it gave her a petty tug of satisfaction. “A smartass answer and an unorthodox threat. I daresay this Bunker Boy’s good for you, Walker, much as I hate to admit that men have their uses besides sex.”
Immediately, the scowl overtook Sarah’s face again.
The devil may care temperament gifted to her by hereditary lottery and nature wouldn’t let Carina stop. “I’m sure once you train him, he’ll be good for sex, too,” she said, watching the storm clouds cross Sarah’s face. “What’s the matter, Walker? He turn you down? Am I going to have to give you the ‘there, there, other fish in the sea’ nonsense?”
Sarah snorted and began to stretch out. It helped Carina’s bruised ego to see that she was flinching. “You know, some girlfriends do things like go shopping together and have pillow fights.”
“Sexy pillow fights?”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “And here we are. Instead of sleeping in like normal human beings, you reserved a racquetball court so that we can beat the hell out of each other.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Carina said, uncapping her water bottle and drinking deeply.
“Do you ever wonder why we’re so abnormal?” Sarah went on, dropping onto her hands and feet to stretch out her calves. Carina took a moment to watch her butt wiggle in the air as Sarah switched legs. “Like, what broke us that we’re not all, I think I’ll go hit Rodeo Drive this morning? Nope, beating the hell out of my only friend just sounds like a better option, I think I’ll do that.”
“I’m touched that you think we’re besties, but you’re avoiding my question,” Carina said. When Sarah shot her a puzzled look, she bumped a shoulder up and down. “You’re right, normally I don’t give a rat’s ass about whether or not you answer my questions, but since I won the fight—”
“You did not!”
“Excuse me, who sat on whom? Either way, to the victor go the spoils, and since you’re still clinging that short-sighted ‘I only screw men’ platform of yours—”
“I love how you forget you’re not actually bi.”
“—Then I’ve got to get my kicks where I can find them.” Carina rolled her eyes and looked around the racquetball court, which had a few new scars on the floor thanks to some fancy footwork. “God, I don’t think I’ve ever found LA boring before. Thanks for that, Walker.”
“Happy to help.” Peeved now, Sarah sat down hard on her gym bag.
“When the hell have you ever cared about being normal?” Carina asked. Since she was already sitting anyway, she leaned forward and wrapped both hands around her left foot, stretching until her nose was resting atop her knee. “Normal’s boring.”
She heard a sigh. “Forget I said anything.”
“I mean, I just don’t get it. What are they calling normal these days? Two point one kids?”
“Two point four, I think.”
“Still not a full kid. So you’ve got, like, some half-a-kid running around because that’s not an utter freakshow to start off, and some lame golden retriever that needs to be fed every day and then just ends up shitting all over your house that you can’t afford the mortgage on anyway, and little Timmy’s got asthma problems, and Susie’s got freaking ballet lessons that are going to give her a worse complex than anything we ever went through, and what’s the damn point?” Carina blew out a breath and switched legs, absolutely puzzled why the hell anybody would want the American Dream. There was far too much of the world to see, and the thought of one husband for the rest of one’s life…it made Carina shudder. He’d probably start screwing the secretary anyway.
“As always, it’s fascinating to get a glimpse inside your head,” Sarah said, a sardonic look on her face. Instead of rising to her feet from her calf-stretch, she lay on the floor, propping her chin up on her elbows. “I’m going to have kids named Timmy and Susie?”
“Don’t forget little Mickey-the-Half-a-Kid Freakshow.”
“Ah, yes, musn’t forget him.” Sarah flicked a strand of blonde out of her face. She was starting to relax, Carina figured, which meant that she probably figured her “distract the Carina” ploy had worked. It might have if her fury hadn’t nearly killed Carina not ten minutes before. Carina couldn’t decide if she was insulted by the fact that Sarah thought she was easy to trick. She decided not to be. Sarah had had even less sleep than she had. “But your extreme example aside, why isn’t it stranger that the two of us just whaled on each other for the pure hell of it? I’ve got this friend who is perfectly happy just spending her afternoon shopping. And I look at her and wonder, why can’t I find that entertaining? Why do I have to jump out of planes and shoot guys to get my kick?”
Carina did not shrug and say, “Because it’s fun.” She wanted to, and her point stood, but she pushed herself back up into a sitting position and just looked at Sarah.
The blonde caught up rather quickly. “What? What is it?”
“Jig’s up, blondie. Now tell me the real reason you went all Bionic Woman on my ass.”
Sarah looked blank.
“It’s a TV show,” Carina sighed. “Do you do anything in your spare time?”
“Spare time?” Sarah started laughing, but there wasn’t a hell of a lot of humor in the noise.
Okay, she had a point. When Carina had breezed into LA, she had been expecting to find her usual down-in-the-dumps friend, but Sarah had been edgy and fidgety, or as fidgety as it was possible for Sarah Walker to be. She hadn’t slowed down at all, either. Every time they met up, Sarah always had to race off to a meeting, or was late because something had held her up. Meeting Bunker Boy the night before explained some of it, but not nearly enough. Something was happening in Burbank.
Not that Carina was going to stick around to find out. She hadn’t been lying when she’d told Sarah that LA bored her. Everybody was just too obsessed with their looks here. She needed to get back to South Beach where they were also obsessed with drinking suntan lotion.
God, Carina loved her town.
Sarah scowled. “I suppose if I asked you nicely to leave it alone, you would just laugh at me.”
“Just a little laugh,” Carina said, holding up her thumb and forefinger very close together. As she expected, the scowl deepened. Carina decided to use the ace up her sleeve. “You haven’t said his name once.”
Sarah glared right back. “Well, you haven’t mentioned why you got kicked out of the DEA,” she pointed out.
Though that little dart stung like a splinter of glass that had been lodged in beneath her ribcage, Carina figured it was only fair. She shrugged. “It’s not kicked out so much as…I don’t know. The words ‘probationary agent if you’re lucky,’ and ‘ass-end of Mongolia’ were used, but I had stopped listening by that point. Asshole bureaucrats. Turns out punching the Associate Director of the DEA in the face is not a good idea. However, if you give me my diamond…”
“Already handed it over,” Sarah said, and the corner of her lip twitched.
Carina fought down a stab of annoyance. “Freaking goody two-shoes,” she muttered.
“You know, I never understood that phrase.”
“It means you’re a bitch.”
“Does it?” For a split second, Sarah looked pleased, and then she sighed. “I’ll have you know, Chuck made some calls.” There, her eyes seemed to say, I said his name.
Carina tossed her a mock salute. “I’m very happy for him.”
“And he may have gotten that whole sucker-punching the Associate Director of the DEA thing cleared off of your record.”
“Did he now?” One of Carina’s eyebrows went up.
“Yeah, he’s a nice guy.” Sarah pushed herself off of her stomach and walked over to the wall, scuffed and stained by years of racquetball games. She slid down it without thought to the dirt that she had to be getting all over her yoga pants and work-out tank. “You have him to thank, not me. Remember that.”
“Uh-huh.” She didn’t believe it for an instant but if Walker wanted to hide the fact that she was a bleeding heart, that was fine by Carina. She didn’t let herself show any of the relief. The thought of losing her job permanently had hurt quite a bit more than she had wanted to admit even to herself.
But she wasn’t in some sinkhole of a gym because of herself, Carina remembered. She was here for Sarah, whose anger had drained into a stare filled with nothingness aimed at the opposite wall. First the uncontrollable rage, then the runaround, and now an odd sort of exhaustion.
Fear, Carina realized. She’d seen Sarah stare death in the eyeball with nary a single blink. She’d seen the CIA agent fling herself off of buildings, seen her laugh as she raced a stolen motorbike through congested roads while chased by men with AK-47s. She hadn’t flinched at the thought of breaking into a bank in Dubai, and she’d calmly told the terrorists that had nearly overtaken them in Pakistan to go screw themselves.
But looking at Sarah now, sitting with her shoulders against that scuffed wall, Carina knew she was seeing terror.
And that made Carina want to run.
Instead, she swore inwardly, picked her lazy ass up off of the floor, and slid down the wall until she was sitting next to Sarah. She was tempted to make some sort of joke, comment on the boob graze Sarah had made during the fight, but discarded both notions. Those would only give Sarah excuses to push it off longer.
So she waited for what felt like hours.
And she waited some more.
Sarah’s gaze never wavered. She didn’t look away from the spot Carina couldn’t see, though her eyes blinked and her breath evened out as she finally recovered from their brawl. What had started out as a surprisingly noble gesture from Carina started to chafe a bit, and she entertained herself by imagining simply turning Sarah upside down and shaking until whatever it was that was bothering her friend fell onto the laminate flooring. And then when that failed to entertain her, Carina imagined using the throwing knives on the walls, and the reaction of the desk worker when he found the damage. And because, hell, it was her fantasy, Carina imagined said desk worker taking her up against one of those knife-pocked walls, imagined peeling him out of his shirt and running her fingers over those perfect abs and—
“I thought he was working with Bryce,” Sarah said, and Carina’s fantasy shattered. She didn’t look over at her friend. Maybe Sarah had forgotten she was there. “I thought Chuck was working with Bryce, and that he’d turned traitor, and that I was going to have to shoot him in the head. And then he wasn’t, but…”
She was silent for a long time. Carina didn’t poke her, not even for interrupting her little dream-session with hottie desk worker.
“I took him out of that damned hellhole to keep him safe,” Sarah said, her voice barely a whisper. “I didn’t have a choice. He wasn’t safe there anymore, and now he’s not safe anywhere. I took him out of there, and I’ve nearly lost him three times already.”
“You can’t wrap the guy in bubble-wrap, Sarah,” Carina said, hoping that her friend wouldn’t start crying. She could deal with anything but tears. She’d rather Sarah start beating the hell out of her again.
“I know that.” Sarah’s expression never changed. “And it’s ironic, isn’t it? The safest place he would be is back in that bunker, and I want him safe, but I don’t want him to ever have to face even the thought of that place again.” Her head tipped forward until her forehead rested on one of those incredibly bony knees, the same one that had left an already-purpling bruise on Carina’s thigh.
Carina frowned. “I’m supposed to say something sage and supportive here, right?”
That earned a humorless half-laugh from Sarah. “I don’t know. I’m pretty sure regular human emotion is wasted on us.”
Carina snorted. “Like hell it is.”
Sarah didn’t look convinced. Carina sighed. “You know what got your Bunker Boy through last night, Walker?”
“His name’s Chuck.”
“This is my story, I’ll call him what I want to call him.” Carina suppressed the grin when Sarah rolled her eyes for the fifteenth time. “You know what he told me? He said,” and Carina dropped her voice in a deliberately poor impression of Chuck’s, “‘if I can hold off the panic attack until Sarah gets here, then I can watch her kick your ass for first attempting to kidnap me, and then actually getting me kidnapped!’“
Sarah’s eyes widened. “He said that?”
“Exactly that.” Carina nodded once, sagely. “So now I get to tell you one of my absolute favorite things to tell you: you’re wrong.”
Sarah looked puzzled.
“Seems to me Chuck,” and Carina deliberately drew out the name into two sing-song syllables, “thinks the safest place to be is with you, not in some bunker. So quit beating yourself up, Walker. Your boy’s going to be fine. Bit geeky for you, though, don’t you think?”
“Nerdy,” Sarah said.
“Whatever. And hey, once he’s done with you, my own evil plan to have you all for myself will have finally kicked into action, and we can spend the entire weekend in Tangiers with my masseuse Sven and his fabulous hands. You’ll need them when I’m done with you.”
Sarah snorted. She seemed lighter now, which Carina was more than happy to take full credit for, and there was a hint of a smile creeping toward her face. “As if you could even possibly dream of keeping up with me.”
“Stuck here in LA with all these Hollywood types?” Carina returned Sarah’s snort. “You’d be whimpering like a baby after the first hour.”
“Since I know this could only lead to a dare, I’m not going to answer that.”
Carina clucked like a chicken. Sarah rolled her eyes and smiled.
“I’m sorry I got Bunker Chuck kidnapped,” Carina said as they both rose to their feet, pushing off the wall. Carina rubbed her palms on her pants, thinking of the hot shower she was going to enjoy—unfortunately alone—after this was all over.
“It sounds better than Bunk Chuck.”
They moved away from the gym bags and their various weapon stockpiles, limbering up as they circled each other. Carina bounced on the balls of her feet, no longer openly mocking. She’d done her good deed for the day. The little pep talk or whatever the hell that had been had cleared away some of the baffled anger in her friend’s face. Finally, Carina thought, they could fight and simply enjoy it, without all of this DEA and Bunker Boy crap hanging over their heads. Finally, she had her friend back after two years of this Bryce Larkin bullshit.
Her thigh hurt, her lip was still bleeding a little bit, and she would be covered in bruises by the end of the morning. Carina Miller couldn’t have been happier.
The things I do, she thought as Sarah led off with her right just like always, for my friends.