Lucy was putting her long dark hair up into its usual tight bun at her locker when the band snapped. She groaned, bending down to pick it up, and caught sight of a familiar pair of boots. Nyla.
Lucy snapped upright to face her. “Morning,” she greeted.
Never one for pleasantries, Nyla cut right to the chase. “Grey is gonna offer you a UC opp when you walk out of here.”
“Me? It’s been so long and I’m not even a full-time UC.”
“Yeah, but you’re a natural. This would be a piece of cake for you.”
Lucy pulled out her hoop earrings and traded them for a spare hair tie from her locker. “If I’d be such a natural, then why are you warning me about it?”
“It involves Bradford.”
Lucy made a conscious effort not to react, but the badly timed pause in tying up her hair gave her away. “And how involved is he?”
“As much as you would be. It’s pretty much a duo op.”
Lucy didn’t answer, continuing to put her hair up.
“Look,” Nyla said, in her usual serious-but-microscopically-concerned tone. “I don’t know what’s going on with you and Bradford, but I know you two are perfect for this opp. My advice is, leave your personal drama at home and get the job done however you need to.”
Lucy had already proven herself plenty, both as a cop and as a UC. She contemplated turning the opp down when Grey asked her to do it, plotting an excuse that wouldn’t raise any suspicion. But as badly as Tim had hurt her, she swore she’d never let however she felt about him stand in the way of her work, and she knew that if she hadn’t known he would be involved, she’d be chomping at the bit.
After a deep sigh, she looked at Nyla. “What’s the opp?”
“The operation is simple,” Grey announced, looking at the whiteboard covered in notes. He pointed to a picture of a man with a horseshoe-shaped bald patch. “This is Eros Kostou, a Greek drug kingpin who can really hold a grudge.”
Lucy felt Tim’s eyes on her.
“Every five years,” Grey continued. “Kostou hires mercenaries to kill employees who have dared to leave his organization, and then the mercenaries disappear shortly after, to keep his cleanups as secret as possible.”
“Well, who tracks down the employees after they leave?” Lucy asked.
“His right-hand man, Dimitrios Romanatos, or Dimitri for short. Taken in by Kostou as a kid, basically a father figure to him. No chance of a betrayal from someone he looks up to like that.
“Kostou’s 5-year deadline is coming up,” he continued. “You two are playing Victor and Shelly Morse, a well-off married couple of mercenaries, and after we put together quite the reputation for you two, Kostou is interested in meeting with you. You’ll meet him at the Graycroft Hotel, located on a pier by the same name that leads out to the Pacific.”
“Sir, if it’s okay to ask, why us?” Lucy asked.
“Chen,” Tim warned without looking at her.
“No, Officer Chen is right to ask,” Grey corrected. “It’s important going into an undercover operation to know why you were chosen for a task. You two were chosen for two reasons. Reason number one: If Kostou detects any weakness in your bond, he might try to make one of you turn on the other, and it might raise suspicion if you won’t budge for any price. These covers need to be so madly in love and devoted to each other that the one thing they care about more than the money is each other, and people around here think you two could pull that dynamic off.”
Good for the opp or not, Lucy deeply regretted asking why the two of them were picked. Luckily for her, Tim wasn’t attempting eye contact after that explanation either. Instead, he was staring at the table in front of him, arms as tense as they could be.
“Reason number two,” Grey mercifully continued. “The covers are mercenaries and you two happen to be the two best shooters at Mid-Wilshire.”
Grey explained that Kostou was paranoid enough to destroy any computer or notebook that had had the names of his targets, but somewhere in his orbit, there was a USB drive with all of this period’s targets. Their missions were to get that USB drive this weekend, make a copy to give to the force, and catch Kostou committing conspiracy to murder so he could be arrested.
The operation would start tomorrow, Friday evening. They’d be staying at the same hotel as Kostou and his goons, and when hired, they’d be invited to a surprise engagement gala that Kostou was hosting for Romanatos. There, they’d gain more trust and try to get more information out of him. After that, they had approximately 48 hours to complete their two missions.
“Should be a piece of cake for you two,” Grey said, approaching his conclusion. “Today’s gonna be a half-day for you on patrol and after that, you go home and mentally prepare. You can pick out your outfits for the gala and they’ll be ready at your hotel tomorrow, but other than that, since the opp isn’t local, your usual civvies should be fine to pack tomorrow. You’ll have bugs if needed and backup, including Harper, in room 106 should anything go wrong.”
“Sounds good,” Tim said, pushing up from his seat.
“One more thing,” Grey said, causing Tim to stop. “The drive there is about an hour and a half, which should give you two plenty of time to warm up. Get that married energy flowing again.”
Even Grey noticed. Fantastic. “Yes, sir,” Lucy said, also getting up from the table, walking past Tim to leave.
This was no big deal. Lucy was a professional. So what if she had to act like she was married to the one person in the world she’d rather die than spend an hour in a car with? That was the job, that was what UC demanded. They could lie their way through one weekend. Hell, they were both extraordinary liars. Lucy was familiar enough with UC work by now and Tim….
“Hey, Chen,” she heard Tim softly call closely behind her.
She turned around to face him, looking around to make sure no one was around them. “It was one date, okay?” she began, sticking one finger in the air. “ One. If you think that one date affected me so much that I can’t do my job if you’re doing it with me, you’re mistaken. I will lie my way through the weekend and act like I have any feelings for you whatsoever, and come Monday morning, we will both go right back to acting like the other person doesn't exist, which should be easy for you. Got it?”
Tim answered by staring at her, blinking.
“What?” she demanded.
“Do you think you can pick my suit for the gala for me?” he asked. “Kostou is a big fashion guy and you’re better with that stuff than I am.”
Now it was Lucy’s turn to stare and blink for a moment. “Yeah. Sure, gotcha. See you tomorrow.”
Tim nodded once, before turning and walking away.
If the ground could’ve opened up and swallowed Lucy whole, she would have considered it mercy.
Lucy and Tim did not take Grey’s advice at all. The drive was quiet. Tim kept his eyes dead straight on the road and Lucy stared out the window, watching the trees fly past her. During her rookie year, Tim could barely handle silence from Lucy, especially if it was because she was in a bad mood. In the beginning, he would slightly awkwardly try different things to cheer her up, but by the end of the year, they were in tune with each other enough that he would have her smiling on his first try. Part of her, a part she wasn’t particularly in love with, wished she could erase their date if only to get back to being on that level with him.
“So,” Lucy said, breaking about an hour and 15 minutes of mostly silence. “What’s your story?”
“My story?” he responded. “You mean my cover’s story?”
She nodded. “He’s gotta have a background.”
“You bring this up now? Minutes from the hotel?”
“Think of it as me testing your quick thinking.”
Tim sighed. “Dropped out of college at 20, been in the business since, that good?”
“Why’d he drop out?”
“Couldn’t cut it.”
“Why couldn’t he fall back on his parents?”
Tim paused for a minute, eyes narrowing in thought.
“That,” Lucy said, pointing at his expression. “That can get us killed. Your dad had a military background, which is why you’ve always known your way around a gun, he had a friend who didn’t hit the ground running after service and he got you into the business. We were hired to take out an entire crew and we fell for each other while planning. These are the kinds of things you’ll have to think of on the fly.”
“Easier to know ‘on the fly’ when you’ve been thinking about it all night.”
She looked out of her passenger window. “Just trying not to let you get us killed.”
“Mmhm,” he said, not even fazed by her sass. “And I’m sure you’re not enjoying this at all.”
Lucy didn’t want to admit that the role reversal had been a pinch of fun. “Not at all.”
“So… yesterday,” he started, souring her mood. “If we need to talk, we should probably do that now.”
“Yesterday was… you caught me at a bad moment. We’re good.”
“We’re very obviously not good.”
“And we’re not gonna accomplish anything between here and the hotel, so let’s just leave it alone, like I very much should have yesterday.”
“Are you sure?”
The short answer was no. The long answer was that she wanted to ask him why they never had a second date, but she was also so scared of his answer that she hadn’t been able to bring herself to ask since it happened.
“I have an idea. How about when we get out of the car, we don’t break character at any point?”
“That’s the idea.”
“I mean, like… when no one’s around. When it’s just you and me, we just stay… not us.”
Lucy saw Tim’s jaw clench in annoyance. “Fine by me.” One good thing about Tim Bradford, he wasn’t gonna attempt any more emotion than the other person, and right now Lucy was grateful for it. “So what do we do for the next ten minutes while we’re in the car?”
Lucy shrugged. “What we’ve been doing for five weeks, I guess? Ignore each other unless it’s work-related?”
Tim nodded once, and that was that.
The GPS had led them to a castle of a hotel. Looked expensive enough to house a king, but it was small enough to still be highly exclusive. Lucy imagined what it must be like to be one of the people who could afford a weekend here independent of taxpayer money.
After parking, she was still too enamored with the hotel to notice Tim at her side. He opened her door and held out a hand, warranting a look from her.
“Shelly,” he addressed, rolling his eyes.
She nodded, satisfied, and put her hand in his. “Victor.”
He grabbed his black duffel bag from the backseat as she gathered her dark blue suitcase, pulling the handle up behind her.
“I can take that, you know,” Tim offered.
He looked like he wanted to reply, but decided against it as they approached the hotel. Victor and Shelly were supposed to be more communicative than this.
Their entrance to the hotel was blocked by a group of five men: one short, fat, balding man in the front, surrounded by four henchmen. Telling from the horseshoe bald spot on the front man, this was Kostou and his crew.
“Friends!” he called, approaching with his hands in the air. “So happy you could join us.”
Tim’s surliness dissolved, and he broke out in his biggest smile. “So happy to be here,” he greeted back, reaching out a hand to shake, which Kostou took, before turning his attention to Lucy.
His whole demeanor changed as he took Lucy’s free hand from her left side. “And you must be Mrs. Morse,” he said, placing an ugly kiss on her knuckles. “Enchanted.”
Lucy smiled back, forcing herself to act flattered by the attention, as she surveyed his appearance. Short, fat, dressed expensively but tacky. Covered in chunky gold jewelry, including a thin chain that held a small red vial hung around his neck.
“My men will take your bags to your room. For now, let us chat.” The men behind Kostou took their cue and retrieved the suitcase and duffel bag from Lucy and Tim. Lucy had already known that Kostou would know what room they were staying in, but to go out of his way to make sure they knew he knew felt like overkill.
“Now,” Kostou began, stepping between the pair to place a hand on each of their shoulders. “Come with me.”
As they walked in front of him, Lucy noticed a silvery pink strip of skin on his neck, at the base of his skull. A scar, about an inch in length. She studied his scar as they followed behind him through a rose garden to the back of the hotel. Kostou opened the back door, letting them pass in front of him. The sounds of the hotel guests and fountains were hushed by the door slamming behind.
“Now, you must know enough of me to know that you were not the only applicants for this job,” he said. “But my name is Eros for a reason. I was so intrigued by a married pair of mechanics that I had to see how you two work together for myself.”
“Well,” Tim started. “We were already mechanics before we met, so when we met, it kinda worked out.”
“Well, yes, obviously, but how? How do you… live this life and care about another soul?”
Lucy saw Tim thinking too hard, so she stepped in to help. “If you have no one to care about, what is it all for?” Kostou turned to listen, as did Tim. “What’s the point in living as I do, having the fun I have, if I’m not sharing this life with someone? And I chose him.” She focused all her attention on Kostou to avoid eye contact with her faux paramour.
“Well said, Orea. Well said.” They were taken to a large pair of double doors, which Kostou gestured for them to open. Inside waited a small indoor shooting range, two henchmen standing at the back of the room.
“Choose one of you to show me your skills.”
“Shell?” Tim offered without hesitation, catching both Lucy and Kostou off guard.
“You’d rather show your wife off than show what you have to offer?”
Tim shrugged. “She knows I’m a better shot. Better if you see the slightly weaker link is still better than any of your competition.”
Lucy muscled down the urge to roll her eyes.
Everyone in the room put on the ear muffs and protective vests as Lucy did the same and checked her gun. One of Kostou’s goons pressed a yellow button to queue up a target for her.
Kostou tapped her shoulder, prompting her to move an earmuff. “You’re fully loaded, Orea. I want at least seven in the head, eight in the chest.”
She nodded and put her headphones back into place, focusing her attention back onto her target. This was a semi-automatic 9mm, so fully loaded meant 18 rounds.
A green light went off above the target’s head, and Lucy went to work. She took no longer than three seconds between shots and fired until she felt the final click to indicate the gun was empty.
She turned around and saw everyone removing their headphones, so she did the same as the target came forward to be examined.
Kostou appraised it, smile growing in size as he counted. “Seven in the head… Nine in the chest and one in the neck?”
“I missed once?” Lucy said, like she didn’t miss on purpose. “Damn.”
“Oh, Mr. Morse,” he said, addressing Tim. “You seem to have a real prize on your hands.”
Tim beamed, coming over to stand behind Lucy with a hand on her shoulder. “That’s my girl.”
She didn’t need to fake her reaction to that.
“My friends,” Kostou announced. “I hope you have outfits for my party!”
“Say it,” Lucy said, staring at Tim’s reflection in the elevator mirror.
“Say what?” His attention was focused on the ground instead of the mirrors surrounding the elevator.
“You know I’m a better shot. You wanted to show him the best while still acting like we had more to offer.”
Tim made a funny face. “He has no respect for women. I wanted him to know he should take you seriously.”
“Fine, you had two reasons.”
Lucy looked away from the mirrors at the shiny doors.
“And so you know, if I did volunteer you for that reason, that’s actually a really smart strategy.”
Lucy freely rolled her eyes in the privacy of the elevator.
They made their way down the hall to room 211, using the keycard to open the door to a beautiful hotel room. If she wasn’t a cop, she might have considered packing one of the lavish lamps in her suitcase. The light switch had been dimmed halfway for them to give the space mood lighting. The closet alone was the size of Lucy’s bathroom back home. Even Tim “It’s a job, nothing is cool, I don’t like fun” Bradford was caught off guard by the beautiful room.
True to Kostou’s word, their bags were set on top of the bed. The single bed. Big, white, soft-looking, and singular.
“One bed,” Tim said, drawing attention to it before Lucy could.
“We’re married, we should expect nothing less,” Lucy replied, taking her suitcase off the bed.
“I’ll, uh…” Tim continued to stare at the bed, trying to remember his train of thought. “I’ll check the place out.”
Checking for bugs. Lucy nodded and took his light duffel off the bed before running her hand over the comforter. It felt like it was made from the clouds of heaven.
Last month, staying in this hotel room with Tim, sleeping in this bed, for free no less, would’ve sounded like heaven to Lucy, but watching him scan the room with a burner iPod for cameras wasn’t exactly paramount of romance. Good?
“The party is in a couple hours, so I gotta start getting ready,” Lucy announced, opening her suitcase for her makeup and hair tools.
“Good idea. I’m gonna keep looking around the hotel.”
“Yeah, that’s good. Be back in, like, an hour?”
Tim nodded. “Be safe.”
Lucy cocked an eyebrow. “It’s a shower.”
Tim rolled his eyes before looking back at her. “You know what I mean.”
She fought back a smile and shooed him off.
After an hour, she heard the key card unlock the door.
“Victor?!” she called, reaching for her piece next to her when there was no answer for a second.
“Yeah!” she heard Tim’s voice reply, calming her.
She walked over to open the bathroom door, greeting Tim with an appraisal. Once she saw he was fully okay, she informed him, “The showerhead is incredible.”
“Mmhm,” he replied. She walked back to the far sink at which she was doing her makeup as he walked in behind her, leaning against the door frame. “Four cameras in the elevator, bug in the ceiling. Couldn’t find anything in the courtyard where the gala is being held.”
Lucy nodded, figuring Kostou planned to discuss things that he wanted no record of at the party. “What about the room?”
“We’re safe here.” Lucy let out a breath. “No cameras, no bugs. I don’t think they wanted to be privy to a married couple’s activities.”
She scoffed, applying glue to a fake eyelash and sticking it on her lash line. “After being around Kostou for five minutes, I find that pretty hard to believe.”
“He might change his mind when he sees how you look tonight.”
Lucy’s fingers squeezed her eyelash harder than she meant to.
“I just mean… we should probably check the room again when we get back, you know. Just to make sure. We aren’t gonna be here for a bit so-”
She heard him getting dangerously close to floundering and cut him off. “I know what you meant. Thanks.”
After giving herself a once-over in the mirror, she walked past him back into the room before addressing him again. “The outfits should be here any minute. Go shower, and I should be about ready when you get out.”
“Then the party,” Tim finished and she nodded in return.
As he shut the bathroom door behind him, Lucy made her way to the vault in the closet.
After about 20 minutes, Tim came out of the shower with a towel around his waist, steam and water droplets covering his skin. Lucy knew damn well she broke the cover of someone who’d seen this a million times, and from the look on his face seeing her in her navy blue gown, he did too, even if they broke nonverbally.
She cleared her throat, snapping back into professionalism. “Your suit is on the bed.”
He shook his head as if resetting his thoughts and looked at the bed. “Nice suit.”
“You told me to pick.”
“I couldn’t just have you show up in a plain black suit.” Lucy popped one of her heels onto her foot. “Plus, we should match. That whole package deal thing.”
Piece by piece, Tim picked up the suit from the bed and draped them over his arm. “Won’t you get cold? It’s nighttime.”
“Your dress, it…”
The dress was backless with crossing laces and spaghetti straps, so she knew what he was trying to say despite his inability to quite get it out.
“Should I throw a shawl over it?”
“No!” Tim said, too quickly. “No, this looks… fine. Just… maybe we don’t need to be there the whole time? It’ll get colder when it gets later.”
Lucy turned to the hotel’s full-length mirror and ran her hands over the parts of the dress that were meant to hug her curves. “That should be fine. I won’t need long to charm.”
She looked back at Tim, who was grinding his teeth to dust. “I’m gonna go change,” he announced, quickly making his way back to the bathroom, unable to see Lucy smirking behind him.
She was on a mission, but if, along the way, she got to torture whatever feelings Tim had for her a little, so be it.
It was all fun and games until he walked out of the bathroom in his suit. She picked navy blue for them because it was her color, completely forgetting the wonders it would do for his eyes. And honestly, all of him.
“Tie?” he said, snapping her out of her second ogle in five minutes.
She pointed to the tie on the bed, which she’d set out while he was changing. “Help with my necklace?”
He crossed the room as she moved her hair to the side, exposing her neck, before handing him the necklace. He dangled the necklace in front of her chest, then reached around the other side to grab the other end. She felt her hair press against her ear when he brought the two ends together and clasped them before bringing her hair out of the loop, gently to not disturb the curls.
“Thanks,” she said curtly, turning to face him.
In a move she wasn’t prepared for, he reached for the pendant to inspect it, knuckles barely grazing her collarbone, inspiring a chill she forced herself to suppress.
“Sapphire?” he asked.
“Mmhm,” she replied, impressed that he knew that. “Matches your tie.”
“And everything else.” He turned the charm to inspect it fully, and his eyebrows knit together at the tiny black dot on the back.
“A bug,” she explained. “It’s going right back to Nyla and the team, just in case.”
“Is it on now?”
Lucy shook her head. “Only when we leave the room.”
She turned to leave and retrieve her earrings from the safe.
“Hey, L- Shelly?” he called after her.
She turned back to face him.
He held up his tie. “Help me out?”
Lucy considered, but the necklace was brazen enough. “I actually needed help with the necklace, you can tie a tie on your own.”
They walked into the gala with arms linked, looking for Kostou. “My friends!” they heard from the left in a heavy Greek accent, and they turned to see him approaching. “My beautiful mechanic friends!” He’d very clearly already had a few drinks.
Tim removed his arm from Lucy’s to put around her waist as he got closer. “You throw a hell of a gala, Mr. Kostou.”
“Oh, please, please, call me Eros. This is a party!” Lucy was filled with dread the moment Kostou’s eyes landed on her, taking his time to look over her body from the ground up. “My, my, Mrs. Morse, what is it the Americans say? You clean up nice.”
Tim held her a bit closer into his side than she thought necessary, causing her to look up at him with slight confusion. She could tell he was trying his hardest to appear cordial, but there was not an ounce of friendship in his eyes. “Yes, she does. That’s why I married her.”
Kostou mercifully took his gaze off Lucy to look at Tim. “A wise decision, indeed.”
“Darling,” Lucy said, calling Tim’s attention to her. “Do you think you could save our seats? Mr. Kostou- sorry, Eros, and I are going to grab a couple drinks.”
Tim gently squeezed her hip to let her know he was not a fan of that idea at all. “If you need anything, just call.”
Her back was cold where his arm had left, and she watched as he made his way to the center table of the party.
“Just you and me, Mrs. Morse,” Kostou said, suddenly too close.
Lucy giggled. Ew.
Select hotel workers knew Tim and Lucy were cops, and the bartender was one of them, so there were special bottles of fake alcohol for them to drink to not rouse suspicion.
“Two shots of whiskey. Rocks,” Lucy ordered, sitting as Kostou took the stool next to her.
“You really should try the ouzo,” he suggested. “I have my favorite brand shipped here for special occasions like this.”
Which Lucy knew, of course, hence the “whiskey”. “I don’t mix brown and white. Maybe next time?”
He smiled with all of his teeth, a ghastly sight. “Sure, next time.”
The bartender set the two shot glasses of iced tea on the counter, which Lucy thanked her for, before returning her attention to Kostou. “Speaking of ‘next time’, what happens to your past…mechanics? We have a bit of a network, why do they tend to disappear after working for you?”
“Ah, so you’ve heard the legends,” he replied, taking one of the three shots he’d ordered. “The truth is, no mechanic wants to be a mechanic forever. After this job, I give them enough money to go make a life for themselves, wherever they want. After this, you and your guy have a golden ticket to go anywhere in the world, truly live as king and queen.”
To Lucy, it sounded like parents telling their child that the family dog went to a “farm upstate,” but nevertheless, she smiled and nodded.
“I might have to pay you less, though. Might not be able to let you go so easily, Mrs. Morse.” He attempted to put a hand on the exposed knee coming out of the slit of her dress, but she got to her feet before he could.
“I should probably get back to my husband.”
Disappointed, Kostou got to his feet, gesturing in Tim’s direction. “After you.”
Lucy smiled politely, took one step in that direction, and let her back leg slip out from under her, shrieking as she feigned trying to save herself.
Kostou’s arm shot out to snake behind her waist to pull her to her feet, and the moment his arm made contact, she shot her hand out to grab the back of his neck “for support”. It wasn’t difficult to feel something hard under his skin where she’d seen the scar earlier. The USB.
She used his neck to pull herself up and restore her balance. “Are you alright, Orea?” he asked.
She put a hand over her chest. “Oh, my hero!” she said, laughing. “Thank you!” She figured she’d garnered a bit of attention with that slip and she looked for the only person whose attention she needed. Tim had already been making his way to her at the bar, but he stopped when he caught her eye. With Kostou looking elsewhere, she gave him a nod to let him know she was okay, and his breath of relief was enough to see from across the room.
“Are you alright, miss?” a young man, maybe mid-20s, asked Lucy when she and Kostou approached the table. She recognized the young man as the right-hand man from earlier. He was only slightly shorter than Tim, with dark curly hair, and a Greek accent almost as heavy as Kostou’s. He was less heavily adorned, though, with only a gold bangle around his wrist and a red vial around his neck identical to Kostou’s.
“I’m fine,” she assured, “Just a wet spot on the floor. It’s a bar at a hotel, I’d be more shocked if I didn’t slip on something.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Morse, this is Dimitri, my son for all intents and purposes,” Kostou introduced, gesturing to the man.
“You’re my boss, Eros,” he retorted, rolling his eyes, but smiling, clearly just messing with the man.
“Oh? Find me another boss that spends millions on a-” He stopped talking when he saw a short, curly-haired girl Dimitri’s age standing close behind him. “On a party like this to invite his employee to.”
Lucy realized the proposal was a surprise for Dimitri's girlfriend behind him. “Mmhm,” Dimitri replied, smiling and nodding. “Uh, Mr. and Mrs. Morse, this is Adira, my girlfriend, the light of my world.”
Adira, beaming from the description, shot a hand out to greet Lucy. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” American, the only one she’d met since arriving here.
“Please, call me Shelly,” Lucy insisted. “Both of you. And this is Victor; Mr. Morse was his father.”
Tipsy Kostou was the only one to laugh at her lame joke.
They all sat at the table and ate the exquisite meals prepared for them, prompting Lucy to make a mental note to try out the local Greek restaurants when she got back home.
“Tell me, Mr. Morse,” Kostou said, causing Tim to look up from his food. “When did you buy your wife’s wedding ring?”
Tim wiped his mouth with a napkin before speaking. “We were young. I was new to the business. Only had a couple low profile jobs, so I scraped together the most I could.”
“But you’re rich now, yes?”
Tim nodded in response.
“So why is your wife’s ring still this tiny little pebble?”
This guy’s woman-stealing techniques were aggressive.
“If I had a woman as beautiful as this,” Kostou continued, “I would buy her anything and everything. You want gold? You got it. Diamonds? You got it. Bigger ring? Don’t you want a bigger ring, Orea?”
Lucy was plenty uncomfortable, but Tim didn’t have as much UC experience as she did and she could see Kostou’s creepiness was getting Tim closer and closer to pulling back and punching this guy’s lights out.
“Actually,” Lucy started. “We were supposed to get a bigger ring, but then hospital bills struck.”
Tim’s annoyance was distracted by confusion, masked in a way only someone who knew him like Lucy could detect. “Hospital bills?” Kostou asked.
She nodded. “A while ago, I was in a car crash.” She laid her hand over Tim’s, and she felt his clenched fist relax at her touch. “It was terrifying. Victor was my rock after.”
“Oh my god, that’s terrible!” Adira exclaimed. “If you don’t mind me asking… What were your injuries?”
“Whiplash,” she answered. “Yeah, almost broke my neck.” She rubbed the back of her neck with her free hand, gently squeezing Tim’s hand as she tapped the base of her skull with her middle finger three times. “Couldn’t drive for months after, I was pretty much scarred for life.” She squeezed his hand slightly harder to let him know that was important as well. He leaned back in his chair, pretending to stretch, to get a better look at Kostou’s neck. Lucy tried to continue talking to keep everyone distracted. “Things like that really make you… appreciate life. And appreciate who you choose to spend it with. Once you know how easily it can be taken away.” That part was true.
Once back to his position, Tim got to his feet, surprising her. “Speaking of which, now that my food is settled, I hope you all don’t mind if I take my wife to appreciate life on the dance floor with me.”
Dimitri and Adira gestured to the floor, excusing them. Tim pulled Lucy from her seat, guiding her to the dance floor.
“How are we doing this?” he asked.
She rearranged the hand holding his to a more comfortable position for a waltz before pulling his other arm around her waist, then setting hers on his shoulder.
“Like this.” She began to two-step in the same spot until he joined her.
“Are you leading ?” he asked.
“Since when have I not been?”
Tim dipped his head to laugh and didn’t bring his head back up, instead pulling her closer and setting his forehead on her bare shoulder, bringing her opposite hand closer to his chest.
Fake. Fake. Fake fake fake fake. “Did you see it?” she asked him in an attempt to bring her mind back to the opp.
“Mmhm,” he mumbled into her hair. “Are you sure?”
She leaned into his shoulder, thankful for the height difference to hide her lips in case of missed or added cameras. “Mmhm. I felt it.” Tim was drawing patterns in her back with his finger, and she held in the urge to draw a sharp breath at his touch, only because that breath would have been 100% genuine. “So what do you want to do?”
“If we’re lucky, he gives it to us, all bloody and disgusting. And gross.” Lucy giggled at him. “If we’re not lucky, we have two days to catch him red-handed, and they get it from him later.”
He pulled back to look at her. “So what was your story?” he asked her, pushing back a portion of hair that had fallen into her face.
She smiled at his interest. “Grew up in LA, near Dockweiler. Not the prettiest, but it inspired my lifelong love of beaches.” The corners of his mouth turned down as he nodded, impressed. “My mother sent me to boarding school, where I picked up archery and got a knack for targets. Picked up martial arts and shooting the moment I could sign myself up for classes and one day, a guy in a suit came up to me at the range and gave me a business card and a chance to make a lot of money, so I figured ‘Why not?’”
Tim nodded. “Charming.”
“And my business name is Black Dahlia.”
“Little on the nose, don’t you think?”
“It’s a reclaiming thing. The name is famous for violence against women, so I chose it to empower me. She’d probably want that.” She paused to look down at their feet, making sure they weren't anywhere close to stepping on his. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Any code names yet?”
He smiled a bit and she felt him pull her waist slightly closer. “I’ll think about it.” He broke eye contact by bringing his head down to her level again, turning his face inches from the back of her neck. “What about us?”
“I haven’t really thought of that yet,” she replied, smiling at the feeling of his words on her neck. “After we took down that crew, we didn’t talk for two weeks until I called. You thought someone had figured us out, but I just wanted to get coffee.”
“I was the first to say I loved you,” he cut in.
She nodded in agreement. “I said it a week later. By the time we moved in together, we were well off, but that didn’t stop us from getting a way bigger house when we got married. Six-month honeymoon and we weren’t reachable the entire time.”
“I know some people who would be jealous of a vacation like that,” he said, pulling her closer again when she giggled.
The dance floor went quiet between song changes, but their movements stayed the same.
“This feels familiar,” Tim said, still speaking into her hair.
“Hm? The dance?” Lucy asked, and she felt him nod in response. “I disagree.”
He chuckled, and she felt his shoulders shake a little. “What do you mean by that?”
“You’re a lot more comfortable this time.” He pulled back to look at her with his eyebrows knitted together. “The first time was awkward.”
He took the hand that was holding hers and pressed it over his heart, pressing Lucy’s hand there too. “I’m wounded.” His smile was too much. He was too relaxed, and he smelled way too good. Characters be damned because they never established that Victor and Shelly had any awkward first dance stories. “I warmed up eventually.”
She smiled down at the floor. “You did.”
The moment was interrupted by the sound of a fork hitting a champagne flute. “Attention, everybody!” Tim and Lucy parted to look in the direction of Dimitri’s voice. “Attention, I have an announcement to make!”
A waiter handed Dimitri a microphone as he brought a very nervous and confused Adira to her feet. “Adira,” he said, his voice booming through surrounding speakers. “You have been to me, everything I’ve ever wanted. Everything I never knew I needed. You’ve been a friend, a lover… a partner. When I’m at my lowest, you bring me higher. If I’m scared to go higher, I look back, and there you are to push me. When I’m at my highest, you celebrate the win like it’s your own.” Lucy felt Tim’s eyes on her as Dimitri spoke, but she looked at the ground to avoid eye contact. “You help me grow every day, and you call me to be a better man than I was yesterday. I know I can do anything I put my mind to with you by my side.” He moved his chair to kneel to the ground and pull out a ring box he had hidden under the table. Upon seeing the box, Adira’s already present tears began to flow much faster. “I want to feel like that every day. Every day until I die. Will you marry me?”
“YES!” Adira shrieked, loud enough to be heard around the room with no microphone, sailing to the ground to kiss the kneeling Dimitri as the room broke out in rapturous applause.
“Hell of a party, huh?” Lucy asked, applying lotion to her arms.
“What?” Tim called back through the bathroom door.
“The party! It was fun, right?”
He came out of the bathroom clad in a plain white tee shirt and flannel pajama pants and Lucy’s eyebrows raised, somehow endeared by seeing him like this.
He gave her thin robe with a tee shirt and booty shorts under a once-over before crossing over to the bed. “When you wake up with a cold, you better still be good to work.”
“I run hot, thank you very much. I’ll be fine.” She set her lotion on the nightstand next to her, before taking out her gun to make sure it was loaded with the safety on. Once that was finished, she brought the comforter over her legs.
Tim grabbed a pillow from the right side of the bed and the spare blanket at the foot of the bed, confusing Lucy. “Where are you going?”
He turned back, equally confused. “The… couch?”
“I mean, there’s… one bed.”
“Yeah… because we’re married.” He still looked confused. “Oh my god, Kostou knows our room. If he busts in and sees you on the couch, what’s he gonna think?”
Tim looked back and forth between the couch and the bed a few times and sighed, relenting and doubling back toward the bed. After turning off the lamp on her nightstand, Lucy scooted further to the left to make room for him as he climbed in. Either the bed was small or Tim was somehow a bigger dude than Lucy had accounted for. She groaned accompanied by a shiver.
“What?” Tim asked.
“Your feet are freezing.”
“You’re five foot four. Scoot up.”
She groaned, but obeyed, scooting up until their faces were at the same level, still both facing the ceiling.
“You never told me if you had fun at the party or not.”
She saw him make a face in her periphery. “We weren’t there to party, we were there to work.”
“Right. Good music, good food, good outfits. No fun to be had.”
He sighed, annoyed that she was not letting him get his way on anything tonight. “There were parts of the night I enjoyed.”
“I enjoyed the proposal.” Lucy did too, hopefully not for the same reasons. “I enjoyed… my suit. My suit was nice, you have good taste.”
Lucy smiled, the image of Tim in a blue suit branded in her mind for life. “I try.”
“Then there were parts of the night I didn’t enjoy. Like Kostou all over you.”
“I had to see if the drive was in his neck.”
“I know. I still hated it.” Lucy didn’t respond as she didn’t know how to. “I really hate the way he looks at you.”
“Join the club,” she responded.
“No, I’m serious,” he said. “I hate the way he looks at you, the way he talks to you. The way he… I swear to God, I want to rip his hands off when he touches you.”
Her breath hitched, which she hoped he didn’t pick up on. “I can take care of myself. You know I can.”
“I know you can,” he replied, visibly calmer. “Which is why when the time comes, you’re gonna be the one to arrest him.”
She smiled a little, but she held herself back from grinning ear to ear from imagining it. “And if he gives trouble?”
“Oh, I’ll be nearby so I hope he does.”
She giggled, causing him to smile back at her.
“You know, tonight had a lot of talk about engagement and proposals and you never said a word about engagement when we were going over stories.”
Lucy stopped smiling and looked over at him. “You want me to come up with an engagement story?”
“No need,” he replied. “I’ve already got one.”
She readied herself, shifting her body on its side to face his profile, causing him to look over at her position and chuckle before turning back to the ceiling.
“They were on the beach,” he started, getting cut off by Lucy.
He sighed and prepared to correct.“ We were on the beach. I had been meaning to ask you for weeks, but I could never find the perfect time, but when I saw you in your favorite place in the world and how happy you were, I had to ask. The ring was hidden at home, I didn’t even have it on me, but I couldn’t wait.” He turned to face her, but his eyes didn’t look fully present, almost like he was speaking from a daydream. “I went on and on about how much I loved you because I was too scared to just ask. I don’t know why… I knew you’d say yes.”
Lucy had hoped their closeness didn’t allow him to feel how hard her heart was beating.
He still wasn’t done, still staring into her eyes in the dark. “You cried, but you blamed it on the waves getting into your eyes. And I wiped your tears away even though the ocean could have done it for me. Because I wanted to.”
“We sound happy,” Lucy muttered, incapable of coming out of a daze.
The inches between them felt like a mile to Lucy. His stupid, stupid eyes sparkled in the moonlight from the open window behind Lucy, and she figured he couldn’t see her as well as she was seeing him right now. At the beginning of this trip, one of her side goals was to never get to a point where Tim could lean in to kiss her beyond operation reasons and she’d accept, and she’d already failed on night one.
After far too much time spent just staring at him, she finally told him, “We should probably get some sleep.” Turning her back to him felt like a respite with a touch of agony.
“Yeah, probably,” he replied, turning away also. “Early morning and all.”
The quiet in the room would’ve felt fine if she’d been sent on this operation with anyone else, but that was the thing about her relationship with Tim- it always felt like there was something left to say between them.
“Hey, can I ask you something?”
He wiggled a little behind her and groaned a quiet, “Yeah.”
“Why didn’t you ever ask me on a second date?” She pulled the hotel sheet over her chin, hugging it to her as tightly as she could. “Why did we just… act like it never happened?”
After building that question up for five weeks, asking was just as terrifying as she’d thought it would be.
Even more terrifying was his silence after she asked.
“I don’t know.”
Was that… worse than she was expecting? It definitely felt worse, but she couldn’t figure out if it was or not. If he’d said, “ I don’t know, maybe we should give it another shot” or “ It was the single worst date I’d ever been on and made me realize being with you would be a nightmare,” either of those would’ve felt more definite, given her a bit of closure.
“I don’t know” felt like code for “Not bad enough to bother remembering, not good enough to explore further.” Just mediocre.
She never thought Tim Bradford would make her feel mediocre.
After too long, she released the hotel sheet and got in a more comfortable position to sleep. “Goodnight.”