“How come you’ve never asked me if you can do that cliché thing where you touch my face to figure out what I look like?” Annie asked, a question she wouldn’t have been willing to ask absent the last two beers.
Auggie grinned and tilted his own beer in her direction. “Because it doesn’t actually work, despite the cliché? I always thought it was kind of a cheap trick—the ‘would you like a massage?’ of the blind-sighted interaction. I prefer to seduce my ladies the old-fashioned way, with my charm and my hot body.”
Annie swallowed, suddenly either a lot more sober or a lot less. “And is that what you did with me? Seduction?”
Auggie’s eyelashes dipped; even with his face tilted slightly away from her, she could see him fighting to keep his expression neutral. “I already know what you look like,” he said instead. “It’s in your file.”
Which wasn’t an answer at all.
Auggie had been with her through Ben’s return, and through Simon. He could be excused for thinking that she had a taste for danger and an ability to fall in love too fast, which was usually coupled with the ability to fall out of love too fast. Plus, given his own history of getting serious on short notice, she understood why he’d be taking things slowly. They’d known each other for a while, but that was different from a real relationship.
As she was discovering.
She’d never dated someone she could talk to about her work, obviously. Ben had been lying to her, and Simon had been keeping his own secrets until it was too late. In some ways, she really didn’t know what she was doing. That had never stopped her, of course, but she needed to learn more.
Maybe they both needed some time to figure each other out. “I know what you look like too,” she said. “But I could use a reminder.”
Naked time counted as time, too.
Auggie chuckled. “Check, please!”
“So,” Annie said afterwards, “Danielle and the girls are coming back for a visit next weekend. And I thought, if you were interested, you could have dinner with Danielle and me. The girls are going to have a sleepover with one of their friends, so we can have some grown-up conversation.”
“Your sister,” Auggie said, reaching his hand up to tangle in Annie’s hair. “Wow. Is this the seal of Walker sisterhood approval?”
“Could be,” Annie said, smiling as she traced circles on his chest. “Depends on whether or not you impress her.”
“Will Michael be coming?” Annie hadn’t told him every detail of Danielle’s struggles, but he knew enough to know that the question was worth asking.
She shook her head, enjoying the feeling of his fingers against her scalp. “He’s still getting settled into the new job. The girls lobbied for this visit. I think they’re doing okay. But it’ll be good to see her face-to-face and be sure.” She still had a little internal wince when she used phrases like that. Auggie had never seemed to mind when it happened on the job. But then, Auggie had good reasons to make other people at the Agency feel comfortable with his blindness. If she wanted to be the person he could trust to know him, she had to do more than assume that his easy acceptance went all the way down. “Does it bother you, when I say things like that?”
“Like that you want to see your sister?” Auggie asked, and it sounded teasing, but there was still some underlying tension. “No,” he said, and the moment eased, like water running out of a drain. “It’s part of how people talk. And sight is an important way most people get information.”
“Okay,” she said. “Just let me know if I’m doing anything I shouldn’t be.”
Auggie smiled, that grin that always made her feel like she was about to hear a secret. “Not that I’m grading on a curve, Annie Walker, but as soon as I heard you stride in on those heels of yours I knew you would take me seriously.”
Warmth bloomed in her chest. “And here I thought you only knew I was good-looking,” she teased.
“That too,” he acknowledged.
There was still Henry Wilcox and his file. She hadn’t told him about that yet. Auggie was involved—he’d investigated Jai’s death—and she’d have to read him in soon, since she trusted him a hell of a lot more than she trusted Henry. But that would’ve been true even if they hadn’t been together. Now wasn’t the time for Agency intrigue; now was the time for snuggling.
“Oh my God, Annie, did you invite ten other people without telling me? We’ll never eat all this!”
Despite her protests, Danielle was unpacking the Indian food with alacrity, humming approvingly when she saw the chicken tikka.
“Former Special Forces can really put it away, plus: leftovers,” Annie told her, putting out the plates and silverware. Since the consensus had been that no one wanted to eat Annie’s cooking, but that they wanted to talk as freely as possible, takeout had been the obvious solution.
“Ooh, galub jamun!” Danielle said. Danielle loved cooking, but she also didn’t mind having the cooking done for her (as long as it was by someone competent, and not, say, her beloved sister).
The doorbell rang before Annie could hide the desserts.
Auggie was wearing a suit and a dress shirt, but no tie, and holding a bouquet of yellow flowers.
Annie smiled at him with what felt like every cell in her body. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he said, and held out the flowers as he stashed his cane in its regular place by the door. “I was assured that these were cheerful.”
“That they are. Come on in,” she said, and led him back to where Danielle was just finishing the setup.
Danielle hugged Auggie and immediately involved him in a conversation about the girls’ visit to the Smithsonian, which continued as they sat at Annie’s small table and Annie poured the wine. “And now, every time I go, I think: my sister doesn’t work here, because she’s a spy. It’s a very strange thing to think while you’re looking at the Hope Diamond.”
“It took my brother a while too,” Auggie said. “Though it’s not quite as big a leap from the military.”
Danielle glanced at Annie. “When we were growing up, I thought Annie was going to go as far away from the Army as possible. We were always getting moved around with zero notice. I always expected us both to end up with white picket fences, staying in one place except to go to Disneyworld.”
“It’s different when it’s your job, and not your dad’s, moving you around,” Annie said, which was something she hadn’t realized for a long time. “And it’s different when you’re just in one place for a few days. You make connections, yes, but you don’t put down roots. Those stay at home.” She looked at Auggie and smiled; Danielle’s answering smirk said that Annie was in for a lot of teasing, later.
“Hey, can you hand me the palak paneer?” Auggie said, and the window shattered.
“Down!” Annie and Auggie yelled simultaneously, and Annie lunged across the table, pushing Danielle off her chair as more glass broke. Men were coming through the windows, black-clad—three or maybe four.
Annie’s gun was in her closet. She was near the lightswitch, though: she hit it, plunging the room into near-darkness, so it would be hard for a stranger to tell furniture from people. Boots tramped through her living room; they’d be on her in seconds.
“The girl,” she heard one of the attackers say, which had to be her. No one could be after Danielle.
She grabbed the heavy glass vase she’d used for Auggie’s flowers off of the table, dumping flowers and water across the floor as she emptied it. “Get Danielle out,” she hissed.
Auggie didn’t argue, just started towards the hallway, crab-scuttling with one hand on Danielle’s arm to keep her low to the ground as well. Annie could feel Danielle’s terror and unwillingness to leave Annie, but the best thing Danielle could do was get out of the way, and Danielle had to know it.
When the first man showed up in silhouette in the door to the kitchen, Annie waited. The sounds she heard suggested that the others were fanning out, checking the bedroom and bathroom. The man stepped into the kitchen—
And slipped, his heel skidding on the spilled water. Annie pitched the vase as hard as she could. It smashed him in the face and he went down. Still on hands and knees, Annie scrambled over to him and grabbed his weapon. It didn’t look like a conventional gun—a dart gun, she realized.
This wasn’t an assassination attempt.
Another one walked across her line of sight, and she shot him in the neck. That left at least two, and if they’d had anyone on the entrance, Danielle and Auggie were at risk. Annie retreated into her hallway. Her apartment door was gaping open, but the cane was gone and the lights outside had also been killed, which suggested that Auggie was still in the game, doing his best to make her less of a target.
As she backed out of the door, another attacker charged, and she fired but missed. It slowed him down enough that she was able to run to the stairwell before he could come at her. The emergency lighting turned everything red. Her heart was pounding and she could barely feel her hands where they wrapped around the dart gun. This was her home.
Danielle could be in trouble. Annie made herself free one hand for her phone as she pelted down the stairs, calling the CIA’s emergency number.
Auggie would take Danielle out the front, where there were more likely to be eyes on the street, making an attack more difficult to carry out.
Annie hit the first floor and shoved the stairwell door open even as she narrated the situation to an operator. She wondered if anyone had called the police. All those windows—
No one in the front foyer. There, movement in the corner of her eye—but it was just one of the grad students from the second floor, mouth gaping open at the sight of her gun, letting his mail fall to the floor as he raised his hands. She was going to get evicted for this, probably.
Out the door, where there was a cab idling.
And Auggie and Danielle inside, Danielle’s face so white and Auggie’s grim. She jerked the door open and piled in as Auggie scooted into the middle. “Go!” she told the driver.
Who didn’t do a thing, instead craning his neck so that he could examine them. “You okay?” he asked as she hurriedly shoved the gun behind her back.
“We’re fine,” Auggie said, with the cajoling tone he’d doubtless used to make the cabbie wait in the middle of the street. “But we are about to be late, so—”
“This is a CIA safe house?” Danielle asked, the strain in her voice suggesting that she wasn’t all that interested in the answer. “It looks like a spread from Martha Stewart Living.”
Auggie murmured something that Annie didn’t hear, because she was focusing too intently on Joan’s words on the phone.
“The ones you shot were gone by the time our response team arrived. But we agree, they were trying to take you. Not kill you, take you. You need to come in so that we can figure out who’s this.” Joan’s voice was calm, measured; if Annie listened only to her, she could think that everything was fine.
“We need to get Danielle somewhere safe first. I’m not leaving my sister.”
“I’m sending a team out to their house in California,” Joan said, no hint of condescension. Joan would never deny her family protection just because they were fighting at work. Annie had never appreciated that dedication to the Agency more.
“My nieces are in DC,” Annie said quickly.
“They’re having a sleepover,” Danielle said, overhearing. She made it sound like a protest, as if that ought to have been protection, and it should have been.
“Give me the address,” Joan said, with what sounded like tenderness. “I’ll send agents there as well. With the element of surprise lost, it doesn’t make much sense to go after your family, but we’ll have a protection detail on them anyway.”
Danielle was all for getting the girls herself, but Annie convinced her that they’d just be needlessly upset to be yanked out of their good times, and then they’d have questions that couldn’t be answered. Anyway, Auggie pointed out, it was precisely when you were moving fast without a plan that a well-prepared enemy had its best chance. They were better off where they were, and then Danielle could end the visit early tomorrow, escorted onto the plane by federal agents.
Making a plan had always helped them handle the quick changes, when they were kids. Annie hoped the principle still held. Perhaps sensing Danielle’s near collapse, Auggie made his excuses and went to talk to the agents in charge of guarding them, learning more about the defenses.
Annie went over to Danielle and hugged her. After a moment of resistance, Danielle sagged into her arms. “I can’t believe this,” Danielle said into Annie’s shoulder.
“I’m so sorry,” Annie said. The thought of putting Danielle—and Katia and Chloe—in danger was worse than anything that had happened to her so far: worse than Jai, and Simon, and getting shot.
Danielle sniffed. “Who could want to kidnap you?”
“I don’t know,” Annie had to admit, possibly the most terrifying part. It could be related to Henry Wilcox’s intel—in fact, having her targeted could even be part of Henry Wilcox’s greater plans. He wasn’t her friend, even if she needed him to find out what was going on. She didn’t have enough information to tell Danielle anything, not yet. But she would.
Danielle breathed out a few times, shuddery. Then she let Annie go, and Annie looked her in the eyes. Danielle swiped at a stray strand of hair and half-laughed, letting herself sink down into the tufted couch (she hadn’t been wrong about the Martha Stewart thing; Annie was half afraid of being yelled at by set designers if she sat in the wrong place).
She patted the cushion next to her, and Annie joined her. “Auggie told me that I had to be quiet and hold on, to follow his lead. I was so worried about you I nearly threw up. I kept thinking about their guns, and how you were back there fighting to get away. He said that I had to hold on, that you needed me to be safe. And he got me out.”
Annie had to swallow her own tears, looking away until she was capable of continuing the conversation. “I’m glad he was with you,” she said.
“I’m glad he’s with you,” Danielle said. “I know, God I know, that even without this whole CIA thing you can never really tell with people, but Annie, I think he might be the one.”
“Seriously?” Annie teased. “All the excitement, and my love life is what you come up with?”
Danielle swatted her gently on the arm. “Don’t interfere with my distractions! If you want I could just primal scream instead.”
“No, no, back to my love life,” she said, smiling for the first time since the window had broken. “Auggie is the most stand-up guy I’ve ever met, I think.” As attuned as he was to Agency politics, he hadn’t played any of those games with her. “I used to think I’d never want to be with anyone who could get moved around at any minute, like Dad was. But Auggie—” He could be deployed to Germany tomorrow, and she’d want to go.
“Don’t waste any time,” Danielle said, and by the sadness in her eyes she wasn’t just thinking about the risks they’d faced today.
“Waste any time doing what?” Auggie asked, and they both turned to see him standing at the room’s entrance, fingertips trailing against the wall. He didn’t need to do that at her place, she realized; he’d been there often enough to know where everything was.
“And on that note, I’m going to go take a Xanax and curl into a ball under the covers,” Danielle said. She sounded better already. Walker women were tough, Annie thought with pride, Xanax and ball-curling notwithstanding.
Annie got up and went to him. He had his cane out, but she wanted him to take her arm. She needed the touch even if he didn’t need the guidance.
“Hey,” Auggie said, knowing better than to ask if she was okay.
She leaned into him, her forehead against his chest, and let him wrap his arms around her and hold her close. “My sister was there. If the girls hadn’t been with their friends—”
“You still would have gotten them away,” Auggie said, and kissed the top of her head. “You did great, and you have the entire CIA behind you. Including me.”
She sighed and tightened her grip on him. “I was pretty scared.”
“Some days,” he said, and she felt him raise his head, “I think that if I couldn’t keep serving my country, protecting it, I wouldn’t want—I won’t pretend it’s not hard to know that you’re the one out there with the gun. If I could, I would be there right beside you. But never think that means that I don’t believe in you, every moment of the day.”
“You got Danielle out,” she said.
“I’m not asking for reassurance about my physical competence, here,” he said, and she leaned away from him just enough so that she could look him in the eyes, since he’d know that’s what she was doing.
“I’m not giving it,” she told him. “I trust you with my life every day. I trust you with my sister’s life. Just—you have the Agency behind you too. Including me.”
And there it was, that smile of his that felt like the sun rising, lifting her up from her toes to her head. “Behind me?”
She couldn’t think about what might have happened if she’d been taken, or what collateral damage the kidnappers might have been willing to inflict. That was for tomorrow. “Or in front,” she said, letting her voice drop and her hands wander up his chest. “Depends on how creative you want to be.”
“I’m developing new protocols as we speak,” he said. His hands smoothed up her ribcage, his thumbs stopping just below the curve of her breasts. Her nipples tightened with anticipation.
Annie grinned at him. She still needed to know why she was a target; she had a lot of work to do. But not tonight. “Why don’t you step into my office and we can—mmmm—discuss the options?”
“I look forward to meeting your operational needs,” Auggie said, and they were nearly giggling at each other, even as she could feel Auggie’s erection against her thigh.
“Enough jargon,” Annie said. “Take me to bed.”
And, stopping only to grab his cane from where he’d rested it against the wall, he did.