"Nolan Ross?" the stranger on the deck had asked politely as they strolled up, returning from the celebration of Daniel's successful power grab at Chez Grayson. "Message for you, from your old friend Marco."
From there, events had deteriorated rapidly. Now, Nolan watched, fascinated (and ever-so-slightly repulsed; the two twined deliciously together), as Emily rose from her crouch in the tall grasses that bordered on the beach outside her house. She took a split second's careful aim, fired hot metal death at one of their black-clad ninja adversaries, then settled next to him again in an elegantly perfumed cloud of drifting champagne silk.
Her artfully bare shoulder pressed against his; a single dark blond lock had drifted from the expensively messy knot at the back of her neck and curled sweetly against her knife-sharp cheekbone. Helpless admiration swelled just beneath Nolan's rib cage, crowding out his rising sense of mortal peril. He tilted his head and leaned close to murmur, "Nice shot, Ems. I think you got him."
"I did," Emily whispered back, a small line of disapproval crinkling her forehead attractively. "Unfortunately, there are three of them."
"And how many bullets do we have left?"
"The question isn't how many bullets, Nolan." For a second, her icy discipline cracked and she allowed the corners of her glossy lips to tilt upward. "The question is, how many guns?"
Nolan's eyes widened, and he scanned the sleek dress that clung to the curves of her body like it was in love. It seemed untouched by the environment; no grain of sand or stain of grass dared mar her implacable perfection. "Do tell," he said, wildly impressed -- and loud enough to encourage one of the ninjas into another hopeful round of gunfire.
The rising drone of the wind and the steady pounding of the waves swallowed the din like nature's own silencer; when it ended, he pressed his lips together and rolled his eyes at her in mute apology. She blinked at him calmly, with what he chose to read as resigned affection, and rose to pick off the second interloper. The diamonds in her bracelet drank in the last of the evening light, glowing like chips of the sun against her honeyed skin. Even in the heat of battle there was a cool, deceptive fragility to her. She was like a wild, vengeful twist on a Disney princess -- if Belle or Ariel had handled a Glock the way Emily could, those stories might have ended quite differently.
When she joined him again, she pointed, and they moved. She was lithe and silent, shifting on bare feet behind the tall, pale grasses; Nolan followed as quietly as he could, crawling after her in a manner he hoped was less crab-like than it felt. When they reached the cover of the nearest dune, she said, "You know I don't like to interfere in your personal life, but what exactly did you say to Marco at the banquet?"
Sensing danger in Emily's uncharacteristic concern, Nolan shrugged and played the wounded-innocent card. After all, he was in danger of being wounded, and in this area at least, he was mostly blameless. "Does it have to be something I said? Maybe he saw us leave together, and got jealous."
The idea that someone could mistake their victorious withdrawal from Grayson Manor for an assignation converted the curiosity in her eyes to a disgusted glare.
"Nothing that would warrant an armed assault on your veranda," he protested in a hiss. "My dinner conversation isn't always the most scintillating, but it rarely warrants an armed assault for an after-party."
"Don't sell yourself short, Nolan," she said. "I've been tempted, more than once."
"Could we maybe find a more appropriate time to discuss your unstable personality? For instance, when there are more good guys than bad guys around?"
Without a word, Emily rose and fired again -- one final shot, followed by a highly promising thud from a point far closer than Nolan wanted to think about.
In the ensuing silence, he risked raising his head to peer cautiously toward the sound. There was a dead man on the beach, barely a yard away, a widening pool of dark red blood sinking into the sand from the missing back of his skull. One arm reached desperately toward them; as Nolan watched, the gloved fingers spasmed once, twice, again, and then fell still.
Nolan swallowed until his dinner slid back down his throat, then stood and dusted sand, grit, and grass off his slacks. He was no Emily Thorne; the world laid its grubby hands upon his person far too willingly. Adrenaline drenched the still, quiet scene, sharpening all the edges and saturating each individual shade and color to a blinding brightness. It was enough to make a lesser man think twice about his saffron plaid.
"You do know how to show a girl a good time," Emily said. She glanced dismissively at the thoroughly dead body nearest them, then checked her earlier victims for vital signs. Nolan couldn't begin to guess what she might do if she found a pulse, but he doubted it would involve dialing 9-1-1.
"We should think about getting you some weapons training," she said, returning to his side. "I'm not comfortable having an asset wandering around causing homicidal rages while unarmed."
"I wasn't unarmed," he protested. "I was with you." He gave Emily a wide, shaky grin; he was an asset. "However, since I am but a humble grasshopper... what do we do with the bodies?"
* * *
Nolan had cause to regret the question almost immediately. He also had cause to be grateful for the in-case-of-emergency fashion stash he'd left in Emily's spare bedroom. The clean-up was nasty and thorough, Nolan following Emily's instructions blindly, quickly, trying to avoid letting any single image leave too deep an impression. Two hours later, he finished his second shower and pulled on a simple white T-shirt and black cotton drawstring pants before padding downs to the living room, barefoot. His shoes, along with everything else he'd been wearing, were slated for destruction due to fatally bad vibes.
He filled Emily's tea kettle with water and set it on the stove, then pulled out mugs, cream and sugar. When Emily returned, he was planted on her sofa with a knit afghan in sand and turquoise pulled up to his waist, his feet propped up on her coffee table. The steaming mugs were set out next to him on a silver tray. He watched with carefully bland appreciation as she peeled off her black hoodie and black sweats to reveal a pale blue silk cami and matching shorts underneath. She left the door open to the cool breeze coming off the water and joined him on the sofa.
Wordlessly, he passed her a corner of the blanket; she tucked it up around her waist and accepted the mug he offered her, smiling.
"Are all the bad little ninjas tucked away snug in their deathbeds?"
Emily gave Nolan a sidelong glance. "They've been handled," she said. "I called in a favor."
"Ah," Nolan said. "Aiden. My super-favorite revenge cultist."
"He has a van and a shovel," Emily said, shrugging.
"And alllll those lovely muscles," Nolan drawled. "How convenient." He set his mug on the coffee table and flipped the blanket off his legs. "I suppose I should discreetly remove myself before he comes to collect your thanks."
"Nolan." Emily caught his arm and pulled him back down beside her. It didn't take much physical effort, not when her powers of mind control were always so effective on him. "You promised me mindless entertainment. Pay up."
He settled back, and didn't protest when she covered him up again. "Sadly, the Hamptons' version of dinner theatre has made my post-venge-gasm cheesy action flick plan a bit redundant. Any other ideas?"
"I thought we could braid each other's hair," Emily said mildly, "and discuss our love lives."
"And there it is. The iron fist in the proverbial velvet glove."
Emily cradled her mug in slender, elegant hands and smiled at him through the steam. "Friends share. Or so you tell me every time you pry into my private affairs."
"Ah, but your private affairs have a way of turning deadly. Mine don't usually generate a body count."
"Recent events suggest that might be changing."
Nolan nodded in acknowledgement; it was a fair point. "First blackmail, now attempted murder," he murmured. "I confess, I'm not loving the direction of the trend. And how's this for awkward: I'm fairly sure our unexpected guests were paid for with my money."
"Ouch. How bad is this bad blood?"
"Tale as old as time." He plucked at the blanket idly, keeping his face carefully blank. "Once, Marco and I could have gone down a certain path. Events took us down a different one, instead."
"My father's murder," Emily said softly.
"Your father's money." Nolan leaned his head against Emily's shoulder, staring out into the darkness, toward the water. "Marco was my CFO. He couldn't miss the money trail. And he wasn't very happy with where it came from."
"Or where it led." Emily's cheek rested against the crown of Nolan's head, just for a moment, surprising and comforting in equal measure. "Nolan, I'm sorry. I never intended to let you get caught in --"
"The crossfire?" Nolan laughed. "It's not the first time, Ems. And I sincerely hope it won't be the last. You may have brought down the Graysons without breaking a sweat, but the Initiative will be a tougher nut to crack. You'll need my particular skill set again, I'm sure."
"I'll need someone smart. Someone I can trust." Emily smiled. "You'll do. Until someone less excitable comes along."
Nolan smirked into his mug. "Oh, stop. You're going to make me blush."
"So, you and Marco parted company, and now he's working for you again. Change of heart?"
"Change of plans. It turns out righteous indignation doesn't fuel the kind of lifestyle Marco was looking forward to; he's decided to take what he thinks I owe him, by whatever means necessary."
"Unless you've written him into your will, tonight's efforts seem a little counterproductive."
"Maybe my dinner conversation was more provocative than I planned," Nolan said thoughtfully. "I was hoping to make him show his cards; instead, I made him homicidal."
Emily raised a delicate, arched brow.
"I offered him money and sex," Nolan said. "I suppose it's possible he thought the two were connected."
"You called him a whore," Emily said. "I can't imagine why that would make a jilted ex-lover angry, Nolan."
"I may also have implied it runs in the family. He has five little sisters, each one Snookier than the last." Nolan tilted his head back into the cushions and grinned at the ceiling. "I think I hit a nerve."
* * *
Nolan woke up just after dawn with a stiff neck and a dry mouth, the sun driving spikes into his eyes. Emily was tucked under his arm, drooling disarmingly into his T-shirt. The laptop, still looping through the entire Die Hard ouvre, had slid off onto the cushions on the far side of her. Nolan dislodged her carefully, regretfully, to retrieve it. Regretfully, because Emily was cute as a button when she was sleeping; carefully, because experience had taught him she woke up homicidal. But time rushed on, the tide waited for no man, and his email wasn't going to read itself.
Marco's letter was two down from the top of his inbox, three simple, impersonal lines long. Short and sweet, he resigned his position with Nolcorp, effective immediately, and relinquished any claim on past or future profits. Nolan read it twice, then blinked and rubbed at his eyes to make sure he wasn't dreaming.
"Good news?" Emily said quietly, looping her arm through his and leaning in to read over his shoulder. Her smile was sleepy, and full of secrets.
"The drugs must be working," Nolan said, tilting the screen toward her. "An enormous pain in my ass has suddenly vanished."
"I wonder what this one is?" She tapped at his keyboard, and an email from an unfamliar address popped open -- a forwarded itinerary, in Marco's name. The destination was unpronounceable, and very, very, very far away.
He opened the one after that on his own: A jpeg, from another unknown sender. Marco, unkempt and unshaven, ducked past a gate attendant, a rumpled jacket slung over one arm and the tail of his shirt untucked. The camera caught him glancing back, dark eyes rolling desperately, as if he thought someone might be following him with malicious intent. Good instincts; apparently, someone was.
The time stamp on Marco's resignation was 9:15 pm. The photo was taken less than two hours later.
"He was out of the country before Hans Gruber hit the ground," Nolan said, amazed. "He resigned while..." He stopped, his eyes narrowing as he followed the timeline back. "While you and Aiden were taking out the trash. Before I told you about the tragic end of our little affair."
Emily's eyes were calm and dark, patient. "I need you focused, Nolan. You said it yourself."
"I was going to handle it. I had plans, ready to be set in motion. Wheels within wheels!"
Nolan shook his head. It took a minute to wrestle down his vestigial male ego and accept the undeniable truth: In less than the span of a Bruce Willis flick, Emily had trumped the plan he'd spent weeks dreaming up and would have needed months to pull off. Granted, she was the Obi Wan Kenobi of ruthless, artistic takedowns, but it still stung a little, right where he kept his pride. "I don't believe you. You stole my revenge!"
"You're the one who's always telling me I don't have to do this alone." Emily pulled back. The afghan pooled around her waist; the sun caught her hair and gilded the curve of her jaw. Just for a second, the bright candy shell fell away behind her eyes and Amanda -- David's Amanda, Nolan's Amanda -- showed through. "You need to understand. You don't have to, either."
Nolan stared at her, shocked for a moment past the distant limits of his considerable wit. "Emily," he said. "I'm. That's. ...Could you say that again? I'm not sure I heard you."
"You're the only person alive who remembers my father like I do. That makes you my family, Nolan." She flipped her hair over her shoulder and smiled, armor already sliding back into place. "Besides, I owe you. Consider Marco a down payment, all right?"
Nolan closed his eyes, dizzy with the urge to rise immediately and search out a battlement he could fling himself off of for her cause. It took a moment to settle his own defenses back into place; a guy could catch a fatal case of chivalry, staring at Emily Thorne too long.
"You do owe me a lot," he said finally, when he was able to look at her again. "And I am ridiculously loyal, aren't I? You know, it wouldn't kill you to mention that more often."
The warning glint in her eyes told him there wasn't a chance in hell.
Nolan smiled at her and, madly daring, tapped the end of her nose with one death-defying finger. "Thanks, kitten," he said. "You didn't have to do that. But I'm kinda glad you did."
"You're welcome," she said, in a low, even tone that made him jerk his finger quickly out of reach.
"So..." Nolan said, casual, as if it were barely an afterthought. "How did you do it?"
Emily's eyes shone. She smiled a wicked, wicked smile and Nolan couldn't help but return it. He leaned back into the cushions, settling in for the story.
"Like you said, Nolan. The guy's got a soft spot for his sisters..."