“Ah, ma’am? Please don’t touch the car,” the man with the glass tablet said, and Peri flicked her eyes to him, acknowledging his words as she lifted the handle of the hundred- thousand-dollar car. Immediately it opened, the door making a soft hush of sound that meant money well spent as she slipped inside and let the leather seats enfold her.
It smelled new, and her eyes closed for a moment as she almost reverently set her hands on the wheel, smiling as her shoulders eased and an odd relaxed tension filled her. It was sleek, sexy without being over-the-top as if confident in its power and comfortable under the spotlight. Its red color went deep, showing shadowed layers that only an off-the-assembly-line paint could deliver. A two-seater, it looked fast, with wide tires that had ample turning radius in the wheel wells and an antenna array panel to plug in just about anything now or in the future. The sound system was adequate at best, but the onboard computer display was big enough to be useful and glass compatible. Much of it was plastic, though, and Peri’s nose wrinkled.
“It looks as if it was made for you,” the man said, the annoyed slant to his brow belying his smile as he stood just outside and held his tablet like a fig leaf.
Peri tossed her straight black hair out of her eyes, her smile real as she looked up at him. “I bet you say that to everyone.”
He rocked closer. “No. Only those who look like they belong in it.” He cleared his tablet, and the car’s logo ghosted into existence on the clear glass. “Well?”
Angling her slim form, she smoothly got out before he had a coronary. Immediately the chaos of Detroit’s auto show beat anew upon her, the air smelling of ozone and popcorn, and the rhythmic thump of ambient electronic dance music from the live stage pounding into her. Content, she sent her gaze up to the multitude of cameras set to record and identify, secure in the knowledge that the swirls of black smut she’d painted on her face would keep her anonymous.
She wasn’t alone wearing it—face paint had become to Detroit’s auto show what big hats and mint juleps were to Churchill Downs. Both men and women sported well-placed dots and swirls to disguise themselves as they checked out the competition or just avoided being tagged and sent literature. As she was dressed in black leather pants and a cropped jacket with a silk shell and six-inch black boots, the paint made her feel especially flirty and powerful. Sexy.
She turned back to the coup, thinking it was cheating to show it in a paint job that you couldn’t get from the factory. “How do you get around the weight issue of the batteries? You’ve got them in the front, but the drive tram is in the back. The weight isn’t over the wheels, and it’s going to turn as if it was on pudding.”
His interest sharpened. “It’s not an issue at posted speeds.”
Peri nodded, and he winced as she ran a hand caressingly over the car’s sleek lines—all the way from the front to the back. “Over posted speeds is when you need the control, though. Acceleration?”
“Zero to sixty in four-point-two seconds,” he said, tapping his tablet awake.
“Battery only, or warming engine assist?” she asked, and he smiled as he brought up the literature. Ten steps away, a printer came alive with the stats.
“Engine assist. You can’t break four seconds on just battery.”
“A Mantis can.”
The man looked up. “I mean a real car.”
Peri eyed him from under a lowered brow. “You’re saying a Mantis isn’t a real car?”
“I mean,” he tried again, flustered, “a car you can actually have. If you’re looking for speed, have you considered—”
“Sorry. No thanks.” Peri stepped out from under the hot spotlights and into the milling crowd, snagging a tiny flute of champagne in passing. Her dress and attitude parted the way, and her warm feeling of satisfaction grew as the tingle of alcohol slipped into her. It was nice to know she still had the best. Ahh, life is good.
“Why do you tease them like that?” a voice said at her elbow, and she spun, hand fisted.
But the man had dropped back as if expecting it, mirth crinkling the corners of his brown eyes. The brief protest of the surrounding people subsided as they pushed past and around them—and were forgotten.
“Silas?” she questioned, her gaze flicking to the messenger drones at the ceiling, worried a high-Q might be hiding among them. Then her eyes dropped to his tall, body-building form. His cashmere coat across his wide shoulders made him even more bulky, but his waist was trim and his face clean-shaven. The white of salt from the street rimed his John Lobb shoes, and he grimaced when she noticed. “What are you doing here? How did you find me?” she said, shifting into the lee his body made when someone jostled her.
Taking her empty flute and setting it aside, he pointed to a nearby communal area set up with tall tables and rentable connections to get a message outside the no-Internet-zone needed for security. “I’ve never known you to miss the opening of the Detroit auto show,” he said as they walked. His low voice at her ear slipped through her like smoke, staining the folds of her mind and bringing a thousand unremembered moments with him to hover just beyond recollection. “I like your hair that length.”
It was quieter among the tables, and Peri touched the tips of her jet-black hair just brushing her shoulders. She’d let it grow. No need to cut it. Slowly she levered herself up on one of the high stools. He’d been watching her. That was probably where her itchy feeling had been coming from, not that she’d had to close her store on a Monday to hit opening day.
The hot-spot connection found her phone and chimed for her attention, and she turned the rentable link facedown. Silas looked tired. There was a familiar pinch of worry in his eyes as he levered himself onto the seat across from her. He laced his thick hands together, setting them innocently on the table, but she could smell the hint of gunpowder on him; he’d been to the range recently. A black haze shadowed his jawline, and a memory surfaced of how it would feel if she ran her hand over it, delighting in the prickly sensation on her fingertips. Behind him, people in extravagant dress and having enough technology to run a small country mingled and played. She’d come to lose herself among them, to pretend that it was hers again for the day. She missed the feeling of being in control so surely that the rest of the world seemed a fantasy.
I shouldn’t have come here. I made a mistake.
A misplaced anger seeped into her, pushing out the doubt. She’d made a place for herself, a new life, found a new security that didn’t hinge on anyone but herself. “Are you alone? Is Allen with you? Damn it, you do realize you might have blown my cover?”
“It’s nice to see you, too. Yes, I’m fine,” Silas said dryly, and she slumped, looking past him and into the crowd for anyone watching without watching. Sighing, Silas scratched the side of his bent nose, his focus blurring as if remembering a past argument. “I might not have been the best agent, but I know better than to go to your coffee shop. As for Allen, I don’t particularly care where he is. I’ve not been in contact with him since”—he hesitated, lip twitching—“you quit.”
She had left, and he’d found her. So not good. “Stay away from my coffee shop.” Heart pounding, she slid off the stool.
“Peri. Wait,” he said, voice weary. “I only came to give you your book back,” he said, reaching past his coat to put one of her journals on the table.
Her breath caught, and she stopped, recognizing the leather-bound tome. It had been painstakingly pieced back together, the damage pressed out as best as possible, but it was still obvious where the bullet had torn into it. Kind of like her life.
It was from her last year in Opti training, an entire twelve months of memories intentionally erased from her mind so she could successfully bring down the corrupt Opti from the inside. The United States’ clandestine special ops program was gone, and the diary was her only link to why she had done it. Her pulse quickened at the answers that might lie in the pages. Why she hated blue sheets, why silver Mustangs made the scar on her pinky itch, why the scent of chocolate chip cookies left her melancholy. There were answers in the pages, guarded by demons she feared would tear apart what little self she’d managed to pull back. Her ignorance made her vulnerable, but it also made her safe.
Hand to her cold face, she backed up, her footing unsure on the thick carpet. “I’m not that person anymore,” she whispered. Damn it, she was going to have to rabbit. If Silas had found her, anyone could.
He pulled her to a stop. Anyone else would have gotten her heel through his instep, but she hesitated, letting him draw her back. Breath held, she looked up at him, her soul crying out for what she’d left behind. She’d liked who she’d been, and the wrongness of that still woke her in the night when all was quiet. Silas had been a big part of that, not the worst, but a part nevertheless.
“I’m not asking you to return to the person you were, just understand her,” he said. “It’s been almost a year. You have to stop hiding from this. You won’t ever be free of it if you don’t come to grips with what you’ve done, the good and bad.”
“Is that your professional opinion, Doctor?” she said, yanking out of his grip. Her wrist stung, but she refused to look at it.
Silas’s jaw clenched as unknown thoughts flitted behind his eyes. Her chin lifted, daring him, and with a frustrated grimace, he turned away. “Never mind. I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have come. You take care of yourself, Peri.”
“You, too,” she said as he walked away, hunched and unseeing. His tall frame and wide shoulders were tight under his coat as he wove through the lights, bare skin, and beautiful people. With a feeling of having won, she watched the crowd take him, but it shifted to worry as her fingers traced over the book in indecision, until finally she picked it up.
A business card from the Georgia Aquarium slipped out, falling to the floor. It wasn’t Silas’s name on it, but he’d likely be using an alias. Next to it was a hand-printed phone number. She stared at the card for a moment before turning and walking away, leaving it to be lost in the clutter.
To know what she had done might destroy everything she had made for herself. It was easier to ignore it, keep pretending she was happy and hope the lure to return to the power and prestige would never be stronger than the loathing of what she’d turned herself into to get there.
But she wasn’t sure she could do that anymore.
Peri Reed’s job eats her mind, but for a special task agent in hiding, forgetting the past can be a blessing.
Betrayed by the man she thought she loved and the agency who turned her into the very thing she fought against, Peri abandoned the wealth and privilege of Opti for anonymity riddled with memory gaps and self-doubt. But when a highly addictive drug promises to end her dependency on those who’d use her as a tool for their own success, she must choose to remain broken and vulnerable, or return to the above-the-law power and prestige she once left: strong but without will—for whoever holds her next fix, will hold her loyalty.
Yet even now as then, a love based on lies of omission might still save her life.