“Shane,” I say, my voice a little tremulous. “What if he’s not there? What if he’s gone?”
Shane shrugs from the driver’s seat of the car. “We’re spies, Em. We hunt him down and beat some sense into him.”
I roll my eyes, staring out the window. “I’m serious.”
“Then we find him when we get home. Duh,” Shane says, as though I’m the slow kid in class.
“No,” I shake my head. “I gave him a choice – if he’s here when we get get back, then he’s willing to hear me out, willing to give us a chance. If he’s not…”
“Oh,” Shane says, the penny dropping.
“Yeah,” I say quietly. “And now I’m afraid that he won’t be here.”
“Well,” Shane says, taking a deep breath. “We’ll just have to find out, won’t we?”
The rest of the drive is passed in companionable silence, by my heart starts to race as we turn on the drive leading to the farmhouse, wondering what will greet us when we arrive – a house filled with light and warmth, or a house deserted and closed up tight?
We round the final corner, and I near cry in relief – I can see a light in the window, a car in the drive, and a tendril of smoke drifting out of the chimney and arcing away in the light breeze.
“Oh my god,” I say, gripping Shane’s arm tightly. “He’s here. He’s still here.”
“I knew he would be,” Shane says gruffly, and I punch him in the shoulder lightly.
“You did not!” I screech. “You didn’t know. You were just as nervous as I was. Admit it.”
Shane glances at me, a wry smile on his face. “Okay, so I was a little… tense. I don’t get nervous about my brother. I’m not in luuuuuuuve with him…”
I burst out laughing at Shane’s teasing tone, despite the blush creeping up into my cheeks at his mocking. “I’m just using him for sex,” I throw back, knowing this will shut Shane up on the subject, hopefully permanently.
Mission accomplished, I grin to myself as Shane halts the car and turns off the engine. We both take a deep breath before emerging from the car, and then the front door opens, and I want to cry at the sight of the tall, lanky frame outlined from behind by the light from inside the cabin.
I imagine that my face mirror’s Connor’s – apprehension, confusion, and still, a bit of joy mixed in.
“Hi,” I say softly, as Shane and I approach the front door, our baggage forgotten in the trunk of the car. “How are you?”
Connor nods, and then swallows thickly. “I’m, you know, good. How are you? Both?” He asks, tugging his gaze from me and looking at his brother.
“We’re great,” Shane says with a smile, holding out his hand to shake Connor’s hand. “Glad to be back.”
“Things… went well?” Connor ventures and I give him a small smile and his question.
“Things went very well, thanks,” I say, and he seems to breathe a sigh of relief. “Everyone is safe that needs to be safe.”
“I’m glad,” Connor says, sounding genuine, and we share a small, shy smile.
“Something smells good,” I say as we enter the farmhouse, closing the door behind us. “Have you been cooking?”
Connor’s cheeks flush a little. “Uh, yeah. I needed something to occupy myself while you were…” he pauses, gives up trying to find the right words, and then continues. “So I’ve pretty much cooked everything in the house. Hardly ate it, but I cooked it. If you guys would have taken much longer, I think I would have had to go fell a wild boar or something to roast on a spit.”
I burst out laughing at the image of Connor tackling a pig in the woods, and even Shane chuckles at the thought.
“Are you hungry?” Connor asks solicitously.
I shake my head. “I’m more tired than hungry. I think I’m going to curl up for a catnap, if that’s okay. And then…” I can’t quite meet Connor’s gaze. “We can talk… if you’re ready…”
Connor nods curtly, and Shane adds that he could use a quick doze as well. We part ways, and I stumble into the master bedroom even as Shane is already snoring on the couch. I curl up on the bed, not even bothering to remove my shoes or tug down the blankets; I just curl up where I fall, my eyes closing of their own volition.
Just as I am on the edge of sleep, I feel a weight move the mattress behind me. I hold my breath as Connor slips into bed beside me, his arms curling around my waist as they have so many times before. He presses a kiss to the crown of my head, and I want to cry again. “I’m glad you’re safe,” he says softly. “Sleep, little one.”
And I do.
“Mmm…” I say languidly, stretching and opening my eyes before remembering where I am – the farmhouse – and why – resting after a mission in Prague.
Neither seems terribly significant, though, as Connor’s arms are still wrapped tightly around me. He wakes moments after I do, and we smile shyly at each other, shifting on the bed to face one another.
“Hi,” I whisper.
“I think I owe you an explanation, about a lot of things,” I say, drawing in a deep breath, bracing to explain everything to Connor.
“Shane’s still asleep,” Connor says softly, nodding towards the family room. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Minutes later, we are walking along the same path that Connor fled down only a day before. He takes my hand in his, and then gives it a reassuring squeeze. “Okay, I’m ready. Spill.”
I smile slightly at his tone – as though he were going in front of a firing squad, instead of hearing the truth about his girlfriend – and his family.
“You understand that what I’m about to tell you… you can’t repeat. To anyone,” I caution, and Connor nods.
I take a deep breath then dive in. “What you know about me, almost everything, is true. I’m Emmanuelle Sutton. I studied at the Sorbonne. I buy art for galleries. I live in Eastbourne. My family is dead. The part you don’t know is that for the last five years, I have worked for a secret organization called Leukos.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
I laugh slightly. “Well, that’s kind of the idea.”
Connor smiles, then nods for me to continue.
“I was recruited right out of school, and since I was kind of… rudderless at the time, I joined. I learned to fight, how to fire weapons, go on missions, and stay alive. Leukos takes down the criminals and terrorists that no one else can touch. We sometimes, but rarely, work with organizations like the CIA, or MI-6 or Mossad, but for the most part, we are completely outside of any organized government, any other agencies.”
I take a breath, and then continue.
“I won’t say I’ve always enjoyed the work, but I’ve found great satisfaction in saving lives, taking down terrorists and working undercover to keep the world safer than it was the day before. Sometimes I go on missions back to back to back; sometimes, I have weeks where I wait for another assignment. During those times, I buy art for galleries, as part of a front organization that Leukos has created.”
“How were you recruited?”
“I’m not sure how I came to Leukos’ attention, but Shane was the one who first approached me, who brought me into the organization, and has acted as my ‘first’ since I joined. In that time, Shane taught me how to become a ghost, which is what we all are – ghosts. We exist in the world, but also outside it.”
“Tell me about Shane,” Connor says, his voice a bit strangled. “It seems you know him a helluva lot better than I do.”
I shake my head. “I just know him… differently than you do.”
“Semantics,” Connor murmurs, and so I continue.
“Shane has been a part of Leukos for a decade. He’s one of the most talented agents in the force. He’s brilliant at strategy, at planning missions, and has a good record for getting agents out alive. There is no one on the planet I trust more than your brother, except maybe you.”
“You’ve known him for five years, and me for only…”
I cut him off. “Yes, but you know ME. You know how I like my tea and what my hair looks like when I wake up. You know what makes me laugh, and what makes me cringe. Shane doesn’t know me the way that you do. It’s different.”
“But he’s an accountant!” Connor bursts out, and I bite back a smile.
“He is. It’s his day job, just like artwork is mine. But obviously, he’s had to hide his life from you, just like I have. But he loves you, and is just as protective of you, as any older brother could be.”
“No wonder I don’t see him much,” Connor muses. “He’s always off saving the world.”
I nod. “That, and as part of his protecting you, he’s kept his distance. He’s never wanted anyone to connect you two. He’s never wanted to put you at risk. Not like I am right now by telling you all of this. Because Shane is so valuable to Leukos, he’s under even more surveillance than I am. Every cup of coffee you’ve shared, every phone conversation… someone in Leukos is probably listening. We’re used to it, but for someone outside the organization…”
Connor swallows hard, and I stop talking, giving him time to absorb what I’ve told him so far.
“This is… a lot,” Connor says after several minutes of us walking hand in hand through the dense foliage.
“I know,” I agree, then sigh. “And there’s more.”
Connor sighs as well. “Okay, keep going. I’m ready.”
“The reason we had to go to Prague…”
Connor interrupts me. “You went to PRAGUE yesterday?!”
I smile slightly, but say nothing.
“I thought you’d gone to, I don’t know, Paris, or somewhere even closer,” Connor says, sounding a bit bewildered.
“Well, we DID go to Paris, just really briefly to catch our flight…” I say, my tone light. “I didn’t have time to get you a souvenir this time. Sorry.”
Connor smiles slightly, and then I continue. “The reason we went to Prague is a bit… convoluted. Vaclav Stepanek is a… bad man. He funds terrorist activities around the globe, and has a huge network. His inner circle is hard to penetrate, and he trusts few people. Many years ago, an MI-6 agent gained entry to his circle and slowly gained his trust, and worked as a double agent to funnel information back to MI-6 about potential threats while still remaining protected. Several weeks ago, this agent was able to be extracted from Stepanek’s organization when Stepanek began to suspect that he wasn’t on the up and up. The agent got out safely, but Stepanek doesn’t exactly forgive and forget.”
“I don’t understand,” Connor says. “What does this have to do with me?”
I take a deep breath, and then stop walking, turning to look into Connor’s warm, trusting eyes. “Connor, the agent was your father.”
He lets out a half laugh, backing away from me a few steps. “That’s impossible. My father works in the financial district in London.”
“No,” I say patiently. “That’s what he TOLD you he does. In reality, he’s been a MI-6 agent since you and Shane were little kids.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Connor, I wouldn’t lie to you. Not about this. Your father is a double agent, and a damn good one. But when Stepanek’s organization uncovered his betrayal, he decided not to target James Cross, but to target someone whose death would hurt him even more: you.”
“Why not Shane?” Connor asks, sounding like a little boy wanting to blame his older brother for some disobedience.
“Shane is as well hidden as I am as far as the outside world is concerned,” I explain patiently. “Hell, until a few days ago, I thought Shane’s birth name was Shane Croft, not Shane Cross.”
Connor bites his lip, processing everything I’ve told him, and then we begin walking again, a slower pace this time. “So when you went to Prague…”
“It was to infiltrate Stepanek’s, uh, gang… and politely ask them to remove any execution orders regarding you OR your father.”
“Politely?” Connor asks, with an edge of disbelief to his voice.
“Well, it was polite at first,” I hedge, and he smiles slightly.
“My father is a spy too,” he says, his voice a little bit hurt. “My father and my brother… jeez, they must have been disappointed when I didn’t go into the family business.”
“Connor,” I say, stopping him in his tracks, and taking both his hands in mine. “They are both so proud of you, and are willing to do anything, even die for you, to keep you safe, to keep you outside of the world of ghosts and guns and missions. Believe me. They don’t want you in the family business.”
“I just…” Connor struggles for words. “I just can’t believe you are all spies. So the night we met, were you injured on a… mission?”
I smile at his tentative use of the word ‘mission’. “Actually, that’s a weird twist. Earlier that day, Shane and some of our colleagues intercepted a buy of a deadly virus between some very bad men. The buy was intercepted, the virus taken by Leukos, and everyone went home. Turns out, MI-6 had been working undercover on that same deal, and thought we were rogue agents out to score the virus for ourselves. The agent tailed me home, and then beat me to a pulp before sticking a gun in my face to execute me. Before he could… he saw my tattoo.”
Connor says nothing, and I raise an eyebrow.
“The tattoo you’ve never mentioned, actually,” I say with a grin. “Not since the hospital examination, anyway.”
“I just assumed you got it because it was pretty, though you don’t strike me as the tattoo type.”
I grin. “I’m not, but I am now that it saved my life. The agent recognized the symbol of Leukos – that’s what it is, by the way, and all agents have it – and then dumped me at the hospital. Turns out, when all the players in the game don’t know each other, it can get messy at times, but it’s just a part of the game.”
“He could have killed you,” Connor says, his voice tight with anger, and I feel warm inside at the thought that he is still protective of me, after all I’ve told him about myself, and about my… exaggerated job skills.
“You’ve had a lot to process,” I say as we begin to walk again, this time in the direction of the farmhouse. “But believe me, Connor… I haven’t felt alive, really alive, since I met you. I was contemplating the state of my soul even before I met you, but after I did…”
“I’m not responsible for your soul,” he says softly. “Only you can be responsible for that.”
“Well, you are a major contributing factor, then,” I whisper. “And no matter what you do with this information, or how you decide to proceed with me, or Shane… I will thank you forever that you gave me a piece of it back.”
“Emmanuelle Sutton,” Connor says, his voice husky now as we stop again. “I’m in love with you. I’m sure of it. And yes, this is a lot to process, but I can’t stand the thought of you not being in my life. So however we have to act to make that happen, I want to. If I have to give you a blood oath not to tell a soul, I’ll do it. If I have to pretend to hate my father, I will. If I have to not have dinner with Shane anymore, I will. Because I’d rather have pieces of all of you, than to have no part of any of you at all. And that’s the truth.”
I smile, my eyes tearing, though I blink them back. “I’m glad to hear you say that, because I’m crazy about you, Dr. Sugar Daddy Cross. Just crazy about you. And we’ll make it work. I promise.”
“I love you, little one.”
“I love you, too, old man.”
Connor smiles, and then pulls me into his arms, pressing his lips to mine. We stand in the cooling air, kissing and murmuring and smiling, until darkness falls completely.
And I realize my soul is intact after all. As long as this man is in my life, I’ll be whole.
And I’ll be thankful every day for it.