It was already twenty minutes after three, but Talon wasn’t ready to go inside. Not just yet. For the umpteenth time he flipped over the 8 x 10 to look into the cold, pale blue eyes staring down the photographer. If the woman was anything like the ice queen she portrayed in her photo, he knew this new assignment would not bode well.
And if the snapshot didn’t give him a warm feeling, neither did the details in the skimpy reports in the folder. There was a lot more to what he’d been given. Talon would bet his years on it. He was being given the rock bottom, absolutely barest minimum he’d need to make his decision. That’s the way it was, and the way it would always be when working on these hush-hush government back room projects.
Muttering a favorite expletive, Talon finally got out of the rental car, fingering the lock in the door before slamming it shut. The Feds could pay four hundred dollars for a toilet seat, but they couldn’t afford a rental with a keyless entry on the chain?
The receptionist coolly glanced over at him as he sauntered through the glass doors. Nodding to him, she waved at the elevator. “Third floor. I’ll let them know you’re here.” Talon refused to answer her. She wouldn’t have expected one, anyway.
The elevator doors opened to a plush, carpeted hallway facing another bank of glass doors. Another receptionist slash secretary d.b.a. executive assistant was seated at a desk just beyond. A male this time. He gave a nod of his head to let Talon know to go ahead and go in.
Talon tossed the man the blue folder. “Burn this. Cigarette lighter in the Buick wasn’t working,” he dryly ordered before turning his back on the help. Grabbing the curved, teakwood handle, Talon mentally steeled himself and went in.
Immediately his hackles were raised. The tension in the room was palpable. There were three people present: another one-star Rear Admiral seated behind his specially-ordered desk; another man he didn’t recognize standing to one side of the room, away from the rest; and the woman slouched in her chair beside the desk. The woman in the chair was giving him the same ice-blue look of disdain as she’d given the photographer who’d snapped her photo.
For several seconds he locked eyes with her as he took in the rest of her. Her taste in clothes was impeccable, if the clean lines of her pants and Chinese silk blouse were any indication. She even wore seven-hundred-dollar Ginobli slippers. One, at least. The other was tucked underneath her. The only thing out of place was the expensive red silk scarf tied about her neck—red silk, red flag. Talon knew what she was hiding under it. The folder had made that part sparkling clear.
But, with the exception of the stare he was receiving in kind, all resemblance to the picture ended. The photographer was either an amateur, or simply hadn’t taken the time to capture the porcelain features of her heart-shaped face. She was wearing her snow-white hair in a loose knot at the back of her head with a pair of those lacquered Chinese chopsticks stuck into it. Loose tendrils of hair framed her temples and cheeks. Unless her lips really were that shade, she wore no makeup whatsoever. And with her pale gold brows and lashes, she was stunning without the enhancement.
A watch was her only piece of jewelry. Without a doubt, Æquana bore her Norwegian heritage as proudly as he bore his own.
“Glad to see you finally decided to join us,” Rear Admiral Slaw muttered as a form of greeting.
Talon broke his gaze away to acknowledge the man. “I read the folder. I’m here. Now what?”
“If you insist on making this harder than we need, I’ll just call everything off, Talon. Then you can go home to your little cabin in the woods and wait to see what else we can think up for you. And you know we will,” Slaw snapped. Waving at the man on the opposite end of the room, he introduced him. “Morgan Draybeck. John Eagletalon.”
Draybeck extended a nervous hand. Talon took it, and they shook. In the back of his mind, Talon took note of the softness in the man’s muscle. A typical governmental pencil pusher. Talon immediately wrote the schmuck off.
“Morgan works with our sciences division. They’re the ones overseeing Æquana.”
Knew it. Talon mentally patted himself on the back.
Slaw motioned to the woman in the chair. “Æquana. John Eagletalon.”
He watched as she reluctantly got to her feet and approached him. Her gaze was sweeping over him with frosty blue eyes the color of glaciers, taking in his casual attire, his darker coloring, his long black hair tied behind the nape of his neck.
He was determined to give as good as he got, and Talon returned the sweep. She wasn’t as tall as he’d first believed. Five-six or seven at the most. But she was whip thin. Personally Talon liked his women with a little more substance on them... but this one was going to be his partner, his conscience suddenly chided him.
The shock of realizing where his thoughts had unexpectedly taken him gave him pause. He blinked as the woman slowly moved behind him and out of view.
“Talon? Why do they call you Talon? Why not Eagletalon?” she softly questioned. She had no accent. Of course, having been raised around governmentally appointed babysitters all her life, she wouldn’t have one.
“Fewer syllables. Easier to say,” he answered. “Why Æquana?”
“My father named the project,” she replied, equaling his emotionless response. Coming back around to his other side, she stopped her perusal and turned to the Rear Admiral. “I want it on the record that I’ve objected to this ever since you first proposed it, Slaw.” The venom in her remark was undisguised.
Slaw appeared nonplused. “Just put up with him for the required period, and then you can slam the door on him. Talon can tell you, that’s the only reason he’s here as well.”
“There are a couple of missions coming up where you’ll need Talon’s skills,” Draybeck said.
Æquana glanced back at the man standing with his arms crossed over his chest. “Yeah, you’ve told me about these special skills. Special Ops. Covert training. Ex-Navy SEAL. Tactical expert. But they discharged you.” Now she was speaking directly to him. “Medical discharge. Why? What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing, now. I took a bullet in the back on my last outing, and it cost me a kidney. Since I’m no longer one hundred percent, Uncle Sam put me on the injured reserved list. Until I fulfill my contract, I’ll belong to them.” He cast his dark eyes at her. “Just like you.”
Her reaction was a high pink flush to her face. All the way up to the roots of her milky-white hair. Talon grinned. It looked good on her. Gave her some color.
“I don’t want somebody who’s insolent, Slaw. Send him away. I’ll wait for your next inane choice.”
She started for the door when Talon drawled, “I’d rather be insolent than a cold bitch.”
Æquana whirled on him in a heartbeat. “I’d rather be a cold bitch than an incomplete has-been. Slaw, you couldn’t find anyone better? Someone with at least a modicum of personality?”
For some reason, Talon found the whole scenario hilarious, and he threw back his head, laughing. His reaction infuriated her further.
“You son of a bitch!”
“Keep it up, Ice Queen. There’s a fire in your belly, and that’s what you’re going to need if you plan to work with me.”
“I’m not working with you! I’m not going to spend a year of my life having you hovering over me, dictating to me, deriding me.”
“Oh? So you’re telling me your life so far hasn’t been any of that?”
“No!” she practically shouted at him, moving closer so Talon could see how dark her eyes got in the heat of anger. God, she was stunning when she went for the kill. “Geoffy has been the best partner I could ever want. Could ever ask for. I didn’t ask for this... this... shit!” She looked to Draybeck. “I don’t need a partner. Let me work solo, Morgan! Please!”
“No can do. You know that.” He shook his head adamantly. To Talon, he gave a nod in her direction. “We’ll give you a week’s probation. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Will that satisfy you both?”
Talon cut his eyes to the woman standing beside him, nearly touching. This close he could smell her. No perfume or cologne, but there was a unique scent that threatened to send him into overdrive if he wasn’t careful. He wondered if she also realized her proximity to him. “A week won’t kill me. At least, I don’t think it will.”
Draybeck looked to her. “Æquana?”
“A week. From right now?” She glanced at the Buegentine watch on her arm. “Three-fifty p.m.” At Draybeck’s nod, she relented. “One week.” A glance at Talon. “One week,” she re-emphasized, holding up an index finger.
Talon silently took in the fact that her nails were not manicured. It puzzled him. As carefully dressed and coiffed as she was, to not have her nails polished would be the same as finishing a fine piece of jewelry, then not buffing it so people could admire it. It didn’t make sense.
“One week,” he repeated.
Slaw got to his feet, pleased at this small success. “Talon, we’ve put the two of you up at the Four Seasons. Your first mission will be waiting for you when you check in. Plane will pick you up at oh-five-hundred. Any questions?”
“Yeah.” He raised an eyebrow at Æquana. “Are you hungry?”
Surprisingly, she suddenly appeared to wilt at his inquiry. “Yeah. I’m famished.”
“Good. ‘Cause I know a good steakhouse a few blocks away, and I haven’t eaten all day.” Walking over to the door, he held it open for her, making an exaggerated gesture to let her know she should proceed him. Then another thought came to him. “Unless you’re one of those vegans,” he began.
Æquana shook her head, gathering her purse where she’d left it in the chair. “No. I’d like a steak.”
They left the room together. Once the door was firmly shut behind them, Draybeck looked to the Rear Admiral. “Do you think they’ll make the entire week?”
“They’d better,” Slaw said. “This makes the fourth new partner we’ve tried to settle her with, and she’s shot down the other three in less time. I’m getting sick and tired of her little acts of defiance.” He scratched his chin. “But Talon’s different. He’s... he’s...”
“He’s an Indian, isn’t he?”
“Native American, yeah. Those two couldn’t be more opposite, in temperament or in looks.”
Draybeck nodded. “Amen. Maybe that’s why it could work this time.”
Slaw scowled. “Let’s hope. Otherwise, she’s not going to like what we’ve got planned for her if she doesn’t.”