This is the second to last chapter, just so you know to expect one more, next week.
Ethan hurried back to the dining room, wanting to get away before Smith pulled himself together. He was met quickly by the Durrants, who rushed to him as soon as he entered the room. Karon Durrant gave him half a hug as she said, “Major James, you’re back. Is everything okay? How is Kathleen? Where is she?”
It was perfect. Ethan didn’t even have to try. Karon’s purse hung directly under his wrist. With just a slight twist of his hand, the flash drive was loose. It slipped into the woman’s purse, without anyone suspecting a thing. Now, Ethan just had to wait and see what she did with it. He had a theory. “Everything is okay, I think,” Ethan said, answering Karon’s question, as she released him from the hug. “Kath just wanted to go clean up a bit.”
“Glad to see she didn’t murder you,” Colonel Durrant said. The Blacks and Burgstein had swarmed around their group as well, so that when Chance Smith walked stiffly into the room, massaging his shoulder with his hand, he had to brush right by the group. It was only Ethan’s super human self-control that kept him from decking the guy.
Chance faded further into the room as Ethan told his audience. “I apologized—profusely. I told Kathleen I was thrilled. Because I am. Of course.” It hardly sounded convincing. “I was just caught off guard.”
Karon Durrant shook her head. “All the signs were there. Of course, you wouldn’t recognize them, but if you’ve been around as long as me…”
“Are you two good now?” Allison asked. “She looked pretty upset.”
“I think so. I hope so.”
Colonel Durrant put his hand on Ethan’s shoulder. “Take it from me, you’re going to need to make a big gesture to atone for that gaff. If I were you, I’d order flowers. Everyday. Until the baby comes.” Ethan had actually been considering making a gesture. Given the scene they had caused, it did seem that he needed to do something.
Alison Black was prattling on about her take on the whole situation when Karon Durrant’s phone began to buzz from her purse. This is what Ethan had been waiting for. While his eyes directly faced Alison as she chatted, Ethan kept Karon the focus of his periphery. The woman opened her bag and reached in for the phone, but stopped when her hand touched the flash drive instead. Ignoring the phone, she peaked into her bag—subtly, no one else noticed—and stared. Then she looked up and around, concern written across her face.
“Are you going to answer that?” her husband asked.
“It’s no one important,” she answered, giving him a very significant look which he failed to notice. All the time Ethan acted like Alison’s commentary was the most interesting thing he’d ever heard. Slowly, the older woman closed the purse, keeping it tightly in her clutch and began scanning the room frantically, moving only her eyes, and keeping a tight smile plastered to her face.
This was the important moment. Ethan had known Mrs. Durrant would react one of two ways when she found the drive. If she was seeking the information like the rest of them, she would keep the drive, probably find some excuse to leave so she could either retrieve the information now, or hide the drive so the information could be retrieved later. But the Durrants hadn’t acted as if they were competitors. James had pegged them as suspicious, and Ethan agreed. Something didn’t add up. The second possibility is what happened next.
Alison Black had moved on to recounting the fire incident again, and Ethan did not miss it when Karon shuffled over to the younger woman’s side. He did not miss it when she reached into her purse and pulled out the drive, hiding it in her palm. And Ethan certainly did not miss it when Karon Durrant gave Alison Black one of her motherly hugs to comfort her after the trauma the fire had caused, thus allowing her to drop the flash drive into the depths of Alison’s purse.
The clue had been reset. The flash drive was back in the Blacks’ possession. There was only one person who would be interested in returning the drive to its starting place. Ethan had finally confirmed the Durrants’ position in this little game.
“Can I have your attention?” one of the conference organizers said, bringing the noise in the room down a few decibels. “In five minutes we will be having a demonstration on water purification techniques in the field. Please make your way to room 110B. Thank you.”
Ethan, like everyone else, had turned to listen to the announcement, still keeping Alison in his periphery. Now that he knew about the Durrants, he didn’t really need to keep track of the drive, but he was curious. Alison was digging through her voluminous purse in search of who-knows-what. Just as the announcer finished speaking she pulled the drive out of the bag and held it up for everyone to see.
“Reg, do you know what this is?” she asked loudly. Every single eye in the room zeroed in on the flash drive in Alison Black’s hand.
It took about three seconds for Reggie Black to realize what his wife was holding. “That’s mine,” he said grabbing the drive. Alison shrugged and picked up the conversation she’d been having before she was interrupted. A room full of predators began circling.
“Might as well head over to the demonstration,” Ethan said, feigning complete disinterest in the coveted drive. As he turned away and walked toward the door, half the room converged on the Blacks. Reggie “tripped” and with so many people trying to help him up, the drive could be anywhere.
As Ethan turned and walked away, he could feel the eyes of the Durrants following him. With the drive out in the open anyone who was trying to obtain the information could no longer hide their identity and Ethan suspected that the Durrants were still unsure where he and his partner fell.
Ethan was followed into the lobby of the hotel by the Blacks, who seemed unconscious that the prize they’d held was no longer theirs, Burgstein, blissfully unaware as always, and the Durrants. The other oblivious and innocent conference goers were also exiting, or already in the lobby or in the front row seats in 110B, truly excited to learn about water filtration. And Ethan knew the clandestine chaos that had erupted after the drive was exposed was about to come spilling out as well. So the timing, which was just luck as far as he knew, was perfect.
James walked into the lobby just as the balance of the crowd was shifting away from the dining room and into the lobby. It was time for Ethan to atone for his earlier actions. James’s appearance brought the lobby to a near standstill. She stopped too, looking at him uncertainly, still just a little bit hurt.
They were twenty feet away from each other, and James took a hesitant step forward. Ethan closed the gap in only a few steps. James was about to say something but he didn’t wait to hear what it was. Instead he wrapped one hand around her waist. The other found itself in the curls of her hair. He pulled her tight against him and brought his lips to hers, silencing whatever words she had been about to utter.
At first, Ethan felt her stiffness, before she’d had a chance to react to the kiss, but Ethan didn’t stop. This kiss was everything. James melted into him, her arms sliding up and around his neck. Her forceful answer to his kiss was like nothing he’d ever felt before, and he found that he could pull her even closer, bending her to fit against him. He wanted her.
Ethan thought he might pass out and maybe even wanted to, rather than let the kiss end, but she eventually pulled away, tilting her face until their foreheads rested against each other. She was breathing hard and Ethan couldn’t remember anything but the way her face looked. Her parted lips, her eyes staring at his.
But then someone started clapping, and some others joined in and Ethan remembered that none of it was real. “I love you,” he said. “And I love our baby. And I’m sorry.”
She smiled shyly and her eyes broke away from his to look at the watching crowd. It was like the closing scene in a movie. She blushed.
During the water demonstration, Ethan didn’t even try to pay attention. James was sitting next to him, her leg against his, his hand resting on the hem of her dress. She somehow was glowing just as they say you are supposed to when you are expecting. Ethan noted Chance Smith’s smug look when he slipped in late. Chance had the drive. For now, at least.
Ethan and James decided to leave after lunch. The assignment was done, and James’s baby drama had given them an excuse to ditch the last day of the conference. Ethan booked a room at another hotel in town as a cover. He almost suggested they make use of it, but once again, James had distanced herself from him the minute they’d gone to their room to pack.
They didn’t tell anyone their plans, but of course, James had made too many waves to just disappear. The Durrants (of course) got wind of it and intercepted them in the lobby.
“Where are you off to?” Karon asked, her voice a notch higher than usual.
“We decided to celebrate the baby. We’re leaving early to spend some time together,” Ethan said, and James looked up at him in that way…
“Leaving early?” Colonel Durrant tried to say lightly, but he sounded frustrated. “You can’t! It’s not over.” His words were more meaningful than they sounded.
“There are things more important than work,” Ethan answered. He began to guide James around the older couple, but Karon Durrant blocked their way.
“Why did you do it?” she accused suddenly. James looked up at Ethan with the most perfectly confused face he had ever seen. He tried to match it. “It was you. It had to be. Why did you give it back?”
“Give it back?” James asked slowly. “Karon, what are you talking about?”
“You know!” she cried, glaring at Ethan.
James looked up at him. “Eth? What’s she talking about?”
Ethan tried his hardest to sound as utterly oblivious as his partner. “I really don’t know.”
Karon huffed angrily and her husband whispered in her ear and tried to pull her away. “You can’t leave. It’s not over yet!” she cried. The older woman was growing more agitated.
“Karon, I’m sorry,” James stuttered. “It was so nice to get to know you, but right now Ethan and I just need to spend some time together.”
“Colonel,” Ethan said as a form of farewell. Colonel Durrant nodded as he pulled his wife away, but he also looked disturbed. Ethan hugged his partner closer to his body as they walked toward the doors. Chance Smith happened to be slipping in right then. Ethan glowered at him.
“I give you permission to punch him,” James whispered in Ethan’s ear. Ethan looked down at her and she smiled wickedly. He let her go and walked up to the other man.
Chance flinched a little at Ethan’s approach, and to put him at ease, Ethan held out his hand. “Good to meet you Smith,” he said, shaking hands with the scumbag.
“You’re leaving already?” Smith asked. He glanced nervously back at James before looking Ethan in the eye.
“We’ve got more important things to attend to,” Ethan said, and he was pretty sure he saw a jealous gleam in the man’s eyes.
“Good to meet you too, Major,” Smith said.
Ethan turned away, took a step, and then stopped. “Oh and Chance?” He waited just long enough to see the man’s eyebrows arch in acknowledgement of his question. Then he punched him in the eye. Chance Smith stumbled to the ground.
James was already next to him, and they walked out without looking back. She leaned up to whisper in his ear again. “It wouldn’t be a mission if you didn’t get to hit someone, now would it?” He couldn’t help but grin as they slid into the taxi and drove away.