Nikita was scheduled to return to the Farm at 5PM, and with the Valentine lesson abbreviated, that left the better part of an hour before Michael was to meet her at Van Access. He no longer had clearance to listen in on Madeline’s scheming, but Level 5 status came with many privileges, and the ability to track his material’s movements via camera through unrestricted areas was one of them. Inside his office, Michael watched Nikita on his computer, stalking toward Munitions with her training clothes slung over her shoulder.
“If looks could kill…” Walter said, whistling low at her approach. “I don’t know what’s deadlier – the glare, or the dress.”
Michael couldn’t see the former – the camera’s slightly overhead angle was less than ideal – but the audio was loud and clear. Nikita said nothing, leaning on the work station and staring down at the cluttered surface.
Walter set down the gadget in his hands. “What’s wrong, Sugar?”
“Madeline’s new lessons,” Nikita replied. “Valentine Operations.”
“Who was the lucky target?” Walter asked, smiling.
Nikita paused. “Michael.”
“You don’t seem too happy about that,” Walter said.
Walter shook his head. “Really? I thought—”
He stopped short, but it was clear enough what he meant: he’d thought Michael and Nikita were sleeping together. Now that he knew they weren’t, he’d wonder why Michael asked for the RSD. It was unlikely he’d report the request, but the suspicion couldn’t be allowed to linger; Michael would have to give him a reason. Maybe even the truth.
“What?” Nikita asked through clenched teeth, almost a dare.
“Nothing,” Walter said, and started tinkering with the tech again. “So how’d it go?”
Nikita sighed. “I lost.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. It’s Michael. You’ll only win when he wants you to – and believe me, Sugar, he does want you to.”
“Why would he care?” she asked.
“You’re his material – your success reflects on him. And if there’s one thing I know about Michael, it’s that he hates to fail.”
“Has he ever failed at anything?”
“Sure. Everyone does, sometimes.” Walter smiled, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “You’ll be fine. There isn’t a man alive who wouldn’t fall madly in love with you. I know I have.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “You’ll always be my Valentine, Walter.”
“Wouldn’t mind being your target, too.”
“Not gonna happen,” Nikita said, a wry grin on her face.
Walter laughed, letting go. “Can’t say I didn’t try.”
Michael exited out of the video feed. He’d seen enough to know how badly her trust had been damaged; if he didn’t intervene soon, her resentment would grow, and she’d refuse his help when she needed it most.
When he arrived at Munitions, Nikita had left, but she hadn’t gone far. In what little time she’d spent in Comm., she’d managed to charm Birkoff into sharing the Oreos he’d stacked by his station, and even appeared interested in whatever application the boy enthusiastically gestured to on the monitor.
Whether she knew it or not, Nikita was already applying her Valentine training, and it wouldn’t take long before she searched for signs of it in others. Every word, every touch, every glance would become suspect. Even her own heart couldn’t be trusted. The only way to survive was to pretend not to have one at all.
“How is she?” Michael asked, approaching Walter’s work station.
“Not too pleased with you – and I don’t think she ever has been.” Walter crossed his arms. “If the two of you aren’t sneaking around, why did you need a favor?”
Instead of answering, Michael retreated into the relative safety of the inventory area. It wasn’t a blind spot, but it was dark enough to prevent lip-reading, and the cameras weren’t equipped with infrared. He’d perfected the decibel needed to evade the microphones, and since he’d been the one to install them, Walter had, too. As the older man followed him between the shelves, Michael turned.
“Adam,” he replied.
In all of Section, there were only a handful of people who knew about his son. No one else could be allowed that kind of leverage.
“There’s no surveillance on the kid,” Walter said.
He was right. The mission profile was clear: no interference. If Vacek ever decided to contact Elena and had his people search the house beforehand, Section couldn’t take the risk of them finding cameras.
“No,” Michael replied. “But if I’m ever compromised, I need to know he and Elena can escape unseen.”
It was as close to the truth as Michael could tell. The RSD had initially been for the discreet elimination of anyone who learned of his blood cover – or those who already knew - if they attempted to use that knowledge against him. But if things moved into the next phase, protecting Adam would become almost impossible. There were too many variables, too many threats, too many enemies – on both sides.
“Is it Vacek you’re worried about, or Section?” Walter asked.
Michael shot him a warning look, so cold that even the gregarious Head of Munitions seemed shaken, nodding and backing away into his work area without a reply to his question. Silence was answer enough.
His objective complete, Michael began to head toward Nikita, but through the wire fencing around the dojo, he saw an easier target: Davenport, approaching his office next to Michael’s own. The fellow Level 5 op should have finished briefing Jillian on the day’s profile and traveled with her to the Farm during Nikita’s lesson with Madeline; they were supposed to be training when the real recruit returned. Something was wrong.
Nikita glanced up from Comm. and caught his gaze, her eyes slicing into his heart like daggers, and his decision was made. Michael intercepted Davenport at the door to his office.
“What are you doing here?” Michael asked.
“I’ve been called in for the Morocco mission,” Davenport replied. “Jill will have to go back with you and Nikita.”
Michael looked over at his material, pulling her hooded sweatshirt over her dress and heading out of Comm. With Jillian nearby and half an hour until their return to the Farm, he couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to set his plan in motion.
“Where is Jillian now?”
Michael found his target in the dojo on Level 7, pulverizing a training dummy with an almost crazed zeal. Jillian’s form was better than the one her innocent act required, but far from perfect; her recklessness was genuine, and had she faced a real hostile, the odds of her winning would depend on strategy, not combat skill. That wasn’t her only weakness, and Michael scanned the area, ensuring they were alone.
“You should only train at the Farm,” he said, approaching the mat from behind. “Recruits don’t have clearance on this level without an accompanying operative. If anyone recognizes you and sees you here alone, your cover could be compromised.”
Jillian stopped and turned at the sound of his voice, her gaze appreciative as it swept over him, but quickly grew into annoyance. “If I trained at the Farm, I’d have to pretend I’m an ignorant klutz, and I’ve had enough of that for now, thanks.”
She turned back, red braids slipping over her shoulders, and continued her set. Her movements were more cautious now, her body tense. She was easily distracted – a fact Michael fully intended to exploit.
“The mission will last at least another few months.” He circled around her, watching her subtly shift toward him, as if following his voice. “If you can’t stay within the parameters, you should be reassigned.”
“No. I just need to blow off some steam,” she said, stopping to catch her breath, and faced him. “If you’re so worried about my cover, you can help.”
She gave him a half-smile and took a step toward him, her next move telegraphed from the moment she began to approach. Her fist swung at him, quicker than the last time they’d sparred, but not quick enough; he blocked the strike, his eyes fixed impassively on her own.
“See? Now I’m not here alone,” she said.
Michael pushed her back, and allowed her to regroup as he began to circle her again. “I’m not your trainer.”
“And I’m not your material.” She mirrored his movements, and smiled, looking him over. “Doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun.”
At her playful innuendo, his gaze flicked up and down her petite figure, slim yet alluringly curvy beneath form-fitting black training clothes. He watched her breath quicken, her muscles tensing, and not just in preparation for her next assault. She feinted with her left hand and punched with her right; he caught them both and spun her around, trapping her arms across her chest.
He forced himself to feel nothing as she struggled, writhing and grinding back against him, and he tightened his grip until her body was flush against his. When she finally stopped, he held her there a moment, his lips brushing against her ear.
“Do you concede?”
Jillian panted softly, and it had nothing to do with exertion. “No.”
Michael let go, and as she turned to strike, he flipped her onto the mat and pinned her down, just as he had when training her with Nikita. But now, there was no pretense, no one watching, and nothing to stop her from acting on what she wanted.
“The match is over. You’ve lost,” he said.
“Really?” she replied, squeezing his thigh between her own. “Because I’ve got you right where I want you.”
He didn’t move, neither stopping nor encouraging her. If he was too receptive, she’d expect him to reciprocate; too reluctant, and any advances he made in the future would seem suspicious. It was best to be neutral, and let her draw her own conclusions.
“Acting off profile is grounds for cancelation,” he said. It was a statement, not a threat, and even carried a hint of concern.
“Who says I’m off profile?”
“I do. Your objective is to accelerate Nikita’s performance.” He glanced at her lips. “Involvement between us would jeopardize her progress.”
Her eyes lit up. Just by acknowledging the possibility of them together, he’d given her something to hold onto, to fight for – maybe even kill for. He had to be careful, or Nikita could become a target; if that happened, he’d have to kill Jillian himself before it was too late.
“By making her jealous?” she asked.
“She doesn’t have to know.”
“She would,” he said. “You underestimate her.”
Jillian arched, tilting toward his lips. “And when the mission is over?”
He was spared the need to answer by the sound of footsteps across the dojo, and took the moment to disengage, standing. She stared up at him, the tears she’d faked during training replaced by a steely determination. Michael offered his hand.
Smiling, she took it and let him pull her to her feet, drawing her in close. He glanced warily at their potential observers by the entrance and back to her, resolved.
“Return to the Farm. Focus on the mission. When it’s complete, you’ll be transferred back to Section Five.”
Her smile faded, and she gripped his arm. “There could still be a chance—”
“There isn’t.” He looked at her lips one last time, as if reluctant to pull away. “Go.”
Jillian’s hazel eyes narrowed, but her hand slowly retreated, and she turned to leave. Michael watched her with a subtle, controlled longing, waiting for her to look back. She paused at the exit, and as the metal door slid shut, she gave him one final glance, her gaze a challenge.
If he lost, Nikita was dead.