Crash held the stepladder while Nell positioned the angel on the top of one of the trees.
She’d brought a portable CD player into the barn, and Bing Crosby sang White Christmas over remarkably natural sounding speakers. Nell sang along, right in Bing’s octave, her voice a low, throaty alto.
She looked out the window at the still falling snow as she came down the ladder. “I can’t remember the last time it snowed for Christmas. Certainly not since I’ve lived in Virginia. And last year, I visited my parents in Florida. I was on the beach on Christmas Eve. The sand was white, but it just wasn’t the same.”
Crash was silent as he carried the stepladder to the last tree, as Nell removed the plastic wrapping from the final angel.
“You didn’t make it out here to the farm last Christmas, did you?”
Nell glanced at him and he knew what she was looking for. She’d tossed him the conversational ball, and wanted him to run with it. She wanted him to tell her where he’d spent last Christmas.
He cleared his throat. “Last December, I was on a covert military op that is still so top secret, I can’t even tell you which hemisphere of the globe I was in.”
“Really?” Her eyes were wide. And very blue. Ocean blue. But not the stormy blue of the Atlantic, or even the turquoise of the Caribbean. Nell’s eyes were the pure blue of the South China Sea. In fact, there was a beach there that– He cut his thought off abruptly. What was he doing? Allowing himself to submerge in the depths of this woman’s eyes? That was insanity.
He turned away, making sure the stepladder was close enough to the tree. “Most of what I do, I can’t talk about. Not to anyone.”
“God, that must be really tough — considering the way you love to run off at the mouth.”
She’d caught him off-guard, and he laughed. “Yeah, well… What can I say?”
“Exactly.” Nell paused on the rung of the ladder that brought them eye to eye. “Actually, I shouldn’t be making jokes. It’s probably really hard for you, isn’t it?”
Malaysia. The beach was in Malaysia, and the ocean had been an impossibly perfect shade of blue. He’d sat there in the sand for hours, drinking it in, watching the sunlight dance across the water.
“It’s my job,” he said quietly.
Unlike in Malaysia, Crash forced himself to look away.
He could feel her gazing at him for several long moments before continuing on up the stepladder. She set the angel on the top branch of the tree, carefully adjusting its halo. “I know that part of what Jake does has to do with these…covert ops you’re sent on. Although…it was called something else, wasn’t it? Black ops?”
Crash waited several beats before speaking. “How do you know about that?”
Something in his voice must’ve been different, because she glanced down at him. “Uh-oh. I wasn’t supposed to know, was I? Now you’re going to have to kill me, right?”
He didn’t laugh at her joke. “Technically, your having access to that information is a breach of security. I need to know what you saw or heard — to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
She slowly came back down the ladder. “You’re serious.”
“There are only five — now six — people in the world who know I work covert ops for Admiral Robinson,” Crash told her. “One of them is the President of the United States. And now one of them is you.”
Nell sat down on the second to last rung of the stepladder. “Oh, my God, you are going to have to kill me.” She looked up at him. “Or vote me into office.”
He nearly laughed at that one. But in truth there was nothing funny about this. “Nell, if you knew how serious…” Crash shook his head.
“But that’s just it,” she said imploringly. “I don’t know. How can I know when you won’t even finish your sentences? I know close to nothing about you. I’m friends with you almost entirely on faith — on vague gut instincts and the fact that Daisy and Jake think that the sun rises and sets with you. Do you know that in the past two weeks, you’ve told me nothing about yourself? We talk about books, and you tell me you’re currently reading Grisham’s latest, but you never say if you like it. You wouldn’t even tell me your favorite color! I mean, how stupidly impersonal is that?”
The problem she had with him was nothing compared to the problem he currently had with her. He pinned her into place with his eyes. “Nell, this is extremely important. I need to know how you found out I was working with Jake. Have you mentioned this to anyone else? Anyone at all?”
She shook her head, holding his gaze steadily. “No.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m positive,” she said. “Look, I overheard Jake and Daisy talking. I didn’t mean to, but they were being loud. They were…exchanging heated words. It wasn’t quite an argument, but it was the closest to it that I’ve ever heard. Daisy accused Jake of sending you out on a black op. Those are the exact words she said. A black op. I remember because it sounded so spooky and dangerous. Anyway, Daisy wanted to know where you were. It was back when all that trouble was happening in the Middle East, and she was worried about you. She wanted Jake to stop using you for those dangerous covert missions — again that’s pretty much a direct quote — and he told her there was no one he trusted as much as you to get the job done. Besides, he said, you could take of yourself.”
Crash was silent.
“They both love you an awful lot,” Nell told him.
He couldn’t help himself. He started to pace. “You had a security check run on you before you started working for Daisy,” he said, thinking aloud.
“No, I don’t think so.”
He shot her a look. “You probably didn’t know about it, but you definitely have a FInCOM file with a copy at the NAVINTEL office. Think about it — you’re working for Admiral Robinson’s significant other. Believe me, you were checked out before you even met her.” He took a deep breath. “I’m going to talk to Jake, and what’s probably going to happen is we’ll run a deeper, more invasive check.” He stopped pacing and gazed down at her. “You’ll be asked to make a complete list of people that you know. A complete list. Family, friends, lovers. Even casual acquaintances, so that–”
Nell laughed in disbelief. “My God, have you caught a whiff of the irony here? It positively reeks. I’ve been complaining because you never talk about yourself, but now I’ve got to give you a list of my lovers.” She shook her head. “What’s wrong with this picture?”
“You won’t have to give those lists to me. You’ll be contacted directly by FInCOM.”
“But you’ll probably see it.” She stood up. “You’ve probably already seen my current file, haven’t you?”
Crash closed the step ladder, carefully hooking the two sides together. “Should I put this back?”
“Leave it out. We’ll probably be using it again before the party.”
He set it against the wall by the kitchen. “How about we get a pizza delivered for dinner?”
“You’re purposely not answering me.” Nell slipped on her jacket and fastened her scarf around her neck. “You do that all the time — don’t think I haven’t noticed. You change the subject to avoid answering my questions. I hate that, you know.”
Crash might have sighed.
Or Nell might’ve only imagined it. God, he gave so little away. She crossed her arms.
“Aren’t you hungry?” he asked. “I’m hungry.”
“I’m waiting,” she said. “I believe the question was, you’ve already seen my current FInCOM file, haven’t you?”
He turned off the overhead lights. In the dimness, the six trees they’d decorated looked spectacular. The colorful lights glistened and the ornaments gleamed.
“I’m not looking at the trees. I’m refusing to be distracted.” She put her hands up around her eyes, like a horse’s blinders. “I’m going to stand here until you answer my question.”
Crash almost smiled, and for once she knew exactly what he was thinking. How could she even dream of winning this kind of contest of wills with him?
The answer to that was simple. She couldn’t win. There was absolutely nothing she could do to force him to answer her question.
So she answered for him.
“Yes,” she said. “You’ve seen my file. I know you’ve seen my file. If you hadn’t, you would have said so already. So what’s the big deal, right? It’s probably filled with all kinds of boring details. Grew up in Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, oldest of three kids, attended NYU, graduated with a liberal arts degree and without a clue. Stumbled into a personal assistant job for a Broadway Musical director who owned a chain of convenience stores on the side, went to work for Daisy Owens several years later. Any of this sound familiar…?”
He didn’t say a word. She hadn’t really expected him to. “My personal life’s been just as dull. In the past six years, I’ve dated three different men — all nice, respectable professionals with solid futures. Two proposed marriage. I think they thought they’d be getting some kind of bonus deal — a wife who worked as a personal assistant. I was like some kind of yuppie fantasy woman. Buy me some Victoria’s Secret underwear, and I’d be perfect. I turned them both down. The one who didn’t want me instantly became the one I wanted, and I pursued him — only to find out he was as boring as the rest of ’em. My mother is convinced I’m a victim of the fairy tales I read as a little girl. She thinks I suffer from ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come Syndrome,’ and I think she’s probably right, although I’m not sure that’s in my file.”
Crash finally spoke. “Probably not in so many words. But all FInCOM files include psychological evaluations. Your reasons for remaining unmarried would have been touched on.”
Nell snorted. “God, I can just see the Fink shrinks sitting around psychoanalyzing me. ‘Subject is a complete chicken. Sits around reading books on her days off. Never does anything even remotely interesting, like skiing. Subject is a total loser who is afraid of her own shadow.'” Without looking at him, she turned and walked out the door.
Copyright 1998 by Suzanne Brockmann