Fairfax County, VA
Phoebe looked up at the house with no designs on actually living there. Yeah, she wasn’t an idiot. This place was way too nice for a group home. It was a two story with big columns. Colonial. She’d read that in some book. She liked books. Books didn’t lie to her for the most part. They didn’t say one thing when the social worker was around and then smack her face the minute they were alone, so all in all she preferred books to the real world.
Also libraries were pretty fucking awesome because they didn’t give a shit that you didn’t have the money as long as you managed to turn the books back in on time. Phoebe always turned her books in on time.
A book from a library was the one thing she wouldn’t steal.
Everything else was fair game and once she was inside, she would look around to see what her sticky fingers might be able to grab. After all, her eighteenth birthday was only three years away. A girl had to plan for that grand moment when she went from foster care to homelessness.
“Could you try to smile?” Alicia wasn’t bad as social workers went. She was a lovely woman with caramel-colored skin who seemed to actually get that it sucked to be Phoebe.
“Could you try to not sell me to some weirdo pervert who’ll make me do sex tapes and lick his big toes?” Yeah, just because Alicia wasn’t so bad didn’t mean Phoebe wouldn’t give her shit.
Perfectly brown eyes rolled and Alicia frowned as she parked the very boring sedan she’d probably paid a whole two years worth of shitastic salary for. “I’m serious, Phoebe. Franklin Grant isn’t the usual foster dad. He’s very wealthy and very private, and over the years he’s taken in exactly two kids and he adopted them both. You’re the third he’s shown an interest in.”
“Why?” That information sent every spidey sense she had tingling because she knew damn well that too good to be true usually meant she got her ass kicked in some way.
Alicia’s jaw firmed. “He has to talk to you about it. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure exactly what he does for a living but I know he works for the government and he has a security level that means I can’t even read his records. Usually this is a very long process, but if he decides to take you, you’ll be adopted within the next six weeks and you’ll have a family, Phoebe. He’s promised to pay for your education and set up a trust fund for you if you agree to his terms.”
Her gut dropped. What the hell were his terms? Who used a word like “terms” when it came to adopting a kid? Alicia talked like she had a choice, but Phoebe knew better. She hadn’t had a single choice since the day her mom had overdosed on heroin and her dad had chosen to not take her in. Her father. He’d had a new family and the new wife didn’t want Phoebe around her kids. It hadn’t been a big shock. She hadn’t seen her father in years but she’d still stood in his doorway praying he would let her in. She’d been seven years old and she’d seen her half siblings from the doorway before their mom had scooted them away like Phoebe was something dangerous.
It had been Alicia who held her hand and walked her away. Alicia had driven her to the first of a seemingly endless line of foster homes. She couldn’t even remember some of their faces and others she would never forget. But Alicia had been the constant. She knew other kids got shuffled through social workers as fast as they did homes, but Alicia had always been there. She counted on Alicia.
Though she tried not to cry ever, the hated tears were suddenly in her eyes. “Are you selling me?”
She’d heard it could happen. Especially when no one in the world cared about what happened to a girl. Foster care kids ran all the time. No one gave a damn to find them.
Alicia turned to her, her jaw dropping open. “What? Phoebe, no. Honey, this man is interested in you because of your IQ scores. I have some suspicion he works for the NSA or the CIA. Do you understand? I think you’re being recruited. If that scares you we can turn the car around and nothing and no one will make me bring you here again.”
Phoebe looked out the window. It was a sunny day and the big colonial house stood out against the brilliant blue sky. In the distance, she could see a pasture with a couple of horses. The whole setting was peaceful and so foreign to a girl who’d grown up in some of DC’s worst slums. What would it be like to wake up to green grass and trees?
She was scheduled to enter a group home in six weeks and after she aged out she would be on her own. There would be no education for her. There would be a fast food restaurant job if she was lucky enough to find a place to live. There would be years and years of trying to get by. There would likely come a time when she was desperate enough to try a little of what her mother had in order to get a moment’s respite from how shitty life was. She would be in and out of prison until she finally took too much and found the place where all junkies went.
Wasn’t anything worth trying if it meant a shot at getting out of this life?
“You said his name was Franklin?” Like the turtle. When she’d been younger, she’d read the Franklin books. Even when her mother had been alive, she’d hidden in books. She’d taught herself to read at the age of four, and one of the moms in the tenement they’d lived in had been a kindergarten teacher and lent Phoebe books. Franklin. Arthur. The Berenstain Bears. It was stupid, but the fact that this man’s name was comforting helped to calm her.
“Yes. Franklin Grant. His family has been in Virginia for two hundred years, but he’s the last of his line. I don’t know why, but he never married.” She looked at Phoebe. “Do you want to stay or go?”
Phoebe got out of the car and slammed the door behind her. Everything she owned in the world was in her satchel. Three T-shirts, four pairs of socks, a complete days of the week underwear set, though technically she was wearing Sunday on a Monday since she didn’t get to do laundry very often, two pairs of threadbare jeans, a tube of lip balm she’d stolen from a pharmacy, and twelve dollars and fifty-two cents she kept in a plastic Hello Kitty wallet she’d gotten one year at Christmas. Everything else had been lost or stolen.
The door to the big house opened and two boys stepped out.
Alicia’s door shut and she was suddenly beside Phoebe. “It’s your call. If you want to leave, I’ll take you back.”
But she wouldn’t take her in. She’d known that dream was done long ago. Alicia had three kids of her own. There was no room for Phoebe there. There seemed to be no place for her anywhere, but that house in front of her had a whole lot of rooms.
“I’ll meet him. Who are they?” She was watching as the two young men walked toward her.
“That must be Grant’s sons. He adopted them both. The word is they both tested incredibly high on their IQ tests and had some extra skills. I think one of them was a shooting champion. The other had a history as a hacker. I know everyone was surprised a boy with an arrest record managed to get adopted.”
She’d avoided being arrested. Mostly. The one time she’d gotten caught, she helped the cops with a worse crime that had been committed in the same area. Detective Bates had happily expunged her record when she’d given him a serial rapist on a silver platter. Sometimes cops couldn’t see patterns to save their lives. Phoebe saw them. She’d stood in his office and looked up at the wall of data he’d accumulated on the man and all the lines were there. He’d simply had them in the wrong places. She’d fixed it and now the man was serving seventy-five years and she had a friend to call when she got caught shoplifting.
Life was all about making use of the materials around. She’d learned that long ago, too.
“Hi.” Both boys were dressed in slacks and button downs, but the one who greeted her had pitch-black hair and the prettiest eyes she’d ever seen. He was slightly taller than his brother, who she barely looked at because her eyes couldn’t seem to move off him.
“Hi.” Yeah, that sounded stupid and breathy and girlie.
“Are you Phoebe?” Dreamy Eyes asked.
She managed to nod. What the hell was wrong with her?
“Well, I’m James. It’s nice to meet you. Dad’s been talking about you a lot. Why don’t you come up and meet him? He’s in his office. If you decide to stay, I will warn you, he’s made meatloaf for dinner. About once a week he gets it into his head that he can cook. He can’t. It’s awful, but we order pizza and then tomorrow Maria is back. Maria can actually cook.”
James. Oh, James. He made her heart pound. He made her breath threaten to stop.
“I am here, too, you know.” The second boy rolled his green eyes and chuckled.
She was being a bitch. She turned to the other boy. He was cute, too, but he didn’t make her drool the way James did. “Hi.” She thrust out her hand. Dumbass. Only adults did that. There was nothing to do but power through. “I’m Phoebe.”
He gave her a grin and shook her hand. He really was cute, with golden brown hair and a ready smile. “I’m Tennessee, but you can call me Ten. Come on now. Stop making love eyes at Jamie here and let’s get a move on.”
“I’m not.” She felt her whole body flush with embarrassment.
Ten shook his head. “God, I hope you are because he’s staring at you, too.”
James sent his brother a warning look. “Am not.”
“I will end you, Ten,” he said under his breath.
Ten laughed. “You’ll try. Let’s go, lovebirds. Don’t keep Pops waiting. He’s actually a really great man. I think you’re going to like him.”
Ten turned and started up the bricked walkway.
James was blushing as he looked back at her. “Don’t pay him any mind. He’s kind of an asshole.” James flushed further as he nodded to Alicia. “Sorry. He’s my brother.”
Alicia smiled. “So I’ve heard. I think I’ll go in and say hello to Mr. Grant.”
She started toward the door.
James suddenly seemed to find his feet endlessly interesting. “I could show you around if you like. Dad sent us out here to talk to you. I’m supposed to show you the house and then you can talk to him.”
“Why?” She needed to know. “Why does he want to talk to me? I don’t buy it. I’ve seen it all and this doesn’t add up.”
James’s eyes met hers. “You’re smart, Phoebe, and you could be something more. You could help your country. That’s what we do. Dad finds kids who need homes and something to believe in and he gives us both. He took me in when I was eight and we found Ten when he was thirteen when he came to live with us. In a couple of years I’m going to college, but after that I’m joining my dad. You could be with us if you want to.”
James’ s shoulders went back, his pride evident. “The Agency. I’m going to be a spy and you could be, too.”
A spy. Yeah. That sounded cool.
Cooler than anything else she was going to do. When James turned and walked toward the house, she followed. It was all she could do to not take his hand.
* * * *
13 years later
“Hey, Phoebe.” Ten walked into the room, his presence almost a nuisance.
God, she hated that, but she felt that way. She didn’t want to see him, didn’t want to see anyone. She wanted them all to go away so she could fade. She wanted to do nothing more than lie down and utterly fade away. Maybe if she didn’t eat, didn’t drink anything, she could see him again.
She didn’t reply to Ten, simply stared at the wall.
“Everyone’s leaving. I thought you might want to come out and say good-bye.”
She hadn’t wanted them to come over anyway, so she figured the hoard of visiting vultures could find their way out on their own. They had been Jamie’s co-workers, people who knew their dad, but she hated them. She hated everyone.
“Don’t do this to me.”
She ignored him.
“Goddamn it, Phoebe. Don’t you dare fucking do this to him.”
Her eyes came open as if of their own accord. Ten had said “him” and her body responded. “I’m not doing anything.”
The words came out on a growl. She was resentful. He shouldn’t be here. He’d only been Jamie’s brother. He hadn’t been his wife, his lover. Ten hadn’t been trying to have Jamie’s baby.
“You’re fucking giving up, Phoebe.” She could practically feel Ten’s will as he paced across the floor. Ten’s cowboy boots thudded along the hand-scraped hardwoods as he continued to move. Ten always had trouble staying still. He paced when he was anxious. He’d been really anxious since that moment that they’d heard Jamie had been captured by jihadists. Ten had spent months trying to find him, months in the deserts of Iraq. And then more time trying to find his body because the fuckers had moved them, likely hoping their bodies would never be found, that the families would never be able to give them a proper burial.
The jihadists caught Jamie with an Army unit after their convoy had been hit by an IED. Jamie had been working on tracking a terrorist sect using a group of Army grunts as cover.
It hadn’t been cover enough.
Her precious husband had been brutally killed along with every single one of his teammates.
All except for one. When Ten had finally found the place where Jamie had been held and murdered, there had only been one of the soldiers left. Jesse Murdoch. Why had he survived when her husband had been murdered?
Did it even matter since he was gone? It was so much easier to lie here. She didn’t want to eat, didn’t want to drink. She’d even stopped hurting. Her body was utterly numb.
She didn’t move, didn’t react because it didn’t matter.
She wanted him to go away. If she ignored him, maybe he would leave. It hadn’t been real until she’d gotten Jamie’s body back. For a year, she’d been able to pretend that he was simply on another job. The whole time they’d been married, they had both worked for the Agency. They often spent more time apart than together, so it was easy to fool herself. It had only been very recently that they had talked about getting out, settling down and starting a family. Even after they had the intelligence that stated he’d been captured, she’d been able to pretend that Jamie would be home as soon as the Agency could arrange it.
But the world was changing and the jihadists were more serious. It wasn’t about ransom money now. It was about ideals, and they recruited more and more soldiers when they killed Westerners.
Ten had been the one to ID Jamie’s body.
Why had Jesse Murdoch survived? Some people thought he sold the rest of them out. Had he sold Jamie out?
She hoped Jesse Murdoch died a rough death.
“Goddamn it, look at me. You are not this sad sack bitch who simply fades away because something bad happens.”
That got her sitting up. “Something bad?”
Ten was a son of bitch who always played things down. Always. He’d done it since they were kids. He’d done it when their father had a heart attack and died. She wasn’t about to let him do it now.
He leaned in. “Yeah. Do you think this is what Jamie would want for you? Do you think he would want you to lay here and die because you wouldn’t get up and fucking fight?”
“Fight? Who do you want me to fight, Ten? Are you ready to send me to Iraq? Because I’m ready to go.” It was everything she wanted. She could find the group that killed her husband and rain hellfire on all of them.
But it was harder than that. She was a woman. She’d worked in intelligence for years but she’d been in Asia and Europe. Her father had kept her out of the real war zones. She’d lived on and off for years in China, working on the political situation there and in Japan and Korea.
For the spy it had been a cushy assignment. Despite tensions with China, they always played the game. She’d been caught once and spent a few nights in a Shandong prison. Her interrogation had included a nasty bit of torture, but it hadn’t been long before they’d traded her for a Chinese spy. She’d been back at work two weeks later. The Middle East was different. There were no rules to the spy game there, and she’d always known that Jamie was in danger.
Jamie had gone with Ten. Their father had sent the boys into danger time and time again even as they’d protected her. When Ten took over their father’s job, Jamie had insisted on keeping his assignment despite the fact Ten had given him an out. She’d married Jamie five years before and every moment they’d had together had been precious. Every private day had been a blessing.
Now she knew that Jamie had the easier road. He didn’t have to live knowing he wouldn’t see her again. He didn’t have to move forward knowing he wouldn’t love again. God, he’d likely died thinking that he was leaving a son behind. The last time she’d talked to him she’d thought she was pregnant. By the time she realized her mistake, he’d been taken.
Stupid girl. She was still the same stupid girl who screwed up everything good in her life.
Ten got to one knee, his deep green eyes seeking out hers. Her young adulthood rushed back in and she couldn’t help but remember all the days she and Jamie and Ten had spent together. Every good day of her life had been spent with them. Ten was her family.
“I can’t possibly feel what you feel, sister.” He put a hand on her knee. “I know you miss him. I do, too. God, I miss him. My whole damn life I’ve had you and Jamie. I can’t lose you, too.”
His words started to play at her conscience. Jamie had adored Ten. It had been the three of them for so long.
What would Ten do if they were both gone? He’d been alone for years—just like she had, and then he’d had a family. She still had a brother. She still had Ten.
“I don’t want to go on.” It felt good to admit it.
Ten lost his perpetual cool. His handsome face screwed up and tears flushed from those gorgeous eyes. “Please don’t leave me. I can’t be alone again, Phoebe. I love you. I know I’m not Jamie and it’s not the same, but I do love you. You’re the only person I love in the whole damn world now that Jamie and Dad are gone.”
It had been the three of them burying their adopted father when his fierce heart had betrayed them all. God, she missed Franklin Grant.
Did she owe it to them all to go on? Because it would be so much easier to take a few too many sleeping pills and float away. It was so easy to get them. Everyone wanted her to sleep and rest and not feel. Everyone except Ten.
Days she’d spent in this purgatory, but Ten was getting to her.
“What would I do?” She didn’t know a life outside of the Agency.
“Work for me. I have a place for you to go. It’s a long-term undercover op. It’s cushy, sweetie, but it’s so necessary. It could be years you spend there.”
She didn’t want to do it.
“Please, Phoebe. I don’t trust anyone else to take on Taggart.”
She couldn’t help but sit up a little straighter at the very name. “Ian Taggart?”
He was a legend. He was a problem. He was a fine balance that she would have to walk. Intriguing. Even in her grief, she found the idea of playing the game with Taggart deeply intriguing.
“Yes. He’s got connections that go around the world and while I like the man, I have to keep an eye on him. There’s something else. There’s a situation that’s starting up in Florida.”
She felt her jaw firm, her blood chilling. There was only one situation either of them cared about right now. “Murdoch?”
Ten nodded. “I’ve been tracking him and he’s working with some FBI agent out of DC, though he recently took a job in St. Augustine at one of those fet clubs.”
“You think he has something to do with Taggart?” Taggart was knee-deep in the BDSM lifestyle. She’d read all about it in his files. It didn’t appeal to her at all. Jamie had been tender, so tender with her. He would never have hit her, never have tied her up so she couldn’t fight back. Ten always said Taggart was a good man, but he liked to hit the women he had sex with so that made Phoebe doubt it. Some people in the Agency still believed that Taggart had murdered his wife.
It shouldn’t surprise her Murdoch was into the same shit.
Ten ran a hand over his hair, a sure sign that he was frustrated. “It’s a complex situation and I still don’t understand the whole of it. You’re better at patterns than I am.”
“I can look at the file for you.”
“It’s still early, but someone is playing a game and I think I might have figured out who it is. I think Taggart’s wife is still alive and somehow she’s gotten tangled up with my investigation into Murdoch.”
So maybe Taggart wasn’t a killer. He also wasn’t Agency. “You put too much faith in him. He left you a long time ago, Ten. He’s on his own and he couldn’t care less about you or the job we do.”
She’d never been in a room with the man, but she’d always resented him because no matter what Ten said, she knew Taggart’s leaving the Agency had hurt Ten. Ten had recruited the man, trained him and he’d walked away.
“You’re wrong, Phoebe, but I’ll let you form your own opinions of the man. I feel like shit not telling him about Charlotte, though. As far as I can tell, she’s working on something to do with McKay and his ex-wife. It’s a big old clusterfuck and Taggart won’t see it coming. They’re on a collision course.”
“You can’t tell Taggart a damn thing.” He owed his loyalty to Jamie not Ian Taggart. For the first time in hours, she stood and felt her blood starting to thrum through her system. Jamie might still need her. “If this gets us close to Jesse Murdoch, then you keep Taggart in the dark. No one outside the Agency knows Jamie died in Iraq.”
“I’ve kept his cover. As far as Tag knows, Jamie was just a friend of mine and he died in a Humvee accident while training rebels along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. No one wants it to get out that some of our operatives are posing as soldiers.”
Her mind started working again, a tiny bit of the fog of grief clearing out. “You work it from Murdoch’s end and I’ll keep an eye on Taggart and his group.”
McKay-Taggart Security was rapidly becoming one of the country’s premiere security providers. They were made up of ex-Special Forces and ex-FBI.
For the first time in days, Ten smiled. “I am so glad to hear you say that.”
She had to make one thing clear. “You won’t tell Taggart.”
His smile died, but he nodded. “No. I’ll keep quiet. He’s my friend, but Jamie was my brother. We have to figure out if Murdoch turned on him.”
“If he did, he’s mine, Ten.” She would seek retribution on the man who betrayed her husband. It didn’t matter why he’d done it—whether out of greed or cowardice. Somehow Murdoch had been left untouched while everyone else died. It wasn’t fair.
Sometimes life wasn’t fair. Sometimes karma didn’t work.
But Phoebe did.
She sat back down and Ten’s hand found hers. They stayed that way for the longest time, until the light died and night fell.
When she stood back up, she knew it was time to go to work.