Making the rules, p.1
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       Making the Rules, p.1


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Making the Rules


  Making the Rules

  Published by Blue Hound Visions at Smashwords

  Copyright © 2010 by Doranna Durgin

  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

  This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously—and any resemblance to actual persons, business establishments, events, or locales is purely coincidental.

  License Notes:

  This efiction is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This efiction may not be re-sold or given to others. If you would like to share, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this efiction and it was not purchased for your use, then you should purchase your own copy. Thank you for helping the e-reading community to grow!

  The Author Note:

  Making the Rules is a stand-alone book in the former Bombshell Hunter Agency series; it was orphaned when that line was cancelled, and returned to me unpublished--until now! (Also available in the Hunter Series via publisher ebook channels: Exception to the Rule, Beyond the Rules, and Survival Instinct.)

  For Kacey "Carbon Unit" Durgin—who so totally made up her own rules, in an evil genius sort of way

  With thanks to Berry, for his Google-Fu, and to a certain Alpha Reader's persistence with file mishaps.

  ~Doranna

  http://doranna.net

  Finding the Other ~ Facing the Other

  Loving the Other

  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

  Making the Rules

  CHAPTER 1

  We've been made.

  Caught under the bright light of the power station floods on a crisp spring midnight with the grinding hum of power lines crawling over the air and the big tricky spy deal about to go down, and Hunter agents Kimmer Reed and Rio Carlsen had been made.

  Chimera and her newly code-named Phoenix, finally back into the game—and yeah...already made.

  Kimmer saw it on the face of the man across from them—the flicker of disdain and anger, there and then gone again. Oh, he tried to hide it, but no. Not from Kimmer.

  Does Rio see it? She had no idea, not while he stood there with his Phoenix persona in place—the only man she couldn't read with her uncanny knack of seeing truth, simply because she loved him.

  That left nothing to do but play it through. She gave the man a good hard eye and demanded, "You have it?"

  Only the faintest of hesitations. "Yours was the highest bid," the man finally said—a dull little man, habitually bartering in national secrets: this time, a computer key that would give the bearer access to U.S. weapons in development. A key that Kimmer's supposed masters in North Korea were eager to obtain.

  But the man was stalling. Waiting for his people to move in from the darkness that surrounded the eye-searing light of this stark meeting ground. Asphalt and steel and humming wires, all lit into harsh detail against blackest shadow.

  We need that key.

  And Kimmer didn't know if both she and Rio had been made...or if one of them could still bluff. And if so, which one...

  Rio gestured his own impatience—moving closer, an unspoken threat. "If you have it, let's see it."

  The man looked up—up at Rio, taller than tall, wheat-blond hair slicked back for the op. He smiled, tense and mean. "Yes, you'll get what's coming to you."

  Rio. It was Rio. Cover blown.

  Their first real op, gone wrong. Really wrong.

  And no one else yet understood. Not Rio, not the back-up team watching them from the dark and distant brush.

  Time to go on the offensive.

  "Screw this." Kimmer stuck her hand in the kangaroo pocket of her windbreaker. It wasn't a friendly gesture, as her hand closed around the grip of the little Smith & Wesson nestled there. She nodded at the satchel sitting on the ground behind Rio. The money. "Just give me the package. I don't like it here and I don't like your games."

  "Take your hand out of your pocket," the man said, tipping his head slightly—giving away his ear bud, and his attention to it. His people, closing in. "If you take me down, you'll go down right on top of me."

  "I never said I wanted to be on top," she snarled, and Rio had gone very quiet, trying to sort the undertones. "Give me the damned package and—"

  "Stupid bitch." He laughed. "You're not going anywhere—your partner's a fed!"

  Here we go.

  "Goddammit!" She rounded on Rio, snatching the snub-nose free of her windbreaker—and then she was on him, grabbing up his jacket and yanking him off-balance, never mind the difference in their sizes. Off-balance and up-close, with that snub-nose jamming him in the ribs. "I knew there was something—"

  Their contact scrambled back—not so Rio. He could have reacted; he could have thrown her against chain link and concrete—so much bigger than she was, so much stronger. She felt the tension of it in him, the holding back. Not something they'd be able to hide for longer than it took to—

  Trust me, Rio.

  She pulled the trigger.

  He grunted in surprise, his eyes going wide. She shoved him away. Go down, dammit!

  Down he went, arching slightly as he hit the ground, stiffening that way...and going limp. Blood seeped through his jacket at his side; the faintest trickle eased out of his mouth. His mouth? No way. There's no way I really—

  The contact eased forward, wary—an eye on Kimmer's weapon, an eye on Rio. He nudged Rio's ankle with his toe; it rolled, rag-doll loose. There's no way—

  The man gave her an appraising look. "Succinct problem-solving. Nice."

  "There is no problem," she snapped. "The money's here. Now give me the device and let's get the hell out of here. He's probably got people lurking—"

  True enough. What they were thinking right now, Kimmer couldn't imagine. What she was thinking, she wasn't even sure. She looked at that trickle of blood...

  She forced her gaze away, holding out her hand in demand. After a hesitation, the contact slid the key into her hand—a neat, custom molded container that she deftly flicked open to find the expected hardware—so very much smaller than it ought to be, for a thing of such significance.

  The man glanced at Rio. "Not much blood."

  "You don't the hell bleed if you're dead." She secured the container, swift and efficient. "I'm outta here." Once she was in the clear, the back-up team would nail this guy—and his own posse, hanging around the fringes of the area.

  And then Rio—

  There's no way—

  "Just a moment." He held up his hand, the other going to his ear—receiving, no doubt, the report from his backups that the area was clear. Little do you know, asshole. He nodded, a brisk movement—no happier about lingering than she. "Nice doing business with you, after all. You're efficient. I'll remember that."

  Damned right you will. She didn't acknowledge him; she simply moved away—out of sight around the high chain link and into the brush, knowing her fellow Hunter operatives would instantly follow through.

  Muffled shots sprinkled the night. Tranquilizers. Taking down the backup; taking down the little guy. She reversed course, hesitating only long enough to avoid running out into the middle of it.

  Or at least not too much into the middle of it.

  No surprise when operatives shrouded in black scrambled out of the darkness—Kimmer tossed the container at one of them as she ran. "Rio!" she said, breathless—not from the short burst of effort, not at all. "Rio!"

  He cracked his eyes open. "You shot me. You fucking shot me!"

  Ooh, not his usual language.

  "Only a little," she said, masking the sudden weak relief in every muscle, dropping down beside him. "Just a graze..." She flipped his shirt up to confirm it, then thumbed the blood from the corner of h
is mouth. "And I didn't do that."

  "I bit my lip going down." His grumble let her know it hadn't been a clever ploy, but pure startled reaction. He made no attempt to lift his head. "I may need resuscitation."

  "That can be arranged."

  He slanted her a sideways look from those half open, uniquely up-tilted eyes. "And I wanna be on top."

  And Kimmer put her head on his chest and laughed with him, but inside...

  Our first op, and we got made. Oh, God...can I even do this?

  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

  CHAPTER 2

  Kimmer still wasn't used to the big kitchen.

  Come to that, she wasn't used to the big main room, the cathedral ceiling overhead, the loft, or a master bedroom with a built-in closet and attached private bath.

  It hadn't, after all, been so very long since her modest little remodeled farmhouse had become a crispy-fried victim of her long-rejected brother's scheme to evade trouble by drawing it to her.

  Of course, Hank had become a victim of his little scheme, too. And the goonboss of a woman he'd tried to cross...

  Well, she was gone, too. Fled from the States in personal ruins, looking for friendlier climes.

  Kimmer nudged Rio's arm, and he lifted it higher so she had access to the wicked graze across his ribs. Barely higher—she nudged him again, amused.

  His attention remained focused on the mail spread out over the gleaming kitchen counter—on the letters from little Karlene and her older sister Sandy. Her brother's daughters, currently in Pennsylvania foster care. "Sandy wants to know why I got another boring old stray cat instead of a cutesy little kitty," he said, flipping over the flowery stationery with its big curlicue writing.

  "I bet she didn't say it just like that." Poor OldCat. He'd been lost in the fire, too. Paula Romajn has a lot to answer for. She smeared Rio's scabby wound with antibiotic cream and reached for a Teflon-coated gauze pad, tape already applied. "She's still too worried about being a good girl."

  "Nope, it's more along the lines of I would have gotten a really cute kitten. K-i-t-e-n, kitten." He flinched aside from Kimmer's administrations. "Ow!"

  "Baby," she said affectionately. This man took whatever he had to...when it counted. When it didn't? Baby. "What else does she say?"

  "Her foster mom is nice, she can't wait for school to start, sealed with a kiss, etc."

  "And Karlene?" Karlene wasn't nearly as cowed as her sister—nor as old. Her missives came on plain paper with very few words, dotted with drawings. This time, cat faces—Kimmer could just peek over Rio's elbow to see. "Another sealed with a kiss? That doesn't sound like Karlene."

  "Sealed with a kick," he corrected, holding up the envelope so she could see. As ever, the letters came bundled in a larger envelope, and included a short note from the girls' foster mother—a woman Kimmer had interviewed personally, applying her unique skills for her nieces’ benefit.

  An unexpected detour from her paid work with the Hunter Agency, all in the cause of espionage, capers, and world peace.

  Though since her brother's self-perpetrated disaster, she'd mostly spent her time cleaning up after Hank's mess. Buying this house, moving, making sure the girls were settled...checking into her options.

  Trying to get used to the idea of working with Rio in an official way. Trying not to read too much into the fact that they'd been made on their first planned op—and on his first deliberate foray back into the field since his departure from the CIA.

  Trying not to think of the moment she'd had to shoot him to get them out of it.

  Easier to think about the girls, the house, and the damned cutesy fake well she'd had to tear out of this yard upon moving in.

  Sealed with a kick. "That sounds more like her," Kimmer said with satisfaction. She saw more than a little of herself in that young girl with her dark curly hair and her ferocity. And if they'd both had a bad start...

  Kimmer would see to it that her niece had a better childhood than Hank and her other brothers had allowed Kimmer before she'd run away to find her place with Hunter. To grow into their perfect operative—fierce, unpredictable, and able to read any face, any lie.

  Chimera.

  "Hey," Rio said, looking over his shoulder at her—awkwardly, his arm still raised. Tall, solid, with pale wheat-blond hair over features that blended strong Danish bones with Japanese angles, Rio had a heart bigger than Kimmer's whole body and he didn't bother to hide it. "You think I can't tell that you're done? You think I can't tell you're just using the excuse to put your hands all over my shirtless self?"

  "Mm," Kimmer said, and ran a proprietary hand around his torso, tracing her fingers over his stomach—the sparse, wiry hair, the muscle beneath. She followed the edge of his typically low-hanging sweats; his skin twitched. She said, "And your point is?"

  "Nothing," he said quickly. "No point at all." He caught his breath, cleared his throat, and made a transparent effort to sound manly and in control. "Just an observation."

  But Kimmer's hands stilled, her attention on the mail scattered over the counter. A bright splash of color caught her eye, and she ducked under his arm to squeeze against the counter.

  "Aurgh," Rio said, pronouncing the word clearly.

  "Baby," she muttered, but it was through a smile, and she might just have wiggled her hips against him as she said it. Still, she reached for the postcard at the same time, holding it up where it would catch his attention.

  His hands had settled on her waist to draw her closer—but now they stilled, tightening briefly before releasing and leaning against the counter to enclose her from behind; his breath tickled warmly on her neck and ear.

  "Yeah," she said, and flipped it over so they could both see the back. "It's another one."

  Another what, they weren't quite sure. The message was short, the signature indecipherable. THINKING OF YOU in big block letters. No return address; there never was. And the cards came from everywhere and anywhere, never related to their postmarks. Someone either traveled a lot, or had friends in many places.

  "Hunter still without clues?" Rio asked, running his fingers over the words as if he could absorb their import. THINKING OF YOU.

  "Owen's working it. The only common fingerprint is the mail carrier," she confirmed. "None of the others have been on record. Except ours, of course."

  "Of course," he echoed. "You know...sooner or later, we're going to have to do something about this."

  "Probably." She turned to face him, not the least intimidated by his close proximity. Another change...

  Although she'd never been particularly intimidated; she simply hadn't allowed it of anyone.

  Ever.

  She tipped her head back to regard him, watching those warm brown eyes go somewhat wary. Smart man. "It's another reason to think twice about having the girls here. Given what I do—what we do—they're just too vulnerable." Yes, even feisty little Karlene, who still sometimes called Kimmer the name she'd learned from her father: That Bitch Kimmer. Even if she said it with a wicked, wicked glint in her eye that meant she knew very well she only got away with such things because Kimmer adored her.

  "Well, that's why you're talking to someone about it," Rio said—wary, yes, but not giving ground in the least. Not in any sense of the word.

  Kimmer snorted. "A therapist," she said. "All those years I dealt with my damned wretched family my way, and now I'm seeing a therapist over two little girls."

  "Mm," Rio said, ever so carefully. "Because mostly you didn't deal with that stuff at all." He held his ground again when she would have reacted, instant temper pushing him away. "You slew the dragon, Kimmer, but that's not the same as dealing with it."

  She made a growling noise and he laughed, pulling her in close—and then lifting, pulling her off her feet simply by straightening.

  Kimmer bit his chin. Not hard; just enough to make her point. Whatever it was.

  Rio laughed and let her slide lightly down to her feet. "What's today, then?"

  "Owen is sti
ll checking into your broken cover," Kimmer said. Of no little concern, that. "And I've got community service next week."

  And that was cleanup from her brother's mess, during which she'd broken a myriad of laws while taking down Romajn. The woman who had ensnared Kimmer's brother Hank—her ex-brother Hank—who in turn had then brought the trouble to Kimmer's turf. The one who had held Kimmer's nieces hostage for Hank's behavior after he got too clever for his own good—until Kimmer's interference brought the whole thing tumbling down.

  Not before Hank died at Romajn's hands, leaving the girls in foster care.

  Owen Hunter—mentor, boss, and sometimes friend—had managed to clear up a good deal of the charges, but...not all of them. Not quite. And so Kimmer was teaching self-defense to a class of middle-aged ladies.

  She turned her attention back to the day—to Rio's question about their schedule. "We're clear today, but if we're going to be ready for your cousin's arrival tomorrow and our trip to the girls, we've got to clean—"

  But at the look on his face as he realized they had the day to themselves—pure, guileless anticipation, that look—she held up a hand. "No, dammit, Rio, you wanted to do this domestic thing. This living together thing. And who invited Caro in the first place? Who said, 'There's something not right with Caro. Let's play house and invite her down.'"

  Caro...Carolyne Carlsen, an anxious, brilliant technogeek who worked to save the world in her own way and had almost lost her life because of it. Would have, if Kimmer hadn't intervened, meeting Caro's cousin Rio along the way.

  Falling for him, against all her personal rules.

  He gave her a long, steady look—a promise. And then he sighed mightily, and scooped the mail into something resembling a stack so he could dole it out properly.

  "Be good," she said, "and there's a Twinkie in it for you."

  "I'll figure out where you've hidden them sooner or later," he muttered, handing her a stack of bills. "Now if you'll excuse me, I think I have a litter box to clean."

  But although he headed in the right direction, he stopped short, head cocked. Kimmer reacted instantly, dropping the bills to the counter and slipping her feet out of their noisy thongs. Thongs, worn cut-offs, a t-shirt tied at her midriff. Just call her Kimmer-Mae Reed.

 
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