I sat in the backseat of the bulletproof SUV on the tarmac and stared at the name on the dissolvable strip one more time: JORDAN BLACK. The word GO was written under his name. Hell’s bells, this mission is a go. I watched the driver of the vehicle through the rearview mirror and waited until he looked away before I placed the minty message on my tongue and let it melt.
The details for this assignment came to me the old-fashioned way, on paper and other trinkets, not digitally, which told me that Mr. Black’s problem was a digital one. Small packets of information arrived over the last week via a different messenger every time—tucked in a napkin at a restaurant, slipped into a coat pocket from the dry cleaners’, and wrapped in an old newspaper with my fresh veggies at the market. I worked alone; the rest of my team was remote—which only made their work more impressive.
The specifics came first, but his name only arrived twenty-four hours ago. Sometimes missions are called off, and if that happens, no one else’s cover has to be blown, so names come later. But the strip with the word GO only arrived this afternoon.
The name of my former best friend and one-time lover, who I hadn’t spoken to in over ten years, slid down my throat and churned my guts. My eyes scrunched so tight I might as well have been sucking on a disgusting black licorice. I waited for the familiar feeling of being kicked in the belly by a mule once again. I was terrified. So overwhelmingly terrified to see the man who shattered my heart into a million pieces all those years ago. I was even more afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep the only man I’ve ever loved alive. The Jordan Black I knew wasn’t one for cooperating or taking orders well. I had no idea who was after him yet. I needed him to fill in some blanks.
I lived in Seoul and did my best to blend in by coloring my hair and wearing large Audrey Hepburn sunglasses to hide my light gray, non-Asian eyes. For times when I couldn’t cover my eyes, I had brown contacts and eyelid prosthetics. Lucky for me, Seoul was an international city which hosted many foreign workers and travelers; therefore, I didn’t stand out too much. I didn’t work in South Korea, though. I took assignments only in other countries, and I preferred it that way. It gave me a modicum of peace to not bring my work home.
But once again, Jordan Black was forcing me to break all my rules for myself. And once again, I couldn’t do a damn thing about it, which only pissed me off even more. He was in some sort of trouble, and Seoul was the most logistical place to hide him.
The sound of a small jet landing snapped me back to my mission. Right. I had one last job to do, and then I was free. Free of the government and free of being responsible for anyone else’s missions. I could live for only myself for the rest of my life if I wanted to, or I could make my own missions. Alone.
I surveyed the arena of gold spotlights under the heavy, black sky, looking for anything out of place. The first fog of a clear-day cycle was descending and creating a dome effect only as far as the lights of Gimpo Airport could reach. Summer’s rains had washed away the dusts of spring, and the deepest, brightest blues of October skies would soon be boasting. Autumn in Seoul was perfect in every way; it was festival season and my favorite place to be on the planet.
The sun would be up in about two hours, therefore I needed to get Jordan back to my place ASAP to debrief him. And calm him down. As far as I knew, his hot-headed self was unaware of this mission. He chartered his jet from Hawai’i to Tokyo, but I intercepted his route and brought him to Seoul. My superiors had enough clearance to change his destination without his permission or notifying him. I smiled briefly at the image of him madder than a sack of rattlesnakes when he figured it out. There was going to be hell to pay over this one but knocking him off his high horse would simply tickle me pink. Serves him right.
I told the driver in Korean to stay put, grabbed the bag next to me, and approached the halted plane. I glanced one more time around the tarmac for anything—even the slightest of movements—out of the ordinary. I slowly inhaled a marathon of a breath and waited for the airstairs to unfurl.
Just keep him alive, Stormy. He’s the target in the crosshairs, which means you are too now. So, it’s time to act the part.
Keep Jordan Black alive. That was my one job.
Mariposa del Pilar Fuentes
I smiled at myself and inhaled a deep breath of pride as I ran along with the thinning masses. Being a slow runner had its advantages as the route along Bayshore Boulevard wasn’t nearly as crowded now as in the beginning. And running my first 5K proved doable as long as I focused on something else—like something other than the sweat tickling its way down in between my tetas. I gave my modest bosom a quick, hopefully inconspicuous, shake to dislodge any other would-be travelers, and I said a quick “thank you” to Santa Maria del Pilar for my no more than B cups. My big ass required enough attention—from care to clothes. I didn’t know how the bigger-breasted girls managed boob sweat in the Tampa Bay humidity. I crossed myself on their behalf. Dios las bendiga, señoritas.
I ran to finish this race, but the excitement of finishing grad school also spurred me on. How much dinero did I need, exactly? I mentally ticked off a list in my brain of everything left to schedule for my final documentary project. \ Cinematographer. Sound recordist. Van, plus driver. Luckily, I would be the scriptwriter and the editor, so I still had a choice to pay myself a stipend or not. It wasn’t as if I lacked my own money, but that negated the skills required to successfully budget for a documentary.
The stipend decision could wait until after the fundraiser tonight. I already had the production management software, and I would use the university’s studio to edit. The marketing dollars and cents still required calculations, but that part of my graduate project and thesis challenged me the most. More time, however, couldn’t be bought at any price. Grad school completion hung in the cool morning air in front of my face like a fat, juicy carrot.
My first documentary on the homeless population of Tampa Bay exceeded my benchmark for success last year, and I intended to further my investigations this year with an expanded project.
A refreshingly cool early-spring breeze blew over me from the gulf. The sun barely broke the horizon and was peeking through the ‘land of the flowers.’ Foot races around here had to start super early, else the runners dropped like flies when it got too hot. My reward for all this early-morning training and running: tickets to the Strawberry Festival with unlimited strawberries and whipped cream! Also, the beautiful Spanish-tiled houses, towering waterfront palms, and skyline of downtown Tampa painted a picture-perfect running route.
If I weren’t running, I wouldn’t be breaking a sweat, but the weather would change soon. The homeless who were forced to live in the elements would get uncomfortable before long, and it would be harder for me to find them when the weather increased to sweltering. I needed the money to make the documentary sooner rather than later. I swallowed hard and swallowed my pride even harder at the idea of the ball tonight and what I had signed myself up for to make sure I had the money sooner.
I erased thoughts of my impending humiliation out of my mind and took in my surroundings. With Davis Islands and the water on my right and the convention center’s bright blue columns in sight down the boulevard, I heard the finish line nearing as the music and celebrations pounded their way to me. t was time to get my head out of the clouds and back into this race.
Even at my fastest, I still ran pretty slow compared to everyone else, so I stayed to the far-right side of the lane. I adjusted my sunglasses, glanced down at the track, and jumped as if I had been assaulted in a B-rated horror movie.
“¡Mierda!” I screamed at the sneaker as I jumped over it, and as if the sneaker didn’t scare me bad enough, something hung out of the shoe. A foot? Without a leg attached to it? “¡Dios Mio!”
I changed direction, screamed again, and flailed my hands in front of my face in the most pathetic attempt to rid my eyes of the sight. Oh, God, I think I’m going to be sick.
An evil laugh—no, a hysterical laugh—belted out beside me. found the owner of said laugh, and all I could see was a neon green racing shirt which, not coincidentally, matched the one I wore. The race shirt spread taut over a chest as wide as Cuba with a thick arm on either side, and its owner leaned up against a streetlight pole with one hand and held his gut with the other, as he all but pointed and laughed at me.
Swelling? Oh, I was swelling all right.
In all the wrong places. Or the right places. As soon as this blue-eyed hottie’s large hand skimmed up the back of my bare thigh, my brain dropped straight down to the gutter. I couldn’t remember the last time a touch seared my skin with such electricity—if ever. My mind drew a complete blank, so naturally, my mouth filled the void with words.
I kept my head down, pretending to look at my knee as I gathered my thoughts. The giant pack I had tripped over lay on the ground a few steps away. Camouflage: it matched his uniform. Since when did Portland have soldiers just standing out on the streets? That was the job of the hippies.
Lifting my head, I smiled at the soldier. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
Confusion blanketed his face, and he slowly shook his head. “Why would you ask me that?”
“You look a bit like someone just dumped you here. Can I take you somewhere?” His concern for my knee already told me he deserved better than to be abandoned on the sidewalk. Time alone with a hot stranger probably wasn’t the smartest idea, but after eight weeks of boring dates with Jae and a dry spell for over a year before that, my body said it wasn’t the worst idea, either.
His rust-colored eyebrows furrowed as he considered my offer. His very handsome face grew thoughtful, and its intensity ramped up several notches. “How about I drive you home and properly examine your knee? Maybe even ice it for a little while and then check your patella?”
“I think it’s only scraped; I’ll be fine. See?” I placed my foot back on the ground and put my weight on it. A small moan escaped my throat before I could capture it.
“That’s what I thought.” He tossed his giant pack onto his back as if it weighed nothing and secured it on each shoulder. “Where’s your car, ma’am?” Done with my objections, his blue eyes bored into mine.
Did I really want to argue with this man who was concerned over my scraped knee when guys like Jae weren’t even concerned for my future happiness? No, I didn’t. “Only a couple of spaces up, actually.”
“Do you need me to carry you?” He held his arms out.
“Ha!” I blurted. “You have no idea how much I weigh.”
Not one of his muscles budged, but he visually pored over all of my curves thoroughly enough to make my cheeks warm. “Not a lot from the looks of things. Not to mention, you have no idea how much I can carry.”
My cheeks grew even warmer as I stepped out of my comfort zone and boldly returned the investigation of this soldier: his outstretched arms, wide chest, rigid torso, and thighs the size of tree trunks. He was the farthest thing from my parents’ choices, and he looked delicious. “Tempting, but I’m not that hurt.”
He dropped one arm and crooked the other for me to take.
The caring gesture warmed me more than the sun did right then. I couldn’t argue with such a sweet display of gentlemanly affection, either.