Snow fell in obscenely large, picturesque flakes, covering Jocelyn Dominica's windshield, already frosted in the cold. From a nearby street she heard the sound of Christmas carolers spreading cheer that couldn't penetrate the heaviness inside her chest. She shivered violently, aware that turning off her car a half hour ago and sitting in the rapidly dropping temperature of the interior was doing nothing for the headache she'd endured most of the day. Why am I here?
Her unspoken question filled her mind with the image of her ex-husband. She'd seen him at Oversight Headquarters hours ago. His expression had haunted her throughout the time since. There had been nothing welcoming about the chiseled lines of his face, his hard mouth bracketed by devastating dimples and those cold, piercing blue eyes. Nothing welcoming...and yet here I am. I'm here because something's wrong with me. I know it. There's no other explanation. And I don't want to die. Die without...
Moisture trickled over her lips, and she raised her gloved fingers to it. Against the black leather, she could only identify the substance from experience. She tugged off her glove and tested again. This time, her fingers came back with blood. She sucked in a harsh breath that burned her lungs with the frigidity. Quickly, she plucked a tissue from the box on the center console and pressed it against her nostrils.
With her eyes closed, she saw once again, in slow motion, Chase's expression as they'd passed in the hall earlier. They'd nodded to each other, but neither had spoken as they'd continued on their separate ways. The look in his eyes had compelled her to turn back once she'd reached the end of the hall. Unsurprised, she'd seen that his gaze, too, had followed her. The desperation she'd sensed from him had cruelly triggered the memory she'd blocked out for twenty long years.
Chase had come to their home, showing up on the doorstep only seconds after his former best friend and her lover had accepted her insistence that their affair was over. As she had then, all these years since she'd wondered if Chase had seen his best friend, Rockwell "Vlad" Vlademar, leaving. Regardless of whether or not he had, she'd thrown her arms around Chase that day, wishing futilely that their marriage hadn't failed, that they'd been able to conceive, that they would be together again. Somehow. Somewhere. But we both sold our soul. To the Network. And there's no way back from the finality of that decision.
On that day--the end of their marriage--his body had been rigid and unyielding against hers. And, when she'd looked up in surprise, she'd seen the manic desperation in his eyes. She'd felt the gun beneath his jacket...
The thought that had paralyzed her that day crept into her mind now: Did he come here to kill me? Vlad? Or both of us?
Jocelyn groaned, closing her eyes again to so much pain. And did I come here tonight because I believe he can save me? It was over then. We can't go back. No one can rescue me now.
For an instant, light penetrated the frozen-over windows of her car. Her eyes flew open. She heard the icy crunch of tires rumbling slowly past. Gavin, Chase's younger sister's son, had concluded his visit and was leaving his uncle's home. Gavin wouldn't recognize the car Jocelyn had rented for her short visit to Oversight.
Her breathing ragged and visible, she switched on the interior light of the car and cleaned blood from her face. The flow had staunched. When she stepped out of the car, the full force of the wind and chill caught her. She couldn't say for sure what she was doing, why she was here. Her head had never felt as fuzzy as in the last month. Though she wasn't thinking clearly at all, she'd known all her life that Chase Giovanni was her beginning, and, one way or another, he would be her end. Where else could she go?
Gavin's frequent words this night returned to Chase, jarring him once more out of his unbalance. Shaking his head, he poured himself a drink at the wet bar. His nephew had joined him for Christmas dinner, the way he usually did, and Chase had informed him--as he felt compelled to do--that he was free to have a life, a girlfriend, an interest in a romantic relationship. "I'd understand if you brought someone along when you come here, of if you want to celebrate the holiday with the woman you love."
Unfortunately, that conversation had taken the usual turn. Life in the organization didn't allow for normalcy. Gavin's work as my assistant is his life. My work is my life. A sobering fact considering that, once upon a time, I was a man who had it all. And Gavin might never have anything like a normal existence.
Chase sighed, his gaze fixed unseeingly on the immense, silver and sapphire decorated Christmas tree taking up most of the great room. His stomach felt hollow. Chase's housekeeper had outdone herself with an elaborate meal, but he'd eaten almost nothing and sent her home early to enjoy the holiday with her own family instead of cleaning up.
I'm distracted. Because Jocelyn is here. Like a palpable energy source, he'd sensed Jocelyn's presence since she'd arrived in Washington, D.C. for her annual accounting to Oversight. But she'd constantly ignored him the way she'd insisted on doing since their divorce. Really, since they'd mutually joined the Network--an anonymous, covert organization sanctioned by the American government and known only to the highest officials, including the President and a select committee in the White House called Oversight, which acted as liaison for the operation. Chase and Gavin both worked for Oversight, while Jocelyn had been the head of the Network psychiatry department for the past two decades.
As she always did when she reported, she'd ensured that their schedules didn't mesh, that he couldn't detain her after meetings, that her ad interim assistant fielded all her messages. She refused to respond when he called up to her living quarters at Headquarters.
Jocelyn, Jocelyn. I love you.
His teeth clenched violently. I hate you. You're all I want. All I've ever wanted. But I can't share you. I can't. I won't...
His hand tightened violently around the Delmonico glass he held. He could feel the fury rising inside him until his vision turned scarlet and his mouth was saturated with the taste of blood. Heat flooded him, so much like the jealous rage that had driven him to contemplate murder once before...
Control yourself. Find your center. Remember what gives you peace.
Two short sessions with an anger management therapist kicked in unexpectedly. Chase loosened his grip on his glass, forcing himself to seek out rational emotions. The image of his and Jocelyn's sun-drenched, honeymoon bungalow filled his mind.
But his careful mental routine was interrupted by the doorbell ringing. Chase tossed back the last of his whiskey sour, set down the glass, and strode out of the great room toward the front door. He scanned the front hall for Gavin's gloves or scarf or the box of His Majesty's Reserve cigars Chase had gifted him for Christmas. Though he saw nothing that belonged to his nephew, he nevertheless expected to see Gavin standing on the step when he opened the door.
The sight of Jocelyn jolted him back to the memory of seeing her in the hall earlier that evening, just before he and Gavin left Oversight Headquarters. As usual, she wore the armor afforded her by her ultra-feminine business suits. The confusion in her indigo eyes had surprised him then. Jocelyn rarely betrayed the slightest emotion. She looked just as confused now, her arms wrapped around herself, and she was shivering in the snow-infused wind. Since she'd arrived for her annual accounting, he'd noticed how ill she looked. No amount of make-up and outer polish could cover the hollowness under her eyes, the lack of sparkle, nor could her African-American, Irish and Latin racial influences hide the gray, sickly tinge to her skin.
Chase reached for her instantly and drew her inside the warmth of his townhouse. Astonishing him more, she tucked in closer to his body while he closed the door. Through her long overcoat, he could feel how thin she'd become.
"You're freezing," he murmured, leading her to the great room and planting her in the wing chair nearest the roaring fire. He got her a mug of the leftover hot buttered rum Gavin had enjoyed this evening.
After whispering "Thank you", she pulled off her gloves and wrapped both hands around the glazed ceramic cup.
Watching her sip, Chase stood a few feet away, hands in the pockets of his cashmere wool slacks.
Was it possible for someone to grow more beautiful as she got older? Jocelyn had. She was lovelier now than she'd been when he fell in love with her. Her mother had been a model--utterly beautiful and fragile with exquisite eyes, high cheekbones, long, thick hair with corkscrew curls, and a mouth so full and sensual it could have been a crime. Her father had been recklessly passionate, burly and protective of those he loved. He'd towered over his wife like some giant from mythology. Jocelyn had gotten the very best of both of them.
Chase's face flushed with the emotions infusing him. Jocelyn had come to him. Somehow she'd known what he'd wished fervently to convey to her in that hallway at Oversight. She'd come, and he would forgive her again, the way he had each time she'd gone against her own objections and given herself to him.
His teeth clenched even as his hands inside his pockets did. Tonight wouldn't last any longer than the previous times. She came. She went. The way he had countless times since her first betrayal, he would face agonizing devastation when he was alone once more. I'll love her. I'll hate her. I'll never stop wishing she was mine, mine alone, the way it's meant to be between us.
She'd stopping trembling, and she lifted her gaze to him. "I didn't know where else to go," she murmured. "I don't know who to trust."
Chase frowned. He couldn't have anticipated her words. "What do you mean?"
She turned away to set the mug on the table nearby. Then she looked at him again. "Something's wrong, Chase. For the past month, maybe longer... I'm not myself. I'm--"
"Sick?" The word rushed from him in a dawning of horror. He'd seen the changes in her, but she'd been Jocelyn through and through--strong, capable, invincible. He hadn't wanted to consider what the symptoms could mean. Always, Jocelyn was beautiful to him.
"I don't feel well. The headaches are part of it--they're unendurable. Nosebleeds and nausea, clumsiness, weakness, visual changes, general malaise... But the worst is that I can't think straight. I don't remember what it's like to be alert. I can't remember things. My judgment is off. I can't reason..."
As a psychiatrist, her reasoning abilities were her bread and butter. If her superiors found out... I am her superior. But I don't want my colleagues to know that she doesn't feel capable of doing her job. What she was describing didn't sound temporary, something she would recover from without medical intervention, all on her own in time. Chase swallowed. What she's described sounds like...like a brain tumor. Dear God. And surely she must realize that herself, with her medical training.
"Have you discussed this with Dr. Savage?"
Celine Savage, the head of all Network medical and research teams, was just as answerable to Oversight as everyone who belonged to the organization. While doctor-patient confidentiality was practiced as far as it could be, nothing was considered above the heads of the Network. One way or another, they would find out.
"Our medical staff is the best in the world."
In their line of work, their operatives had to be the healthiest people in the world, and they were. They'd made breakthroughs no one else had. But their research took them in so many different areas that allowed them to do their work anonymously, invisibly, consummately. They'd created procedures and drugs that could do almost anything. Most notable in the past few years had been a formulation called "Deep Miner," which helped Jocelyn's teams to effectively interrogate their enemies and suspects. With the drug, they could unlock deeply-repressed memories. The longer the drug was used, the deeper they could mine into the unconscious. The side effects became much worse, possibly irreversible and deadly, with long-term use, but they usually got what they needed before that time and the counteragent completely reversed the temporary ailments associated with the drug. Prior to the discovery of Deep Miner, their research teams had created permanent, invisible transponders that were injected into operatives' bloodstreams and became untraceable to all but their own organization.
"Chase, we've never had an operative get chronically sick. What would happen if..."
He pulled the matching wing chair over to her, sat and leaned toward her. When he enveloped her small, cold hands inside his, he met her gaze. "I'd never let anything happen to you. Do you believe that?"
She swallowed, and silence fell between them, sharp and accusing. If he could read her mind, he knew she'd be thinking the same thing he was--that they hadn't protected each other. They'd betrayed each other. Utterly failed the person they'd vowed to love and cherish for all time.
"No one has ever gotten seriously sick before in the Network. We've never dealt with this before. But Oversight has never been compassionate. They're like vets. If an animal is suffering, you shoot it in the head."
Chase sucked in air, shocked at her ruthless assessment of him and his colleagues. "You're not exactly exempt on your sometimes inhuman treatment of operatives," he reminded. "Don't they call you an unfeeling robot over there? You sentence them to death as easily as you give them privileges for good behavior."
Unnatural color flooded her cheeks. "Mine isn't the only vote when it comes to deciding an operative's fate."
"But yours carries more weight."
She drew away from him, taking her hands from his embrace. "I shouldn't be here," she said, sounding like someone who'd abruptly come to her senses. "This is over. Long over..."
Yet she didn't rise and rush out the way he expected her to. Chase shook his head. "I'm sorry." In the past, she'd come to him--for sex. He'd never expected her to come here because she was afraid. Afraid she's dying. And all I've done is prove to her that she made a mistake trusting me again even for a moment. Yet again, she has all the proof she'll ever need that I'm not good enough for her.
Warily, she looked at him, her face showing how flustered she was by the wayward direction of their conversation. He stood and drew her up into his arms. When she was safely tucked into his body, he pressed his mouth to the top of her head. "Go to Dr. Savage. You can trust her. Maybe...maybe it's nothing. Migraines can cause those symptoms, can't they?"
"And if she finds something worse?"
"You'll get the best medical treatment in the world."
Jocelyn raised her head, her chin against his chest. "This isn't real life, Chase. Things don't work normally in the Network. If we can't perform our duties for whatever reasons, we're gone. They'll get rid of me, the way they got rid of our unborn child."
For an instant, he couldn't prevent the old disgust from filling his expression. She hadn't talked about that for a while--and he'd desperately hoped she'd come to her senses about it and left behind her unfounded paranoia when she'd entered the Network.
To keep his frustration in check, he decided to ignore her off-track dissemble into fantasy. He lifted his hands to cradle her delicate face. "You said your vote is one of many when deciding an operative's fate. Well, my vote counts in Oversight just as much as yours does in the Network. I would never let anything happen to you, my love. Go to Dr. Savage. If it's more than migraines...we'll deal with it. You'll be safe. I promise."
The terrified look in her eyes punched him in the stomach, the same way her words "If an animal is suffering, you shoot it in the head" had. She didn't believe him. One way or another, she believed she was going to die--and she didn't trust that it wouldn't be by his hands this time either.