Excerpt: Baby Call the Shots – 2


(Unedited preview)

“It was a pleasure meeting you, Dr. Hayes,” Chase Wilder said to my mother as he shook her hand goodbye.

She held onto his fingers. “Chase, are you sure I can’t fix you a plate first?”

“That’s so kind of you, but I’m afraid we have to go.” Wilder said. The corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled at her.

“Next time, then,” Mom said.

“That would be lovely.” Wilder turned to my brother and shook his hand. “Send me that resume. I’ll be looking for it, and we’ll be hiring summer interns before you know it.”

I furrowed my brow. “Really? It’s not even February.” But everyone ignored me.

“Thanks, sir, I mean Chase,” Michael answered.

“Vice-admiral Hayes, it has been an honor and a pleasure,” Wilder said.

My father clapped him on the shoulder like they were old buddies. I glanced at the stairs and shook my head. How long had I been up there, anyway? It had felt like a few minutes, but in that time, Chase Wilder seemed to have become everyone’s new best friend, learned my mother was a professor and my father was a vice-admiral, and got strong-armed into considering Michael for an internship.

I cleared my throat. “Mr. Wilder, shouldn’t we…”

He turned that thousand-watt smile on me. It was easy to see why my parents and brother were so cowed by the genuine glow that seemed to radiate off him, but he wasn’t getting off my shit list with his well-practiced charm. I maintained my look of indifference, although judging by my mother’s raised eyebrows as she peered at me from behind him, it might have come across as peeved.

“Mai, as I’ve said before, please call me Chase.” He glanced at my family. “We’re not so formal at Bespoke.”

“It’s Mai’s military training,” my father said, as if my perfectly reasonable behavior of speaking deferentially to my boss—well, fake boss—required explanation.

I took a deep breath, gave each of my parents a peck on the cheek, and slipped on my coat as I walked to the front door. I hoped Wilder would follow me before my annoyance at him—for coming into my parents’ home, for fooling my family, but most of all for screwing my shot—led me to call him by a much more colorful and completely impolite name.

Wilder took the hint and followed me outside. I stopped for a split second when I realized the vehicle waiting for us curbside wasn’t a black SUV, but was a black stretch limo. I recovered quickly and sighed like walking toward a limo where a driver wearing a black suit and hat and waiting by the back car door was something I did every day. I didn’t like it that the driver was facing away from me. Something about this whole thing didn’t add up. I reached my right hand across my body, slipped it back into the duffel side pocket, and wrapped my fingers around my pistol handle.

As we stepped from the porch to the sidewalk, the driver turned toward us and smiled. “Don’t shoot,” Penn said. I released my pistol and dropped my hand to my side.

“Jesus,” I muttered. I glanced at Wilder. “You could have told me you were with my team members.”

“Cynthia told you a car was on the way,” Chase said. “I assumed you’d realize…” He took my elbow as we approached the step down off the curb, like I needed his assistance. His firm grip through my down coat unnerved me. “Sorry we had to pretend to know each other. Cynthia thought your parents would ask fewer questions of your boss than of her.”

“My parents know better than to ask questions about my job.” I pulled my elbow out of his grasp, and frowned at Penn as he opened the car door for me. “What’s the damage?” I whispered.

“We’ll tell you on the drive,” he said without breaking his smile.

I climbed into the car, sat in the middle of the back bench seat to discourage Wilder from trying to sit beside me, and dropped my duffel bag onto the floor. Wilder stepped in after me and sat on the bench running under the windows on the driver’s side of the limo, perpendicular from me. Penn closed the door, crossed behind the car, and climbed into the driver’s seat. The opaque window between the back of the limo and the front seat slid down, and Cynthia, sitting in the passenger’s seat, turned around to face me. She wore a black knit beanie over her long blonde hair and large, dark sunglasses pushed up to her hairline.

“Well?” I asked. I’d made one mistake, had hesitated just a few seconds too long after TJ had told me to stand down, but somehow it felt like my entire future with the agency hinged on Cynthia’s answer to my one-word question.

“TJ’s still pissed, and X is not amused—although, when is she?—but you’re back on the mission.”

“Wait, I was officially off the mission? And what is the mission?”

“TJ wants to brief you himself,” Penn said as he eased the limo into the street. “Then the team will get an update.”

Cynthia frowned and glanced sideways at Penn. There was something my partner wanted to tell me, but she wasn’t going to do it in front of the men.

“We are headed to the office, though, right?” I asked. “You’re not taking me to some agency black site.” I was kidding. Mostly.

Chase’s eyebrow shot up. He stared at me without speaking.

“Of course, we’re heading to the office,” Cynthia said. “If anyone ever tries to drag you off to a black site, I promise you’ll get a heads up from me.”

Penn shook his head. “They’re kidding, Chase. HEAT does not maintain black sites.”

He failed to mention that we did sometimes deliver really bad guys to other agencies—CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA—who might or might not render said baddies to their own off-the-books, locked-down sites.

“Back up a minute,” I said as the weight of Cynthia’s words hit me. “Are you telling me I was kicked off the mission because some idiot—” I glanced rather pointedly at Wilder—“walked into the middle of my kill shot?”

“Kill?” Chase leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees. “You were shooting bullets?”

I scowled at him. “It’s just an expression. And you missed the important part of my question.” I was about to repeat the part about the idiot interrupting, but Cynthia spoke first.

“Mai, Chase didn’t mean to screw up your shot,” she said. “I’m sure he’s very sorry. He didn’t even know about your shot. And Chase, Mai didn’t mean to endanger your life when she didn’t follow orders to stand down. I’m sure she’s sorry about that.”

“Endanger my life?” Chase glared at me. “What does that mean?”

I waved my hand in the air to dismiss the drama. “There’s a theory that if I’d started shooting the long-distance tranqs into your new business buddies, their security guy would have pulled his piece and taken a shot at you before I could take him down.” When his eyes went wide, I continued. “One, that is only a theory. There’s a better than even probability that I would have taken him out before he pulled his pistol.”

“Actually, Alder ran the numbers, and she put the probability that Chase would have survived at around 37%,” Cynthia said.

I gave Cynthia some side eye, then turned back toward Chase. “And two, I did stand down. No harm, no foul.”

“Is that your apology?” he asked. “Because that doesn’t sound like an apology.”

The opaque window between us and the front seat began ascending.

“Cynthia, what are you doing?” I said. “I still have questions.”

“Penn and I are going to discuss hot men, because he’s married to one and I’m dating one,” she called into the narrowing gap. “Sounds like you two have some things to work out.”

The window slid into position, leaving Wilder and me alone. I looked around the space for the window control. There had to be one in the back of the car. There was a click and Chase sighed.

“It’s over there,” Chase pointed to a button a foot away from me. “But I wouldn’t bother. Sounds like she locked it.”

I leaned forward and pressed the button. Nothing happened. I poked it three more times. “Is this some sort of child lock?”

“Probably.” Chase shrugged. “The limo’s a rental. No doubt they deal with a lot of rowdy teenagers at prom time.”

I slumped in the seat, defeated.

“I am sorry about getting in the way of your kill shot,” he said. It sounded genuine. I glanced at him. No more wry grin. No more boyish charm. His blue eyes were steady. His lips were pressed into a firm line. I couldn’t look away from the sincere version of Chase Wilder. “I didn’t know about your mission.”

“Then how did you end up there?” This was probably going to be part of TJ’s debrief, but the ride to the office was at least another twenty minutes and we didn’t have a whole lot else to talk about. Besides, I wasn’t ready to accept his apology without an explanation.

He leaned against the back of his seat and pressed his hands flat on his thighs. I tried not to stare at said thighs, even though his fitted pants outlined his muscles a little too well. I wasn’t surprised he was fit. After all, he was into extreme sports. Base jumping. Ice climbing. Heli-skiing. I was surprised at how much I noticed it.

“Cynthia said you know about the man giving me his business card at a marketing conference,” he began, drawing my eyes back up to his face, which was distracting in its own right. “And that I turned over the information to Derek.”

I nodded.

“I didn’t hear any more about it, and then this morning I got another call on my private phone,” he continued. “Same guy. He said his company had discovered a cyber breach at Bespoke and he wanted to meet me in person to discuss it. I tried to call Derek, but he’s in Geneva this week and was off the grid, and I didn’t have anyone else’s number. Not even Cynthia’s, which is stupid.”

“And not your fault. That’s on us.” Not on me, specifically, but on HEAT. Even I, who was in the agency for my shooting and fighting skills more than anything else, could see the danger of having a single point of failure between Bespoke and HEAT. And this morning, it had failed.

“Apparently, it’s being addressed.” He sighed, and I realized he looked tired.

Despite Derek’s distinguished tenure with the agency, Chase was not one of us. He was a civilian, a really good businessman who had made the cover company a wild success and who jetted around the world to date beautiful women and to play dangerous, thrill-seeking games. Not that I’d researched him, exactly, but he was my de facto boss. It wasn’t like I could be totally ignorant of the guy’s very public life.

“Anyway,” he continued, “I thought someone had better meet with him, if only to keep up appearances. It turned out to be more sales pitch than actual threat. Your IT guy swears there’s been no breach, but they’re doing a full audit just to be safe.”

I nodded. “If they touched anything in his system, Jensen will be on top of it. And I get it, the reason you took that meeting.”

“Does that mean I’m forgiven?” His boyish grin was back.

It made him too handsome, and I looked away from him. I stared at the green and brown winter landscape flying by outside the car window. “If I’m forgiven for putting you in danger. Although, again, to be clear, I didn’t take the shot and I wasn’t really considering it.”

Was that true? Looking back on it, I couldn’t imagine I’d really meant to go through with it, with an innocent civilian in the mix. I’d just needed to see Malone in my crosshairs and to imagine for a minute there would be some justice for the things he’d done.

“You’re forgiven for not putting me in danger.” His grin turned into a full-fledged smile.

I smiled back. That was weird. “Then I guess we officially have a truce. If we knock on the window, maybe Cynthia will take off the child lock and give me some answers about the mission.”

“Actually,” Chase ran a hand through his blond hair. I followed the motion of his fingers and told myself I was not thinking about how soft his hair looked. “Are we…” he glanced around the car, “really alone?”

It took me a second to catch on. “Oh. We’re not being bugged. HEAT doesn’t do that. If we’re not wearing comms, no one is listening in.”

He nodded, then slid onto the empty space—the small empty space that was swallowed up entirely by his long legs and broad shoulders—on the seat beside me. He was warmth and bulk and tightly coiled energy. And he smelled so good. It was a light aftershave, something subtle and masculine and no doubt expensive. I took a deep breath to slow my heartbeat and center myself. I will not be distracted by Chase Wilder. That wasn’t quite true. I will STOP being distracted by Chase Wilder. Better.

Chase scooted a few inches away from me as if he sensed he’d come too close, then spoke in a whisper. “There’s one more thing I should tell you. It’s about the mission, about the reason you might be back on it. Or, at least, one of the reasons.”

I waited.

“The guy who contacted me, guy by the name Malone,” he was talking so quietly, I had to lean closer to listen, “said I should give his regards to one of my employees.”

Cold sweat formed under my hairline at the nape of my neck and slid down my back.

Chase glanced up to meet my gaze, his face even more serious than it had been when he’d apologized. “He was talking about you. He mentioned you by name.”


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