“But I choose you,” I cut in, making myself perfectly clear. “And I choose this life, Victor. And I’m not doing any of this because of you. It’s what I want.”
“I know,” he says; his hands slide from my cheeks to my shoulders, down the length of my arms. “I no longer question or doubt your reasons anymore—I know this is your choice, and it does make me feel better about letting you go through with it. But there is one part of you, Izabel, that you are trying so hard to change, and I will not let you change it.”
“What am I trying to change?”
“Your humanity,” he says. “You feel like you must be as calculating and insensitive as Kessler; you want to be able to stomach torture, to be able to face Gustavsson’s demons as if they were your own; and you want to be as disciplined as I am, even if it means having to set aside your compassion and your ethics the way I do without guilt. You want to be all of these things because you think they will make you a better operative”—he places his hand on my heart—“but deep down you know it is wrong; you are beginning to fight an internal war, your mind wanting one thing, but your heart wanting another…and to be human means to always go with your heart. The moment you betray your heart is the moment you lose everything.”
My gaze finds the wall. I don’t know what to say—that he’s right? I feel like I’m screaming inside of my head and my face is doing too good a job concealing it. I want Victor to be wrong.
“You did well on the mission,” he says, bringing me out of my thoughts. “You have proven you can handle whatever is thrown at you. I was concerned. I will not lie to you; I did not think you would be able to get through it. Tell me,” he says, “what would you have done if Niklas did not step in and save that girl from being killed in front of you?”
“I…don’t know,” I say, “but I wouldn’t have let them kill her. I feel like…I would’ve thought of something—a distraction, maybe—to try and stop it. I wouldn’t have blown our cover, but I know I would’ve thought of something if Niklas hadn’t.”
“You would have put yourself at risk to save her life.”
“Yes. Myself—not Niklas or Nora or our cover.”
He reaches up his hand and brushes my bangs from my face, regarding me, and I can only wonder anxiously what he’s thinking right now. But he doesn’t say anything.
“What is it?” I ask. “Why are you looking at me that way?”
He smiles faintly and then kisses my lips.
“I have something for you,” he says, but I can tell it has nothing to do with the way he was looking at me.
He reaches into his pants pocket and then places his hand over mine, dropping something small and cold into my palm. It’s Dorian’s safety deposit box key. A tear nearly slips down my face, but I fight it back, swallow, and look up to meet Victor’s eyes again.
“I thought you might want to be the one who takes it to Tessa.” He moves over to the table. An extra briefcase is sitting next to Victor’s. “This also belongs to her,” he says. “It is what was owed to Flynn on his last job just before he found himself in one of my cells.”
“Thank you, Victor. I’ll take it to her.”
He passes the briefcase to me, kisses my lips once more and then says, “Tomorrow…if you are up for it, I would like to take you on a small vacation. Our plane leaves at nine.”
I blink, stunned.
“A vacation?” The word itself sounds strange to me. “Like an actual vacation? I don’t get it—what for?”
Victor smiles, cocks a brow. “Well what do people normally do on actual vacations?”
“Well I uh…well I don’t know; I’ve never been on one.”
“I guess then we are both vacation virgins,” he says.
I chuckle. “OK, I would love to go…on a vacation with you, but”—I look around the meeting room, imagining everyone sitting around the table—“can we just leave like that? I mean, who will be in charge of things while we’re gone?”
He places his hands on my shoulders. “Yes,” he says, “I can leave whenever I want”—(I blush; I guess that was a stupid question)—“and I’ll still be in charge, just from very far away.”
“Well, from what I understand,” I say, playfully, “it’s not much of a vacation if you don’t leave your work at home.”
“True,” he says, “but that rule generally applies to normal, everyday people. I think it is safe to say that we do not fall into that category.”
“Ah, I see.” I grin. “Yeah, it’s definitely safe to say that. So where are we going?”
“Somewhere tropical, so be sure to pack appropriately.”
I step up to him, standing on the tops of his dress shoes, pushing myself up toward his mouth. I kiss his chin. “Another thing I hear about vacations is that you have to let loose”—then his lips—“stop being so damn serious all the time; no words like ‘appropriately’ or ‘eliminate’.”
He leans toward my ear and says, “Be sure to bring that black bikini of yours, the one with the ties on the sides; makes it easier for me to take it off.” The tip of his tongue moves along the shell of my ear; every tiny hair on my body stands on end. Then he kisses me deeply, his hands fitted around my arms, holding me in place, stealing my breath away.
“OK…black bikini is practically already in the suitcase,” I say, nearly stuttering.
He smacks my ass when I turn around. I look back to see him grinning at me; I blush hard and exit the room with haste so I can hurry back and get ready to leave.
The moment the door closes behind her the grin disappears from my face. I stare at the door for a long time, thinking. There is so much to think about, so much to consider. I turn back to the table and flip the latches on my briefcase. Inside is a file folder staring back at me, the one I recently acquired from Dan Barrett. I remove it from the briefcase and set it on the table, sliding my fingers into the photocopied sheets of paper sandwiched inside. I open it to the top page. And then I read Dorian Flynn’s handwriting again for the fifth or sixth time:
I hid the voice recorder underneath the table. I didn’t really expect Victor Faust to order me to kill the audio at any time during our confessions with that bitch, but I’m damn sure glad I had my backup recorder in place when he did. According to Izabel Seyfried, she gave birth to a baby in Mexico, and the father, Javier Ruiz, sold it. Pretty fuckin’ harsh; poor Izabel doesn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl. I know it’s a long-shot finding a random baby sold seven years ago, but if it could be found, it’s just another weapon against them if we ever need it. Seyfried’s adoptive mother, Dina Gregory, is all we really have on her, and I don’t expect her to live much longer, so this baby is an alternative. I’m very fond of Izabel and I’d never want to hurt her, but she’s Faust’s only weakness. I thought his brother was a weakness too, and maybe he still is to a degree, but Izabel, she’s the one who will almost definitely cause Faust to fall. But I think Faust will cooperate with us; as long as we pay him and hold up our end of the deal, which I think is wise because having Faust on our side is better than having him as an enemy. And I happen to like them all—except for Fredrik—so I hope things go as planned.
There is a knock at the door.
“Come in,” I call out, and close the folder.
“You wanted me to report my findings,” Nora says, coming into the room.
I take a seat. “Yes,” I say, and gesture at an empty chair where Nora sits down. “What do you have for me?”
“Niklas did what you thought he would,” she says, crossing her legs. “There was no way he was going to make Izabel play the role of a slave; he probably knew she’d fuck up at some point and he’d be forced to beat her like he did me. Making her his girlfriend, or whatever, gave her just enough leeway to make the mistakes he knew she’d make, and not have to punish her for them.”
I nod; reach out and absently touch the edge of the file folder in my fingers; a nervous gesture I suppose.
“Niklas could’ve used her against you,” she says. “He had every opportunity to take it farther than a kiss.”
“He would not have done that,” I say.
“Because of his loyalty to you?”
“No,” I say, “not because of his loyalty to me.”
“You know,” Nora speaks up, “I would ask you what you’re doing, but I have a feeling I already know.”
“I thought you might.”
“And I’m not sure if you want to hear this or not,” she goes on, “but I have to say that it looks like it might already be working.”
“I thought it might.”
“But you love her,” she says. “Don’t you?” She seems unsure.
“Yes. I do love her.”
“Then why are you doing this?”
I place my full palm on the folder and slide it away from me. “I’m doing it,” I say, “because I love her.”