by E. J. Noyes
Last month, intelligence analyst Lexie Martin found out a secret that could ruin lives. After a week on the run from her own government with her maybe-almost girlfriend, Sophia Flores, Lexie was forced to turn herself in and accept her punishment. But that punishment never came…
Aside from Lexie’s confusion about the whys of her release, things seem to be okay—she’s free, back at work, and is officially dating Sophia, which is way better than just okay. But when you embarrass the most powerful man in the country, you risk incurring his petty wrath, and when Lexie is reassigned back into a field position in a hostile country, she’s sure it’s retaliation for knowing the truth and that the president is going to leverage what Lexie did to keep her in line.
Now Lexie has a new mission. Make it home to the woman she loves.
Book Two in the Halcyon Division Series.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Leverage is the second book in the three-book Halcyon Division series, and its role, like all books in a series, is to further the plot, and also to set up things for the next book. And even though, as I was deep in the throes of creation, I knew exactly where Leverage needed to go, I spent many hours second-guessing myself. Is it too slow? Is it too long? Do I need to add more? Do I need less? Should I have this happen? Should I not have this happen?
I mean, those sorts of questions are all fairly standard when writing, but they felt amplified this time, which is how I knew I was invested in, and certain about, what I was writing—an amazing self-confidence boost in a world full of self-doubt and imposter syndrome. So, while I ask you to trust me, I’m also asking me to trust me too because I know Leverage is exactly what it needs to be." To read more about E. J.'s thoughts please visit Author's Corner Blog.
—E. J. Noyes
The Lesbian Review
It’s clever, funny, and sweet. It deals with hard topics, but the author does a brilliant job of lightening the mood through witty dialogue, and humorous anecdotes.
Jill H. - Well this is simply outstanding! It's a very different book from all of the author's previous books, and I should know... I've read them all, enjoyed them all, but the writing here outdoes any previous work. It's so damned clever. This is the second in the latest series, following on from Integrity. Same characters, more disclosures, and much more depth in the storyline.
Women Using Words
It’s pure Noyes storytelling, and fans won’t want it to end!
Michele R. - …The storytelling by Noyes was spectacular and had me on the edge of my seat while reading several parts of the book. …I am continually surprised at the breadth of Noyes book offerings and diverse storytelling ability. She has grown to be one of my favorite authors.
Les B. - …E.J. Noyes’s creativity never ceases to amaze me. Can’t say much without giving a lot away so I’ll leave it at if you haven’t read Integrity, go now, and then on 11/16 pick this up. No idea how I’m going to wait until May for Loyalty, but wish me luck.
Shimere A. - Noyes weaves an intricate plot, filled with suspense and political intrigue. The chemistry between Lexie and Sophia is electric, adding emotion to the story. …The narrative is fast paced, with unexpected twists and turns that keep readers on the edge of their seats. …One of the strengths of Leverage is Noyes' ability to create well-developed characters with genuine emotions.
Betty H. - …The characters play a major part in making this a wonderful narrative. Ms. Noyes has created a cast of unforgettable people, from crooked politicians, secretive intelligence agents, to Lexie and Sophia. These two women make a wonderful couple. I really fell in love with Lexie, and I know you will too. Leverage has my highest recommendation.
Carol C. - Ms. Noyes once again delivers us a balanced storyline that contributes to a winning reading experience that will appeal to fans of both romance and suspense genres.
Sophie - Wonderful snarky dark humour, an intriguing storyline and complex characters that pull at your heart strings make for compelling reading.
So, how did we get here?
You’re probably curious about what happened before this, right? Though, if you’re not curious or you’re up to speed already, then you can skip forward past this quick explanation.
I’m Lexie Martin, a government intelligence analyst, it’s nice to meet you. About three weeks ago, I was enjoying a regular day at work when I received some seemingly routine information about a chemical weapon attack in Afghanistan. It didn’t take me long to realize that something seemed weird, and this attack looked suspiciously like one of our own, an American, illegally testing a chemical weapon. With Russia’s help.
My suspicion of something being wrong was confirmed when a stranger let himself into my apartment for a “chat” that night. I was supposed to forget about the horrible intel, and go with him to debrief and delete all relevant files. No thanks—my parents taught me about Stranger Danger. After escaping the guy, I did what anyone would do.
Once I’d hunkered down in a safe location for the night, I got a call from one of my bosses, the one who runs Halcyon Division. Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to mention I also work for Halcyon Division. Think of Halcyon like…a hidden anti-virus for the government, keeping corrupt and tainted-by-foreign-influence people out of Congress. So, that intelligence I was ordered to forget? Turns out it was super important. My Halcyon boss, Lennon, ordered me to keep it safe, and see if I could unravel it. If I did, Halcyon could remove someone—I had no idea who—from the highest office. Someone who was actively working against the good of the country.
Because I am a doubly diligent government employee, I agreed. When I say “agreed,” I mean I didn’t actually have a choice. When you might hold the key to keeping your country safe, you can’t really say no without looking like an asshole. And in case you’ve never tried it, let me tell you—running and hiding from the government is hard. Especially when they know you know a secret that they didn’t want anyone to know.
I needed a human security blanket, someone with me to discourage governmental snatch-and-grabbing. Witnesses are awesome. So is someone to keep you company.
There was really only one option: Sophia Flores. Swoon. Yeah, I said swoon.
We’d only been on a few dates, but there had been a whole lot of flirty texts and interesting FaceTime conversations—can you say “chemistry and instant connection”? I can, and I’ll add “off the charts.” Thankfully, Sophia agreed to come road-tripping with me. Thankfully not just for the whole intelligence thing, but because I really liked her. Of course, I told her it was just a boring old road trip, definitely didn’t mention I was fleeing from the government because I’d found out something that might be bad.
Long story short, it was an adventure. Sophia and I totally caught feelings for each other, which helped when I had to come clean(ish) about what I was really doing. And yes, I felt terrible about the lies and manipulation but some things, like the security and safety of the country, are a little more important than my love life. Fortunately, Sophia forgave me for not telling her the truth in the beginning (not that I told her the whole truth in the end but, you get the idea), and then kept me sane and grounded while I figured out the secret behind the intelligence—yay, me.
I sent what I knew to Halcyon, got a pat on the back for uncovering the secret, or the start of it, and after ensuring Sophia’s safety I turned myself in because honestly—running forever, no thanks. Halcyon intervened to keep me from being incarcerated and branded a traitor and uh, well, it was kind of like an action movie. A painful one. But I survived, I’m free, and apparently I still have a job (or two).
So, here we are…
In the fifteen days since it had last happened, I’d forgotten what it was like to wake up next to Sophia Flores. Or, more accurately, not so much next to as kind of underneath and kind of on top and kind of all entwined together. I squirmed my feet, trying to get some blood flowing back into them, but ended up trapped when Sophia shifted in response to my shifting. The position she now caged me in was comforting and familiar, though admittedly painful given my recent escape from custody. Or more accurately—having someone stage my escape from custody for me while I was just a helpless participant.
My job as an intelligence analyst is usually straightforward, and often mundane, but since I’d been given intel implicating the vice president in an illegal chemical weapon test in partnership with Russia, my life had been turned on its head. Hopefully my life was on its way to being set the right way up again.
Carefully, I brushed Sophia’s dark, wavy hair from where it’d fallen over my face, but not before I’d inhaled deeply to remind myself of the scent of her shampoo. While waiting to see if I’d be thrown in jail as a traitor, I’d thought about the smell of her hair…the fullness of her lips…her laughing light-brown eyes…her low, husky voice…the way her breath hitched as my fingers mapped her skin…the way her body begged my body.
Her heavy curtains cocooned us from the world outside, and without a bedside clock, I had no idea of the time. Morning, based on the fact I was awake. I drew in a deep, slow breath and then exhaled, taking stock of my body. Broken fingers ached sharply, not-broken but still damaged and bruised ribs hurt, not-broken ankle ached and throbbed, right leg and hip felt like they’d been wrenched out of place and put back carelessly. And my head still throbbed like I’d gone twenty rounds with a professional boxer, the cut on my hairline pulling uncomfortably tight as it healed.
But… I was alive, free, and wonderfully tangled in bed with the woman who’d been with me through the stressful week that had preceded my short incarceration. The woman who I could easily and, scarily for me, never having been one for serious relationships, picture myself having a life with outside of all this. So, all in all, more pluses than minuses, which was a nice change after the last few weeks of mostly minuses.
Sophia shifted, her legs moving restlessly against mine. I knew from the eight days we’d spent together on our road trip, that was less fun driving adventure and more me hiding from the government and trying to uncover a huge secret, that the squirming meant she was thinking about waking up. Up until now, she’d stirred while I was doing my morning workout on the floor of a hotel room, but being in bed with Sophia meant I could finish waking her up. I smiled, remembering the one time that I’d woken her up. With oral sex.
I drew my foot up the inside of her calf and reached under the covers to slip my hand under her tee, lightly stroking the side of her breast. Sophia startled then jerked upright, freeing me and dislodging me all in one movement. She flailed, her limbs making contact with parts of my body that did not want that kind of contact. I grunted at the jolt of pain that burst through my torso, tried to move and failed, then tried not to hiss out an expletive and also failed. I lay supine, sucking in wheezy inhalations in a futile attempt to breathe through the searing pain and my spasming diaphragm.
Sophia rubbed her face. “Shit. Sorry, Lexie. I’m sorry,” she mumbled against her palms. Her voice was rough with sleep and in any other circumstance, when I wasn’t trying desperately to just inhale and exhale, I’d have found it sexy. She leaned over to look down at me. “Are you all right?” Her hand came to rest lightly on my hip.
“Mhmm.” My response would have been a more convincing assertion if it hadn’t come out as a strangled squeak. Technically I was all right, just momentarily rendered useless by the elbow she’d accidentally rammed into my bruised ribs.
Sophia’s gentle hands raised my tee, her fingertips brushing my skin. She stroked lightly up and down my belly, murmuring for me to relax, until I started breathing more easily, instead of like a hyperventilating sprinter. She thumbed the underside of my breast in a gesture that was loving, almost possessive, instead of sexual. “I’m so sorry. I was dreaming and then woke up and forgot for a moment that you were back.”
I was back from that place where I’d been held and debriefed. But was I back in her life? And if I was, was it for good or just temporarily? I bulldozed those worries aside for now. The pain had eased enough that I could talk again, albeit still breathlessly. “It’s okay. I’m okay.” I dropped my hand on top of hers.
“Where does it hurt?”
Smiling tightly, I said, “Everywhere.” When I realized how distraught she looked, I added, “But it’s way better than it was a few days ago. So in a few more days I’ll be good as new.”
Sophia’s hands came up to gesture awkwardly, like she just didn’t know what to do or say. Eventually she asked, “What do you need, hon? What can I do?”
I bit my lip on a smile; I’d missed her hon. I took her hands and brought them back down, holding them against my chest. “I don’t need anything except what I’ve got. You. And you can stay right here and help me go back to sleep.” Wishful thinking. Now I was awake and uncomfortable, any chance of sneaking in a little more sleep was slim. But lying in bed with Sophia was a very close second to sleeping.
“Okay,” she agreed quietly as she carefully eased herself back down beside me. A tentative hand moved lightly along the side of my ribs then down until it came to rest on my hip.
I could feel the tension, the discomfort, the desire to ask me the why and what and how. When I’d turned up at her pickleball gym last night, she didn’t ask me anything, except for “Are you all right?” But she would have to be bursting with curiosity. After we’d spent those eight days closely quartered, taking a crash course in Getting To Know You, I’d left her in a hotel room just outside of Jacksonville. I’d told her she’d likely never see me in person again, because I’d fully anticipated being imprisoned for what I’d done, even though I’d been ordered to do it by Lennon, the boss of Halcyon Division, the secret government branch I worked for.
Yet here I was.
Last night, as she’d watched me change for bed, Sophia hadn’t asked about the mess of healing bruises, cuts, and abrasions painted over my body. And I didn’t know how to explain. How do you explain something as complex as my life, what had happened during those ten days where I’d been held in a secure facility, wondering what would happen to me, falsely accused of stealing top-secret intelligence? And even if we did talk about it, so much of what had happened was classified. And then there was the whole issue of Halcyon…
I could just imagine the conversation. Oh, hey, Sophia, so like, um, I’m totally a legit intelligence analyst and yeah, I gave you a bare-bones explanation of the deal with that intelligence I was working with during our weird road trip, but I also work for this secret bipartisan government division that helps keep all the corrupt and foreign-tainted bastards out of our government and that’s why we had that fun vacation-not-a-real-vacation while I was trying to figure out the secret I’d been told to keep safe so that secret division thing could use it, and oh yeah, something exciting is coming up, so watch the news and hint-hint, the VP is a traitor and he’s toast.
Yeah, right. Let me count all the ways in which that’s not a good idea.
“How was your Halloween?” I asked, just for something to break the silence. “Did you do anything? Dress up, big party?”
She shook her head. “None of the above. Some friends tried to get me to go to a party but I didn’t feel like it. I bought myself a massive bag of candy and watched the newest Halloween movie. How was yours?” The moment she’d asked, Sophia’s mouth fell open. Apparently she’d twigged that I was most likely locked up on Halloween—I was—and she hastened to backtrack. “I mean…you know.”
I kissed her palm, the base of her thumb. “It was good. I think,” I added with a grin I hoped would ease her discomfort. “Not really sure what day was what but all the days were fine, so I feel confident saying my Halloween was okay.” She still looked uneasy, so I continued, “Next year we should dress up in some cheesy matching outfits, like salt and pepper or Bonnie and Clyde and party until the small hours. Or, we could stay home and eat candy and watch scary movies and ignore all the kids in the building. Whatever you want.”
“Deal,” she agreed instantly. There was a long silence before she asked, “You really didn’t know what day it was while you were gone?” I could hear the forced monotone in the question, as she worked to keep her emotions out of it. Clearly, my attempt to ease her discomfort had failed.
“I didn’t, no. No phone or calendar supplied. Aside from the uncertainty and missing you like crazy, it was actually kind of nice to have zero responsibilities and a break from all the work stress.”
Her teeth grazed her lower lip. “Will you tell me about it? Your time…locked up?” She’d also wanted to know the details of the 2017 event overseas where I’d been involved in a hostage situation that’d left my asset and three terrorists dead, and me with vengeance stab wounds after I’d killed a man in an attempt to escape. Those scars were a constant reminder of the job I used to do, of what I’d done. But Sophia’s curiosity hadn’t been voyeuristic. It was caring, as if she wanted to take on some of the trauma herself, carry some of its emotional weight. I sensed the same in her now.
“If it’ll help you, yes, of course.”
“I think it will.” Sophia drew in a slow, slightly shuddery breath. “The whole time you were away, I imagined so many things, had started to deal with never seeing you ever again, but then you came back and you looked”—her whole face scrunched up like she’d smelled something bad and wanted to cry about it—“like that, and now I don’t know what to think.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, hoping it was enough of a blanket apology for now. She deserved to know how I’d come to look like I’d been in a car accident—because I technically had—but what exactly could I tell her? How do you explain the unexplainable? I’d fought with that question during our road trip, and never came up with a satisfactory answer. I couldn’t tell her about Halcyon. I couldn’t tell her what I’d found out about our vice president and that he’d soon be removed from his position. I couldn’t tell her the only reason I wasn’t in jail for the rest of my days was because apparently Halcyon Division had almost limitless power over the White House and had assured them my release was in the country’s best interests. So what could I tell her?
As much of the truth as I was able to. She deserved that.
I rolled onto my side, angling my sore right leg into a more comfortable position before fluffing her excess of pillows to lean against. Sophia moved with me, her hand falling from my body. I moved it back to rest on my hip. “Um, after they picked me up, we drove for a day or so. I still don’t know where we ended up. It was fine, not much bathroom privacy but they were nice to me. And very quiet which gave me a lot of time to think.” And think I did. “Uh—” I faltered and couldn’t recover.
“It’s okay if you’re not ready,” Sophia murmured.
“No, it’s not that. It’s just, I’m…” I paused. “Not sure how to word it.” When talking about my job, ordinary things like mentioning an incident were never simple or straightforward. Thankfully Sophia understood the limitations my job put on sharing because she’d been with me while I worked through the intelligence that’d started this whole thing, and she knew I’d been dodging questions and telling some half-truths. Quarter-truths if you counted the fact she didn’t know I technically had two jobs. But we’d come to an agreement—I’d share everything I could about the work stuff, and be an open book about my personal stuff.
“Ahh. Gotcha.” She smiled tightly. “I figured, because you have The Look.”
Frowning, I asked, “What’s The Look?”
“You get an expression sometimes when you’re trying to explain something. I’ve always assumed it’s because you’re doing mental gymnastics, trying to figure out how and what you can tell me.”
My eyebrows shot up. “What’s The Look look like?”
“First it’s almost a little guilty, borderline panicky. Then you look like a kid who didn’t do their homework but has been asked to give a last-minute talk to the class. Then your expression gets kind of faraway like you’re hoping the right way to answer will suddenly come to you if you look at nothing for long enough.”
“Wow.” Laughing, I shook my head (and made a mental note to watch my expressions around strangers). “I had no idea. I…you’re right, I am doing mental gymnastics, making sure I don’t share something I shouldn’t, while trying to be honest.”
She squeezed my hip gently. “I know you can’t share everything. But if you can share…”
What I could share wouldn’t fill a thimble, but I had to give her what little trickle of information I could. “Okay. Um. I was debriefed a few times. It was…not fun. They didn’t hurt me physically,” I quickly added when I saw her horrified expression. “Only my ego, and we know how easy it is to bruise that.”
Laughing quietly, Sophia pinched my hip. “Liar. Your ego is bulletproof.”
“Not quite. More like…bullet resistant.” I grinned cheesily. “I told them the truth. They didn’t like it because they thought I was lying. Then I spent some days in my room by myself. Then more talking and alone time and that was that.” This was where things got perhaps the trickiest, where I had to be careful not to let slip that I’d been rescued and maybe not entirely legally. “I don’t know what happened exactly, but my lawyer was apparently very good at his job. They released me and on my way home, we got into a car crash, some guy T-boned our car. I spent a few days recovering, and then came to find you. And here we are.”
“Mmm, yes. Here we are,” she said. The little eyebrow scrunch told me she knew I’d omitted some parts and maybe been half-truthful about others.
I smiled sheepishly, genuinely remorseful that I couldn’t share the things that might put her at ease. “Obviously, that’s the bare-bones, nuts-and-bolts version.”
The not bare-bones version included details where my agency boss, Derek—whose loyalty I’d been questioning through the whole process—rammed the transport vehicle in an attempt to stop it, but actually made it crash while I was chained in the back and getting flung around like a sack of flour. He set me free and sent me to a safe house with instructions to rest and heal, visit Sophia, and come back to work in two weeks. Oh, and then there was the bombshell that he was part of Halcyon Division too, and had been the whole time I’d known him. Talk about right under my nose.
Oh! Then there was something else Derek and Halcyon kept alluding to, where apparently I had “value,” hence my rescue instead of waiting for the wheels of justice to slowly turn. I mean, yeah, I’m a great at my jobs, but… Valuable? I made a mental note to ask Halcyon if I was valuable enough for a pay raise.
Though Derek had assured me that everything would be okay when I went back to work, my short detention hung over my head as an ominous reminder that I’d been a Very Bad Girl. Not quite in the “stealing government secrets and leaking them all over the Internet” way. But definitely in the “I received intel, was threatened by a thug while I was naked in bed, got spooked and ran away, then accessed the intel not one hundred percent securely and discovered the vice president’s illegitimate son had been in charge of an illegal chemical weapon test that’d killed three hundred and sixty-two innocent civilians” way. And also the “I discovered the VP was deep in Russia’s pockets, and the president and a bunch of other people were pissed I’d found out their secret” way. They weren’t pissed about the illegal weapon test or the murder of innocent people, only that someone had found out about it.
And now Halcyon Division was going to use the information to force the corrupt vice president to resign. Goodbye, Vice President Randolf Berenson, you treasonous sack of shit.
I hoped my explanation would satisfy Sophia. When I thought about it like that, laid alongside actual traitor deeds—in which I had not engaged—what I’d done didn’t seem so bad at all. As an intelligence analyst, my job was to sift through intelligence, find relevant details, and put it into a format for policymakers to use. In this instance, I’d done my job and I’d done it well. Granted, I hadn’t done it in a totally secure work setting or through entirely official channels, but when you took in the big picture, I’d done my best given the circumstances. Justifying one’s actions was easy if you didn’t dig too deeply into their nuance. My government had taught me that very recently.
I’d also received assurances from Lennon that Halcyon would do what they could to make things easy for me—without revealing themselves, of course. Halcyon Division operated deep in the shadows. So deep that, aside from those employed by Halcyon, only a select handful of high-ranking government officials even knew it existed. Super-secret government agencies designed to keep foreign operators and corrupt officials from ruining our great nation are super-secret.
Sophia thumbed the edge of my mouth, bringing my attention away from my thoughts and back to her and us in this bedroom, back to the place I wanted to be physically and mentally. “Did you see a doctor about”—she gestured vaguely up and down my body—“all of that?” She’d accepted my car crash explanation with nothing more than sweet concern, mercifully not asking how the hell I’d had the misfortune to be in a car crash right after being released from custody.
“Yep, I went to the ER. It’s not that serious, it’ll all heal up on its own just fine with a little time.” I took advantage of her frowny disapproving face to ask, as casually as I could, “Did anyone strange come see you while I was gone?”
Sophia’s eyebrows shot up. “No, nobody at all. Why?”
“Just wondering.” Bastards. The lead debrief guy, if you could call an interrogation-esque conversation a debrief, had taunted me that he would break our deal, the one I’d insisted upon before I’d handed myself in—that Sophia and her family were to be left alone. He’d said that they’d been to see Sophia, and implied she’d spilled intimate details about our time together. I knew she’d seen none of the intelligence I was working on, or the reports I’d written, nor heard any of my phone conversations, and the thought they’d coerced her into sharing or made her uncomfortable had made my blood boil. Now my blood was boiling all over again, but for a different reason.
I set the boiling blood aside, forcing myself to think of something more pleasant. The woman beside me. “I thought about you a lot while I was…away.”
Her eyes softened, her expression turning to a mix of relief and bashfulness. “I thought about you too.”
“I’m glad.” I kissed the tip of her forefinger. “But I mean, I really thought about you. As in dark of night all alone wondering my fate sort of thoughts. You really were a light in the dark, Sophia.” Turning her hands over, I studied their shape, the taper of her fingers, her short nails, the rainbow Care Bear tattoo on her wrist. “They teach you that when you’re in a situation you shouldn’t be in, to focus on something, something that’s not about where you are right then. Something nice, something good, something you want. It’s an anchor point, an oasis you can send your mind to when someone is trying everything they can to make you do what they want or tell them the things they want to know. And you were my oasis.”
“Spy training?” she quietly asked, a small smile lifting her lips.
I reminded her, yet again, in a teasing voice, “I’m not a spy. But we do receive some training for…” The words rattled around in my brain, separating and reforming into something that I could say to her. “Those questioning situations.” Bravo. Very informative. I love my job (most of the time) but fuck, I hate the constant sidestepping and micro-deceptions and also the flat-out lies.
“I’m glad thinking about me helped. I thought about you too,” Sophia said tightly. “So much. I was devastated that I was never going to see you again.”
“I’m here now,” I said, rolling carefully on top of her, both for my ouchies but also to gauge her mood. When her hands slid to my ass, I murmured, “And there’s nowhere else I want to be.”
As I slid my thigh between hers, Sophia went still. Not quite the reaction I’d been hoping for. But it made sense when she quietly said, “I don’t want to hurt you. And you’ve got two broken fingers.”
I held up my partially splinted right hand. “I do, but it’s two unimportant fingers, pinky and ring. And I’m sure you can be gentle.”
“Oh, I can be very gentle,” she promised. “Except in the places you want me to be rough.”
“And what places are those?” I asked hoarsely.
She showed me, until a knock on her bedroom door interrupted something I really didn’t want interrupted. Sophia popped up from between my thighs. “Yeah?” she called.
An unfamiliar voice called back, “Sophia? You up? Are you still getting bagels this morning?”
“Shiiittt,” she whispered. “Camila doesn’t know you’re here.” She turned her head toward the door, raising her voice to say, “Just a sec.” Sophia’s older sister had been staying with her since she’d come home from Florida without me. Just some company, she’d explained last night. She didn’t need to explain why; she’d been devastated when I’d left and didn’t want to be alone. Sophia shifted from between my legs—sigh—patting the inside of my thigh as if reassuring me she’d return. “Are you hungry?”
I told my libido to put itself on ice for now and tried not to sulk. “Yeah, a little.”
“Would you be okay here for a half hour while I go grab breakfast? Camila promised a Saturday morning bagel feast, with the caveat that I procure the bagels.”
“Sure.” I sat up. “I’ll come too.”
“Lexie,” she said, slowly, patiently, the teacher explaining to the dumb kid. “Your walk is a limp. I think you need to relax and heal.”
I thought about protesting but realized her jaw had set into stubbornness. “Okey dokey, you’re the boss.” I only just managed to stop myself from reminding her to be careful and to keep her eyes open for anything or anybody that looked out of place. We didn’t really need to do that now.
Smiling, she kissed me. “And don’t you forget it.” She dressed quickly and left me with instructions to help myself to anything I needed until she came back. I heard a conversation—hopefully Sophia telling her sister I was here so she wouldn’t freak out—before the front door closed.
I lasted two minutes before I began feeling antsy about lying around doing nothing. I stretched carefully, then eased out of bed. Sophia’s apartment was on the top floor of a newish building near the university and when I glanced out the window, I spotted her jaywalking. Smiling, I found a space on her bedroom floor where I could have a short, gentle yoga practice.
Feeling much better in mind and a little better in body, I wandered into the living room and spotted an older, taller, darker-eyed version of Sophia in the kitchen, staring at the coffee maker. I offered an awkward wave. “Hi.”
“Hello.” Her appraisal of me was slow and measured, her statement even more so. “So, you’re her new girlfriend,” she said coolly.
Well… Girlfriend was an unexpected description for what I was, but sure, I was happy with that. The word made me feel warm and fuzzy inside and if not for the iciness radiating from Sophia’s older sister, I’d probably have been grinning like an idiot. Instead, I smiled warmly in an attempt to offset the chill. “I am, yes. You must be Camila.” I walked over, hand outstretched. “I’m Lexie. Sorry we didn’t get to meet last night, but you were still at work when we went to bed. Nice to meet you.”
She stared at my hand as if it were something toxic before she took it. Her overly firm grip was a power play as she confirmed her identity with a simple, “I am.” Apparently it was not nice to meet me.
Camila wasn’t cold or aggressive, more guarded. And with good reason. I was sure Sophia had told her about me, about us. It’d been a minute since I felt guilty about pulling Sophia into a mess then leaving her, but there that emotion was again. A deep inhalation and exhalation helped move the guilt to where I could deal with it later. I went with the best thing I knew to get past someone’s defenses—keep them talking. Or in this case, get them talking. “Sophia told me you’re a chef.”
“Yes. At Manger.”
“Oh! I’ve been there, a few times actually. You guys have a really great menu.”
A dark arched eyebrow slowly rose. “Really?”
I nodded enthusiastically. “Mhmm. It’s one of the few places I’ve found around here with multiple really good vegetarian options, at a restaurant that isn’t purely veggie-focused that is.”
“Thanks.” She paused and I could see her weighing her words before she softened fractionally. “I craft the vegetarian menu.”
I would have asked her for some recipes or a tip on how to get my tartiflette as good as Manger’s, but got the feeling she’d tell me one of the main ingredients was cyanide or something. “How long have you worked there?”
“Four years.” Camila peered over her shoulder as if she was worried Sophia might burst through the door with bagels in hand and catch us in the middle of a stare-off. “What’s with”—she indicated me with a swirling forefinger—“all that?”
“Car accident,” I answered as I poured myself coffee.
Camila slipped around to the other side of the kitchen island. “Looks painful.”
“It was.” I turned to face her.
She set her mug down. “Look, I’m just going to come out and say it. I don’t know what happened during your ‘vacation,’ but I do know that when Sophia came back, it was like someone had just killed our parents and made her watch.”
“Oh.” My stomach dropped at the thought of Sophia’s anguish. A gulp of coffee gave me a moment’s pause to settle my own anguish and think of what to say to this stranger. No, while she was a stranger to me, she wasn’t to Sophia, and I needed to remember that. “I’m not sure what she told you—”
“Not much,” Camila interrupted.
“Right.” Clearly, and thankfully, Sophia had kept her cards close to her chest. And obviously I couldn’t tell Camila exactly what happened, but if I could smooth over her poor impression of me then I was damned well going to try. “We had a misunderstanding, one of those new relationship miscommunication mishaps. Then I had my accident, and after all that time had passed I wasn’t sure how to approach her. So it kind of snowballed into seeming much bigger than it was.”
“I see. Looks like you figured out how to approach her.”
“I did.” Smiling, I added, “Thankfully for both of us.”
She moved around to stand by me, close enough to be uncomfortable without outright looming into my personal space. “I suppose this is where I tell you I’m keeping an eye on you. She’s my little sister,” Camila added, as if that explained everything. It did.
“Fair enough. I’m used to people keeping eyes on me,” I said dryly. I’d had so many eyes on me in the last three weeks that I would have felt weird without someone watching.
“Also, I’ll kick your ass if you hurt her.” Based on her expression and tone I had no doubt she could and would.
“Honestly, I’ll save you the trouble and kick my own ass.” I set down my mug and raised placating hands. “Look, I don’t intend to hurt her. And Sophia’s a grown woman who’s capable of choosing who she wants to hang around with. I’m hoping that’s me. For a while yet.”
“That she is, but she gets attached very easily. She’s also got a heart the size of Europe and has a habit of adopting strays.” The measured gaze made it clear Camila wasn’t talking about bringing in a cat off the street.
She smiled broadly and if I hadn’t seen the genuine amusement in her eyes, I would have thought it fake. Seemed there was a human under that cyborg bodyguard. “You’re welcome.”
The sound of the apartment door unlocking moved Camila to the couch where she flopped like she’d been sitting there all morning just drinking coffee and chilling, rather than threatening me to behave. When Sophia slipped inside, her arms laden with bags, I rushed to her as quickly as my throbbing leg allowed. “Here, let me help.”
Sophia let me take one of the bags—apparently “getting bagels” meant “do a mini grocery shop”—studying me and then her sister with an expectant, slightly suspicious expression. “I see you guys have met.” She unwound her scarf and hung it by the door.
Camila nodded vigorously. “We sure have!” She turned her toothy smile on me, which gave me a glimpse of what she might be like once she got past her wariness. If she ever did. “Right, Lexie?”
“Mhmm, we have indeed.” I slid the bag onto the countertop and took the second from Sophia so she could take off her coat. “Getting along great.”
“Like old friends,” Camila agreed.
I smirked. I’d had a few people who were supposed to be my friends threaten me before, so the description fit just fine.