LENGTH: 9,953 words
Companion to Where the Heart Chooses
Nigel Mann has learned to protect his emotions by creating a wall of ice between himself and the world. He’s been doing it for so long that no one remembers the little boy he used to be, least of all himself. His occupation as an agent for the CIA has led him to accept the sobriquet he’s earned: “Mr. Freeze.”
Portia Sebring deciphers codes for the NSA. She’s a warm woman, but she doesn’t like men with grabby hands and isn’t afraid to slap them down. Because of this, she’s been labeled cold. She determines that if they insist on calling her the “Ice Princess,” she’ll give them exactly what they’re expecting to see: a woman cold as ice.
These two were never meant to meet, but outside factors are in play, and ironically, when Mr. Freeze meets the Ice Princess, what else could result but sparks flying?
I stood outside the office of Anthony Sebring II and fingered the piece of paper in my pocket. A bit of code by that Russian, Sidorov. It had been sent to me by Jefferson Sebring, the second oldest of Miss Sebring’s brothers. Normally he wouldn’t contact me. Then I read the scrawled note included with the code. “Even if you can decipher this, don’t.” Don’t was underscored so heavily it almost tore the paper, leaving me little doubt that he also was in on this plot to marry his sister to me.
His secretary was away from her desk just then, and there was no one to inform him of my presence. Well, there was no sense in putting it off. I rapped on the door and let myself in without waiting for permission to enter. Anthony Sebring, II, Portia’s oldest brother and my titular superior in the NSA, sat behind his desk, which was littered with paper. His hair was disheveled.
“You wanted something, Mann?” he snapped. For some reason, he’d been antagonistic toward me from the moment I’d introduced myself to him my first day here.
Not that I’d permit myself to care. There weren’t many people who made the effort to get to know the man behind the icy façade I projected. However, if his sister made as little effort, I frankly couldn’t see this project moving forward.
I moved aside some of the litter on his desk -- I’d never let my own desk become so untidy -- and put the paper on the blotter.
“Your brother sent me something one of his people picked up. I thought we could try deciphering the code.” I tapped the paper I’d placed there. “I used every trick I know, but I’ve had no luck.” Obviously Russian, one of the languages in which I was fluent, it was as if the solution was at the edge of my mind but kept eluding me.
“I’m not half bad when it comes to deciphering codes,” I reminded him without any false modesty. “I am more than just a pretty face, you know.”
He looked up at me, startled and then displeased. “What do you mean by that?”
This was why I never let my guard down. I’d tried to joke with a colleague, and it had fallen flat. “Nothing, Sebring. Perhaps you can do something with it.”
We worked on it for three quarters of an hour. I’d removed my suit jacket and unbuttoned my vest. Then I’d loosened my tie. Finally I’d rolled up my sleeves. Sebring curled his lip, but he wound up doing the same.
“Goddammit.” He growled. “This may as well be Greek for all the sense I’m making of it.”
“Perhaps we should call in your sister.”
I looked at him. “I thought the plan was for her to meet me. This is the perfect opportunity.”
He scowled at the paper before him on his desk, then up at me. “It is. I know. I --” He reached for the in-house phone. “If you hurt her, Mann, I promise you I’ll tear off your balls and stuff them down your throat.”
“I have no intention of hurting her, Sebring. And let me remind you, I wasn’t the one who came up with this idea.”