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The Empty Chair ePub 2024.jpg

Before she could answer, the words already formed solidly in her mind, John snapped out, "The answer is no."


Kip startled and looked up, taken back by the fire in John's usually calm and relaxed eyes. Realizing the portion of the conversation he'd heard, Kip shook her head. "John, you don't understand."


"Yeah? Explain it to me, then," he ordered, yanking out the chair beside Mina to sit down hard. John leaned toward both of them, sliding his arm across the table to point at Kip. "But there is nothing you can say to convince me being with a man you're scared of is worth it. Not a damn thing."


"I'm not frightened of Grayson," she said, shaking her head.


"Oh, well, at least you're saying his name," he scoffed, sitting back with such force the chair scraped on the floor. "More than you usually do, if you talk about him at all. It's like he's some big damn secret, and now I guess I know why."


Anger flared in her chest, and Kip pressed her lips together to keep from saying more than she should. Grayson hadn't actually told her not to tell people he was an officer with MI6, but considering the circumstances, she thought the less said the better. Shortly after Grayson had returned to London weeks before, he'd taught her what he called a hole-and-corner; an innocuous phrase that would mean nothing at all to anyone else but would tell her he had to go silent. He wouldn't be able to tell her why, or how long, or where he was going. Just that he would contact her when it was safe again. 

Since the night she read "I've been unavoidably detained and will be late for dinner," her heart had been permanently lodged in her throat. Who he was and what he did had never been a mystery, but his ambiguous message had been just one more aspect of this life that drove home the reality. 


She could lose him. At any time. 


"What the hell has he done to you?" John asked. "Is he the one who left that scar?"


He touched his own forehead near his blond hairline, where it coincided with a small scar Kip knew was visible near her temple. Where the butt of a gun had knocked her out cold. It wasn't disfiguring, but only weeks had passed since the abduction that still left her unable to sleep some nights, and the scar was still healing on the surface. Kip instinctively touched the spot, and John's expression tightened. She shook her head.


"No. He didn't."


"No? How'd you get it then?"


"How did you get your scars, John?" She'd never so much as implied she'd noticed the small, barely noticeable scars on his neck, near his jawline, and one at his temple. 


His expression shifted, but he quickly regained his tense composure. "We're not talking about me."


"You're making wild assumptions, John. What if I assumed something about your scars?"


"Honey, we're not talking--"


"Exactly! It doesn't matter beyond the truth that Grayson didn't hurt me. Ever. And he never would." Kip sat forward to keep the conversation at their table, and not for public consumption by all the patrons in the pizzeria. "You heard part of a conversation. You don't see the whole picture."


"I think I've seen a pretty complete view," he said, shaking his head. John tapped his fingertip on the laminate tabletop with each point he made. "You're jumpy as hell, even worse in the last month. You barely eat. I'm willing to bet you barely sleep. You guard information on this guy like it's some government secret. You're taking self-defense classes. Now you're scared of him?"


"I'm not scared of him," Kip snapped. "I'm scared for him."




"Just tell him, Kip," Mina said. Kip shot her best friend a glare, but Mina only arched a dark eyebrow, challenging her. "Did he actually say you couldn't?"


"You know why--"


"But I don't." John reached across the table and covered her hand with his much larger one. "Kip, honey, come on. I'm your friend."


"Whom I've only known a few weeks."


"Three whole weeks less than you've known Grayson," Mina pointed out. Kip stared at her best friend, her chest aching with what felt like betrayal. Mina shrugged. "I love you, sweetie, but you went through hell when he was here, and sometimes I think you're going through a worse hell with him gone. So far, I just don't see him as being worth this much grief. He's eye candy and all, but--"


"You don't know him--"


"Whose fault is that? Kip, nearly every time I had contact with the man was because you'd either been hurt or you were in the hospital."


"That wasn't his fault!"


Several heads turned their way, and Kip snapped her jaw closed, pressing her lips together to keep from lashing out again. She knew Mina spoke out of love, but as of late her friend's concern had slid more to convincing Kip to end it with Grayson rather than find a way to make it work. Especially after she heard Kip's plans later that month.


"No, it only happened because of him. From the minute you met Grayson Holmes, you were in danger. You were practically blown up, you were abducted--"


"Stop," Kip begged, staring wide-eyed at her friend. She didn't dare cast a glance toward John. "Mina, please."


Mina pressed her lips together and shook her head. "I'm only saying this because I love you."


"And I love you, but I also love him. Does he not deserve to be loved just because of who and what he's chosen to be?"


"Which is?" John pushed.


"Why do you care?" she snapped, turning on John. 


He never flinched, his bright blue eyes leveled on her, unwavering. "Because I care about you, Kip. If you are so convinced you could be in love with this guy in so short a time, why is it so hard to believe you and I could be good friends in the same time? Have I ever done anything to make you not trust me?"


Kip pressed her lips together and sat back, crossing her arms over her body. She felt sick, her insides churning with nerves and the grease from the pizza she'd managed to force down.


"He's an officer for MI6 out of London."


Kip gasped and stared at her best friend from kindergarten. Mina wouldn't meet her gaze, turning her head to look at John.

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