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    Chapter Five: Somehow I’m Neither Here Nor There


    Sinajfae

    Chapter Five
    Somehow I’m Neither Here Nor There

    Madeline woke with a horrible stomach ache. Her head was fuzzy, dizzy, but not aching. In fact, she wondered if having a headache would be preferable to the feeling of possibly puking at any given moment. Just getting out of bed felt like a risk, but she had no choice. Recalling the events from last night, she realized she failed. She drank too much. The heavy cream churning in her tummy was a testament to that. She embarrassed herself in front of the contact. What the hell had she been thinking? All the promises she made to herself that she was going to succeed, that she was going to impress Levi, were broken to pieces. She could do better than this, she knew she could. Her only recourse was to somehow prove it. Nothing she could say to Levi could right the wrong. If she were him, she would have lost all confidence in this weak, human girl. Up to this point, the only thing she had proven was that she was typical: all words and no substance.

    Getting out of her bed slowly, she went into the adjoining bathroom and splashed some cold water on her face to wake herself up. Then, turning the water to warm, she began to wash off the makeup from last night that had smeared as she slept, making her look like a gutter tart. After blotting her skin dry with a soft cotton towel, she ran a brush through her long auburn waves. With the faucet off, she could once again hear the muffled music coming from the loft. She was really going to regret this day but decided it was better to rip the band-aid off and go confront him, rather than staying in her room hiding. Not being picky about what she wore, she pulled on some sweatpants and a comfortable t-shirt. Picking up the black dress she’d dropped onto the carpet the night before, she headed for the kitchen looking for something to settle her stomach.

    After folding the dress carefully and setting it on the clean marble countertop, she remembered there was still some fruit and bread left over from the previous morning. She began to slice the remaining fruit up with a clean knife out of the drawer, and although it wasn’t as perfect as Levi had made it the day before, it was still cut rather nicely. As happy as she was with the outcome, it still wasn’t much of a peace offering.

    Momentarily, she leaned against the counter waiting for a spell of nausea to pass. Tearing off a small bit of bread, she popped it into her mouth and waited. Was it going to stay down or come back up? Closing her eyes, she stood still for a few minutes until she was confident it would be okay to move again. So far, so good.

    Beyond calming her tummy, she needed to psych herself up to approach Levi. She couldn’t face him cowering like a child. Cowering wasn’t her thing. In her mind, she decided to scrub everything that had happened up to this point. Screw her bad behavior, and falling over herself whenever Levi flirted with her. She’d been stupid. Plain and simple. She needed to start seriously thinking about her well being and her future. She needed to prove she wasn’t a ball of clay that was shaped by whatever impressed itself upon her. She was strong and needed to start showing it.

    After plating breakfast for Levi as colorful and close to the way he had made it yesterday morning, she opened the door to the loft. 

    Across the open space, Levi was shadow boxing shirtless near the punching bag. Steeling herself against the loud music and the definition of his upper body, she made sure her words were clear and determined, showing no hint of her discomfort.

    “I fixed you some fruit.”

    He stopped mid punch and sauntered to his cell phone, shutting off the app that was pumping his music through the Bluetooth speakers around the loft. Grabbing a towel, Levi dabbed the sweat off his face and then draped it over his shoulders as he approached Madeline and oddly patted her on the head.

    “We need to talk,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone, and then passed her on his way to the kitchen.

    Expecting the worst, Madeline turned to follow him take the plate and some chopsticks to the living room. As he sat, he repeated the same Japanese phrase of thankfulness somberly as he did days ago.

    “You’re not eating?” he arched a brow before taking his first bite.

    “There wasn’t enough,” she replied, not mentioning the fact that just the thought of eating the fruit was turning her stomach. “I’ll get something later.”

    “No,” Levi replied sternly. “We’ll go out and get you something in a little bit.”

    “So what did you want to talk to me about?” she began, even though she knew the answer. “I know my behavior last night was unacceptable.”

    “Exactly,” Levi agreed. “You didn’t act like you were trying to maintain a cover and get information from Maseo. You acted like some club crawler asking a wingman for details on his best friend. The only redeeming quality you had last night was your charm, but that’s not going to get you very far.”

    Madeline tried to hide her embarrassment, but couldn’t. He was right. Looking back on it, she spent most of the evening attempting to getting information on Levi, not Maseo. And it was so obvious. She had nothing to say. He was spot on. 

    “Next week is the holiday party, and I want to see a different performance from you,” Levi continued, eating the fruit she prepared for him. “If you don’t think you can do this…”

    “I can,” Madeline interrupted, eyes burning with determination. “I will show you that I can.”

    Lifting his chopsticks, he brought a piece of cantaloupe to Madeline’s lips. Without hesitation, she bit it off the chopsticks. There was no sexual innuendo in the gesture; it was more like an order given, and an order accepted.

    She braced herself as she felt the melon make its way down.

    “Go get cleaned up. We’re going out,” Levi snickered, knowing full well how hard she was fighting to keep it down. 

    Nodding, she rose and hurried off to her room leaving Levi alone to finish the remaining fruit. 

    To be honest, she had been doing really well last night until Maseo started piling on the drinks, but Levi needed her to learn a lesson from this. He needed her to fail, so she was aware of mission hazards. If she had just nursed the second drink and stopped there, she would have been able to keep her focus. Distractions and potential pitfalls like that were always mission risks, and he hoped last night made her painfully aware of them. He had to admit, he was impressed with her initiative to make him breakfast. He had expected her to stay in her room a lot longer today. 

    Finishing the fruit, he put the plate into the kitchen sink and then headed to his own shower to wash away his workout funk, making a mental note to introduce her to a drink that wasn’t the perfect storm for a horrible morning after.

    About a half hour later, he took Madeline to the nearby bakery that specialized in breakfast sandwiches. He ordered them both egg, avocado, and cheddar on freshly baked rolls, which was surprising settling for Madeline. As they walked around the city in the brisk fall air, enjoying their warm food, Levi discussed what lay ahead for the week. Groceries were getting delivered this afternoon so his condo would be stocked with everything she’d ordered, meaning she could start cooking meals as per their agreement. Her physical training would begin today as well.

    “And we still need to get you a dress for the party,” he explained. 

    “Can I pick my costume?” Madeline asked, misunderstanding his statement.

    Tossing her an amused smile, Levi shook his head. “We don’t celebrate Halloween the same way. It’s equivalent to New Year’s Eve: fancy dress, expensive food and drink, very formal. So no costumes. And the guest list is exclusive, which means you will see things.”

    Madeline’s eyes twinkled with intrigue.

    “Like what things?” she said, lowering her voice.

    “Ears, tails, glamour…” Levi elaborated, keeping his voice low, even though there wasn’t anyone within earshot who would have heard their whispered conversation.

    “Ears?” Madeline’s eyes widened. She was very excited at the mere mention of the idea but somehow managed to keep her voice quiet. “Possibly your ears?” 

    “Yes.”

    Not able to control her inner fangirl, she let out a muffled squeal. 

    “Well, aren’t you easy to please,” Levi chuckled seductively under his breath. “So all I have to do is sport some ears, and you’re putty in my hands?”

    “You wish it were that easy,” Madeline corrected him smugly.

    They walked a bit further until Levi stopped in front of an upscale clothing boutique, ushering Madeline inside to pick out an ensemble. Keeping the idea of New Year’s Eve on her mind, she pictured in her head what the perfect classy, yet sexy, dress would be. It had to be black, and it had to be shimmery. Flipping through the clothing racks, she found a satin, strapless bubble dress which had layers of elegant ruffles from the waistline to the hem. It gave the illusion that the ruffled tiers were gathered up on the left hip by a sparkling diamond-like clip and then cascaded down the length of the skirt. After the attendant at the shop zipped her up, she stood staring at herself in the mirror, a bright smile beaming on her face. The black dress pushed her breasts up just enough to be seductive without being tacky, and the length of the skirt ended mid-thigh, so it revealed enough leg without the worry of flashing anyone when she sat down. It was so flattering and comfortable that she wanted to jump up and down with joy, but for fear of looking like an idiot, she kept her elation to herself.

    Full of confidence, she exited the dressing room to get Levi’s approval. Her heart raced as his gaze poured slowly over the curves of her body. Wetting his lips, he gave a mischievous grin. 

    “Excellent,” he said approvingly. “That will be perfect.”

    Suggesting she remain in the dress to match it to accessories, Levi had Madeline pick out some shoes and a wrap to keep her shoulders warm. She chose an open-toed, black platform pump, and a velvety silk-lined wrap, also black. Once everything was decided on, Madeline changed back into her street clothes so the attendant could wrap everything up in quaint paper bags brimming with delicate tissue. Then, with shopping done, they headed back home. 

    To kill time waiting for the grocers to deliver, Levi took the dress Madeline had borrowed the night before and showed her how to prepare it for dry cleaning and who to contact to get it picked up. He had a washer and dryer in an alcove in the hallway but specifically emphasized that only a small amount of his clothes ever went into it. Undergarments, socks and t-shirts exclusively, he said. The others went to the dry-cleaners, with the exception of his jeans, which were spot cleaned as needed. He expected her to do the same.

    Within an hour, the grocers showed up, and Levi let Madeline direct them on where to put everything that was non-perishable. It was her kitchen now. She’d be cooking meals for Levi and herself, so organizing it was up to her. It was a bit daunting, having all those fresh ingredients to work with. He was extremely picky, so she had to order a lot of pantry staples like flour, baking soda, brown sugar, and other things if she was going to make everything from scratch. Luckily she had a container of well-worn recipe cards from grandma packed away in one of the boxes in the loft. That would be enough to get her started. As a matter of fact, she decided on kicking tonight off with a classic shepherd's pie, something grandma used to make often on their tight budget.

    After the kitchen was organized and everything put away, Levi instructed her to go get changed into something she’d be able to work out in, and then meet him in the loft.

    “Before we do anything,” he said, after she returned wearing a pair of black cotton shorts and an old white t-shirt, “We need to stretch.”

    “To prevent injury,” Madeline added, taking a seat on the hardwood floor across from him. “I’ve taken karate.”

    “Then start stretching, smart ass,” he responded with a smirk. “Today we’re going to identify your physical strengths and see what we have to work with.”

    After about thirty minutes of stretching, mainly because Levi didn’t know how long humans took to warm up, he had Madeline assume a fighting stance. He was still aware of her lingering stomachache but didn’t care. This was part of her lesson as well. Pushing through pain and discomfort. 

    “Try to hit me,” Levi instructed, standing in front of her, arms slightly raised. 

    Madeline nodded.

    Shifting her weight, she let loose with a combination of punches. Levi dodged them but was noticeably surprised at how quick she was for a human.

    “So when you took these karate classes of yours,” he began, “How badly did you rattle the rest of the students?’

    “Pretty badly,” Madeline smiled proudly. 

    Running a hand through his black hair, her speed puzzled him, and he was convinced it was somehow connected to her reason for being kidnapped. Yet another dot he couldn’t connect to anything. 

    “Your speed isn’t normal,” he continued. “It’s obtainable for your species for sure, but usually after a lot of training. With as little as you’ve had, it shouldn’t be possible for you to be as fast as you are. And you’re sure there isn’t anything you’re not telling me about yourself?”

    “No,” she said, shaking her head vehemently. “I swear I’ve told you everything. I’m not hiding anything.”

    He stared at her for a little while, determined she was truthful, and then stroked his smooth chin in thought.

    “Well then,” he sighed, “We’ll tailor your training around your speed, and indirectly, around dodging. And we’ll begin by defending against felinae. As I said yesterday, your goal is going to be to incapacitate them so you can get away. It isn’t likely you’ll be knocking them out, but more like slowing them down.”

    Levi walked over to a steel steamer trunk sitting against one of the walls, knelt down, and pressed his index finger to the biometric reader. With a barely audible click, the lock detached and Levi flipped the lid open, revealing an assortment of small weapons and other gear, neatly organized and in pristine condition. As he took inventory of the equipment, he thought about what was going to be the easiest for her carry and conceal, and what would be the least dangerous should she be overtaken. 

    “Ah, this should be a good place to start,” Levi exclaimed with a lightness to his voice as he removed a couple of pouches from the trunk, leaving the lid open.

    Standing, he was already walking toward Madeline as she was to him.

    “We’ll start you out with some throwing weapons,” he began. “Darts and shuriken. I’m sure you’ve seen these before?”

    As Levi held up a throwing star, Madeline nodded. Anyone who’d ever seen a ninja movie knew what they were. 

    “And these bo shuriken are a throwing dart. Either one should make it easy for you to slow down any attacker so you can escape, after some practice anyway.”

    He led her over the to the rock climbing wall and started to unbolt some of the handholds. After he cleared a considerable space, he retrieved a large, thick rubber mat from a second, unlocked trunk. Taking it back over to the rock climbing wall, he bolted it through the pre-drilled holes so that it now resembled a human-sized target.

    “Your main goal will be hitting the thighs and lower legs to incapacitate, which will be difficult because your target will most likely be moving,” Levi advised. “Of course you’ll want to be good at hitting the torso too, in case you need to try to kill, but a shuriken won’t do that job. A well-placed dart with enough force behind it, however, will pierce deep enough to cause internal injuries.”

    “Why don’t we just go with guns?” Madeline asked. “A permit would be easy, and legal.”

    “Guns are not a choice,” Levi said gravely. “There’re a number of reasons I don’t use them. The main one being that a gun’s only purpose is to kill, and that’s not the business I’m in. A mistake made with a gun can’t be taken back. Also, there are a lot of us out there that consider using a gun in a fight to be dishonorable.”

    Backing away from the wall, Levi prompted Madeline to come and stand behind one of the floorboards that was slightly darker than the others. He had her distribute her body weight in a throwing stance.

    “Now, there are two basic ways to throw a shuriken,” Levi began, placing one of the stars in her hand. “And how you grip it depends on how you’re going to throw it. We’ll focus on a vertical throw first, using a pinch grip.”

    With a spare shuriken in his own hand, he gripped one of its points between his thumb and index finger.

    “Now when you throw, you’re going to bend your arm at the elbow and bring your throwing hand back to about to your ear,” he instructed, stepping behind her so he could lift her arm and bend it into the proper position. “You want to point at the target with your elbow, and when you release it, you should be extending your hand and lower arm straight out, so it’s pointed at the target as well. Your lower arm should be the only thing really moving, up and back to aim, forward and down to throw, using your elbow as the hinge.”

    Madeline nodded as Levi released his guiding hands and stepped away. 

    “Shuriken literally means the sword hidden in the user’s hand, so think of being quick and accurate, and please try not to hit my wall.”

    Madeline took a deep breath and then snapped her forearm in line with her upper arm, letting go of the star. It stuck into the rubber mat a couple of inches from the edge. It wasn’t exactly where she’d been aiming, but she didn’t hit the climbing wall, which was a small triumph.

    “Good,” Levi praised. “And just remember not to be discouraged if they don’t bury in too deep, or they hit but don’t stick. The current goal is to be accurate with your aim and be able to do some damage that will slow down an attacker. After you master that, there are other things you can be taught to use shuriken for.”

    “Other things?” Madeline asked as Levi handed her another throwing star. To be honest, she had been pretty sure stabbing people with them was all they were good for.

    “Oh you will be amazed at all you can do with these things,” Levi chuckled. “You can trip someone with a strategically placed shuriken in front of the toe, use them as caltrops, take out cameras, redirect lasers, cause noise distractions, smoke screens… and they are cheap, so you don’t have to worry if you can’t retrieve them.”

    Madeline threw the next one and got a bit closer to her visualized target, though not by much.

    “I want you to practice for a few hours each day getting it to stick in the center of the mat,” Levi said, handing her a third star. “The height really doesn’t matter, just try to get it equidistant from the left and right edge. After you have that mastered, I’ll mark specific spots on the mat that I want you to hit.”

    “Can I ask you a few questions about weapons?” Madeline questioned as she took aim and launched another shuriken.

    “Sure,” he answered, handing her another.

    “What do you prefer? Do you have a specific weapon you think is critical to what you do, something you never leave home without?”

    “I prefer throwing weapons, and usually take a few different kinds with me. Kunai, which are knives; bo shuriken, which are throwing spikes; and shuriken. The vast majority of my jobs don’t bring me into physical conflict.”

    “But when they do?” Madeline inquired a bit deeper, still throwing the stars he was feeding her.

    “I do pretty well using what’s around me, but if I know a fight is going to be unavoidable, I bring my twin wakizashi,” he answered, checking the grouping of her hits. “They conveniently fit into one sheath I carry on my back out of the way until I need them.”

    “Waka-what?” Madeline questioned.

    “Wah - kee - zah - shee,” he clarified. “The name classifies the length of the sword, more or less. Wakizashi blades are roughly between one and two feet long.”

    “But you didn’t bring those when you came to get me.”

    “Because I knew I wasn’t going to need them,” Levi answered, walking over to the mat and retrieving the throwing stars. “I researched the location beforehand, so I knew who I was dealing with. Maiming fae isn’t an attack you can bet on, so I left the blades at home. Not to mention when you are fighting fae you want to go with what you know and what you can trust. Which, in that case, were my fists.”

    Strutting back to where Madeline stood, Levi handed her the first shuriken on the stack he retrieved from the mat, and she began another round of practice.

    “So what do you do with the weapons when you have to travel?” she asked.

    “That depends on a lot of things,” Levi responded. “Like the distance I’m traveling and what kind of job it is. All of my gear can be packed in a checked bag for air travel, and I can modify some of it to be acceptable in a carry-on if I really need to. But like I said, I don’t normally bring recognizable weapons with me. Technology is a more important tool on the job; in fact, it’s essential.”

    Madeline finished up another round of throws, pleased that she didn't miss the mat at all. Her groupings were all over the place, but they all landed somewhere in the target area which was about fifteen feet away. She managed to get some praise out of Levi before he started to walk her around the rest of the equipment she’d be training with. As they approached the targeting mat, she thought he was going to go over some tips to throw more accurately, but instead let her know that after practicing throws daily, she would work on ascending the rock wall. He explained she didn’t need to focus so much on climbing high right now, but on maintaining a tenacious grip and balance. She’d find herself in a lot of situations that required scaling walls and fences and whatnot, and on occasion, she might have to hang around longer than she’d planned.

    “None of this is going to be exciting, but I can make it that way if you start to get bored,” Levi said, giving her a roguish grin. 

    Lifting his well-worn, gray t-shirt over his head, Levi shook out his black mane and headed to the climbing wall. With as much effort as it took for him to stride over to it, he climbed about ten feet off the ground, clinging to a single hand hold, toes resting leisurely on outcroppings below. He made it look as natural as sitting in a chair.

    “Well, are you coming up?” he asked seductively, running his free hand through his hair.

    Gripping the nearest handhold, Madeline started to slowly scale the wall toward him but found that she quickly ran out of holds.

    “Planning is part of the journey,” he teased. “Start over.”

    Madeline released herself and dropped a couple of feet to the floor. 

    “This time, check your path first. In the real world, nothing lines up most of the time, so you need to be creative. Use all your resources.”

    Starting out a bit more to the left, she got about two grips higher and then couldn’t reach anymore. 

    “Don’t be discouraged,” Levi coached. “Look around at all your resources. What else is within your reach that you can grab that will get you to the next grip?”

    Her toes were actually starting to shake a bit, precariously balanced on the grips below. She told herself it wasn’t because she was out of shape, but rather because she wasn’t used to standing like this. She had never done this before, and the muscles required to do so just weren’t up to the task yet. Looking up and around, she didn’t see any other place to put her left hand that was within reach. There was a grip above and to the right, but she would never reach it without making another push up to the left. 

    “There’s nothing there,” she grimaced, frustrated.

    “Are you sure?” Levi purred. “Nothing at all that you can grab that’s within reach?”

    She glanced at the wall again. There was simply no handhold, only Levi looking down, bare-chested and clearly entertained by her struggle. Then it dawned on her. She could reach his leg pretty easily.

    “Well there is your leg,” she said.

    “Is there now? How interesting,” he mused playfully.

    She reached for his leg, tentatively at first, then wrapped her fingers around his ankle and pulled herself up to the left. 

    “This doesn’t hurt does it?” she asked. It couldn’t have been comfortable having her grip him this way.

    “You’re fine,” Levi answered, amusement still brightening his smile. “Continue.”

    She was able to grab the right hand hold that was previously out of reach, but then found herself in the same predicament once again with nothing to the left. 

    Just Levi’s body.

    “You planned this,” she stated, releasing her grip on the wall and landing in a controlled fall to the thick mat below. She wasn’t about to start body climbing him.

    “Perhaps,” he said, keeping his sly grin. 

    “So what’s next,” Madeline asked, looking around the loft and trying to take her mind off the cramping of her toes.

    “Dinner I suppose.” Levi let go of the wall and landed softly, and silently, on the mat. “Just remember that your daily regimen so far consists of accuracy training, and hugging that wall. We’ll get into some sparring tomorrow, and I’ll teach you how to start some beginner exercises on the wooden practice dummy over there.”

    Picking his t-shirt up from the wood floor, he exited the loft with Madeline behind him, then both of them went their separate ways to get cleaned up. She didn’t do a lot of sweating, and neither did he, but there was just something about being clean after a workout, no matter how slight it was, that they both shared. Madeline was out first, heading to the kitchen to start browning the ground beef for the shepherd’s pie she was making tonight, as part of her agreement. She managed to get the entire meal prepped and into the oven before Levi came out of his room, which she thought was odd. 

    “Everything okay?” she asked as she rinsed the mixing spoons and measuring cups off in the sink.

    “Yeah, fine,” Levi answered her, coming in from the living room. “Just another job offer. I’ve decided to take it, so I’ll be gone for the next few days. I’ll go over it with you, to show you how things are handled.”

    He sniffed the air with a pleasant look on his face.

    “That smells really good,” he complimented. “Cottage pie?”

    “Well, I call it shepherd’s pie, but yeah,” Madeline replied. “I made it with extra vegetables. Oh, and before I forget, Caslon said his sister was staying at his place for Halloween. He wanted me to come over and meet her, but you’ll be gone. Would it be okay if I paid a short visit while you’re out?”

    “Definitely not,” Levi replied without giving the idea any thought as he uncorked a bottle of red wine. 

    “May I ask why?”

    “To protect them. To protect you. Pick one.”

    Deciding she wasn’t going to press the issue any further, she watched him pour two glasses of wine and carry them out to the coffee table where he had set out a small stack of printed papers. Levi reclined on the plush sofa lazily and patted the cushion next to him, inviting Madeline to join. As she sat, he handed her a glass and fanned the papers out in front of them.

    “So, job offers come in via email off a private server from my broker, unless they are from someone significant, then I might get a call instead. That’s this sheet here,” he began, separating one of the papers from the rest. “As you can see, it is very brief and to the point. It’s a retrieval job, and in this case, the object in question is at a specific known location. If it wasn’t, it would be listed as unknown, and I would have to figure out where it was myself if I decided to take the job. The initial email will only give the basics, in case I turn it down. If I did, it could be offered to someone else, and keeping it brief without a lot of details means the client keeps their sensitive information from being exposed to multiple sets of eyes. Also on this email will be any delicate issues, like how much non-human presence is involved, and the payment.”

    Taking a sip of wine, Levi handed the sheet to Madeline to look over. From what she could deduce, it sounded like a piece of art of some sort. The canidae client was requesting retrieval from a felinae. And the fee was five figures plus expenses.

    “And then once I confirm acceptance,” Levi continued. “I get the next email with any attached files from the client. Those are these sheets here. I get an address, so I map out the location and see it’s a small gallery in suburban retail space. I also get a picture of the object, which is a large fang. The attachment also indicates it’s a family heirloom, and that the gallery is owned by the felinae in question.”

    “Seriously?” Madeline laughed. “So basically the cat is peacocking the wolf’s tooth in a display case out in public.”

    “More or less,” Levi grinned. “And it’s crucial to get the names of the client and the person he’s in disagreement with, so you can research them before you accept any job. There have been times where a seemingly simple job turned out to be ridiculously dangerous because the target was related to a crime family or a prominent clan.”

    “What do you do in those cases?” Madeline asked, feeling like she was finally starting to learn meaningful skills.

    “Ask for a higher fee,” he laughed as he sipped more wine. “But seriously, you can always renegotiate if you feel the client hasn’t been fully forthcoming with information. Normally the client will already feel guilty about what they are hiding from you, and once they are caught, they will cough up a respectable fee. I haven’t gotten that treatment in a very long time because of my reputation, but once you start taking jobs, you will most likely come across it early on. My broker tries to be fair, but don’t expect to be coddled. Researching is a way to protect yourself against that. And after you have all your information, it’s time to come up with a plan.”

    They were interrupted by the oven timer.

    Excusing herself, Madeline set her wine glass down on the table and went into the kitchen to remove the cottage pie from the oven. Setting each of the four individual mini casserole dishes on the counter, she brought out the rest of the bottle of wine and couple of trivets to protect the coffee table from the heat of the ovenware. After leaving two of the baking dishes out to cool, she carefully placed spoons into the other two and brought them out to the coffee table. Levi finished pouring more wine into their glasses and then clasped his hands together in his usual thankful gesture. After taking a spoonful of his cottage pie, he smiled in satisfaction.

    “Very good,” he complimented, still smiling, after swallowing his bite. “I didn’t think I would like it with the extra vegetables, but I do. It’s delicious, thank you.”

    “You’re welcome,” Madeline blushed a bit. “It was my grandma’s recipe actually. A way to sneak more vegetables into me when I was young.”

    “Getting back to this job,” Levi continued. “In most cases, the type of job will dictate how much prep work needs to be done. For ones like this, it’s best to visit the gallery during the day to see what their security consists of, and then observe how they open and close the store, checking for anything out of the ordinary. Most retail locations have the same kind of theft prevention, so I am not expecting anything odd. But let me make something perfectly clear, you never go into any job with the expectation that it’s going to be the same as a similar job. It might, and it might not. Even the simplest job requires the same cautionary measures as more difficult ones. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I have known of a lot of people in the same line of work who have died because they got too complacent. You don’t ever want that to be you. Ever. Treat every job like there is going to be some nasty surprise. Then, when you’re back safe in a warm bed, you can thank your meticulous nature.”

    Eating a few more bites of the savory meal, Levi briefly studied the expression on Madeline’s face. She was lost in thought, absorbing his words. Good. That was possibly the most important lesson he could teach her. Not to assume anything and to second guess everything. He was born with the instinct to look at everything from two perspectives - how to improve circumstances and how to take advantage of them - so staying out of sticky situations was second nature to him. 

    But that wasn’t something you could teach someone.

    “I’ll be renting a car and driving up there tomorrow, so I want you to be a good girl and stay in the house,” he said, giving her a playful grin. “Don’t let Caslon in, and don’t go visiting him either. I’ll talk to him on my way out so he knows not to be a pain in the ass.”

    “How will I know when you’re coming back?” Madeline asked, feeling a twinge of panic set in. This was going to be the first time she’d be truly alone since she was kidnapped. She’d been okay with it in the past, but with all she knew now, she felt like without Levi around she could be kidnapped again at any time. 

    “If it makes you feel better, I’ll call when I first check into my hotel,” Levi answered, understanding of her paranoia. “Would that be okay?”

    “Yes, thanks. It’s just that…”

    “Sshhh,” Levi said raising a finger. “I understand. There was a time when all I did was look over my shoulder. After I check in, I’ll be taking a few days to scout the place and complete the job, and then I’ll be driving back. I’ll call on my way back too.”

    “What if something happens? Like an emergency?”

    “Caslon will still be next door, and although he’s not allowed in, he’ll still keep an eye on you in case there are any emergencies. Tiff should be there too, and she’s a hell of a lot more dependable in situations like that. You’ll be fine.”


    -----------------------------------------------------------


    The next morning, Madeline could hear Levi packing up a small suitcase through his open bedroom door. She didn’t approach him, not wanting to show just how nervous she was about him leaving. Damn. She honestly didn’t consider that she would be scared of being alone now. It never bothered before, but the obduction scarred her. Pouring coffee out of the fresh pot Levi had made, she grabbed her laptop and took a seat on the couch. Logging into her Japanese language program, she tried to distract herself.

    “Well, I’m all set. The car should be here soon,” he said rolling his suitcase into the living room and setting it by the front door. He was wearing a very sophisticated pair of gray trousers matched with a crisp, white, button-down shirt. His black tie was loose, hanging a bit below the unfastened top two buttons of his shirt, and again his brown contact lenses were in place. “You’ve got phone numbers for anything that might arise, and a list of things you need to practice.”

    As he unlocked the door, he reached into his breast pocket and retrieved a pair of dark sunglasses. He'd be lying if he wasn't feeling awkward right now. Normally, he’d just lock up and leave. Having to make small talk was a bit alien.

    “Stay inside,” he warned, as he slipped the shades over his eyes.

    And then he was out the door.

    The first couple of hours went okay. Madeline worked on her Japanese and then went to practice throwing shuriken in the loft until her arm ached. It felt too rubbery to climb the wall, so she decided to go take a shower.

    It was then that her phone rang. 

    In a panic, she quickly turned off the water and dried her hands on the towel so she could grab it before he hung up.

    “Hello?” she answered breathlessly, standing naked just outside the shower.

    “Haha, you sound like you honestly wouldn’t know who this would be,” Levi laughed on the other end. “You’re out of breath. Why?”

    “I was taking a shower,” Madeline replied. “I was trying to hurry and get the phone so I wouldn’t miss your call.”

    “Ah, what lovely imagery you’ve given me,” Levi fantasized. “Are you dripping wet?”

    “Just stop,” Madeline grimaced, cheeks warming a bit.

    “You’d have to let me get started first.”

    She could almost feel him smiling wickedly all the way from Vancouver. 

    “Anyway I just checked in, so it will be at least a couple of days before you hear from me again. How are you holding up?”

    “Pretty good,” she said, although she was starting to get chilly. 

    “Well, keep busy and follow the rules.”

    “Okay,” Madeline answered. She was about to tell him to be careful, she wanted to say it, but there was something about uttering those words to him that seemed too personal, so she didn’t. “Talk to you then.”

    Ja ne.

    Pressing the end call button on her phone, she set it back down on the counter and stepped back into the shower, turning the water back on. 

    The next couple of days went by slowly, with language practice in the morning while she had breakfast, and then the throwing and climbing exercises in the afternoon. Then she showered and watched tv while eating the leftover cottage pie. Each night she played some of her otome game before she went to bed, which made her feel a lot less lonely. Oddly, she wondered if this is how pets felt when their owners went off to work for the day. 

    The night before the Halloween party, Levi called to let her know he was about an hour out. She was so happy he was coming home that she decided to order pizza from his favorite place to surprise him. When he arrived, he disappeared into his room for a bit, closing the door behind him. When he finally came out, he had changed into some comfortable lounge clothes.

    “Margarita pizza in the oven?” he smiled.

    “I didn’t make it,” Madeline quickly responded, not wanting him to think she was up to that level of cooking just yet. “I ordered it for you. It’s just in there keeping warm.”

    “I appreciate it nonetheless,” he thanked. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d gotten any sort of a ‘welcome home’ treatment. 

    Madeline took the pizza out and divided it onto two plates she carried out to the living room. As they ate, Levi confided in her that the job was pretty straightforward with no surprises and that he would probably get further information on what to do with the piece after the holiday was over. 

    Until then, he said, they needed to finish eating and get some sleep. Tomorrow’s Halloween party was going to make for a very busy day.
     

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