AN: Edited to change underlined text to italicized. Flashbacks are in italics, internal thoughts/dialogue is set off using single quotes. My apologies for the confusion.


By J.R. Black

"It will appear to be an ordinary blind date."


Grace took a deep breath and pulled open the door of the Plantation restaurant and bar. Cold air rushed at her as she stepped into the foyer area - much like the maitre d' who greeted her as soon as she stepped into the establishment.

"Mademoiselle. May I take your coat?"

"Yes," she murmured and let the suited man with the mustache pull the overcoat off her arms. "I'm meeting someone."


"I believe..." She swallowed. Why was her heart hammering so loud she was sure the receptionist five feet away could hear it? "...he's waiting for me in the bar."

Violin music floated in like a soft, symphonic breeze.

"Ah yes, of course, Miss Bridges. Would you care to go straight to the table and I will inform him you have arrived? Or do you wish to take a few moments--"

"My reservations are for 7:30. I'd prefer..." to turn around and run away. " have an appetizer and meet my party in the pub."

"Of course. Right this way."


"We want you to make contact with him."


Sweat formed in tiny beads along her hairline and neck as she followed the maitre d' into the coat check room. A long mirror stretched the length of the counter, and Grace was glad of an opportunity to check her appearance. Her blond hair hadn't betrayed her; it was still tucked up into the French twist she had pinned it in when she had departed that morning for work.


"Get to know him."


Her makeup was still in tact, and her lipstick - which she had reapplied in the car on the ride over - still stained her lips a nice berry color. His favorite.

"Here you go, Mademoiselle." The maitre d' extended his hand with her claim check.

She took the piece of paper and tucked it into her suit pocket. "Thank you."

Grace followed the man out of the small closet of a room and down the hall towards the bar. The restaurant was strange for a meeting like this. Pastel paint in alternating green and coral adorned the wall; stark white molding provided an expensive contrast as well as permanent frames to the variety of art pieces hanging on the wall.

Her heels clicked against the snow white tile; they were taller than she liked to wear. Her top was cut lower than she liked as well.


"You're his type."


The maitre d' turned to stare at her. She came to a halt and looked up. Only to realize that he was allowing her to enter the bar portion of the restaurant first.


"His...type? As in victim?"


She nodded at the man, took a deep breath, and stepped into the established 'rendezvous point'. Grace thought her heart was just going to stop and leave her there to convulse on the floor. Her eyes scanned the room, but she knew she wouldn't be the one to find him.


"We've made the initial contact, and arranged a meeting. You have reservations for 7:30 at the Plantation. He likes nouveau cuisine. And blondes. You'll sit down at the bar and order a Vodka Collins with a cherry. That will be his cue."


The entire room was lacquered wood. The bar was an elegant and deep mahogany color; the establishment itself teemed with old world style elegance - much more grandiose and dramatic than the soft hues in the remainder of the restaurant. Grace sat down on one of the high-backed bar stools, made a show of crossing her legs, and the bartender materialized from nowhere to take her order.

Large, cobalt eyes stared down at her; the bartender leaned forward to wipe off her section of the bar, a long braid swished with the back and forth movement of his arm.

"What'll it be?" He asked with a grin.

"A Vodka Collins. With a cherry."

He repeated the order with a deep chuckle. "Whatever you want." He turned to pull the bottle down from the tall set of mirrored shelves along the back wall of the bar. When he moved, she could see a divided version of her reflection in between the individual shelves. Though her suit was tailored and fairly expensive, the low cut of the blouse underneath made her frown. 'I feel like a worm on a hook.'

She swallowed and felt the overwhelming desire to turn and search for the man, but it wouldn't have mattered if she did. No one knew what he looked like for certain. Every camera that had ever caught his likeness was either from the wrong angle, or too blurred to be able to produce a discernable image of who this man really was.

The CIA didn't even know what to call him. Black Alpha was a code name he used once upon a time. Everything else--

"Here ya go, little lady. One Vodka Collins." The bartender set the drink in front of her with a flourish. "I made sure and gave you a coupla extra cherries." He winked.

'I'm a little girl playing dress up for a killer.' Her chest burned as she reached for the glass, and tried to smile back at the server. Her chin trembled and she knew she was doing a terrible job of looking relaxed.

Her hand shook so much she had to set the drink back down.

'I can't do this. I can't. Why--'

" date?"

She glanced up at the bartender's smiling face again. "Huh?"

"I asked if this was your first date? You seem a little nervous."

"I...uhhhh." Grace swallowed against the large, pounding lump in her throat that had to be what was left of her heart - after it had hammered itself apart into little bitty pieces. "What makes you say that?"

Her server chuckled again. "Well, for starters, you're as white as a ghost. Your fingers are trembling, and I don't think that leg of yours has stopped since you sat down."

Grace glanced at the leg crossed over the other; it was making quick, jerky, kicking movements.

"You're slumped into that chair. If you want to make that good of an impression on the guy, you'd be so much more attractive if you'd uncross those legs and sit up straight."

Grace blinked and did as she was told. She uncrossed her right leg and sat up.

"Now, take a deep breath."

She inhaled. The air felt good inside her body. She slowly let out the breath and felt her focus return.

"Good. Better?"

Grace nodded and managed a smile. With another steadying breath, she managed to take hold of her glass and get it to her lips without spilling it.

"Any guy that doesn't fall madly in love with you at first sight - you send 'em to me."

She had to stop herself from choking.

The bartender threw his head back and laughed. Grace felt her face flush and she had to rush to set the drink down before she let go of it altogether. The server stopped chuckling, but his eyes still managed to dance with their own inner light. He leaned over the bar, and propped his chin up on the palm of his right hand. His eyelashes were impossibly long as he gave her what had to be a practiced look through lowered lids.

"Ya know.... If this date of yours doesn't work out--"

A hand - with long, tan fingers and calluses rubbed into the second and third digits - planted itself on the surface of the bar to her right. Her eyes traced the line of barely visible veins on the top of the hand to the plain white cuff, which promptly disappeared into the black sleeve of a suit jacket - then continued up to the bend in the elbow. She had to turn her head in order to see where it connected with a shoulder--

The bartender shot upright.

"Somethin' I can get for ya, buddy?"

Grace spun in her chair; her eyes moved past his shoulder, to the neck of his open, white, shirt collar, and finally to his face. His skin was smooth, as if he had just shaved, and his chin came down into a rounded point. He had high cheekbones, which was rare on a man, and left his cheeks looking hollow as he was obviously not the slightest bit overweight. His chestnut-colored hair, cropped short on the sides, was cut long on the top; it spilled down over his forehead in strangely appealing, naturally sun-streaked peaks. A pair of spectacles reflected the light from behind and overhead - effectively hiding his eyes from her gaze. A tremor slid down her spine and then pulled a cord drawing every muscle in her body into a knot.

"Would you like something on draft? Or perhaps a drink like the one the lady's got."

"Wine. Red. We'll take it with us to the table." His voice sounded like a low growl not far from her ear. It was dangerous, threatening, but something about it was almost...thrilling.

Grace felt like she would slide right out of her seat.

"Ah. So, you're the date. Didn't mean to intrude there, pal." He grabbed two wine glasses down from the overhead rack. "How about the house merlot? I'll have it brought to your table - it's on me." The bartender said it while polishing up a couple of wine glasses, but looked pointedly at her. Even though she couldn't see the man's eyes, she felt them glance at her as well.

Grace nodded because she didn't feel she could speak. The man - her 'contact' - was here and not unattractive-looking in that black suit that was not quite a tuxedo, but equally as sexy, or maybe it was him....

"Leave your drink." He had at some point grown closer and was whispering next to her ear. "If he's un-corked the wine before it reaches the table, don't drink it."

Grace's heart froze into one solid piece of ice, and yet.... 'What's he talking about? This is a restaurant, not some--'

"Your people are all over this place."

She managed to get her tongue unstuck from the roof of her mouth. "They're not 'my people'." Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper.

The corner of his mouth lifted up. "Tell me you're not wearing a wire."

"That was a conditio--"

"If you are, you can't leave here alive." His left hand came to rest on her shoulder. Her whole body jolted with the rush with adrenaline, and his hand was her only anchor to the real world.

"No...No wire," she whispered.

He leaned even closer; Grace didn't think it was possible for the room to spin any more than it already was. She clutched the arms of her barstool as his breath brushed against her ear, punctuating every word. "You can trust me." He pressed his lips to her cheek and pulled away; his hand dropped from her shoulder, but froze halfway to his side - palm up and where she could easily take it to give her the leverage she needed to pry herself out of her seat.

She stared at his offered hand; part of her wanted to run, the other part felt...something else entirely.

'Have we met before?'

Grace glanced up at the bartender. He stared back with those friendly, sparkling, blue eyes, and she was suddenly aware of the dark circles under those eyes, and the strange expression on his face. He cocked his head to one side as if to signal 'No', but he didn't know what was going on...did he? And what could be wrong with her drink?

"Grace..." Her date's voice snapped her attention back to where he was still standing, his hand outstretched and within her reach.

'This wasn't covered in the sessions. He wasn't supposed to tell me...He wasn't supposed to--'

She placed her hand in his, and immediately felt his fingers close around her wrist; he gently pulled and she found a way to get her feet on the floor to support the strangely heavy weight of her body. The man raised the top of her hand to his mouth and kissed the skin just below her knuckles. When he bent his head, he shot her a look over the top of his spectacles and she got just a glimpse of midnight blue eyes and a dark glare.

Grace shivered.


"You won't be allowed to wear a wire, so we'll have our people inside. You can't have anything with you - not a purse or a briefcase. Not even an overcoat."


"I don't...I don't know what to call you." She found her mouth working without prior approval from her brain. But she couldn't just stand there and gawk. " have a name?"

He took her hand and placed it in the crook of his arm; he led her towards the door to the dining room. Grace was amazed she still had the power to walk.

"No." His voice sounded harsh. For a terrible moment, her mind went blank; she forgot what she had asked him.

"Wha-what should I call you, then? For dinner..."


She glanced up at the side of his face. "Marcus..." The name felt incredibly light on her tongue, like it took no effort at all to say it.

His eyes darted in her direction for just a half-second, then jerked quickly away. She felt his arm stiffen in her grasp an instant before the maitre d' appeared - sweeping one arm in front of him as he bowed in what she thought was a ridiculous manner.

"You are ready for dinner, Mademoiselle, no?"


"It's taken our informants years to lure him out into the open like this. We can't afford to fail."


Her 'date' turned his head as if to look at her, but she had the feeling he wasn't staring at her at all. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders before replying: "Yes, please."

'How can I possibly trust a man like him?'

The dining room glittered with crystal and candlelight. A single chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling and spread crystalline fingers into even the darkest corners of the room. Long damask tablecloths bathed the tops of every table in rich chocolate above pastel skirts that almost reached the floor.


"You should be more careful, Grace."

"Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't see you the--"

"I know...."


"I have a bottle of the house merlot, for the two of you."

Grace glanced up at the interruption. A waiter, wearing a crisp, white tuxedo shirt and bow tie with a white apron tied around the top of his slacks made a show of placing the wine glasses in front of each 'diner' at the table, and carefully poured the purple-colored liquid. Her eyes darted over to Marcus, but the lighting in this restaurant was something...terribly inconvenient. His dark blue glare played a game of hide-and-seek in a way that reminded Grace of the sun on a cloudy day.

'I didn't see him open the bottle. Does that mean--'

"Would you care to taste it?" Their waiter placed the wine bottle in the middle of the table.

"No." Marcus's top lip curled up into some expression that looked like an amused snarl. "Ask her."

The waiter turned to Grace; he was tall, she noticed, and she could only see one of his green eyes because of the cut and style of his hair. "Would you care to taste it, mademoiselle?" Was it her imagination, or did he say that with a very tiny shake of his head?

"N-no. No thank you." She had to put more air behind the second 'no' in order to keep her voice from shaking.

"I'll give you a few moments to look over the menu." The waiter said and then disappeared.

Leaving her all alone with Marcus.

She wiped her palms on the napkin draped over her lap.


"Wait. H-how did you know my name?"

A small smile curved his lips. "You're easy to recognize. You stand out in a crowd."


"Tell me." Marcus's deep voice pulled her back into the present. "Have you been here before?"

Grace's whole body froze. The script. He had already begun the script. "I haven't. Have you?"

He nodded. "Once. But it was a long time ago."

Those blue eyes had won the battle with the overhead light - at least for a moment. She found herself staring into them for the first time, and yet...She cleared her throat and ducked her head topretend to study her menu. "So, what's good here?" 'I hate these lines.'

"Depends on what you're in the mood for."

'Is that what he's supposed to say? No, wait...that's the answer that indicates he's stalling.' She twisted the edge of her napkin. 'But...why is he stalling?'

"Do you have any questions about the menu?" Their waiter had returned. He clasped both hands together at his waist and leaned over the table as he spoke.

She couldn't help but notice that Marcus's jaw clenched as soon as the interruption appeared. His lips parted just enough that she could see where his top teeth met the bottom and the muscles in his cheeks contracted against his jaw line.

"No. I think we're fine, thank you."

The waiter turned to stare at her; she didn't like the way the light glinted in his one green eye. He murmured something she couldn't make out and retreated.

She hated her next line. Despised it with a passion. Grace took a deep breath and plunged forward. "I'm in the mood for anything," she said with a toss of her head.

Light flickered off those spectacles again, and his lips stretched wide enough that she could see the whole line of his teeth. "Take your hair down."

The temperature in the room plunged twenty degrees. "What? My hair?"

He nodded.

Grace had to swallow the breath of air that she had sucked in. She thought about asking him why, getting up and leaving... Instead, she reached up and pulled the pins from her hair and deposited them on top of the tablecloth. She combed her fingers through the long strands and hoped they weren't too messy.


He looped a piece of her hair around his index finger and scooped a handful of strands into his palm, only to let them slip through his grasp.

"I like your hair down."


A ghost of a smile played on his lips.

"Like this?" She couldn't get her voice above a whisper, for some reason, she felt naked, exposed, like he had just asked her to remove her top. Grace had to cross her ankles under the table to keep from bolting from her seat.

'What am I doing? Why all this nonsense? Why couldn't they just arrest him, and then ask their questions? What do I have to do with all of this?'

"I like your hair down."

The spinning room around her came hurtling into focus. She gasped for air and her hands clenched around the twisted mess that was the napkin in her lap.


His smile was a bit lopsided so it looked more like a smirk; his blue eyes danced in the sunlight. His hand at her waist was warm and comfortable, yet somehow burned through the fabric of her sundress. He seemed like such a serious person, but she loved the sound of his laugh. He spun her around and then drew her back into his loose embrace. Their feet moved without effort to the beautiful melody of violins nearby.

"I've never waltzed in the park before."

His hand cupped the curve of her cheek. "It wasn't much of a waltz."


"You could try the lamb." His voice was flat; in his own way he was mocking her.

She gritted her teeth. "I don't favor lamb."

"Then you should be more careful, Grace."

Her heart squeezed out of turn; it didn't seem to remember how to beat properly.


"You stand out in a crowd." He paused and the world around them grew darker, even in the middle of the day.

"You're Ambassador Bridges's daughter."

She felt a large drop of water hit the top of her head. "It's going to rain." Grace turned away. Talking to strange men in or near City Park wasn't a good idea.

He grabbed her wrist and pulled her back against his chest just in time for the sky to open up and flood the world outside Café Gray's overhang. "It's already raining."


"Wh-who are you?"

His eyes went back to hiding again. "Your people aren't even close." His left hand scraped his crumpled napkin across the tablecloth and left it. He started to rise from his seat.

"I-I thought you'd prefer the prime rib."

He froze half-standing, half-sitting. "It doesn't matter what I prefer." He sunk back into his chair. "I recommended the lamb."

'Don't think, don't think, don't think.' She blinked back tears. "I just...I don't understa--"

"Have you decided, or do you need a couple more minutes?" The waiter returned and provided much-needed relief.

"I'll have the rack of lamb with Spanish olives in the au jus."

"How long would you like that cooked?" The waiter scribbled with his right hand on a pad of paper he held in the palm of his left.

Grace turned her head to glance back at Marcus. His eyes were tinted, but somewhat visible through the lenses of his glasses; he stared at her when he uttered the word: "Rare."

Grace gasped.

"And for you, mademoiselle?"

"I-I'm not hungry." She glanced up from the menu. "Just a salad, please."

A weird smile appeared on their waiter's lips. "Any preference which type of salad?"

"She'll have the Caesar salad." Her date spoke for her. Grace felt the constant struggle to breathe ease a bit. It was too hard to remember...

"Perhaps some strips of veal?" The waiter no longer looked at her. Instead, his attention focused solely on Marcus.


"Excellent choice, sir."

'I don't understand this. I don't understand at all. They told me prime rib not lamb, prime rib, the president....'

Her date stood up and for a heart-stopping moment, she thought he was leaving. Instead, he brought his chair around the other side of the table and placed it next to hers. Marcus sat down. For a second, she forgot completely how to breathe, and thought she might faint dead away. As he settled into his new location, she heard his voice murmur just loud enough for her to hear.

"We'll be leaving soon."


He turned to face her, and his hand reached up to stroke his fingers through her hair; Marcus moved the mass of blond strands further out on her shoulder. It occurred to her that other diners might see it as a fond gesture and totally acceptable for a date.

"I told you, you can trust me."

His blue eyes appeared over the top of his spectacles. She jerked from his grasp.

"I don't trust you. How can I? Lamb... The lamb led to slaughter, the innocent--"

"It's not my choice." His hand remained tangled in her hair.

She wanted to scream. She wanted his hands off her, his body removed from being this close to hers.

"The hell it isn't. You're going to kill my father!"

"There's a camera behind you; it's supposed to be trained on me." Marcus finally pulled his hand from fiddling with her hair. His spectacles were glinting in the light again; she reached up to sweep her hair off her shoulders.

"I-I don't know anything about it."

His hand caught hers before she could move the strands of her hair. "Your people have violated the rules of this arrangement all night." His face, his expression was hidden behind those glasses. "I promised them I'd kill you."


"We'll take every precaution with your safety, but we have no reason to believe you'd be in any immediate danger."


"I don't think...I don't know."


"No immediate danger? I'm meeting with a known killer."

"A killer, yes. But not a known one."


"You don't think they realize your life is in danger? They're an organization of killers, and killers know the nature of their own kind."

"They're soldiers. Not murderers."

The left side of his lip curled up. "The bartender. Nash Shore. Demolitions expert. He was the one that leveled the mining community in Eastern Russia three years ago."

"That was done under orders. The government believed it was the only way to stop the spread of that terrible virus. The lives lost, though extremely tragic, saved hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people." She glanced over at the entrance to the bar. Marcus's hand shot up; he grabbed her chin and forced her head back into its previous position.


"It wasn't much of a waltz." His hand cupped the curve of her cheek and he leaned closer. She closed her eyes and held her breath; her lips tingled in anticipation of his kiss.

"I wasn't much of a partner."

"You were, are, amazing." He breathed against her mouth a second before he settled his lips over hers.


"Our waiter. Stone Barton. Notorious double-agent. Half the time, CIA doesn't know if he's coming or going. But he's executed enough strategic missions on their behalf - including the deposing of at least a half dozen wanna-be rebellions and their leaders."

"Why...Why are you telling me this?"

"You have to choose." He leaned closer, just a breath away, now, and Grace felt every pore in her skin catch fire. She jerked back, but he grabbed her head at the base of her neck and pulled her closer. Light glinted strangely on those glasses, and she swore that his breaths were stealing all her air.


"I...I think I've fallen in love with you."

"I'm sorry."

Her heart thumped against her ribcage. "Sorry? That wasn't what I was expecting you to say."

He smoothed his left hand down her hair until it rested at the base of her skull. His lips, when they found her mouth, were so warm and soft, his kiss electrifying in a way that sent warm shockwaves through her body. She swore she'd know his kiss anywhere...


"And wh-what choice do I have?" She knew she was shaking; her whole body quaked around the epicenter of where he had hold of her neck.


"I can't stay." His breath was warm against her ear.


He pulled away. "Grace, I have something I have to do." She watched his hands ball into fists and an uncharacteristic frown pinch his face and eyes closed. "Dammit!"


She struggled against his grip, but he held her exactly where he wanted or perhaps needed her to be. Something moved in her peripheral vision; the bartender entered the dining room on the far side and stared directly at her. She grimaced.

"The one thing...they can do is stop Odin."

The waiter opened the kitchen door on the side directly opposite her; he stood just inside the room to the very rear of the dining area.

"We don't have much time..." Marcus's voice sounded wistful.


His shoulders hunched and his fists shook at his sides. "This wasn't supposed to happen." He glanced up at her, with such a vulnerable look in his eyes. It occurred to her that she didn't even know his name...


A suspicious-looking man with long, dark hair drawn back into a ponytail, and wearing the outfit of a chef stepped into the room on their left flank.

"Don't look at them." Marcus's voice turned sharp. She focused on the man in front of her. His right hand moved in what had to be slow motion up to his face.


"I have to...stop something. I never meant...I never intended to care about you, Grace."

She gasped.

"But, I promise...I'll do everything I can to protect you."


His hand peeled the glasses off his nose. They glinted again, and Grace got a glimpse as to why they might spend so much time hiding his eyes - the insides were tinted with a silver coating.

He met her eyes for the first time without any obstruction. The room had never sat completely still, but someone hit the accelerator and it began to whirl around her. "You..."

Marcus surged forward and caught her lips; his kiss burnt her mouth and made the world completely stop its spiral. Grace closed her eyes. She could smell the wonderful scent of his cologne. Her hands clutched at the opening of his jacket.


"I don't understand... Where are you going? Why--"

He paused, but didn't turn around. "I'll come back for you."


He broke the kiss, and Grace stared into those eyes....

"Come with me."

"There's still so much I don't understand..."


Two dark-suited CIA agents sat across a stainless steel table. The room reminded her of something she saw in a television police department, used for interrogations. It was bland, and one wall was nothing but a mirror.

"We need someone who can identify him."

"But, I thought no one had ever seen his face."

"One man has."


"We have to go, now," Marcus said in a low voice. Her hands gripped his jacket tighter. She didn't want to let go...

"Do you trust me?"


"H-how...b-but how could he possibly--"

"The assassin Odin Christenson trained him from the time he was a child. Every method, every trick. He taught it to this kid."


A million words danced on the tip of her tongue, wanting to be asked, wanting to be said, but there was only one that mattered. "Yes."


"He's in his twenties now, and known only by the code name Black Alpha."

"But why.... Why would he help us?"


Marcus placed the glasses back on his nose, and those familiar eyes disappeared from her view again. His hand stroked through her hair again.

"I'll do everything I can to protect you."