Joe showed up at Cynthia's apartment at dawn the next morning, accompanied by an entourage of Company agents. Lisa's heartbeat kicked up a notch as she glanced from face to face, but Jackson was not among them. She exhaled, relief and disappointment at odds in her mind. Lisa barely had time to promise Cynthia a phone call before being swept out of the building and into the backseat of a sedan. Two agents sat up front while her dad took the seat next to her. Lisa knew by his red eyes and unkempt hair that he hadn't slept at all.
"Keefe is flying back to Washington," Joe explained curtly. "I made him promise me two things. First, he discontinues the smuggling gig. A little extra money on the side isn't worth two hits on his life in one year. Second, when your name comes up during the CIA's internal investigation, he does whatever it takes to establish your innocence and protect your privacy."
She smiled and offered a soft thank you.
"We're going home," her father said. "Everything has been taken care of. It's over."
The media found out about the entire incident later that day.
A leaked photo of Hastings' bloody, bashed face combined with a video of a helicopter exploding – the helicopter her dad had taken down with a rocket launcher – were the first things to leak.
By mid-morning, the reporters knew a sensational story huddled just barely out of their reach. As questions started to pour in from all sides, Keefe seized his moment in the spotlight as only a politician could.
Over the next two days, Hastings was exposed as a crooked government official who blackmailed colleagues for money to fuel his vicious gambling addiction. When Keefe discovered this and threatened to report him, Hastings attempted to have him assassinated. The story was a load of nonsense, but Lisa conceded that it was smart of Keefe to lead the trail of the investigation away from the weapons smuggling – the real reason Hastings had been pissed at Keefe in the first place.
Just as Jackson had predicted back in the parking garage, Keefe escaped the entire ordeal with barely a scratch to his professional reputation. He navigated every interview with an easy smile and bold answers, tempering his performance with tantalizing moments of anxiety and dread.
He refused to answer any questions about Lisa because she had specifically called and reiterated to Keefe to not say a word about her involvement. "Please don't let the media have a field day with my reputation – again – especially when I'll actually be in the country this time to witness it."
However, a gorgeous local talk show host proved to be his undoing.
"Lisa," Joe called from the living room. "You might want to come watch this." Lisa anxiously picked at the cast on her left wrist, one of the only lasting injuries from that awful day. Physical injuries, she corrected with a glum frown.
Lisa brought her laptop to the living room and settled next to her dad on the couch. Keefe was delivering another spirited routine on TV.
"I knew that this… this madman would stop at nothing to destroy myself and my family," he said solemnly, with a haunted look in his eyes.
"What can you tell us about Lisa Reisert, the Lux Atlantic employee charged with participating in the first assassination attempt earlier this year?" The talk show host delivered the line perfectly, her tone even and inquiring, and leaned forward in anticipation of Keefe's answer making her career. Lisa held her breath.
"Lisa Reisert is a hero," he revealed with a broad smile. "Without her, I would be dead. She had everything to do with bringing Hastings' numerous atrocities to light."
It wasn't much to go on, but the media latched onto it and gladly painted a new layer of depth onto Lisa's tormented character. She became the misunderstood exile, the under-appreciated citizen who endured enormous personal risk when gratitude was neither expected nor likely. And the public loved her for it.
"Lisa Reisert, formerly charged for her involvement with the Keefe assassination, voluntarily went undercover in a secret terrorist organization for several months earlier this year. She collected evidence despite tremendous risk to her personal health and safety. In the end, her quick thinking and tremendous bravery saved the life of Secretary of Homeland Security Charles Keefe from a second assassination attempt. All charges have been dropped against the former Lux Atlantic employee…"
Requests for interviews exploded across her publicist's desk, a woman her dad had hired. Lisa vaguely promised she would write a book, but firmly instructed the publicist to tell all interested callers that she needed time and privacy.
"Lisa, almost every customer here is asking about you," Cynthia gushed on the phone one evening, a week after the events in the parking garage. "Even Mr. and Mrs. Taylor came in and said they hoped you were okay. I just tell everyone that you're taking some time off and you'll be back to work soon. You will be back, right Lisa?"
"I have to think about it, Cynthia," Lisa replied, unprepared for her life to become… normal quite so soon. Her old self would have leapt headfirst back into work at the Lux Atlantic, eager to cover up painful memories with newer, happier ones. Her outlook was different now. She didn't want to run away from the experiences of the past several months, but she wasn't ready to fully confront them either.
Her father entered the kitchen and began to prepare some tea. Lisa said good bye a few minutes later and hung up the phone. "Dad," she sighed. "Would you mind if I stayed here for a few weeks?"
"As long as you need, pumpkin," he replied and kissed the top of her head. "Aren't you glad your room didn't get remodeled? You'd be sleeping on top of a putting green."
Lisa snorted at his smug look. "Aren't you a little old to say 'I told you so'?" she teased.
"With age comes wisdom," he returned with an innocent shrug.
"Would you mind using your infinite wisdom to answer a few questions I had?"
"I'll tell you whatever you need to know." He set two steaming mugs and a container of honey on the kitchen table, then sat directly across from her.
Lisa focused on stirring honey into her tea for a moment, unsure of where to start.
"You and Jackson never... had you really decided to kill Keefe on the plane ride to Miami?"
Joe raised his eyebrows. "I hope that's not actually a question."
"Right. Of course. Okay, so... everyone was really prepared to save Keefe, right? All of the Company agents?"
"That's right. Everything was on track until we got to the apartment building where Paloma died. Jackson realized Bill Davis, Keefe's bodyguard, had sold out to Hastings. He told us all while you were in the bedroom trying to rouse Keefe. We came up with the new plan on the spot. I know it was messy, but it was the best we could do."
"How did Jackson figure out Bill Davis was a bad guy?"
"Davis' handgun. All of Hastings' men were armed with rifles and shotguns. Davis' gun was the only 9-millimeter in the entire room, yet Jackson found 9-millimeter bullets lodged in the wall that bordered the hallway, where we were standing. Davis had been shooting at us, but when the odds turned against him, he dropped the gun, cuffed himself and pretended to be on our side."
"And in the back of the van, when you gave Davis your phone..."
"Jackson and I hoped he would call Hastings, to prove he was the weak link. We think Affague called Ella and tipped her off about our change in plans, which explains why they tried to take matters into their own hands and nab Keefe at the airport. Jackson also spoke to Ella, and through her, Hastings, to let them know we'd gotten Keefe back. Combined, it was enough to force Hastings' hand, and get him to come out of hiding."
"Have you heard anything about Affague?"
"No," Joe growled. "He's still underground, hiding in Europe just like a piece of scum should hide."
"And how about you? Do I have to worry about a phone call from jail?"
"Keefe convinced, or bribed, the people necessary to keep me out of prison. Hastings and his rogue CIA officers were enough to go around. The justice system won't be coming after me. As long as I stay retired and out of trouble, that is."
He pulled a paper off of the counter and handed it to her.
"Lisa, I want you to read this. I posted it yesterday."
She took the paper and quickly scanned the printed text.
Memo to all Company employees:
I am retiring – for good this time. I do not want to see Jim Affague return and seize control of the Company, its employees, contracts and assets. I would only trust the future of the Company to one individual, but he has refused the job.
Therefore, I have decided to permanently shut down the Company. All contracts have been frozen. All assets will be sold. Every server will be wiped and destroyed. I thank you for your time and devotion to this business. I hope your unique talents and dedication to perfection will take you far in any career you choose.
Best of luck, Joe Reisert
"You fired everyone at the Company," Lisa said, dumbfounded.
Joe shrugged. "They'll find jobs. All of them really are remarkably talented."
"Dad, do you realize you just fired a building full of assassins?"
Joe grinned. "I hired some of them back. I am now the proud employer of four lethal body guards."
Lisa wrinkled her nose but was secretly glad of the arrangement.
"You'll be happy to know that I personally made arrangements for Pepita and Marco. They're returning to their home in Cuidad Victoria, where you first met them."
"I'm glad to hear that. And the 'one individual' you asked must have been… Did Jackson really refuse to take over the Company?" she asked carefully.
Joe nodded with a wistful sigh. "Yes. He did. I'm glad he did, too. He deserves a better future."
"Did he… was he one of the ones you hired?"
"I didn't offer. He never was a very good shot."
Her lips twitched in a smile. "He saved my life when it counted."
Her dad looked at her, his expression strange and sad.
"Lisa, I've been doing a lot of thinking. You're a grown woman. It's taken me years to finally understand what that means. I've always protected you, throughout your entire life, ever since you were born. And maybe… well, maybe I'm not the best person to do that anymore."
"Maybe I don't need protection," Lisa challenged with a raised brow.
"Oh, you'll always need that," Joe laughed with a wide grin. Lisa shot him a sour look. "You're my daughter. People out there have grudges, and they will come after you to make me pay. But, Lisa, in all seriousness, if you want to pursue a relationship with Jackson… sheesh, this is awkward. Just know that I love you both and I want to see you – both of you – happy."
She nodded slowly, unable to come up with any proper response. She thought of the times Jackson had made her so angry she could barely see straight, but also the way his mere presence was enough to set her heart racing.
"Have you talked to him?" Joe inquired. "I asked him where he'd been staying, but he wouldn't tell me. Now his phone is shut off."
She frowned, a whole mess of feelings rolling through her body. "No, I haven't talked to him. I guess I was waiting for…"
Her stomach flipped over on itself and dropped to the floor. She had been waiting for him to come back for her.
Lisa met her father's curious gaze, but didn't finish her thought.
"Well, if you happen to find him," Joe continued, "I want you to tell him something for me..."
Lisa lay awake in bed much later that night. Her thoughts spanned the night of the red eye, to the shock of discovering the history between Jackson and her dad, right here in the foyer of this house. She remembered the lonely months in Mexico after Marco and Pepita left; the drive back to Orlando where she had relived the fear that came from sitting too close to a demon. She thought of the spiral of events that inexorably wound her and Jackson together as she fought to save Keefe.
The tenuous, fragile truce they'd built had started to become something... more... and then Jackson had crushed it without apology or warning. She was left holding pieces of something that had already been small.
Lisa realized she'd been waiting for Jackson to return so they could figure out how to rebuild it, but she had the hunch that Jackson was not going to come after her this time.
Frustrated, Lisa rolled out of bed and maneuvered quietly into the kitchen downstairs. On autopilot, she turned on a stove burner and began to collect ingredients out of the fridge.
She snapped out of her thoughts right as her fingertips grazed the egg carton.
"No," she spoke out loud. This was not her. She was done with this Lisa.
If Jackson wasn't going to man up and come to Miami, she'd just have to go to Orlando and find his sorry ass.
Lisa left immediately after writing her dad a note, before the sensible part of her brain had time to talk her out of her decision. She took a taxi to pick up a rental car and drove four hours through the blackest part of the night, northwest along I-95. Along the way, she constructed dozens of conversations in her head – things she wanted to say, things she wanted to scream. None of it sounded right when spoken out loud.
The sky was beginning to emerge from darkness by the time she reached Orlando. She had no clue where Jackson's apartment building was located, and had no desire to spend tedious hours driving in circles around downtown.
She stopped in a 24 hour convenience store for a cup of coffee and a phone book. The only useful facts she remembered about Jackson's apartment building were the spa and computer businesses on the first floor. For ten frustrating minutes, she compared addresses for both types of businesses by flipping back and forth in the phone book.
Finally, she found a match between the Mezzanine Spa and Cosmic Computer, both located at 611 East Central Boulevard. The clerk helped her write down directions, and twenty minutes later she spotted the circular driveway out front of the familiar glass building.
Lisa parked in the lot attached to the building, pointedly ignoring the "Space Reserved for Spa Customers" sign. She entered the lobby.
The spa and computer businesses were closed, and thankfully no one was in sight. Lisa didn't know why this was so important. Had someone walked by at that moment, she felt like she'd need to explain everything. Why she was here, who she was going to see, how confused she was about the entire situation. It would be better to simply pass through the building like a ghost returning to the place it had died… although perhaps, in her case, she was seeking out the place where she had been reborn.
Lisa crossed to the elevator and stepped inside. She thought for a moment, trying to remember the correct floor. Had it been the ninth? Or the tenth? After a gut wrenching moment of indecision, she pushed the button for the tenth floor… and nothing happened. She jabbed the button again, and a third time for good measure.
Why wasn't the elevator moving? She must be doing something wrong. An insane thought filtered through her tired mind: what if Jackson had seen her and somehow disabled the elevator? Was he trying to prevent her from finding him? It was nuts but… what if?
She smacked all of the floor buttons again but the elevator simply wouldn't budge. And then she noticed it: the security keypad.
She swore out loud. To be stumped now, after she'd come so far… But before the infuriating setback ruined her mood, an opportunity – two of them – came waltzing through the lobby doors and into the elevator.
Lisa was ready with her story. "Hey," she said, her smile soft and shy. "I'm trying to surprise my boyfriend with breakfast in bed, but I can never remember the code to this elevator. Do you mind sneaking me in?"
The couple stared at her, judging her story. Their eyes were glazed over just like Lux customers after international flights.
"Breakfast?" the girl finally repeated. She turned to her boyfriend. "Can you make me breakfast, sweetie?"
"Sure, doll," the guy grinned as he punched in the code. "What floor?" he asked Lisa.
"I know you from somewhere," the girl said thoughtfully once the elevator started to move.
Lisa forced a tired smile. She didn't want to be recognized here in Jackson's building. There was a chance the information could eventually fall into the wrong hands.
"Do you ever visit the spa downstairs? Maybe we saw each other there at some point," Lisa suggested calmly.
The girl nodded, appeased by the explanation. "Must be. Their massage ladies are to die for."
The couple nearly fell out of the elevator on the ninth floor. "Good luck with your dude!" the guy called. The girl laughed and pulled him in close for a passionate kiss as the elevator doors slid shut. Lisa's stomach curled up into a knot. What if Jackson wasn't here? How crazy would she seem for leaving Miami in the middle of the night to come find him on a whim?
The elevator ascended one final floor and dinged gently to announce her arrival. She stared at her pale face in the large mirror hanging on the opposite wall.
What am I doing here? What if he's not even here?
It was pure stubbornness that dragged her feet out of the elevator and to the left, to the lone door at the very end of the hallway. Every step electrified her nerves and brought her closer to the end – or perhaps the beginning – of a very surreal dream.
By the time she reached the door she was nearly light headed. Lisa knocked before her courage gave up and crawled away.
There was silence on the other side of the door for a long time.
She closed her eyes and sagged against the wall, overwhelmed with disappointment…
Then, she heard footsteps moving across the floor.
Tension—excitement—anxiety sparked across her skin.
The door opened just a crack, revealing a slice of dark hair and a pale blue eye.
His eyes narrowed, just enough to bring a shadow to his face. "Did anyone follow you?"
She stared at him. "Seriously?" She gestured to the deserted hallway. "Do you see anyone?"
His mouth tightened in displeasure, lips almost slipping into a familiar, hated sneer, but he somehow held it back. His eyes scanned the hallway behind her and returned to her face, expectant and dark.
Ten seconds passed in horrible, tense silence.
Finally, he breathed out a quiet sigh. He opened the door another few precious inches and had the grace to look a little sheepish. "It's habit. You understand."
The unexpected start to the conversation dashed any hope of sticking to her script. All of her carefully planned statements and arguments dissolved under the weight of his blue eyes.
"I... I didn't think you would be here." But I hoped you would stay for me.
"I'm leaving the country next week."
"Were you planning on stopping by Miami first?" she asked softly.
His answer was immediate and painful. "No."
"Because I'm not a good guy, Lisa. You knew that and you still fell in love with me."
She stepped back, indignant and a little embarrassed. "I'm not in love with you. I never said that."
"Then why are you here?"
A thousand answers crowded her mouth, but only one escaped when she spoke. "I want an apology."
"From me." His tone was flat and apathetic, and a mocking sneer curled into his lips.
"Yes, from you. You lied to me. In that apartment where Paloma died and we found Keefe and Davis... You ripped out my heart, Jackson." She blinked away the sudden burning rush of tears.
Jackson's eyes hardened. "I had to. It was the only way to fool Keefe's turncoat bodyguard."
"You lied to me, Jackson."
"I already explained why."
"You lied to me," she repeated.
"Look, the plan had to change. I still gave you what you wanted. Keefe is safe, your dad is fine, and my life has nothing more to do with yours. Isn't this what you wanted? Why aren't you satisfied?"
He threw his eyes skyward and growled. "Yes, I lied to you."
Lisa matched his stare, ignoring the cold façade and waiting intently, patiently, for warmth to surface. And finally, she saw it. All of the muscles in his face relaxed at the same time, forming a map of creases and wrinkles. She read the worry and doubt and frustration like they were landmarks on a map. And then she spotted what lurked in his slow blink and hesitantly parted lips. She saw hope, and her heart sang.
She smiled, accepting his apology. It was a start. "Look Jackson, I might be scared of this... whatever this—us—is. But I'm not running away. I'd spend the rest of my life wondering... or regretting, or both. You're important to me."
"Important to you," he snorted. "I took out an entire stairwell of Hastings' thugs to get to you in that parking garage. If that hasn't earned your undying gratitude, then I feel sorry for the next guy."
Absurdly enough, that broke the tension. She laughed, and even though she still sounded nervous, his smile became so big and genuine that it sparked a cozy, tingling glow across her entire body.
"So your dad actually let you out of his sight?"
A small smirk crept onto her lips. "He doesn't know I'm here. He also wanted me to tell you that you're fired."
Jackson blinked. "Fired."
"After you refused to take over, he shut down the entire Company. It was the last thing he did before he re-retired."
"Peachy," he muttered. "I needed a longer vacation."
They shared a deep, quiet look. "I haven't slept well since the last time you were here," he confided, softly touching her cheek.
He pulled the door open another inch. Lisa knew it was synonymous to flinging multiple types of doors wide open. "Would you like to come in?"
"Yes..." she whispered. "Yes, I would."