He Knows What Ben Saw in Her.

The problem, Jai thought, was that, really, Mercer had pretty stunning taste in women. The parade of beautiful blonds he had managed to find in Sri Lanka should have given that away, but clearly, Jai hadn't been considering Mercer's extracurricular activities as closely as he should have been. And even with those blonds as the model, Annie Walker was something else entirely. That smile, it really could take a man's breath away if he let it. It was more than that, though. It was her determination, her drive to succeed, and to not leave anyone hanging that truly took his breath away. She was not content with the easy, or the too easily explained or rationalized. She wanted her own answers to everything, and she had the brains to find them. She was smart, book smart and people smart. He thought maybe Mercer had been her only misstep, and it was clearly one she regretted. If she had a flaw, it was that she was too open, a clear liability for someone hoping for clandestine work. Though, even with that, her missions were successful more often than not, even if her methods were occasionally unorthodox.

When she asked him to dinner, he agreed without thinking. This was the goal, to make him the man she turned to, and he had reason enough to think she would make no advances—Mercer's abandonment was clearly still an open wound, even after all this time. There could be no flaws in that plan; there were never flaws in Jai's plans. He had, after all, learned from the best and the worst how to do things right. But he walked her to her door after dinner, and made excuses before she had to about why they weren't kissing, and he found himself wishing he could be more honest. He wanted to tell her that Mercer wasn't worth this, wasn't worth years of wondering where he went while she stayed trapped in place, a fly in a web with edges she couldn't even see. He was angry at Mercer for making her the focal point of his sudden decision to run reckless around the world like a comic book vigilant, angry at himself for pointing her out as the most obvious lure, and angry at Arthur for agreeing to a plan that put her in harm's way. The worst was the way he knew feeling this way served no logical purpose, the way it scraped at the edges of his focus, distracting him for the end game.

It was when he was looking through her scrap book, piecing through a history that she thought was private even as it was discussed at the highest levels of the government, that he realized he wished he could stop this train he had sent rolling. If he had known her at all, he didn't think he would have done this, put her in harm's way, willfully force her past to collide with her present. It was unkind, and he realized that, for the first time, that actually mattered to him. Annie wasn't just a small but important piece in a larger puzzle, not just a pawn for him to manipulate as he saw fit. She was Annie, complex and real, complete with family and friends. He had never chosen to look beyond his mission parameters before, and he was not enjoying it now, but he found he couldn't look away. Whatever game Mercer was playing with the company, it was coming to a head, and Annie was going to be front and center of the fireworks. Regret was not emotion that Jai had a great deal of familiarity with, but he thought that was what he felt now, looking at Annie's carefully preserved photos of Ben, the liar she somehow couldn't quite shake.

The worst was playing her as if she were making him a better man. It was flattering to her, and it drew her back to him again and again, even in the face of Auggie's disapproval, but he hated it more every day. Which he thought maybe meant she really was making him want to be a better man, only in ways so much deeper than the surface. Jai was raised on the devil's math, taught manipulation and power plays from a master, and it had taken him years to even think to question the teachings of his childhood. He didn't want to be misunderstood; he fully grasped the value of expediency, but Annie was causing him to wonder if maybe his big picture lacked details. To wonder whether those details were, in fact, the most important part of the picture.

Jai was beginning to think he owed Ben Mercer an apology. When his father had said that only money or love were strong enough to draw a career operative away from the agency, he had scoffed. But now, he had barely the most superficial of connections with Annie, and already, her idealism was distracting him from what was necessary to achieve his goals. What would it have been like to fall asleep to that passion, and wake up to that smile? What would a man do to feel like he was worthy of that?

Soon now, Jai thought, Mercer would come close enough into Annie's orbit for the company to bring him back in. And at that point, maybe there would be some way for Jai to start again, or at least move forward cleanly, to earn those smiles honestly instead of through subterfuge and calculation.

He thought maybe she was worth it.