Stephanie stopped walking, letting a wave wash across her feet. “Dammit. Look, I didn’t tell you not to tell him, so that’s on me, but I wish you hadn’t. The guy’s been dropping unsubtle hints ever since I started working here.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” I searched her face to try to figure out how angry she was at me and how much at the situation. She scowled more as she talked about Victor than when she was telling me she wished I hadn’t said anything.
“It’s not your fault.”
She took another step down the beach and I walked with her. “If it’s any consolation, he seemed angry when I mentioned it because he’d noticed you were changing the subject every time he suggested getting together. That means he might get that you’re not interested.”
She gave a short laugh. “Maybe. Or maybe he’ll decide he needs to give me a break for a little while and then start again. He’s a decent enough co-worker except for that, but after hearing what he thinks about his girlfriends, there’s no way I’d date him. I’ve hinted in half a dozen small ways that I’m not interested and I said so as directly as I could twice. I don’t think he hears me. The undercover thing makes it harder. If I make him too angry, it might make it impossible for me to get anything done.”
Turning to look at me, she asked, “How angry was he?”
I thought about it. “For an instant, very angry, but you joined us right after that and I didn’t notice anything then.”
“Then I guess we’ll see what he’s like on Monday.” She shook her head. “After Emmy and Sandy, it would be perfect if my internship blew up because I didn’t want to date some asshole.”
I wondered if I should say what I was going to say for half a second before it popped out of my mouth. “The funny thing is that if this were a Bond movie you’d have seduced the guy.”
Giving me a twisted smile, she said, “There’s a male fantasy if you ever saw one. No, I’m too honest with myself to play the femme fatale. Can you imagine pretending you like someone enough to build a relationship with them? It wouldn’t be worth it.”
I nodded. “I don’t have any idea how to go about it.”
She stopped, looking out at Lake Michigan and then back at me. “I don’t want you to, but I wish you had the skills to do it. There will be a lot of times where we’ll have to talk people into telling us things they shouldn’t. You don’t have to seduce them to make that happen. All you have to do is seem like someone who cares about them. Stapledon has a track where you learn espionage. Half of it is listening. Try doing that, okay?”
Having stopped next to her, I said, “Sure.”
I’d stared out at Lake Michigan many times as a result of living in Grand Lake. It looked like it always did—dark enough that it was impossible to see the bottom and wide enough that it might as well be an ocean.
“And that,” Stephanie said, “brings us back to where we were before you mentioned Victor. How do you want to play this?”
“Friends—close enough that we hang out sometimes, but not exes or even pretend friends with benefits.”
“I thought you might say that.” She glanced up the beach toward the old hotel and all the people on the lawn drinking. “I think that’s the best option for you. You’re better off telling as much of the truth as you can. That’s why we took this walk.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Look,” she continued, “pretending to be dating offers us the most flexibility. I don’t think you’d be able to sell it unless you were actually dating me, but you know what you can sell? Awkwardly denying we have a relationship. We just walked down the beach together in full view of everybody. We’re going to disappear together a lot, partly because I’m in charge of interns, partly because of what we’re doing.
“They’ll never believe our denials, but we’ll both be telling the truth. We’ll get all the benefits of dating without having to pretend we’re doing it. It’s perfect.”
Meeting her eyes, I asked, “Are you always this sneaky?”
She shrugged. “We’re infiltrating a company that might be controlled by the Nine. We need ‘sneaky.’ I adapt. You should too.”
I stared out at the lake, thinking about its unknown depths. “Victor’s going to be pissed.”
Swinging her shoes in her left hand, she looked out across the water. Though still high in the sky, the sun had begun to dip toward it.
“I’ll handle him.”
* * *
The red Porsche’s engine roared as Vaughn drove it down the freeway that ran around Grand Lake.
“That’s crazy,” Vaughn shook his head. “I’m impressed, though. She’s definitely playing to your strengths. Especially now that you know that people won’t believe you, you’re going to look awkward and guilty every time someone asks if you’re going out. That’s some next-level manipulation there. Be glad she’s on our side.”