No Stone Unturned – Julie Moffett

Lexi If my mom texted me a picture of my own engagement ring one more time, I was going to lose it. Apparently she was trying to send them to her best friend, Candi Schmidt, but Mom and her new phone were still coming to an understanding, so she’d texted me the same picture seven times in the last five minutes. It was my picture to start with, and I’d only sent it to her after she bugged me for a week, threatening that if she didn’t get a photo, she’d post an engagement announcement on my behalf in the Washington Post. That horrified me enough to snap a photo of my ring and send it to her. Unfortunately she now wanted to share it with all her friends, which essentially meant the entire greater DC area. I had seriously been considering hacking her phone so it went exactly nowhere, but it seemed that wasn’t necessary. For now, I gritted my teeth and tried to be happy that the photo was coming back to me, over and over, instead of to her ginormous circle of friends. My phone dinged again, but I ignored it. Mom was just excited for me, but she was telling everyone about my engagement, while I’ve struggled with telling anyone, even close friends and family. Her enthusiasm was starting to make me feel weird about the mixed-up feelings I was having about getting engaged. I’m a geek girl who loathes attention, and telling people that Slash and I are engaged inevitably leads to screams, hugs and a thousand questions about a wedding I haven’t even thought about yet. The stress was getting so acute that not even reciting Carl Friedrich Gauss’s Theory of Reciprocity could take the edge off my social anxiety. My name is Lexi Carmichael and my life was a bit weird even before I got engaged. My fiancé and I are both uberhackers—me for a private cyber intelligence company called X-Corp and Slash for the NSA. His nickname is short for backslash in hacker lingo, and only a few people know his real name because of the covert nature of his intelligence work.

He’s recently taken a much more visible position, and is now the youngest director of the Information Assurance Directorate in NSA history, followed around the clock by his own special Secret Service detail. My own job isn’t exactly lacking in excitement either. X-Corp is based in DC, but despite the virtual nature of my job, I travel a lot to secure my clients’ assets. I used to think that being an expert in cybersecurity meant a safe, quiet job behind a desk. I’ve discovered that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a new world out there, and security is more often than not managed by strokes on a keyboard. Since humans are often the weak link in cybersecurity, I’ve had to do considerable work with people to keep data safe and secure. All that means both Slash and I are at the forefront of protecting national security, as well as business interests. It sometimes puts a strain on our relationship, but we decided to take it to the next level and commit ourselves to each other anyway. At this particular moment, national security wasn’t even on my radar.

Instead I was focused on the engagement party Slash had informed me was inevitable. As the news of our engagement filtered out, our friends and family wanted to see us in person to congratulate us and see the new house we’d recently moved into together. Although we’d planned the party for this Friday, I was obsessing and stressing because this would be the first one I’d ever thrown in my own house. Slash was helping, which meant we were muddling along, trying not to kill each other in the process. “Do we really have to allow people to bring a guest?” I asked him for the third time, studying the spreadsheet while chewing on the eraser at the top of my pencil. We were sitting at the counter with mugs of coffee and a printed spreadsheet of all the things we had to do for the party. I’d carefully divided the spreadsheet into three parts—my responsibilities, Slash’s jobs and our joint tasks. Inviting people was part of our joint-task column, so here we were, hammering it out. He glanced up from the spreadsheet and my breath caught in my throat. He was unquestionably the best-looking guy I’d ever dated.

Okay, he was pretty much the only guy I’d ever dated seriously. Still, when he spoke with his sexy Italian accent and gazed at me with his deep brown eyes, all logic left my brain. I knew that sometimes he used that to his advantage. His mouth quirked slightly at the corner, probably because he could see the glazed look coming into my eyes. Yep, Seduction 101, that’s exactly what he was doing. Even though I was fully aware of it, it was still working. “Your brothers have girlfriends, right?” he replied. “Guest plus one is standard.” “Who cares about plus one?” I groused. “I don’t even know who their girlfriends are this week.

” He didn’t respond, so I let out a loud huff of annoyance before reluctantly adding two extra people as the unknown guests of my brothers. “We’ve already got sixteen people, including my parents. It’s too many guests. We’ll never fit them all.” “We have a big house, cara. We’ll fit and have room to spare. Besides, it’s possible some people won’t come. You can stop worrying.” I’d never stop worrying, because I’d rather endure a dozen Microsoft patches than attend a party. But here we were—party planning central.

Forcing myself to keep my mind on the task at hand, I resumed studying the spreadsheets. “Do I have to iron napkins?” I asked. Slash looked up from the spreadsheet. “What?” “The napkins. The book said formal events required ironed napkins. But now that I think about it, we don’t have napkins to be ironed.” Slash started to say something and then shut his mouth. After another beat, he asked, “What book?” “Party Planning for Dummies. They have separate chapters for formal and informal events. Formal events require cloth napkins.

Do I need to buy some? More importantly, I’ve never ironed a napkin before and the book isn’t terribly clear on how to do it properly.” Slash put his hand over mine, stopping me before I could write it down. “We are not buying or ironing cloth napkins. This is not a formal gathering. This is a casual party with close friends and family. It’s being catered, so we need to do little more than show up.” “Easy for you to say. You don’t mind the showing up part.” “I like it better than the party planning part, I admit.” He put a hand on my back and made circles with his fingers.

“We’ve got this. We’ll email the invites, pay the caterer, keep the house clean, and we’re done. People will come, congratulate us, look at the house, eat, drink and make small talk. One evening—over and out.” He made it sound easy. I only hoped he was right. In hindsight, I should have known better. Nothing is ever easy when it involves me. Chapter Two Lexi Every time there was an occasion that called for something fancier than jeans or work clothes, my anxiety skyrocketed. Part of the problem was I don’t understand fashion.

At. All. Hemlines, necklines, and sleeves—short, half-length, or otherwise—completely mystify me. Trying to match shoes and purses scares me. Being in a room with people looking completely put together with expertly applied makeup and perfectly coiffured hair is like my own personal hell. But sometimes, it was time to suck it up and deal. My engagement party was one of those times. Sighing, I pushed away the doubts and pulled on a white sundress that Basia helped me pick out, along with a cropped baby-blue cardigan that was remarkably close to the color of the rare blue diamond in my engagement ring. I added a small pair of silver earrings and debated whether to pull my long brown hair up in a ponytail. I wanted to, but since this was an informally formal event, I left it down.

I swiped on some lip gloss and mascara, then paced nervously while Slash finished shaving. He patted on some aftershave and stepped into the bedroom, pulling on a white, short-sleeved buttonup shirt, watching me with an amused look on his face. “You’re lovely.” I looked at myself in the mirror for the millionth time and tried to tug the neckline higher. “I’m overdressed and I’m in white. I’m a disaster waiting to happen. I should have worn jeans.” I stuffed my hands in the dress pockets so I wouldn’t bite my nails. “You’re not overdressed, I promise.” Our eyes met in the mirror and he smiled.

“Cara, look, if you’re feeling overwhelmed at the party, just squeeze my hand twice, and I’ll figure a way to extract you. Remember, close friends and family, okay?” “And unnamed guests.” Anxiety coursed through me. “I don’t understand how we got so many friends in such a short period of time. I was perfectly fine with only three friends for the past two years. The ratio had better not grow at the same rate over the next year or so, or we’ll need two houses to hold everyone.” He thought I was joking, but only partially. I really did require a lot of personal space. He chuckled and walked over to me while buttoning his shirt. Cupping my chin in his hand, he lowered his lips to mine, kissing me.

Mmmm…he smelled like aftershave and soap. When he leaned back, I wound my arms around his waist, pressing my head against his chest. “Want to cancel?” he murmured. “Yes. I really do. But we won’t. I really do like all of our friends, it’s just that I’m not sure I like them all here at the same time. If you’re with me, I’ll make it through.” “Okay, then. Let me finish dressing and we’ll go downstairs.

People will be arriving shortly.” My parents were the first to arrive, twenty minutes early. No surprise there. My dad was a highpowered attorney in Georgetown and he’s habitually early to ensure he’s punctual. He’s also wicked observant, which helped hone his interrogation skills, but also meant I never got away with anything growing up. After a lot of awkward hugs and a grand tour of the house, Slash and my dad disappeared into the kitchen to get beer. That left me alone with my mom, a former beauty pageant queen and social butterfly. If there was a television show for the Rich Housewives of Georgetown, she’d be one of the stars. I turned toward her, trying to look like I was totally excited about the party and having everyone over. After that failed, I decided to modify and aim for looking like I didn’t want to run out of the house screaming.

That was far more achievable. “Oh, you look so pretty, Lexi.” She fussed with my hair, arranging it on my shoulders. After that she studied my ring for a long time, then beamed with happiness. “Love looks good on you. Have you and Slash set a date for the wedding yet?” “No.” “So we’re clear—you are not eloping, young lady.” She narrowed her eyes at me. “I would never forgive you.” It was scary how accurate my mom was at reading my mind.

I tried not to look guilty, but she probably saw through that. “Mom, we haven’t even thought about the wedding yet. We’ve got a lot of other stuff going on right now.” “What could be more important than a wedding? Your house is beautiful, the furniture is lovely— although a bit modern for my taste—and you both have well-paying jobs. Get on with it already. Although, it is kind of strange those people follow you around all the time.” “They’re Secret Service agents, and they’re just doing their job.” It was hard for me to be annoyed about this comment when I was still coming to terms with them being parked in front of our house whenever Slash was home. I automatically looked toward the window, wondering which team was on duty tonight. “If you say so.

Look, darling, let me give you a piece of advice. Don’t make Slash wait forever.” I tried to keep the exasperation out of my voice. “Mom, we just got engaged a few weeks ago. Can’t we enjoy that for a while?” “Of course you can enjoy it. Just enjoy it while you’re planning your wedding.” She reached forward, adjusting one of my earrings, then stepped back and examined me. Mom was a perfectionist. Her blonde hair was long, shiny and expertly styled and she always knew just what clothes to wear to show off her best features. Tonight she wore a form-fitting red dress with a scoop back and dangling diamond earrings that caught the light and sparkled every time she moved.

She was gorgeous. Sometimes it was hard being her daughter, because people who hadn’t met me expected a lot more than a lanky, brown-haired girl who was into math and computers and didn’t care much about clothes and makeup. “Remember, the best wedding venues fill up fast,” she continued as if she hadn’t heard my protest. “Your father and I have a lot of social contacts, but we’ll need plenty of lead time to get you what you want.” “We don’t even know what we want.” That was true, but we were both one-hundred percent certain whatever it was we wanted, it would not be what my mom had in mind. She was all about pomp and pageantry, while Slash and I were way too private and minimalist for that. “Well, at least we’ll go shopping for your wedding dress soon,” she said. “I’ve already bought several bridal magazines for us to flip through so we can determine what you’re thinking about in terms of style.” The mere thought of flipping through a bridal magazine filled me with such dread, I shuddered.

“I also sent you that link to the online wedding dress style quiz last week,” she continued, oblivious to my horror. “Why haven’t you taken it yet?” Jeez! That was it! I had to get out of there right now. “Ah, excuse me, Mom. I need a drink.” I executed a sharp turn and made a beeline for the kitchen. My dad and Slash were leaning against the kitchen counter, drinking beer and laughing about something. Ever since Slash proposed, my dad had relaxed his constant interrogation tactics and had started to enjoy Slash’s company. Thank God for small miracles. It did make things between us a lot more comfortable. I still had to be on my guard, though, because while my dad understands me a lot better than my mom, I knew he wouldn’t side with me on any wedding-related drama.

I was on my own for that, and prepared for lots of it, because everyone knew that nothing brought out the family drama more than a wedding. Thank God Slash was from Italy where most of his family resided, except for his mom and stepfather—who I’d never met. Yet. They’d moved from Italy to London when Slash started working at the Vatican. Either way, their location in another country was a plus for me, and possibly for him, too. An ocean away was a comfortable distance, in my opinion. In my case, it meant I had to deal with only one set of relatives at a time. I reached for the wine when the doorbell rang. Slash and I exchanged a glance. He held out a hand and I took it.

Together we walked into the foyer and opened the door. Grayson Reese stood there smiling. She was a CIA analyst and one of the few people willing to discuss quantitative research with me. Maybe we could hide in a corner and talk about the new trends in research statistics and evaluation. Just anything non-wedding related. Her brown hair was loose and curled and she wore a cute black dress and heeled strappy sandals. Her boyfriend, Hands—his Navy SEAL nickname—was nowhere in sight. “Lexi! Slash!” She launched herself into our arms for a hug, and I caught the faint scent of strawberries. “It’s been way too long since I’ve seen you guys. Congratulations on your engagement and the new house.

I can’t wait to hear all about your wedding plans.” I swallowed my disappointment as my dream of huddling in the corner with her and talking about anything except a wedding vanished in a poof. “So, where’s Hands?” I distinctly remembered him being on the list that had RSVP’d for this evening. “I’m sorry,” she said shoving a bottle of wine into my hands. “He got deployed unexpectedly. I hope it’s okay I came solo.” “It’s more than okay,” Slash said with a smile, ushering her into the house. “We’re glad you could make it.” The next half hour was a whirlwind as people continued to arrive in clusters. Suddenly my house was full of people and more were still arriving and I had to recite the periodic table backward so I didn’t freak out.

Slash handled everything with amazing calm and charm, so I gladly let him do most of the talking. I envied him that, in spite of his own deep introversion, he could dazzle people so effortlessly. I disappeared into the kitchen to chat a while with my older brother, Beau, a detective for Baltimore Police Department, about a case he was working that had some interesting cyber elements. When I walked out into the living room again, I clutched my wineglass and looked for Slash. He immediately made eye contact with me, clearly assessing my mood. It warmed my heart that he could gauge my anxiety level so well without us even having to speak. He smiled as I approached and slid an arm around my waist, pulling me close and taking my hand, giving me the chance to squeeze my way out of the party. I was doing okay, so I didn’t signal, but I loved him for thinking of it. I gave him a brave smile, leaning into him and soaking up his warmth. He brushed a kiss against my cheek.

When he did that, it felt like it was just the two of us in the room. He’d been speaking in Italian to a couple who were friends of Slash’s family. As soon as I arrived, they switched effortlessly to English. I admired people who could do that without missing a beat. I chatted with them for a bit until my mom and dad pulled me aside. “Lexi, you and Slash did a lovely job with the party,” my mom said. “I have to say, the caterer is to die for. The house is lovely as well. You’ll have plenty of room to grow here, especially when you have children.” I choked on my wine.

“Mom, we haven’t even got married yet.” “And your point is? You don’t have to be married to get pregnant, you know. Although we’d better not have to go shopping for a maternity-style wedding dress. But as soon as you’ve walked down that aisle, you should start working on my grandchildren. I don’t intend to be an old grandmother.” She glanced around the room. “Where’s Slash? He needs to hear this, too.” I opened my mouth to respond when I heard a sound like popcorn being popped, only louder. “Get down,” Slash yelled as the lights went off. I turned toward his voice just before he slammed into me, my mom, and dad, bringing all three of us to the floor in a jumble of limbs.

My elbow smashed into something soft and I heard my dad yelp. I gasped as my hip banged against the floor. “Ouch! Slash, what’s going on?” “Stay down.” Slash rolled off me and came to a crouch. I crawled toward my mom, lying protectively on one side of her, with my dad on the other. She was shaking. I patted her shoulder awkwardly. “Lexi, are we going to be okay?” she whispered. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see Slash creeping toward the window, his hand resting beneath his sports coat, where I knew he had a gun. Why the heck was someone shooting at us during our engagement party? Did someone want to hurt Slash? I swallowed my concerns, tried to be the calm and collected hostess.

“Don’t worry,” I whispered to my mom. “Slash has everything under control.” My dad made a noise between a grunt and a sigh. Not quite disbelieving, but not happy either. I just held my breath and hoped I was right. Chapter Three Slash Slash swore softly in Italian as he headed for the window. He and Lexi didn’t live normal lives, but he’d promised her father he’d keep her safe, and this wasn’t helping his case. “Everyone stay down,” he ordered, his hand resting on the gun in the shoulder holster beneath his jacket. He’d already loosened the strap, but he didn’t want to draw it and scare everyone. He first needed to determine the level of danger.

The noise had faded and all he could hear were faint pops. Not firearms, but something else. Something familiar. His phone was vibrating but he ignored it. He figured they were multiple warnings from the security camera feeds warning him that the side perimeter of his house had been penetrated, and the audio and motion-activated feeds he had surrounding the house had been tripped. He also would have received alerts from his Secret Service detail. He didn’t read any of them; none of them were more critical than a situational awareness of what was happening at the moment. As soon as the noise had sounded, someone, probably Beau, had hit the lights in the living room. Someone else had turned off the lights in the dining room and kitchen, plunging the house into darkness. Of er no easy or illuminated targets—an operational countermeasure.

He scrutinized the front windows, illuminated by the moon outside. No evidence that any bullets had tried to penetrate the glass, not that they would have succeeded. The windows in the house were all bulletproof, one of the concessions he’d made to the government so the agents who followed him around were not also assigned to live in his basement. “Stay calm and don’t move yet,” he urged the guests as he approached the window. “I’m just going to check things out.” He cleared his mind, listening and assessing the noise outside. It came from the left front of the house in a rapid staccato before abruptly dying off. He immediately pictured the entire schematics of every inch of his yard, including bushes, hedges, trees, and located the approximate position of the noise. When he got to the window, he saw what had made the sounds, confirming his earlier suspicion. He rose from his crouch, letting his hand drop from beneath his jacket.

“It isn’t gunfire.” “Car backfiring?” Beau asked from across the room. “Firecrackers,” he said. He walked away from the window toward the kitchen. It was time to check it out for himself. “Firecrackers? That’s unusual,” Beau said. “Not part of the party, I suppose.” “No.” Slash considered the potential threat firecrackers could hold. It was little to none, but required investigation just the same.

“However, out of an abundance of caution, please stay where you are and keep the lights off until I give the all clear.” He strode toward the kitchen and Beau followed him. “What’s going on?” Beau asked him as he rooted around in a drawer for a flashlight and snapped it on. “I don’t know. The Secret Service agents are already checking it out. I’m going out.” “Whoa. Is that your best move?” Beau asked. “Someone could be trying to draw you out.” He withdrew his gun from his shoulder holster.

“I’ll be ready. Stay here and secure the front and rear accesses to the house. Let’s make sure the firecrackers aren’t a distraction to something else. You have your service weapon?” Beau lifted his jacket. “Armed and ready.” “Good.” Slash disabled the alarm on the kitchen door and went out low. As he crept closer to the wooden gate that opened up to the side of the house, the soft voices of the agents became audible. He spoke quietly, calmly. “It’s me, code-named Capri.

I came out to see what’s going on.” He carefully opened the gate and stepped into the side yard. The two Secret Service agents were waiting for him, John August and Mick Calhoun, their guns aimed his way. As soon as they saw him, they lowered their weapons. “What are you doing out here, sir?” August asked. He holstered his weapon while taking a defensive position in front of Slash. “Sorry to startle you, gentlemen,” Slash said, keeping his back against the house. “I appreciate your professionalism, but I saw the firecrackers and came to investigate. I need to be front and center in getting this sorted out as quickly as possible.” The agents stared at him and didn’t move.

Were they really going to make him say this aloud? He cleared his throat, glad it was dark and they couldn’t see his face well. “My future in-laws are in there, and they aren’t impressed.” A look of understanding, perhaps even sympathy, crossed their faces, but they were trained agents and didn’t budge from their positions. “I understand, but this isn’t protocol, sir,” August argued. “You should be inside. We have backup on the way.” He had no intention of going back inside until he had a thorough understanding of what had happened. Even if they didn’t like it. “Until backup gets here, let’s evaluate the situation. What happened?” A quick glance confirmed there was little left of the fireworks other than a charred box, the soft rise of smoke and the acrid smell of sulfur.

His mind rapidly sorted through several things at once. The number of firecrackers, the wooden container and the precise location it had been placed— close enough to the house to be both seen and heard. Not a threat. A message. “As you can see, someone set off fireworks,” Calhoun said. He kept staring at Slash, as if weighing how successful he’d be if he forcibly tried to drag him back into the house and to safety. Wisely, he decided not to try. “We didn’t see any vehicles on the street and no one on foot, but the fireworks didn’t set themselves off. Could have been kids.” “Could have been,” Slash said, although he didn’t agree with that assessment.

“I felt the vibration of the perimeter alarms on my phone shortly before the fireworks went off. I’ll check the security camera feeds when I go back inside.” “Excellent. We’ll wait for the back-up agents, then review them with you, if that would be acceptable.” “It would. For now, let’s spread out and see if we can find any clues.” Slash clicked on his flashlight. “You’re really not going back inside, sir?” Calhoun asked. “I am not.” August looked disappointed.

“You do know that if anything happens to you, our careers are in the toilet.” He didn’t say it aloud, but if he didn’t get a handle on this situation, his relationship with his future in-laws would be in the toilet. They had so far dealt with the risks that were a part of his job with as much grace and aplomb as they could. But the additional risk he brought to the table that came with his position at the NSA was proving to be a sticking point, especially with her father. Slash clapped him on the shoulder. “Then, let’s get to work to make sure that doesn’t happen.”


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