Morgan Slater hadn’t planned on rocking any boats. Hers was a simple Quest for the Truth, and emotional complications had no place in her careful itinerary. But secrets create complications. Out in the back of beyond, life is fraught with emotional landmines for a simple city girl. Blake Thornton has the look that speaks a relentless pursuit of truth. His unremitting suspicions draw her into a web of deceit and conflict and challenge everything she believes in. As Morgan’s life turns inside out, she discovers a truth she never believed was possible.
Morgan held her breath, and her calm expression, waiting for Rose to finish.
“Now this could, of course, just be who you are. A private person who doesn’t share easily, especially with strangers. But I also do have to take into account that Blake is genuinely concerned about me. The obvious antagonism between the two of you makes this a real issue. So I have to ask, why is Blake so hell bent on making sure this doesn’t happen?”
Morgan shrugged, her frustration pent in that single small gesture.
“There’s not much point in re-hashing every run in,” she said, choosing her words carefully. What she wanted, really, was to lash out, to vent in the strongest possible way, but that would blow it completely. Grimly, quietly, she managed to remain calm. “All I can say is that he seems to have developed a ridiculous fixation with the idea that I’m up to something, that I have some kind of hidden agenda that spells doom and gloom for everyone.”
“And where, Ms. Slater, do you think that comes from?” “I’m not sure. But I think maybe it’s got a lot to do with the fact that he was way out of line the first time we met, that he made all sorts of totally wrong assumptions and acted without thinking them through. That he’s not used to anyone standing up to him and giving him exactly what he’s so quick to hand out. And that there is no way in hell that he’s ever going to admit that he was wrong.”
“Because I’m not.”
It was a calm, quiet statement of fact, but it seemed to explode into the little silence that followed Morgan’s last words. Blake had surprised her, that much was clear. He noticed, with grim satisfaction, the quick expression that flashed across her face, not guilty exactly, more like defensive, like he’d hit a nerve. He pulled out a chair and calmly sat down.
Morgan recovered well, pushing aside the initial sense of having been thoroughly busted and replacing it with what she hoped was a bold and challenging stare.
“Well lookee here,” she said brightly. “It’s the Protector of the Realm, resplendent in his mantle of chivalry, riding to the rescue of the helpless and downtrodden.”
Blake grabbed himself a mug and calmly filled it with black tea, stirring it slowly while he gauged her recovery. He guessed, correctly, that she had made it now well and truly back on the offensive.
“You’re up to something, alright,” he continued, softly, normally, like he was discussing the weather. Rationally, even. Ignoring what she thought was a rather clever jibe, given that she’d been caught on the back foot. “Your being here is proof of that, sneaking around behind my back, going directly to Rose when you know full well that I’m the one handling this for her.”
“That’s not entirely fair, Blake,” Rose chipped in before Morgan could respond. “I called her, actually.”
“You did?” The sharpness of it betrayed his surprise.
Morgan suppressed a chuckle. Obviously he’d decided that his chat with Rose had been enough to settle things the way he wanted them settled.
“Yes,” she said smugly, using the moment for all it was worth and letting him see how much she enjoyed his discomfort. “She did. And as for my sneaking around…” She paused, letting the weighty sarcasm hang for a moment. “If you weren’t so absorbed in jumping to conclusions yet again, you might actually remember that I’ve made a couple things very clear. First, I’m not going to pander to your paranoia, or indulge your ridiculous conspiracy theories. And second, I’m sure as hell not going to let you, or whatever issues you might have, get in my way.”
“Granted,” he responded, but there was little comfort in the determined set to his chin, or the fierce blue eyes boring into hers. “But that’s probably the only thing you’ve been honest about. I know, and you know, that there’s way more going on here than you’re willing to share. My gut tells me you’re hiding something, and I intend finding out what that is. And why.”
“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” Rose said soothingly.
“No,” Morgan agreed, a dangerous gleam sliding through her eyes, which she quickly extinguished. She flung up her hands in a gesture of frustration and surrender. “I can see that my only option is to level with you, put it all out there, reveal this huge and terrible secret I’ve been trying so hard to hide.”
A quick glance at Blake, a satisfied smirk just teasing at his mouth, gave her all the encouragement she needed. She had him. One slam-dunk coming up.
“Blake’s right. It’s something really awful, something that will alter the course of your lives forever. Not just yours, everyone’s.” A quiet pause as if to gather her thoughts, and her courage, and a carefully executed study of her fingers laced with apparent nervousness on the table. “The truth is…I suppose there really is no easy way to say this…” She lifted a hand to tug at her long dark hair. “This is actually a disguise. In reality I’m an alien. My name is Maligna, and I’m really a man, a high-ranking officer in the imperial army of the planet Gorgonzola. I’ve been sent here to find a remote farmhouse to use as headquarters, from which we intend to launch our invasion. The purpose is to enslave the human race, and to take back the wealth of your planet for our emperor, His Imperial Majesty Pullahoaxa the third.”
The effect was beyond her wildest dreams. Blake, the taste of victory so incredibly close, had been rendered utterly speechless. She could see his anger and sheer frustration etched on his face. Rose simply blinked once or twice, then erupted in a peal of delighted laughter which clearly didn’t help his mood any. Triumphant, Morgan leaned back and crossed her arms, as if waiting with studied patience for him to recover his wits. It just had to be her greatest moment ever!
“Very clever,” he said finally, a brittle edge of sarcasm creeping in.
“Very,” Rose agreed, still chuckling. “I like your humour, Morgan Slater.”
Morgan could see Blake battling his instinctive retaliation. She guessed that he pretty much wanted to explode and half hoped that he would. It might be ugly, but at least he would get to paint himself in a not-so-pretty light, which might just tip the scales further in her favour. She was tempted to rub it in, goad him a little, but she was the victor after all, and it wouldn’t hurt to be just a little magnanimous.