"He's to be your official contact, since he knows the intricacies of the case far better than I. And no, young lady, he will not be watching you work in Nebraska. He'll be close enough for you to summon with a quick tap of the telegraph, but we don't expect it to be necessary until you've found sufficient evidence to identify the boy. Otherwise, you'll have no need of law enforcement. You're in no danger. Pitch may want his son—and that tintype, if he knows she has it—but there's not a single indication he's anywhere near Nebraska."
The restaurant door unlatched, and a frigid gust curled around Abby's nape. The Kansas City operative was here. She spun in her seat.
A tall man in a snow-dusted gray coat paused in the threshold. He dipped his head to remove his hat, revealing mussed dark blond hair curling over his ears and collar. She shifted, preparing to rise and shake his hand. But then the man looked up at her and she couldn't stand, much less breathe.
"Here he is, Miss Bracey. Meet Dashiell Lassiter."
She didn't require the information. The name Dash Lassiter was as familiar to her as her own, but one she hadn't expected to hear ever again. The instant she regained the ability to move, her molars ground together.
His light eyes widened, then narrowed as he joined their table. "Abby? Is it really you?"
Had he forgotten what she looked like in six years? Bile filled her throat. "Yes."
"What are you—I mean, how are you?"
She could not give him an honest answer and remain civil at the same time. Instead she rounded on Mr. Welch. "You said there was no one better than I for this teaching assignment. I agree. I will find that boy and that tintype. But I cannot work with this man, so I respectfully insist you assign someone else to me. Anyone else."
Someone else," Dash repeated, unsure he'd heard Abby correctly. But her spine was stiff as a flagpole, and she stared at Welch like her existence depended on it. Yessir, he'd heard her, all right.
He couldn't help it. He started to laugh.
"Is something amusing?" Abby's face was pink.
He couldn't answer, for laughing. His summons hadn't included the name of the teacher the Secret Service would be using. He never dreamed it would be her. Of course, being back in Chicago, he wondered if she still lived here. He assumed she'd be married by now, with a child or two. It had been six years since he left. Six years since his heart—that part of him that felt things, not the organ of the same name—had stopped beating.
Seeing her again, he had to laugh or cry, and frankly, it wasn't just her reaction to him that was hilarious. He'd always been an idiot when it came to Abigail Bracey.
He swiped a single bead of moisture from his right eye—a stupid response that happened when he laughed. Abby used to swipe away those single teardrops with her soft little thumb and say they were diamonds of joy.
Well, that memory sobered him up. "Nice to see you too, Abby."
"Have a seat." Welch indicated with a dip of his coffee cup that Dash should pull out a chair. Probably because they were being observed. By the delicious aroma of fresh-brewed coffee meeting Dash's nose, the waiter lurked behind him, pot in hand.
Dash lowered his too-long frame into the chair at the too-small table. His knees knocked Abby's and she shifted away from him.
"Would you care for a menu, sir?" The waiter's brows arched like upside-down U's.
"Coffee's fine, thank you."
The waiter filled his cup and topped off Welch's and Abby's. She took a dainty sip. The color had receded from her cheeks, leaving her face pale, a stark contrast to the study in serviceable brown she made. Brown hair pinned at the nape beneath a brown bonnet. Brown jacket buttoned to her chin. Brown eyes studiously avoiding him. "As I was saying, I'd like to work with a different operative."
"No," Dash stated.
"No." Welch's tone was kinder. "This is Lassiter's case, Miss Bracey, and his orders come from Washington."
She gave a dainty shrug. "I cannot work with him."
He gulped his coffee and scalded his tongue. That'd hurt later. "Perhaps you don't understand, Abby, but I'm the one whose sources risked their lives to give me information. I am the one who traveled a thousand miles to learn our subject's given name. I am the one who has studied his habits longer than anyone in the service. I am the only one to be worked with, so I suppose we must find a different teacher to go to Nebraska to locate Pitch's boy. One with more experience."