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Authors: Anna Zaires

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BOOK: Claim Me
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3

L
ucas

I
wake
up Friday morning with a throbbing headache that adds to my fury. I’ve barely slept—Diego and Eduardo kept sending me hourly updates on their search for Yulia—and it takes two cups of coffee before I start feeling semi-human.

As I’m getting ready to leave the kitchen, Rosa walks in, dressed in jeans instead of her usual conservative maid’s outfit.

“Oh, hi, Lucas,” she says. “I was just looking for you.”

“Oh?” I try not to glower at the girl. I still feel bad that I had to squash her little crush on me. It’s not Rosa’s fault that my prisoner escaped, and I don’t want to take out my shitty mood on the girl.

“Señor Esguerra said I can explore the city today if I take a guard with me,” Rosa says, watching me warily. She must’ve picked up on my anger despite my attempts to look calm. “Is there anybody you could spare?”

I consider her request. Truthfully, the answer is no. I don’t want to take any guards away from Nora’s parents’ house, and fifteen minutes ago, Esguerra texted me that he’s taking Nora to a park, which means he’ll need at least a dozen of our men to be in position there.

“I’m going to Chicago today,” I say after a moment of deliberation. “I have a meeting there. You can come with me if you don’t mind waiting for a bit. Afterwards, I’ll take you wherever you want to go, and by lunchtime, one of the other guys will be available to replace me—assuming you want to stay in the city longer than a couple of hours, that is.”

“Oh, I…” A flush darkens Rosa’s bronzed skin, even as her eyes brighten with excitement. “Are you sure I wouldn’t be imposing? I don’t have to go today if—”

“It’s all right.” I remember what the girl told me on Wednesday about having never been to the United States before. “I’m sure you’re eager to see the city, and I don’t mind.”

Maybe her company will get my mind off Yulia and the fact that my prisoner is still on the loose.

R
osa chatters nonstop
as we drive to Chicago, telling me all about the various Chicago trivia she’s read online.

“And did you know that it’s named the Windy City because of politicians who were full of hot air?” she says as I turn onto West Adams Street in downtown Chicago and pull into the underground parking garage of a tall glass-and-steel building. “It has nothing to do with the actual wind coming off the lake. Isn’t that crazy?”

“Yes, amazing,” I say absentmindedly, checking my phone as I get out of the car. To my disappointment, there’s no new update from Diego. Putting the phone away, I walk around the car and open the door for Rosa.

“Come,” I say. “I’m already five minutes late.”

Rosa hurries after me as I walk to the elevator. She takes two steps for every one of mine, and I can’t help comparing her bouncy walk to Yulia’s long-limbed, graceful stride. The maid is not quite as petite as Esguerra’s wife, but she still looks short to me—especially since I’ve gotten used to Yulia’s model-like height.

Fucking stop thinking of her.
My hands clench in my pockets as I wait for the elevator to arrive, only half-listening to Rosa chattering about the Magnificent Mile. The spy is like a splinter under my skin. No matter what I do, I can’t get her off my mind. Compulsively, I pull out my phone and check it again.

Still nothing.

“So what is your meeting about?” Rosa asks, and I realize she’s staring up at me expectantly. “Is it something for Señor Esguerra?”

“No,” I say, slipping the phone back into my pocket. “It’s for me.”

“Oh.” She looks deflated at my curt reply, and I sigh, reminding myself that I shouldn’t take out my frustration on the girl. She has nothing to do with Yulia and the whole fucked-up situation.

“I’m meeting with my portfolio manager,” I say as the elevator doors slide open. “I just need to catch up on my investments.”

“Oh, I see.” Rosa grins as we step into the elevator. “You have investments, like Señor Esguerra.”

“Yes.” I press the button for the top floor. “This guy is his portfolio manager as well.”

The elevator whooshes upward, all sleek steel and gleaming surfaces, and less than a minute later, we’re stepping out into an equally sleek and modern reception area.

For a twenty-six-year-old guy born in the projects, Jared Winters certainly leads a good life.

His receptionist, a slim Japanese woman of indeterminate age, stands up as we approach.

“Mr. Kent,” she says, giving me a polite smile. “Please, have a seat. Mr. Winters will be with you in a minute. May I offer you and your companion some refreshments?”

“None for me, thanks.” I glance at Rosa. “Would you like anything?”

“Um, no, thank you.” She’s staring at the floor-to-ceiling window and the city spread out below. “I’m good.”

Before I have a chance to sit down in one of the plush seats by the window, a tall, dark-haired man steps out of the corner office and approaches me.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Winters says, reaching out to shake my hand. His green eyes gleam coolly behind his frameless glasses. “I was just finishing up a call.”

“No worries. We’re a bit late ourselves.”

He smiles, and I see his gaze flick over to Rosa, who’s still standing there, seemingly mesmerized by the view outside.

“Your girlfriend, I presume?” Winters says quietly, and I blink, surprised by the personal question.

“No,” I say, following him as he walks back toward his office. “More like my assignment for the next couple of hours.”

“Ah.” Winters doesn’t say anything else, but as we enter his office, I see him glance back at Rosa, as if unable to help himself.

4

Y
ulia


Y
ulia Tzakova
?”

My heart leaps into my throat as I spin around, my hand automatically clutching the knife tucked into my jeans.

There is a dark-haired man standing in front of me. He looks average in every way; even his sunglasses and cap are standard issue. He could’ve been anyone in the busy Villavicencio marketplace, but he’s not.

He’s Obenko’s Venezuelan contact.

“Yes,” I say, keeping my hand on the knife. “Are you Contreras?”

He nods. “Please follow me,” he says in Spanish-accented Russian.

I drop my hand from the knife handle and follow the man as he begins winding through the crowd. Like him, I’m wearing a cap and sunglasses—two items I stole at another gas station on the way here—but I still feel like someone might point at me and yell, “That’s her. That’s the spy Esguerra’s men are looking for.”

To my relief, nobody pays me much attention. In addition to the cap and sunglasses, I acquired a voluminous T-shirt and baggy jeans at that same gas station. With the shapeless clothes and my hair tucked into the cap, I look more like a teenage boy than a young woman.

Contreras leads me to a nondescript blue van parked on the street corner. “Where’s the vehicle you used to get here?” he asks as I climb into the back.

“I left it a dozen blocks from here, like Obenko instructed,” I say. I’ve spoken to my boss twice since my initial contact at Miraflores, and he gave me the location of this meeting and orders on how to proceed. “I don’t think I was followed.”

“Maybe not, but we need to get you out of the country in the next few hours,” Contreras says, starting the van. “Esguerra is expanding the net. They already have your picture at all the border crossings.”

“So how are you going to get me out?”

“There’s a crate in the back,” Contreras says as we pull out into the traffic. “And one of the border guards owes me a favor. With some luck, that will suffice.”

I nod, feeling the cold air from the van’s AC washing over my sweaty face. I drove all night, stopping only to steal another car and get the clothes, and I’m exhausted. I’ve been on the lookout for the sound of helicopter blades and the whine of sirens every minute I’ve been on the road. The fact that I’ve gotten this far without incident is nothing short of a miracle, and I know my luck could run out at any moment.

Still, even that fear is not enough to overcome my exhaustion. As Contreras’s van gets on the highway, heading northeast, I feel my eyelids closing, and I don’t fight the drugging pull of sleep.

I just need to nap for a few minutes, and then I’ll be ready to face whatever comes next.


W
ake up
, Yulia.”

The hushed urgency of Contreras’s tone yanks me out of a dream where I’m watching a movie with Lucas. My eyes snap open as I sit up and quickly take in the situation.

It’s already twilight, and we appear stuck in some kind of traffic.

“Where are we? What is this?”

“Roadblock,” Contreras says tersely. “They’re checking all the cars. You need to get in the crate, now.”

“Your border guard isn’t—”

“No, we’re still some twenty miles from the Venezuelan border. I don’t know what this roadblock is about, but it can’t be good.”

Shit.
I unbuckle my seatbelt and crawl through a small window into the back of the van. As Contreras said, there is a crate back there, but it looks far too small to fit a person. A child, maybe, but not a woman of my height.

Then again, in magic acts, they fit people into all kinds of seemingly too-small containers. That’s how the cut-in-half trick is often done: one flexible girl is the “upper body” and a second one is “legs.”

I’m not as flexible as a typical magician’s assistant, but I’m far more motivated.

Opening the crate, I lie down on my back and try to fold my legs in such a way that I’d be able to close the lid over me. After a couple of frustrating minutes, I concede that it’s an impossible task; my knees are at least five centimeters above the edge of the crate. Why did Contreras get a crate this small? A few centimeters deeper, and I would’ve been fine.

The van begins moving, and I realize we’re getting closer to the checkpoint. At any moment, the doors at the back of the van will open, and I’ll be discovered.

I need to fit into this fucking crate.

Gritting my teeth, I turn sideways and try to wedge my knees into the tiny space between my chest and the side of the crate. They don’t fit, so I suck in a breath and try again, ignoring the burst of pain in my kneecap as it bumps against the metal edge. As I struggle, I hear raised voices speaking Spanish and feel the van come to a stop again.

We’re at the checkpoint.

Frantic, I turn and grab the lid of the crate, pulling it over me with shaking hands.

There are footsteps, followed by voices at the back of the van.

They’re going to open the doors.

My heart pounding, I flatten myself into an impossibly tiny ball, squashing my breasts with my knees. Even with the numbing effects of adrenaline, my body screams with pain at the unnatural position.

The lid meets the edge of the crate, and the van doors swing open.

5

L
ucas

M
y meeting
with Winters takes just under an hour. We go over the current state of my investments and discuss how to proceed given the recent froth in the market. In the time that Jared Winters has been managing my portfolio, he’s tripled it to just over twelve million, so I’m not particularly concerned when he says he’s liquidating most of my equity holdings and getting ready to short a popular tech stock.

“The CEO is about to get in some serious legal trouble,” Winters explains, and I don’t bother asking how he knows that. Trading on insider information may be a crime, but our contacts at the SEC ensure that Winters’s fund is nowhere on their radar.

“How much are you putting behind the trade?” I ask.

“Seven million,” Winters replies. “It’s going to get ugly.”

“All right,” I say. “Go for it.”

Seven million is a sizable sum, but if the tech stock is about to drop as much as Winters thinks, it could easily be another triple or more.

We go over a few more upcoming trades, and then Winters walks me out to the reception area, where Rosa is reading a magazine.

“Ready to go?” I ask, and she nods.

Getting up, she places the magazine back on the coffee table and beams at me and Winters. “Definitely ready.”

“Thanks again,” I say, turning to shake Winters’s hand, but he’s not looking at me.

He’s staring at Rosa, his green gaze oddly intent.

“Winters?” I prod, amused.

He tears his eyes away from her. “Oh, yes. It was a pleasure,” he mutters, shaking my hand, and before I can say another word, he strides back into his office and shuts the door behind him.

A
s I promised Rosa
, after the meeting I take her shopping on the Magnificent Mile—also known as Michigan Avenue. As she tries on a bunch of dresses at a department store, I take a seat next to the fitting room and check my email again. This time, there’s a short message from Diego:

Located the stolen pick-up truck at a gas station near Granada. No other cars reported stolen for now. Blockades up at all the major roads as per your instructions.

I put the phone away, frustrated anger churning in my gut. They still haven’t found Yulia, and by now, she could be in another country. She has undoubtedly made contact with her agency, and depending on how resourceful they are, it’s entirely possible that they’ve smuggled her out.

For all I know, she’s already on a plane, flying to her lover.

“How do you like this?” Rosa asks, and I turn to see that she’s come out of the fitting room in a short, form-fitting yellow dress.

“It’s nice,” I say on autopilot. “You should get it.” Objectively, I can see that the dark-haired girl looks good in that dress, but all I can think about right now is the fact that Yulia may be on her way to Misha… to the man she truly loves.

“All right.” Rosa gives me a huge smile. “I will.”

She hurries back into the fitting room, and I pull out my phone to fire off an email to the hackers looking into UUR.

Even if Yulia managed to get away, she won’t stay free for long.

No matter what it takes, I’ll find her, and she’ll never escape again.

BOOK: Claim Me
13.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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