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Authors: Anna Zaires

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BOOK: Claim Me
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6

Y
ulia


S
orry about that
,” Contreras says, pulling the lid off my crate. “I didn’t expect you to be this tall. I’m glad you were able to fit in there.”

I groan as he pulls me out, my muscles cramping from being stuck in the tiny crate for the last hour. My knees feel like two giant bruises, and my spine is throbbing from being squashed against the side of the crate. I am, however, alive and across the Venezuelan border—which means it was all worth it.

“It’s okay,” I say, rotating my head in a semi-circle. My neck is painfully stiff, but it’s nothing a good massage won’t cure. “It fooled the police and border patrol. They didn’t even try looking into the crate.”

Contreras nods. “That’s why I brought it. It looks too small to fit a person, but when one is determined…” He shrugs.

“Yeah.” I rotate my head again and stretch, trying to get my muscles working. “So what’s the plan now?”

“Now we get you to the plane. Obenko has already arranged everything. By tomorrow, you should be in Kiev, safe and sound.”

O
ur drive
to the small airstrip takes less than an hour, and then we’re pulling up in front of an ancient-looking jet.

“Here we are,” Contreras says. “Your people will take it from here.”

“Thank you,” I say, and he nods as I open the door.

“Good luck,” he says in his Spanish-accented Russian, and I smile at him before jumping out of the van and hurrying to the plane.

As I walk up the ladder, a middle-aged man steps out, blocking the entrance. “Code?” he says, his hand resting on a gun at his side.

Eyeing the weapon warily, I tell him my identification number. Technically, eliminating me would accomplish the same thing as getting me away from Esguerra: I wouldn’t be able to spill any more UUR secrets. In fact, it would be an even neater solution…

Before my mind can travel too far down that path, the man lowers his hand and steps aside, letting me enter the plane.

“Welcome, Yulia Borisovna,” he says, using my real patronymic. “We’re glad you made it.”

7

L
ucas

B
y Saturday morning
, I’m convinced that Yulia must be back in Ukraine. Diego and Eduardo were able to track her as far as Venezuela, but her trail seems to have gone cold there.

“I think she left the country,” Diego says when I call him for an update. “A private plane registered to a shell corporation filed a flight plan to Mexico, but there’s no record of it landing anywhere in that country. It must’ve been her people, and if that’s the case, she’s gone.”

“That’s not a fact. Keep looking,” I say, even though I know he’s most likely right.

Yulia got away, and if I’m to have any hope of recapturing her, I’ll have to widen the net and call on some of our international contacts.

I consider bringing Esguerra up to speed on the whole situation, but decide to postpone it until Sunday. Today is his wife’s twentieth birthday, and I know he’s not in the mood to be bothered. All my boss cares about is giving Nora everything she wants—including a trip to a popular nightclub in downtown Chicago.

“You do realize guarding that place will be a nightmare, right?” I tell him when he brings up the outing at lunchtime. “It’s too many people. And on a Saturday night—”

“Yes, I know,” Esguerra says. “But this is what Nora requested, so let’s figure out a way to make it happen.”

We spend the next two hours going through the club schematics and deciding where to station all the guards. It’s unlikely that any of Esguerra’s enemies will catch wind of this, since it’s such a spur-of-the-moment event, but we still decide to position snipers in the buildings nearby and have the other guards within a one-block radius of the club. My role will be to stay in the car and keep an eye on the club’s entrance, in case there’s any threat coming from that direction. We also work out a plan for securing the restaurant where Esguerra and his wife will have dinner before going to the club.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Esguerra says as we’re wrapping up. “Nora wants Rosa to join us at the club. Can you have one of the guards drive her there?”

“Yes, I think so,” I say after a moment of consideration. “Thomas can bring the girl to the club before taking his position at the end of the block.”

“That would work.” Esguerra rises to his feet. “I’ll see you tonight.”

He leaves the room, and I go outside to assign the guards their tasks.

E
sguerra’s dinner
outing passes without an incident, and afterwards, I drive him and Nora to the club. Rosa is already waiting there, dressed in the yellow dress she bought on our shopping trip. The moment Nora steps out of the car, Rosa runs up to her, and I hear the two young women chattering excitedly as they head into the club. Esguerra follows them, looking mildly amused, and I stay in the car, settling in for what promises to be a long, boring night.

After about an hour, I eat a sandwich I packed earlier and check my email. To my relief, there’s an update from our hackers.

Finally broke through the Ukrainian government’s firewalls and deciphered some files, the email reads. UUR is an acronym for Ukrainskoye Upravleniye Razvedki, which roughly translates to “Ukrainian Intelligence Bureau.” It’s an off-the-books spy group that was established in response to their main security agency’s corruption and close ties to Russia. We’re now working on decoding a message that may point to two UUR field operatives and a location in Kiev.

Smiling grimly, I write a reply and put away the phone. It’s only a matter of time before we take down Yulia’s organization. And once we do, she’ll have nowhere to run, no one to help her.

No lover she could return to.

My teeth clench as violent jealousy spears through me. Yulia could be with him already, with this Misha of hers. He could be holding her at this very moment.

He could even be fucking her.

The thought fills me with blazing fury. If I had the man in front of me right now, I’d kill him with my bare hands and make Yulia watch. It would be her punishment for this latest betrayal.

A buzzing vibration from my phone cuts into my vengeful thoughts. Grabbing it, I read Esguerra’s text, and my blood turns to ice.

Nora and Rosa attacked
, the message says.
Rosa taken. I’m going after her. Alert the others.

8

Y
ulia

T
he familiar smell
of car exhaust and lilacs fills my nostrils as the car weaves through the busy Kiev streets. The man Obenko sent to pick me up at the airport is someone I’ve never seen before, and he doesn’t talk much, leaving me free to take in the sights of the city where I lived and trained for five years.

“We’re not going to the Institute?” I ask the driver when the car makes an unfamiliar turn.

“No,” the man replies. “I’m taking you to a safe house.”

“Is Obenko there?”

The driver nods. “He’s waiting for you.”

“Great.” I take a steadying breath. I should be relieved to be here, but instead, I feel tense and anxious. And it’s not just because I screwed up and compromised the organization. Obenko doesn’t deal kindly with failure, but the fact that he extracted me from Colombia instead of killing me eases my worry in that regard.

No, the main source of my anxiety is the empty feeling inside me, an ache that’s growing more acute with every hour without Lucas. I feel like I’m going through a withdrawal—except that would make Lucas my drug, and I refuse to accept that.

Whatever I had begun to feel for my captor will pass. It has to, because there’s no other alternative.

Lucas and I are over for good.

“We’re here,” the driver says, stopping in front of an unassuming four-story apartment building. It looks just like every other building in this neighborhood: old and rundown, the outside covered with a dull yellowish plaster from the Soviet era. The scent of lilacs is stronger here; it’s coming from a park across the street. Under any other circumstances, I would’ve enjoyed the fragrance that I associate with spring, but today it reminds me of the jungle I left behind—and, by extension, the man who held me there.

The driver leaves the car by the curb and leads me into the building. It’s a walk-up, and the stairwell is as rundown as the building’s exterior. When we walk past the first floor, I hear raised voices and catch a whiff of urine and vomit.

“Who are those people on the first floor?” I ask as we stop in front of an apartment on the second floor. “Are they civilians?”

“Yes.” The driver knocks on the door. “They’re too busy getting drunk to pay us much attention.”

I don’t have a chance to ask more questions because the door swings open, and I see a dark-haired man standing there. His wide forehead is creased, and lines of tension bracket his thin mouth.

“Come in, Yulia,” Vasiliy Obenko says, stepping back to let me enter. “We have a lot to discuss.”

O
ver the next two hours
, I go through an interrogation as grueling as anything I’d experienced in the Russian prison. In addition to Obenko, there are two senior UUR agents, Sokov and Mateyenko. Like my boss, they’re in their forties, their trim bodies honed into deadly weapons over decades of training. The three of them sit across from me at the kitchen table and take turns asking questions. They want to know everything from the details of my escape to the exact information I gave Lucas about UUR.

“I still don’t understand how he broke you,” Obenko says when I’m done recounting that story. “How did he know about that incident with Kirill?”

My face burns with shame. “He learned about it as a result of a nightmare I had.” And because I had confided in Lucas afterwards, but I don’t say that. I don’t want my boss to know that he had been right about me all along—that when it mattered, I couldn’t control my emotions.

“And in this nightmare, you what… spoke about your trainer?” It’s Sokov who asks me this, his stern expression making it clear that he doubts my story. “Do you usually talk in your sleep, Yulia Borisovna?”

“No, but these weren’t exactly
usual
circumstances.” I do my best not to sound defensive. “I was held prisoner and placed in situations that were triggers for me—that would be triggers for any woman who’d undergone an assault.”

“What exactly were those situations?” Mateyenko cuts in. “You don’t look particularly maltreated.”

I bite back an angry response. “I wasn’t physically tortured or starved, I already told you that,” I say evenly. “Kent’s methods of interrogation were more psychological in nature. And yes, that was in large part due to the fact that he found me attractive. Hence the triggers.”

The two agents exchange looks, and Obenko frowns at me. “So he raped you, and that triggered your nightmares?”

“He…” My throat tightens as I recall my body’s helpless response to Lucas. “It was the overall situation. I didn’t handle it well.”

The agents look at each other again, and then Mateyenko says, “Tell us more about the woman who helped you escape. What did you say her name was?”

Calling on every bit of patience I possess, I recount my encounters with Rosa for the third time. After that, Sokov asks me to go through my escape again, minute by minute, and then Mateyenko interrogates me about the security logistics of Esguerra’s compound.

“Look,” I say after another hour of nonstop questions, “I’ve told you everything I know. Whatever you may think of me, the threat to the agency is real. Esguerra’s organization has taken down entire terrorist networks, and they’re coming after us. If you have any contingency measures in place, now is the time to implement them. Get yourselves and your families to safety.”

Obenko studies me for a moment, then nods. “We’re done for today,” he says, turning toward the two agents. “Yulia is tired after her long journey. We’ll resume this tomorrow.”

The two men depart, and I slump in my chair, feeling even emptier than before.

9

L
ucas

A
s soon as
I read Esguerra’s message, I radio the guards and order half of them to head to the club. None of them had noticed any suspicious activity, which means that the threat, whatever it was, had come from within the club, not outside as we’d expected. I’m about to rush into the club myself when I get another text from Esguerra:

Recovered Rosa. Follow the white SUV.

I instantly radio the guards to do so, and at that moment, another message comes in:

Bring the car to the alley out back.

I start the car and zoom around the block, nearly running over a couple of pedestrians in the process. The alley at the back of the club is dark and stinks of garbage mixed with piss, but I barely register the ambience. Stepping out of the car, I wait, my hand on the gun at my side. A few seconds later, the men radio me that they located the white SUV and are following it. I’m about to give them further instructions when the door to the club swings open, and Nora comes out, her arms wrapped around Rosa. Esguerra follows them, his face twisted with rage. As the light from the car illuminates their figures, I realize why.

Both women are shaking, their faces pale and streaked with tears. However, it’s Rosa’s state that sends my blood pressure through the roof. Her bright yellow dress is torn and stained with blood, and one side of her face is grotesquely swollen.

The girl had been violently assaulted, just like Yulia seven years ago.

A crimson fog fills my vision. I know my reaction is disproportional—Rosa is little more than a stranger to me—but I can’t help it. The images in my mind are of a fragile fifteen-year-old, her slender body torn and bleeding. I can see the shame and devastation on Rosa’s face, and the knowledge that Yulia went through this makes my guts churn.

“Those fuckers.” My voice is thick with rage as I step around the car to open the door. “Those motherfucking fuckers. They’re going to fucking die.”

“Yes, they will,” Esguerra says grimly, but I’m not listening. Reaching for Rosa, I carefully pull her away from Nora. Esguerra’s wife doesn’t appear to be hurt as badly, but she’s still clearly shaken. Rosa sobs as I shepherd her into the car, and I do my best to be gentle with her, to comfort her as I couldn’t comfort Yulia all those years ago.

As I buckle her in, I hear Esguerra say his wife’s name, his voice strangely tense, and I turn to see Nora double over next to the car.

The baby, I realize in an instant, remembering her pregnancy, but Esguerra is already bundling her into the car and yelling for me to drive to the hospital, now.

W
e get
to the hospital in record time, but long before Esguerra comes out into the waiting room, I know that the baby didn’t make it. There was too much blood in the car.

“I’m sorry,” I say, taking in my boss’s shattered expression. “How’s Nora?”

“They stopped the bleeding.” Esguerra’s voice is hoarse. “She wants to go home, so that’s what we’ll do. We’ll take Rosa, too.”

I nod. I told the hospital I’m Rosa’s boyfriend, so I’ve been getting regular updates on her condition. As expected, the girl has refused to talk to the police, and since none of her injuries are life-threatening, she doesn’t need to stay overnight.

“All right,” I say. “You take care of your wife, and I’ll get Rosa.”

Esguerra goes back to Nora, and I follow up with our cleanup crew, giving them instructions on what to do with the guy they found knocked out at the club. From the little I pieced together via Rosa’s hysterical explanations, the maid had been attacked in the back room of the club by two men she’d danced with earlier. Nora came to her rescue, knocking out a third guy who had been guarding the room. Esguerra made it there in the nick of time, killing one of the assailants, but the other one dragged Rosa outside and would’ve taken his turn in the car if Esguerra hadn’t saved her. It was that man who got away in the white SUV—the SUV whose license plate I’m tracking now.

Once we know his identity, the driver of that SUV is as good as dead.

Putting the phone away, I go to get Rosa. When I walk into her room, I find her sitting on the bed in nurse’s scrubs; the hospital staff must’ve given them to her to replace her torn dress. Her knees are drawn up to her chest, and her face is bruised and pale. An image of Yulia flashes through my mind again, and I have to take a deep breath to suppress a swell of rage.

Keeping my movements slow and gentle, I approach the bed. “I’m sorry,” I say quietly, clasping Rosa’s elbow to help her to her feet. “I really am. Can you walk, or would you like me to carry you?”

“I can walk.” Her voice is thin, high-pitched with anxiety, and I drop my hand when I realize my touch is upsetting her. “I’m fine.”

It’s an obvious lie, but I don’t call her out on it. I just match my pace to her slower one, and lead her out to the car.

A
n hour
after we get back to Esguerra’s mansion, my boss comes down to the living room, where I’m waiting to fill him in on the developing situation.

“Where’s Rosa?” he asks. His voice is calm, betraying nothing of the hollow agony I see in his gaze. He’s compartmentalizing to cope with what happened, choosing to focus on what needs to be done rather than dwelling on what can’t be fixed.

“She’s asleep,” I answer, rising from the couch. “I gave her Ambien and made sure she took a shower.”

“Good. Thank you.” Esguerra crosses the room to stand in front of me. “Now tell me everything.”

“The cleanup crew took care of the body and captured the kid Nora knocked out in the hallway,” I say. “They’re holding him in a warehouse I rented on the South Side.”

“Good. What about the white car?”

“The men were able to follow it to one of the residential high-rises downtown. At that point, it disappeared into a parking garage, and they decided against pursuing it there. I’ve already run the license plate number.”

“And?”

“And it seems like we might have a problem,” I say. “Does the name Patrick Sullivan mean anything to you?”

Esguerra frowns. “It’s familiar, but I can’t place it.”

“The Sullivans own half of this town,” I say, recounting what I just learned about our newest enemy. “Prostitution, drugs, weapons—you name it, they have their fingers in it. Patrick Sullivan heads up the family, and he’s got just about every local politician and police chief in his pocket.”

“Ah.” There’s a flicker of recognition on Esguerra’s face. “What does Patrick Sullivan have to do with this?”

“He has two sons,” I explain. “Or rather, he
had
two sons. Brian and Sean. Brian is currently marinating in lye at our rented warehouse, and Sean is the owner of the white SUV.”

“I see,” Esguerra says, and I know he’s thinking the same thing I am.

The rapists’ connection complicates matters, but it also explains why they attacked Rosa in such a public place. They’re used to their mobster father getting them out of trouble, and it never occurred to them that they might be crossing someone just as dangerous.

“Also,” I say while Esguerra is digesting everything, “the kid we’ve got strung up in that warehouse is their seventeen-year-old cousin, Sullivan’s nephew. His name is Jimmy. Apparently, he and the two brothers are close. Or
were
close, I should say.”

Esguerra’s blue eyes narrow. “Do they have any idea who we are? Could they have singled out Rosa to get at me?”

“No, I don’t think so.” A fresh wave of anger makes my jaw clench. “The Sullivan brothers have a nasty history with women. Date-rape drugs, sexual assault, gang bangs of sorority girls—the list goes on and on. If it weren’t for their father, they’d be rotting in prison right now.”

“I see.” Esguerra’s mouth twists coldly. “Well, by the time we’re done with them, they’ll wish they were.”

I nod. The minute I learned about Patrick Sullivan, I knew we’d be going to war. “Should I organize a strike team?” I ask, gripped by familiar anticipation. I haven’t been in a good battle in a while.

“No, not yet,” Esguerra says. He turns away and walks over to stand by the window. I don’t know what he’s looking at, but he’s silent for well over a minute before he turns back to face me.

“I want Nora and her parents taken to the estate before we do anything,” he says, and I see the harsh resolve on his face. “Sean Sullivan will have to wait. For now, we’ll focus on the nephew.”

“All right.” I incline my head. “I’ll begin making the arrangements.”

BOOK: Claim Me
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