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Authors: Anna Zaires

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BOOK: Claim Me
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20

L
ucas

E
sguerra notifies
me that Nora’s parents wish to fly out first thing in the morning, and I decide to do exactly what I told Rosa: go to Ukraine directly after taking them home. I’m still not fully recovered, but the workload from the Chicago disaster is easing up, and my ribs can heal in Ukraine just as well as here.

Now I need to break the news to Esguerra and fill him in on everything I’ve learned about UUR.

“So let me get this straight,” Esguerra says when I stop by his office and explain about the black site. “You want to take a dozen of our best-trained men to conduct an operation in Ukraine when we’re still trying to recover from all the losses? What’s the urgency on this?”

“They’re in the process of covering their tracks,” I say. “If we wait much longer, they’ll be much harder to track down.”

I keep silent about the fact that every day that passes without Yulia is fucking torture, and I can’t sleep without her by my side.

“So what?” Esguerra says, frowning. “We’ll get them eventually—when we’re stronger and have rebuilt our security team. We can’t spare a dozen guards right now. UUR is not an immediate threat to us the way Al-Quadar were. We’re going to make the Ukrainians pay for the crash, but we’ll do it when the time is right.”

I take a deep breath. I know Esguerra has a point, but I can’t stay on the estate while Yulia is out there with this Misha of hers.

“All right,” I say. “How about I go to Ukraine by myself, with just a couple of guards? I could take Diego and Eduardo—surely you can spare the three of us.”

Esguerra’s gaze sharpens. “Why? Is it because of the girl who escaped?”

I hesitate for a moment, then decide to tell the truth. “Yes,” I say, watching Esguerra’s reaction. “I want her back.”

“I thought you were just amusing yourself with her.”

“I was—but I’m not done.”

Esguerra stares at me. “I see.”

“She’s mine,” I say, deciding it’s time to lay it out there. “I’m going to get her back, and I’m going to keep her.”

“Keep her?” Esguerra’s expression doesn’t change, but I see a muscle twitch in his jaw as he leans forward in his seat. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

I plant my feet wider apart and give him a level look. “It means I’m going to put trackers on her and keep her for as long as it suits me. I’m sure you won’t object to that.”

The twitch in Esguerra’s jaw intensifies as we stare at each other, neither one backing down. The air thickens with tension, and I know that this is it: this is when I find out if my boss truly values my loyalty.

Esguerra breaks the silence first. “So that’s it? You’re ready to forget about the crash?”

“She was following orders,” I say. “And besides, who said she’s getting off scot-free?”

For this new betrayal—for running to her lover—Yulia
will
pay.

Esguerra holds my gaze for a few more seconds before getting up and walking around his desk. Stopping in front of me, he says quietly, “You and I both know I owe you for Thailand, and if this is what you want—if
she
is what you want—then I won’t stand in your way. But she’s bad news, Lucas. Do what you must to get her out of your system, but don’t forget what she is and what she’s done.”

“Oh, don’t worry.” I give him a humorless smile. “I won’t.”

I haven’t yet decided how I’m going to punish Yulia when I get her back, but I do know one thing.

Her lover’s days are numbered.

T
hat evening
, I make arrangements to have Thomas—another guard I trust—keep an eye on Rosa. I don’t tell him why; I just ask him to follow her discreetly and to monitor all her emails and calls. My top priority right now is finding Yulia, but I haven’t forgotten about the potential danger Rosa poses to us.

When I’m back from Ukraine, I’m going to deal with her. First, though, I need to get Nora’s parents home and figure out how to get into Ukraine undetected.

I start by reaching out to Buschekov, the Russian official we met with in Moscow. I don’t mention Yulia’s escape, but I do give him the information I’ve uncovered so far about UUR. The more pressure I can bring to bear on Yulia’s agency, the better.

Unfortunately, Buschekov claims to be unable to help me with discreet entry into Ukraine, explaining that tensions are running too high between the two countries. I suspect he just doesn’t want to risk whatever agents he has in place there, but I don’t press him on this. If I had a firm lock on Yulia’s location, it would be different, but this black site is just a lead, and I need to preserve whatever goodwill we have with the Russians. That means there’s only one thing left to do.

I contact Peter Sokolov, Esguerra’s former security consultant, and ask him for help.

Peter saved Esguerra’s ass after the crash, but to do so, he let the terrorists take Nora, and my boss has sworn to kill him if he ever lays eyes on him again. I, however, do not share Esguerra’s feelings. In fact, I’m grateful that Esguerra is alive and well. I haven’t kept in touch with Peter, but I do have his email from before, so I send him a message explaining the situation. The Russian’s contacts in Eastern Europe are unparalleled; he’s the one who introduced us to Buschekov in the first place.

He doesn’t respond right away, but I don’t expect him to. I know he’s busy with his vendetta against the people on his list. Still, I’m hoping he’ll spare a moment to check his email. All I need is to have a couple of air control officials in Ukraine look the other way when I land in Kiev.

As one final step, I brief Diego and Eduardo on our upcoming mission.

“It’s going to be just the three of us,” I explain, “so we’re going to keep a low profile. We don’t want anyone catching wind of our presence there until we’re gone. The goal is to find out what we can and get out of the county in one piece. Is that clear?”

They both nod, and early the next morning, we load the plane with weapons, body armor, falsified documents, and everything else we’d need in case things don’t go according to plan.

Now I just need Peter to come through.

B
y the time
we land in Chicago, there’s still no answering email from Sokolov, so I hand Esguerra’s in-laws off to our Chicago security crew and instruct the guards to see them safely home. Both of Nora’s parents seem relieved to be back on US soil, and I suspect we won’t be seeing them in Colombia again any time soon.

“So what’s the plan?” Diego asks when I return to the plane. “Are we flying to Kiev right away?”

“We might stop over in London for a day or two,” I say. “I’m waiting on a lead.” As I speak, my phone vibrates with an incoming message. Opening my email, I read the response from Peter, and a smile spreads across my face.

“Never mind,” I say, turning toward the pilot’s cabin. “We’re heading to Ukraine.”

21

Y
ulia


S
o
, tell us, Yulia,” Obenko says, leaning on the table. “Why didn’t you get on that plane?”

I remain silent and focus on taking small, even breaths. One inhale, one exhale. Then again and again. That’s all I can do at the moment. Anything else is beyond me. Somewhere out there, lurking at the edge of my consciousness, is the pain of betrayal, the kind of monstrous pain that will destroy me if I let it, and so I focus on the mundane, like my breathing and the flickering fluorescent lights above my head.

My hands are handcuffed behind me, and my ankles are secured to my wrists with a long chain. I’m still wearing the dress they captured me in, but they took off my wig at some point. I have no idea when that happened or where I am, since I have only a vague recollection of the hours that followed my capture. I know this is an interrogation chamber of some kind, with a wall-sized mirror and hard metal furniture, but I don’t know if we’re still in Kiev. I think I was driven somewhere from the warehouse, so perhaps not, but either way, it doesn’t matter.

I’m not getting out of here alive.

“Answer me, Yulia,” Obenko says in a harsher tone. “Why didn’t you fly out as you were supposed to, and how did you find the training facility? Are you working for Esguerra now?”

I don’t respond, and Obenko’s eyes narrow. “I see. Well, if you don’t want to talk to me, perhaps you’ll talk to Kirill Ivanovich.” He rises to his feet and gives the mirror a small nod before stepping out of the room.

A minute later, my former trainer walks in, his thin lips curved in a hard smile. Despite my best efforts to remain calm, my throat closes and cold sweat dampens my armpits as he approaches the table and sits down across from me.

“Why are you being so stubborn?” His knee brushes across my bare leg under the table, and I have to swallow to contain the vomit rising in my throat. “Are you a double agent, like they think you are?”

I try to move my leg, to shift away from his touch, but the chain keeps me in place. From this distance, I can smell his cologne, and my breathing speeds up until I’m almost hyperventilating. Desperate to control myself, I look down at the table, focusing on the oily stains marring the metal surface.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

“Yulia…” Kirill’s hand grips my knee under the table, his fingers digging into my thigh. “Are you working for Esguerra?”

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
I can survive this. I can keep the pain at bay.
Inhale. Exhale.

His hand moves higher up my thigh. “Answer me, Yulia.”

Inhale. Exhale.
I feel the darkness approaching, the blankness that shielded me during my capture, and I embrace it for once, letting my mind flit away from this room, away from the encroaching agony. It’s not me chained to this chair—it’s just my body. It’s just bones and flesh that will soon cease to be animate. There’s nothing they can do to hurt me because I’m not here.

I don’t exist in this place.

“—
c
atatonic
,” a man says. His voice sounds like it’s coming through a thick wall of water. I have trouble making out the words, and I struggle to push away the darkness as he says, “You’re not going to get any answers from her this way. Just end it. It’s obvious she’s gone rogue.”

“We need to find out what she knows,” another man replies, and I recognize this voice as Obenko’s. “Besides, if she’s not a double agent, maybe this can still be fixed.”

“You’re deluding yourself,” the original voice responds, and this time, I recognize it as belonging to Mateyenko, one of the senior agents who interrogated me after my return. “She’ll never forgive you for this.”

“Maybe not, but I have an idea,” Obenko says, and I hear the sound of retreating footsteps. My mind slowly begins to clear, and I open my eyes a sliver, peeking through my eyelashes.

I’m still in the interrogation room, but I’m no longer chained at the table. Instead, I’m lying on my side on the cold cement floor next to the chair, my wrists still handcuffed behind my back.

There are two men standing by the door—Kirill and Mateyenko. They’re speaking in low tones, occasionally glancing in my direction, and nausea twists my insides as darkness presses in again. Did Kirill touch me while I was out? Was he the one who unchained me and put me here?

“She’s awake,” Mateyenko exclaims, striding toward me, and I stop fighting off the darkness.

I’m not here.

I don’t exist.


Y
ulia
.” A cool hand brushes over my forehead. “Yulia, are you awake?”

The wall of water is back, messing with my hearing, but something about that voice catches my attention. The darkness dissipates, the wall of water thinning, and I open my eyes.

A blond boy is crouching over me, his eyes piercingly blue in his handsome face.

We stare at each other for a second; then my brother jumps to his feet. “Uncle Vasya,” he yells. “She woke up.”

I hear footsteps, and then strong hands drag me off the floor and place me back in the chair. My pulse jumps, but before my panic spirals out of control, I realize that Kirill is nowhere in sight.

It’s just Obenko and me.

“Where’s Misha?” I ask hoarsely. My throat feels coated with sand, and my mouth is woolly and dry. I must’ve been out for a while.

“He stepped out so we could talk,” Obenko says. “So, Yulia, let’s talk.”

“All right.” I become aware that I’m shivering and the tips of my fingers are numb and frozen. Despite that, my voice is steady as I say, “What do you want to talk about? The fact that you lied to me for eleven years?” My voice strengthens as the residual fog in my brain clears. “That you stole my brother and are having him trained by a monster?”

Obenko lets out a weary sigh. “There’s no need to be so dramatic. I didn’t lie to you—not about Misha, at least. I just didn’t tell you everything.”

“What’s ‘everything’?”

“Up until two years ago, Misha led exactly the kind of life we showed you in those pictures. He was a normal, happy, well-adjusted boy. Then things began to change. He started skipping school, getting into fights, shoplifting cigarettes…” Obenko grimaces. “My sister didn’t know what to do, so she reached out to me to see if I could talk some sense into him. But when I tried, I could see it wouldn’t work. Misha was too restless, too bored with his life.” Obenko looks at me. “Kind of like how I felt at his age.”

“So you what?” My frozen hands clench behind my back. “Decided he should be a spy?”

Obenko doesn’t blink. “He needed direction, Yulia. He needed a sense of purpose, and we could provide that. There are so many youths like him in our disillusioned country—boys who lose their way and never find it again. They don’t know what they’re doing with their lives, don’t care about anything but a momentary thrill. I didn’t want your brother to be like that.”

“Right.” I feel like I’m about to choke. “You wanted him to be like you and Kirill.”

“Yulia, listen, about Kirill…” Something resembling guilt shadows Obenko’s gaze. “You have to understand that we’re a small covert organization. We couldn’t afford to lose someone as skilled and experienced as Kirill. Not over one mistake.”

“One mistake?” My voice cracks. “Is that what they’re calling brutal assault now?”

Obenko sighs again, like I’m being unreasonable. “What happened with you was an isolated incident,” he says patiently. “It was the one and only time he lost control like that. I understand that it was a traumatic experience for you, but he’s an asset to our agency and our country. The best we could do was relocate him away from you—and make sure you could move past it.”

“By telling me that he was dead? That you had him assassinated?”

Obenko nods. “It was for your own good. That way you could forget him and move forward.”

“You mean, be of use to UUR.”

Obenko doesn’t respond, and I know that’s exactly what he means. In his mind, I’m not a person. I’m a pawn on a chessboard—one that could function either as an asset or a liability.

“Does Misha know?” I ask, staring at the man I’d once looked up to. “Does he know I’m his sister?”

Obenko hesitates, then says, “Yes, Misha knows. He remembered you from the orphanage, so we had no choice but to tell him about you. He also knows that you turned on us—that whatever happened to you at Esguerra’s compound made you betray your own country.”

My nails dig into my palms. “That’s a lie. I didn’t betray you.”

“Then why did you follow me? Why did you slip me this?” Obenko places his hand on the table and uncurls his fist to show me the GPS chip I planted in his phone.

After a moment of consideration, I decide I have nothing to lose by telling the truth. I’m already a liability in Obenko’s eyes. “Because I wanted to see Misha one last time,” I say evenly. “Because I couldn’t do this anymore.”

“So you were going to walk away.” Obenko gives me an assessing look. “You know, I suspected that might be the case. You weren’t the same after you came back.”

I shrug, not about to explain about my complex relationship with Lucas and my inability to take on another “assignment.” Whatever guilt I’d felt at abandoning UUR is gone, vaporized by the crushing blow of Obenko’s betrayal and Misha’s eager abandonment of the life I fought so hard to give him.

I’ve spent eleven years protecting my brother, only to find out he’s going to end up like me.

I suppose I should be devastated, but the pain is still distant, held at bay by a cold numbness that overpowers everything, even my fury.

“I want to talk to him,” I say to Obenko. “I want to talk to Misha.”

He studies me for a moment, then slowly shakes his head. “No, Yulia. You’ll only confuse the boy. He’s where he needs to be, mentally and emotionally, and whatever you plan to tell him will only make it harder for him. I don’t think you want that.”

My upper lip curls. “So he doesn’t know what Kirill did or how you manipulated me all those years.”

Obenko doesn’t blink. “What Misha knows is that Kirill Ivanovich dedicated his life to this country, just like all of us at UUR—and that you left Misha when he was a baby. Everything else is a matter of opinion.”

“Of course it is.” I should be enraged that my brother believes I’m a traitor who abandoned him in the orphanage, but it’s too much to absorb all at once. It feels like this is happening to someone else, like I’m watching a movie rather than living it. “So what will his opinion be of my disappearance?”

Obenko sighs. “Yulia…”

“Just tell me.”

“You will have escaped,” Obenko says. “Disappeared to South America to be with your lover.”

“Ah, yes. My lover, of course.” I think of Lucas and the way we parted, and sharp agony rips through me. “So when exactly am I going to make my grand escape?” I manage to say. “Today? Tomorrow?”

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Yulia.” There’s genuine regret in Obenko’s eyes. “It’s not too late. We can start over and forget all this. If you prove yourself—”

“Prove myself?” I can’t hold back a burst of bitter laughter. “By doing what? Fucking a few more men for you?”

Obenko’s hand flexes on the table, but his tone remains unruffled. “By carrying out your assignment. You know how important what we do is—”

“Yes, I do.” My mouth twists. “So important that you’d let a rapist train underage girls. So important that you’d lie, murder, and manipulate everyone… even your own adoptive nephew.”

Obenko’s gaze hardens, and he gets up. “Suit yourself,” he says. “You have until tomorrow morning. If you decide to do the right thing, let me know.”

He walks out of the room, and I remain at the table, listening to the sound of his departing footsteps.

A
fter about an hour
, Mateyenko comes in to unlock my handcuffs and bring me to a windowless room that resembles a cell. It has a narrow cot with a thin blanket, a metal toilet without a lid, and a small rusted sink.

“Where is this place?” I ask, but the senior agent doesn’t respond. He just steps out and locks the door behind him, leaving me alone.

I wait for a few minutes to make sure he doesn’t return, and then I use the toilet and wash my hands with the rusty water trickling from the faucet in the sink. I also consider drinking some of that water to quench my thirst, but decide against it.

I’d rather not spend my last night puking my guts out.

I walk over to the cot and lie down, staring at the ceiling. I know I won’t be able to fall asleep, so I don’t even try. My mind spins and whirls, cycling between bitter rage and numb despair. Three facts repeat over and over:

Kirill is alive and training my brother to be a spy.

My brother has been fed a bunch of lies about me.

I will die tomorrow unless I agree to work for UUR.

There’s nothing I can do about the first two problems, but the third one is within my control—if Obenko is to be believed, at least. Theoretically, I could agree to carry out my assignment, and if I prove myself, all will be forgiven.

I could also promise to carry out the assignment, but run instead.

It’s a tantalizing idea, except it won’t be easy. I admitted to wanting to disappear, so if they do decide to let me out into the field, I’ll be kept under close observation. They might even put some kind of trackers on me, the way Lucas planned to.

My despair gives way to bitter amusement. It seems I’m destined to be a prisoner one way or another.

A shiver rattles my body, and I realize I’m cold again, my hands and feet frozen and stiff. Rolling up into a small ball, I pull the blanket over my head and pretend I’m in a cocoon where nothing bad can ever touch me, where I can sleep and dream of a different life—a life where Lucas looks at me the way he did that last morning before his trip, and I don’t have to leave.

A familiar pain pierces my chest, and I close my eyes, letting the memories come. Our relationship had been wrong in so many ways, yet there had been so much right about it too. And now… now none of the wrongness matters.

BOOK: Claim Me
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