Jillian Sandro’s hand tightened around the cell phone pressed hard against her ear as she listened to the message. Another job rejection.
She deleted the message and dialed a number that went immediately to voice mail.
“Cameron,” she said into the phone, fighting back tears of frustration, “I don’t know what you’re telling these people, but you need to stop. This is my career you’re screwing with!”
Jillian ended the call and slammed the phone on her dresser, instantly regretting it. She couldn’t afford a new phone if this one broke.
After checking to see that it had survived the abuse, she strapped on her iPod and headed out for a much needed run.
Music blasted through the headphones and anger consumed her thoughts as Jillian started jogging down the sidewalk from her father’s Renton home. Looking over her shoulder for vehicles turning into the suburban development, she mis-judged her stride off the curb, causing her ankle to roll.
“Dammit,” she cried out, falling back onto the curb in pain and embarrassment.
“Are you all right?” someone asked.
Jillian looked up into the brightest blue eyes she had ever seen.
“Um, yeah, I think it’s fine,” she said to the tall stranger who had appeared from nowhere. He was holding a leash with a German shepherd on the other end of it.
“Here,” he said, “let me help you up.”
Before she could protest, he took her hand and put an arm around her.
“You know, I’m sure if I just walk it off, I’ll be fine.” She tried to take a step away from him, but as soon as she put her weight on the left foot, pain shot through the ankle, causing her to lose balance and start to fall. He caught her, and Jillian could feel the heat rising to her cheeks as she stood there, propped up by his solid arms.
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to walk this off,” said the beautiful stranger. “Is there somewhere nearby I could help you get to?”
She sighed. So much for the therapeutic run.
“I’m just down the street,” she said, pointing.
He looked where she indicated, squinting his eyes. “Didn’t make it very far, did you?” he said. “This should be a piece of cake.”
Before she could decide what he meant by that, he handed the leash to his dog, who clamped it in its mouth, and swept her up.
“This really isn’t necessary,” she stammered. “My other foot is fine, I’m sure I could hobble home.”
“I know,” he said, looking straight ahead which she was grateful for. Jillian was afraid she might burst into flames if she had to look into his eyes at this close proximity. “But it will be quicker. Now, which house is it?”
“Fifteen forty-two,” she mumbled.
“Not far at all,” he said, only slightly breathless.
God, this was embarrassing. Jillian wondered if her cheeks could get any hotter. She caught a whiff of his aftershave and involuntarily inhaled, trying to breathe in more of it.
“You okay?” he asked, looking concerned.
“Um, yeah.” Surely steam was coming off her by now.
She glanced down at the dog, who was walking obediently next to them.
“Aren’t you worried your dog is going to run away?” she asked.
It didn’t take long, but to Jillian it felt like an eternity until he was setting her down on the front stoop.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Glad I could help. I’m Reid, by the way. Reid Jackson. I live in that house.” He pointed to the gray house across the street, two driveways down.
“It’s nice to meet you, Jillian.”
He extended a hand that she reluctantly shook. She had made a fool of herself, and just wished he would leave her to climb inside a hole and feel like an idiot in private.
“I’m trained in first-aid,” he said. “If you want, I could take a look at it.”
“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ll be fine. I’ve had my share of twists and sprains. This is nothing. I just need to get inside and ice it. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“Do you need help getting inside?” he asked, looking a little dejected.
She started to feel bad. As embarrassed as she was, Jillian didn’t want her neighbor, who was being so helpful, to think she was a complete bitch.
“Sure,” she said, reaching out to him. “That would be great.”
With Reid helping her to stand, Jillian slipped a key from her wristband and unlocked the door.
“Hold on,” he said before they walked in.
She watched as he tied the dog’s leash to the railing.
“Now you don’t trust your dog to stay?” she asked.
“Not when I’m away,” he said with a boyish smile.
Reid assisted her to the couch, then took off to grab an ice pack from the nearby kitchen. Jillian watched the undeniably attractive neighbor dig through her freezer. Even his sandy blonde hair was mussed in a way that gave her heart a slight pause. And those bright blue eyes were to die for. She gave herself a mental slap. Guys this good looking were either taken or trouble—or both.
Reid buried his head in Jillian’s freezer, but he wasn’t finding any ice packs.
“Are you sure you have any in here?” he asked.
Her brows furrowed as she thought about it, and then those dark eyes went big. “Sorry, they’re in the garage freezer, not that one.”
“Is this the door?” he asked, heading towards the logical option and she nodded.
It didn’t take long to find them. As he headed back into the house, Reid noticed a stack of boxes in the corner, some of them half-unpacked, or packed, depending on how you looked at it.
“There you go,” he said, positioning the pack on her ankle.
“I can’t thank you enough,” she said, looking at him with those warm brown eyes. They were rimmed with thick dark lashes and matched the long hair, pulled back into a ponytail almost perfectly.
“It’s nothing,” he said. Reid looked around the room. The decor was minimal and, if he had to guess, it had been put together by a male. There seemed to be very little female influence in here.
“How long have you lived here?” he asked.
“I’ve only been here for a couple weeks now.”
That explained the boxes.
“I didn’t realize anyone had moved onto the street so recently,” he said.
“It’s actually my dad’s house,” she said, lowering her eyes. “He’s lived here a couple years now. I’m kind of,” she paused, “in limbo at the moment. My dad is letting me stay with him until I can get back on my feet.”
“How about you?” Jillian asked, looking back up at him. “How long have you lived in the neighborhood?”
“It’s been a couple years as well,” he answered.
Reid’s pocket started buzzing. He pulled out his phone to look at the screen, though he had no doubt who it was from.
“That would be work,” he said. “Looks like I need to head out.”
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I work with banking security systems,” he said.
“Which bank?” she asked.
“I’m with an outside company,” he explained. “I help install the systems and teach the banks how to use them. How about yourself?”
“I’m in—was in graphic design. Like I said, in limbo at the moment.
Reid nodded. “So are you okay here?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. “My dad should be home soon if I need anything.”
“See you around, then,” he said, heading for the door.
“Thank you,” she called out, and he watched her blush for the umpteenth time. “In case I didn’t say it already.”
“No problem.” he said, and left.
Reid flashed his badge at the guard and was waved into the parking lot for the building known by most people as the Alliance Security Systems offices. But Reid knew its true role as the headquarters for Section Four, one of five clandestine operations positioned in strategic locations of the continental United States.
He parked and walked to the only elevator in the lot, where he punched in his ten-digit code on the inside panel. Once the doors closed on him, a full body scan was performed before the lift made its way to the second floor. When he stepped off, Reid was immediately greeted by his partner and closest friend.
“Jackson, there you are,” Aaron Wells said, looking at his watch. “Took you long enough.”
Reid shook his head, choosing not to respond. Aaron always gave him a hard time for being the last to arrive. As much as he loved his job, Reid purposely bought a house outside the city, just within the approved perimeter for operatives’ primary residences. He didn’t expect Aaron to understand that a little bit of distance was his coping mechanism.
“Had to drive the Camaro in,” Aaron said, sitting on the corner of Reid’s desk. “The bike was in pieces when I got the call.”
“Anything wrong with it?” Reid asked while thumbing through some papers left on his desk.
“Nah, just giving it a tune-up.”
And that was Aaron’s coping mechanism. He and Reid both owned the same high-end bike, but while Reid wouldn’t let anyone but the dealer touch it, Aaron was completely hands on.
“How about you?” Aaron asked. “In the middle of anything interesting?”
“Matter of fact, I was,” said Reid. “Met a neighbor today.”
Aaron rolled his eyes.
“A female neighbor.”
Now Aaron’s eyebrows went up in interest, but they were interrupted before either men could say anything else.
"Agent Jackson, Agent Wells," a woman barked. "Briefing room, now."
If Aaron Wells had to listen to Aleksandr Morozov’s wife talk about her dress for this upcoming event much longer, he was afraid he might have to stab himself with his fork. And that would draw attention to himself, which would be bad.
“Shall I wear the blue dress or the black dress?” Mrs. Morozov asked her husband.
“You’ll wear the blue one,” said Morozov from the booth directly behind Aaron. He was surprised by the definite, answer and Aaron realized his wife had been asking for his decision, not his opinion.
Aaron had been sitting in this café almost every weekday morning for the past two weeks, hoping to glean some info on Ukrainian mob head Aleksandr Morozov. But so far he knew nothing more than he did when he asked for the assignment. He needed to change his approach and get something soon or his supervisors would pull him off the case.
“Are you ready to go?” said Morozov.
There was a pause before his wife answered. “If it’s okay with you, I think I’ll walk over to Nordstrom and find some jewelry to go with the dress if you’ve decided on the blue one.”
Aaron rolled his eyes.
“Suit yourself,” Aleksandr said as he stood. “Call Ryan when you’re ready to go home.”
Aleksandr walked by, and Aaron’s gaze followed him out the door. He was about to get up himself when Clara Morozov slid onto the bench across from him. Shit.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“So which one are you?” she said. “FBI? ATF? DEA, perhaps?”
“Because I can help you.”
What the hell was this woman playing at?
“Listen lady,” he said, “I don’t know who you think I am, but you are clearly—”
“Cut the bullshit,” she said, “I know exactly what you are. Well, not exactly. I haven’t decided which agency. But you should know Aleksandr is taunting you by sitting in this stupid café every day and giving you absolutely nothing.”
Her mesmerizing green eyes never wavered as she spoke, and Aaron stared at her, wondering what to think of Mrs. Morozov. Was this a trap? Or was this the in that he needed?
“And what makes you so sure that I’m here because of your husband?” he asked, still trying to decide if should trust her.
“Because I heard him talking about it on the phone,” she said. “Someone warned him.”
“Fuck,” Aaron muttered. Then he shook his head. “I don’t think you realize what you’re trying to do. But I can tell you it’s not a good idea.”
Clara’s hands shot across the table and wrapped around one of his. He looked at it and frowned, disgusted by the ostentatious rock on one of her long fingers.
“I’m sorry,” she said, pulling her hands away. “But I don’t think you realize that you’ll never be able to touch my husband. You need me. Please.”
It was the plea at the end that really got to Aaron. But he still wasn’t sure how to handle this.
“Meet me tomorrow at two o’clock,” she said. “In Bellevue Park.” She got up and left without waiting for his response.
As Clara stepped out of the café, she could feel her whole body start to tremble and tried to control it. She needed to look calm and collected, at least until she was out of sight. She took a couple of deep, ragged breaths and headed towards the mall two blocks away. If she didn’t come home with something, Aleksandr would be suspicious. The whole time she tried not to think about what her husband would do to her if he even suspected what she was attempting. Then again, wasn’t she already living on borrowed time?
Agent Gavin Maxwell was leaning against the wall checking emails on his phone when Director Laura Rollins walked into the small observation room.
“They’re bringing her in now,” she said.
Seconds later, a door opened on the other side of the one-way glass and a tall blonde woman walked in, followed by a male police officer who directed her to the seat facing the one-way glass.
“So this is Tristan Brandt’s fiancée,” Gavin muttered.
“Was,” Rollins corrected.
Gavin studied Sydney Holden while Officer Desmond made sure the recording equipment was working. She looked as he would expect a woman in mourning to look—dressed in jeans and flats, a tan sweater wrapped around her. Her hair was pulled into a bun with loose tresses escaping, the longest of which framed her face. Her blue eyes were puffy from what Gavin guessed was crying or lack of sleep. Most likely both.
“Thank you, Miss Holden, for coming in to talk to us,” said Officer Desmond, now ready to ask the questions provided to him by Director Rollins.
Sydney nodded, and Gavin noticed she was massaging something in her right hand. Squinting, he leaned closer against the glass and realized it was a wadded tissue.
“She looks genuinely distraught,” he said.
“I’m sure Bonnie would have been just as distraught had she survived Clyde,” said Rollins.
Sydney spoke for the first time since entering the interrogation room. “I still don’t understand why you need to talk to me.”
“We just have a few questions about your fiancé that we were hoping you could answer for us."
“Um, okay.” But it was clear she was still confused. Gavin wondered if it was all an act.
“First off,” Desmond started, “what can you tell us about what Mr. Brandt did for a living?”
“He’s an art dealer. Was,” she corrected with a sniff. “He owned a gallery in Pioneer Square. But you guys know that, don’t you?”
“Was he involved in anything else beyond that?” he asked, ignoring her question.
“Well, sure,” she said. “He sat on a few boards. Some non-profit organizations, mostly arts-related. What is this all about?” she asked, more demanding this time.
“Were you aware that he was involved in any illegal activities?”
“That he was what?” Her eyes nearly popped out of her head. “That’s ridiculous!” she said, shaking her head.
Gavin watched Desmond pull a picture from a folder and slide it towards Sydney.
“Do you know who this is?” Desmond asked.
She pulled the picture closer. “This is Aleksandr Morozov. He is—was a client of Tristan’s.”
“Aleksandr Morozov,” Desmond said, taking the picture back, “was the head of a crime syndicate.”
“He was.…” She trailed off and cocked her head. Gavin could see the wheels turning, as though she were piecing things together. Behavior, comments perhaps.
“What does that have to do with Tristan?” she finally asked. “There’s no way he was involved with anything illegal.”
“Is that your story?” asked Desmond.
“My story? What the hell is this about? You can’t honestly think—”
“We know for a fact that your fiancé was doing more than just buying art from Mr. Morozov. The question is whether or not you were involved in any of it.”
Sydney stood up, and Gavin could see her sadness being replaced by anger.
“I think we’re done here,” she said. “How dare you suggest that Tristan or I—”
She stopped talking when Desmond slapped two more photos on the table and Sydney looked like she was going to be sick.
“Are those the container pictures?” Gavin asked Rollins, who nodded.
“This is a shipping container that was supposed to be claimed by your fiancé.”
Sydney dropped back down into her chair, shaking her head again.
“It was full of young women. The first picture is the women who were still alive by the time anyone got to it. The second is the ones who weren’t.”
“There’s no way,” said Sydney. “How can you possibly think that this has anything to do with Tristan?”
“The customs agent that was working for Mr. Brandt came forward after the container went uncollected. Apparently his guilt finally got the best of him.”
Gavin watched as Sydney closed her eyes and buried her face in her hands; he saw her shoulders shake, but no sound came from her.
“She didn’t know,” he said.
“Agreed,” said Rollins.
Six Months Later
“What’s this?” Gavin Maxwell asked, opening the file that Director Laura Rollins had placed on his desk. “Sydney Holden? I thought this case was closed.
“Recent intel suggests that Tristan Brandt may still be alive.”
“Just as Casimir warned,” Gavin sighed.
“I need you to get close to his former girlfriend.”
“But I thought we questioned her and decided that she didn’t know anything. Even Casimir said he didn’t think she was working with him.”
“He could have been wrong,” said Rollins. “And maybe she’s just as good at lying as he was. Truth is they were living together, so it stands to reason that if he faked his death, she would know something. Maybe it was all part of the plan. He pretends to die, she pretends to mourn.”
Gavin scanned the dossier. His eyes stopped at a possible lead.
“I may know a way to approach her,” he said.
Coming late 2016!