It's #FreeRead Friday. Let's Meet Adam Blake and Calista Martin
In the Shadow of Malice, Book 3 of the Shadows and Light series is up for Pre-Order on Amazon and releases September 29 2020. I have no idea where my hero, Adam Blake came from, but I fell so hard for him.
I left Calista Martin guilt ridden and all alone In the Shadow of Greed. She haunted me to give her a happily-ever-after. Adam was all over that. It might not seem like he's the right man for Calista, but give him a chance. This character is my favorite hero for a reason.
Here's a brief blurb of In the Shadow of Malice.
Adam Blake, ex-CIA operative, has gone to great lengths to keep his identity a secret, but his cover's blown when he ends up on the run with waitress Calista Martin to protect his little girl. Can he find a way to eliminate his enemies to be the father Anna deserves and the man Calista needs—or will he fail again, taking his future out of his hands forever?
Next week, more Calista and Adam, and you don't want to miss what happens next. Until then, be safe, healthy, and relax with a great book.
Hugs to all,
Nancy C. Weeks
Shadows and Light, Book 3
Nancy C. Weeks
College Park, Maryland
Almost midnight, an empty parking lot, no prying eyes. Adam Blake hit the key fob, locking his sedan as he stepped out of the shadows. His senses picked up a hint of the wild honeysuckle that grew along the chain-linked fence lining the west side of Pete’s Diner. As a warm May breeze washed over him, he rolled the tension from his shoulders and scanned the perimeter. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary.
Frankly, the reason he kept coming back surprised the hell out of him. Even though the food was great, Adam craved the company the small diner provided. The regulars were all so damn normal. Adam needed normal.
His life had become a reflection of what he did for a living, and a drastic change was the plan, Pete’s Diner, his baby step in that direction. The occasional hour spent with familiar strangers chased away his lonely, harsh existence.
From his position, he could identify the two people who remained in the deserted restaurant. The wizened old trucker was there on his weekly run from Norfolk, Virginia to New Haven, Connecticut, and the woman sitting alone in a booth, the owner’s granddaughter. From what Adam could surmise, Calista Martin had no life outside the diner other than her music studies at the university a few miles down the road. The ever-present cello case propped on the bench next to her kept her company.
The double doors behind the counter opened and a sizeable man in a navy-blue double-breasted chef’s coat and sculled cap set a large silverware caddy on the counter. Pete Bradshaw was built like a guerrilla on steroids. Strands of blond-gray hair escaped the edges of his cap, and gray stubble covered his chin. But what stood out most was the enormous fried egg skull tattoo on his left arm, the yellow yolk resting right in the center of the left eye socket.
Calista approached Pete, her bright smile on her face sent an unusual feeling of warmth into the pit of Adam’s stomach. Taking the carafe, Pete poured coffee into a travel mug, replaced the carafe on the heating unit, and bellowed a cheer loud enough to rattle the windows. He lifted her into his arms and swung her around like she weighed nothing. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and gave him a quick hug before turning to the trucker and hugging him.
The celebratory moment could only mean one thing: Calista Martin posted her last assignment for her master’s degree in music performance and secondary education. For reasons he was too tired to define, a sense of pride for her accomplishments raced through him. That took a deep strength and dedication to follow her dream. Adam had one dream: protect those he loved and to stay alive one more day.
Her beaming smile pulled at Adam like a magnet, forcing his feet to step closer to the entrance. Removing her arms from around the older man’s shoulder, she paused and turned toward the window. Their eyes held before she raised her hand and motioned for him to come inside. She moved toward the door and held it open for him.
“Am I too late for a quick burger?” Adam asked, closing the door behind him.
“The kitchen is still open. Pete will make you something.”
Calista lowered her eyes and eased away from him. A hint of pink came into her cheeks. She acted the same skittish way every time he got too close. Most people gave him a wide berth, and that usually was fine with him. Calista was so open and friendly to everyone who came through the door. For some reason, it hurt that she treated him with the same wariness that everyone else did. He wanted that normal symbol of kindness she gave to others too, at least here.
The trucker set his ticket and a twenty down by the register. “Calista. Heading out.”
She stepped out of the path of the doorway. “Thanks, Nate. Be careful on the road tonight.”
“Always. And you get out of this grease-hole. Celebrate.” He placed a Nationals baseball cap on his head. “Yo, Pete. Where’s my jitter juice?”
“Watch your mouth, or the owner of this grease-hole may just spit in your next meatloaf.”
Pete’s voice was low, menacing even, but his jovial expression gave away his genuine nature. He took the travel cup, waited a second for the last drip of fresh-brewed coffee to drop into the carafe, and topped off the oversized mug.
The scent of fresh coffee wafted across the room, masking the overpowering odor of greasy fries. Adam inhaled, hoping the scent of caffeine would revive him. Pete took a cup from beneath the counter, filled it to the brim, and set it in front of Adam.
Adam took a deep sip of the hot brew. “That would be great, but make it to go. If I sit here for too long, I’ll be out for the night.”
“No problem. It will be right out,” he said before facing his granddaughter. Calista busied herself with wrapping silverware into napkins and then placing them in the caddy next to the menus. Pete took out another cup, filled it half full, and set it next to her.
“I can’t drink coffee this time of night,” she murmured at her grandfather, like he should know better than to tempt her.
“Half a cup will not kill you.” A smirk appeared on his face. “Neither would a good roll…”
“Pete! God, the things that come out of your mouth.” Calista picked up the mug and brought it to her nose, taking in the scent of the rich brew. “And you can’t joke about spitting in people’s food.” She took a sip and closed her eyes. A groan of pure pleasure rumbled in her throat.
Adam almost coughed out his coffee. Calista Martin was a walking, talking sensual magnet if ever there was one. From her shoulder-length strawberry blond curls that bounced when she moved to those warm cocoa, almond eyes that made a man feel noticed, Calista was a natural beauty with a body that would give a blind man wet dreams. Her groan sent blood rushing to dormant places better left alone.
To hide the growl that slipped through his lips, he chortled. Calista gave him a hard glare but again quickly lowered her eyes. Pete let out another window-rattling laugh, which sent Calista’s cheeks and neck into a deep crimson glow. Before he returned through the swinging doors to the kitchen, he nudged her and said, “Tell Adam your news.”
“What news, Calista?”
“I just turned in my last assignment for my master’s degree.”
Adam rose and, lifting his coffee mug, tapped her mug lightly on the rim. “Congratulations. That’s fantastic.” He eased back into the booth. “So, what’s next for you?”
“After six years and 166 college credits, the only thing in my near future is uninterrupted sleep.”
Adam let out a chuckle. “Will you teach or perform?”
“Both. I have sent several audition tapes to orchestras and applied to just as many teaching positions. Now I have to see who bites. The best scenario is I’m hired to perform where I can also teach.”
When she lifted her head, her mouth opened to say something, but all she produced was a noisy breath. She darted off her stool and pointed to the corner of his right eye. “You’re bleeding.”
Adam yanked a couple napkins from the dispenser and blotted the area around the Band-Aid. A couple drops of blood must have pooled at the corner of the bandage and dripped down the side of his face. He gave the area a quick wipe, crumbled the napkin, and placed it in his pocket.
“Work accident. A protester didn’t like the guy I was protecting. Threw a bottle at him but hit me instead. I should have grabbed a larger bandage.”
“I don’t think it’s nothing.” She lifted his hair away from the area. “Have you seen it? The skin is turning a nasty shade of black and blue.”
Calista moved behind the counter and pulled out a first-aid kit. She approached the table, cupped his jaw in her hand, and gently peeled off the Band-Aid. The feel of her hand on his face sent an unexpected jolt through him. He shifted out of her reach. “It’s nothing.”
Ripping open the gauze package, she folded it in half and applied pressure as she laid it on the wound. Something sharp slid over the cut, making him cringe.
“Damn, that’s not helping, Calista.”
She removed the gauze. A small, brownish piece of glass was mixed in with the blood. “Pete said you run a security firm. Maybe you need to ask for combat pay.”
“Can’t ask for more pay if it’s your own company. I practically work for free so I can give my employees combat pay.” He then eased her hand away from his head, holding down the bandage himself. “Don’t fuss.”
“You could have a concussion, Adam.”
“I don’t.” He grabbed another swatch of gauze from the kit and ripped it open. He added a squeeze of antibiotic ointment and attached it with tape to his forehead. “See, all better.”
Calista gave him a hard stare before she closed the first-aid kit and replaced it behind the counter. She picked up a bottle of cleaner and sprayed down the counter. “It’s your noggin.”
Pete came through the kitchen door and set a to-go container down next to Adam before he addressed his granddaughter. “Put that rag down. You’re not closing tonight. Pack up and get out of here.”
“You let the other waitress go home. I’m all you’ve got. Besides, we shared a ride.”
“Believe it or not, I can manage without you. And the night my granddaughter earns her master’s degree, she doesn’t close this grease trap. Take the car. I’ll catch a bus or walk home.”
Calista placed her hands on her hips. “I’m not leaving you to close by yourself and walk home. How are you going to visit Mimi if you don’t have a car? I’ll take the bus.”
Adam stood. “I can give Calista a ride home.” He reached into his coat pocket for his wallet. Placing a twenty down next to the register like the last customer, he grabbed his to-go bag and leaned his shoulder against the door. “Calista, I’m ready whenever you are.”
Calista busied herself by stuffing her laptop into her canvas bag, her fingers fidgeting with the zipper. As Adam waited for some acknowledgment, he pushed down the irritation. Others could fear him, but not Calista.
“It’s just a ride home. I’m too scared of your grandfather to try anything.”
“You don’t have to do that. The bus stop is right there,” she said, pointing toward the parking lot.
“I know where the bus stop is.” Adam reached for her large case and paused by the door.
She stood still, studying him until he almost fidgeted. “I don’t accept rides from anyone unless I know their last name.”
“Blake. Adam Blake.”
Calista glanced at her grandfather. He gave her a nod. The room grew quiet while she made up her mind. She finally shrugged and said, “I would love a ride home. Lead the way.” She reached up and kissed Pete on his cheek. “Give Mimi my love.”
“Your grandmother will be so proud of you. I can’t wait to tell her…”
He stopped as if his words clogged his throat.
“It’s okay, Pete. Mimi’s heart knows, her soul knows, and you’re right. She’s very proud of me.” Calista wiped away the tear that threatened to spill down her grandfather’s cheek. After another quick hug, she walked out to the parking lot.
Adam moved ahead of her, positioning his body so it shielded her between him and the building. A soft crunch near the dumpster sounded behind him. He froze. With his arms tight against his body, the familiar rush of adrenaline filled his veins. He shifted his position toward the dark shadows. An enormous calico cat bounced off the structure and disappeared into the bushes.
“That’s Max. He and Pete have an understanding.”
“It’s a cat. How do you have an understanding with a cat?”
“He brings Pete dead mice and Pete makes sure Max eats like a king.”
Adam chuckled. Something he seemed to do a lot around Calista. With one final visual sweep, he relaxed his stance and opened the passenger door of his Acura. This time, she didn’t hesitate, dropping into the seat and drawing the seatbelt over her chest. He loaded the cello in the trunk and got behind the wheel.
Before he could stop himself, he asked, “I thought I heard your grandmother passed away a while back. Did I misunderstand?”
“No, you heard right.”
“But you just told Pete to…”
“He drives to the cemetery every night after he closes the diner, sits next to her gravestone, and tells her about his day. A fifty-year marriage isn’t something you get over.”
“And your parents?”
“Mom and Dad died in a car accident when I was eleven. Mimi and Pete raised me.” Calista twisted so she could face him. “What about you?”
“The same. Both parents gone.”
Adam didn’t have a clue why he brought the subject up. He had no business spending time with Calista outside the diner. That wasn’t a baby step into a normal existence, but a giant leap off a high cliff. His life made him hell on relationships.
But there was just something about Calista he couldn’t ignore. Maybe it was time to see if there was anything between them. If not, he could just walk away before he hurt her, too.
“I’m sorry about your parents.” She placed a hand over his arm. They faced each other for several heartbeats before she broke away and scanned the interior of his car. “I figured you would drive some sporty number or one of those black, mysterious SUVs.”
“What’s a black, mysterious SUV?”
“One of those cool bulletproof numbers with blacked-out windows.”
“Calista, just what do you think I do?”
“You’re like Batman.” Her voice was barely above a whisper and she squirmed in her seat. “When you leave the diner, you return to your bat cave unless you’re out fighting bad guys.”
He grimaced. Now what, smartass? Lie to her, or tell her who you really are and what you do?
“Who knew music teachers had such active imaginations? I’m no superhero.”
He could never tell her what he did for a living. He didn’t choose his path, but he didn’t walk away when he had the chance, either.
“And I’m not a music teacher.”
“You will be hired so quickly, your head will spin.” He placed the key in the ignition and started the car. He backed out of the space and pulled onto the side street.
“Where are you going?” Her voice sounded normal.
Adam slowed and stopped at the light. “I’m taking you home.”
“But I didn’t tell you where I live.”
“Yeah, I guess I need that, don’t I? This is the way the Metro bus always turns.”
Calista grinned. “It’s not far. Take the second left. My neighborhood is a couple miles on the other side of the Beltway. Once you pass over I-495, I’ll direct you.”
The faded streetlights cast a fluorescent gloom over homes on either side of the street, but the lack of lighting didn’t distract from the well-cared for neighborhood. People took pride in their homes, much like the suburbs of Los Angeles, where he grew up. There was a time when someone like Calista was exactly the type of woman he dreamed of settling down with and raising a bunch of little Blakes. She had a kindness to her he sorely missed. But with the twelve jaded, nightmarish years he had on her he could never erase, that dream ended years before they met. It couldn’t exist in his reality now.
“What’s wrong? You’re so tense.”
“Sorry, my mind was on something else.”
“If you get on the Beltway here, you can get off at the next exit, avoiding all the lights.”
Adam turned on his blinker and eased over a lane. Just as he entered the entrance ramp, a stabbing pain exploded in the back of his eyes, ricocheting across his frontal lobe. An involuntary, animalistic moan escaped through his clenched teeth and he squeezed his eyes shut against the searing pain. His hands shot up to cover his head as his foot slammed down on the accelerator. The car shot across the road, jumping the curb, and hurled up a slope. Adam hit the brake inches before the front bumper smashed into the trunk of an old oak tree. His forehead smashed into the horn, the blaring sound deafening.
Calista slammed the gearshift in park and shut off the ignition. She pulled his head away from the steering wheel. “Adam, what’s wrong?” She tried to remove his hands from his head, but he held on tight.
He couldn’t think or reason. The blinding pain increased until he thought his head would burst. Then the sound of a child’s desperate cry filled his head. They’re hurting Mommy! Help her!
What the fuck was that? Every word of the child’s plea seemed to cut through his frontal lobe to the back of his head. A gripping panic slammed into him as he fumbled in his jacket pockets. “My cell. Find my cell.”
Calista searched his pockets. “Here, Adam. I’ll call 911.”
He dropped his head back against the seat. Everything around him faded in and out of focus—except Calista. The pain pounded between his ears as dark, red spotted dots swam over his vision, allowing only minimal light in. Sweat beaded around his eyes and screamed down his spine. He shook his head to clear his vision and grabbed the phone. It took a couple tries, but a line on the other end rang.
Calista gasped, her hands covering her mouth. “God, you’re bleeding again, but not from the wound on your head. It’s coming from your eyes.” She swiped a finger at the corner of his eye, and it came away dripping with his blood. “I need to get you to a hospital.”
He shook his head, but the pain was so bad, he froze. The phone continued to ring in his ear. Eighth ring, ninth. On the tenth ring, it connected.
“Rina.” His best friend’s name came out in a raspy whisper. “Rina.”
“Katrina is a little busy Blake. Why don’t you join the party?”
The man’s voice came out in a thick, rough, Eastern European accent. Adam recognized it and a chill spiked through him.
The agony in the scream he heard next pierced Adam’s heart. He shoved down the sharp pain in his head and allowed the years of training to resurface.
“You’re dead, Ludis. You hear me. Your fucking life is over.”
“Big words. I will carve her open, then hunt down the kid. Your kid, you motherfucker. And when I’m done with her, I’m coming for you.”
The line went dead.
His muscles trembled beneath her touch as he shoved the phone into his sports coat. He pressed his temples with his fingertips and said, “I’m sorry. Your home is just two blocks away. Please, get out of the car, Calista.”
“No. I’m not leaving you. You need a doctor.”
Her voice sounded calm to her own ears, but everything in her wanted to run. Tidbits of Adam’s conversation with a man named Ludis mixed with Calista’s nightmarish visions of her best friend’s screams; Hanna Tu’s blood smeared over the walls and matted in her hair, the agony from the monster’s knife so excruciating, Hanna’s mind slipped into the darkest hell, never to open again.
Calista’s eyes filled. She shut them, bit down on her bottom lip before drawing in a deep, cleansing breath. This wasn’t the time to fall apart. Blood mixed with tears streamed down the side of Adam’s face. Air, maybe he needed air. She turned the key and hit the button on the door. The window slid down, letting in the cool night breeze. With the sleeve of her blouse, she blotted the bleeding from the corner of his eye.
Was this an aneurysm? She knew next to nothing about medicine. But damn it, eyes didn’t bleed.
“Get out, Calista. I have to go.” Adam’s voice grew weak. The last word was almost inaudible.
“You can’t drive.”
Her heart pounded between her ears, drowning out the world around her. Only Adam existed. She tried to remember her first aid lessons, but nothing she had ever learned covered this.
“It’s better. The pain is lessening.”
“Liar. Your face is as white as your shirt. I’ll drive you.”
“No! Hell, no.”
“Damn it, Adam. Change seats with me and tell me the address.”
“I can’t get you involved.”
His pain-filled voice squeezed her heart, and she silently prayed. God, please don’t let him die.
She clutched his hands in hers. “I’m not leaving you.”
Since Hanna’s death, Calista had walked out of her own life, slamming the door to the reckless, fun-loving person of her past, and hid under the shield of her grandfather’s diner for the last fifteen months. But that shield didn’t protect her from the nightmares or guard her from the violence in the world she couldn’t control. It found her anyway. As easy as it would be to open the door and step out of the car, she would never forgive herself for leaving Adam alone.
She yanked the keys from the ignition, got out of the car, and raced around to the driver’s side. She threw open the door and tried to shove him over into the passenger seat.
“Give me the keys. Now.” He grabbed for them, but she stepped out of his reach. He glared up at her. “You do not understand what you’re getting yourself into. This can’t touch you.”
Calista nudged Adam with her hip, trying to force him out of the driver’s seat. “I’m not leaving.” She shoved one more time, and he scooted over the console into the passenger seat. If she could split her emotions in half, one half would celebrate a battle of wills won, while the other half was scared shitless.
“Take the Chevy Chase exit.”
She started the car and backed down the embankment. Spinning the steering wheel, she sped onto the ramp. Once on the Beltway, she weaved through three lanes of traffic. The adrenaline pumping through her veins kept the fear in check, and she pressed down on the accelerator. The speedometer hit ninety.
“Slow down, Calista.”
Thank God traffic was light. She eased off the petal just long enough to take the Chevy Chase exit. “Who was that guy on the phone?” She didn’t want to know, but she had to ask.
Adam rubbed his hand behind his neck, his eyes fixed on the highway. “No one. You’re giving me a ride. That’s it. Take the next left, and for God’s sake, slow down.”
Calista spun around the neighborhood street so fast she gripped the steering wheel to keep her shoulder from slamming into the door. Her speed dropped to fifty. From the corner of her eye, she could see the color in Adam’s face return.
“How’s the pain in your head?”
“Almost gone. Take the next right.”
She slowed down and drove into an established neighborhood. She again glanced at Adam. Another blood-soaked tear streamed down the side of his face. He lifted his hand and swiped at it, leaving a smear near his hairline. “What happened on the entrance ramp?”
“I don’t know.” His voice came out in a forced whisper, and he cleared his throat. “I got this excruciating pain behind my eyes and then…I have no explanation. Next right,” he said, pointing to the upcoming street.
“There was a man’s voice on the other end of the call. He said after he carves her open…”
She clamped her jaw tight to keep the sob at bay. If Calista allowed the dam to open, she would be of no use to anyone.
Adam rested his palm over her hand clamped on the steering wheel. “No questions, Calista.” He paused then said, “You have to go on as if this was just a nightmare, but never happened.”
“How do I do that, Adam?”
He removed his hand and pressed her shoulder, the warmth easing away a little of the panic.
“The same way I do it. Time. Pull over next to the oak tree, two houses up on the right.”
Calista maneuvered the car into a spot and turned off the engine. She twisted in her seat to face him. He reached behind him and pulled a black duffel bag from the back seat. He unzipped it and pulled out a gun. She couldn’t take her eyes off the offensive weapon.
Pete made sure she could handle a gun because he kept them in the house. He told her grandmother it would be safer if she learned how to use one than to hide it away under lock and key. But Calista always hated the weapons and wanted nothing to do with them.
The handgun seemed to fit Adam’s hand perfectly, an extension of himself. Her heart drummed so loudly in her chest, it surprised her the sound didn’t vibrate off the car’s interior walls. “What do I do? How can I help?”
“You can’t help. As soon as I get out of this car, you will drive away. Understand?” His hand clamped down hard on her hands intertwined in her lap. “Look at me.”
Calista met his glare. “I can help. Pete has a Glock and taught me how to use it. I don’t understand what’s going on, but you’re not one hundred percent. You can’t go into that house the way you are…”
“No.” He unbuckled his seat belt, switched off the overhead lights on the dash and opened the door. “Get the hell out of here. Now.” His dark eyes seemed to burrow right into her heart. “Sorry about all of this. It was just supposed to be a normal ride home.”
“Adam, wait,” she whispered, but he shut the door, cutting off her reply. He placed the Glock in the waistband against his back and darted behind the car. Calista followed his progress across the street. He disappeared behind the side of the house two doors up.
Everything was eerily silent. It was as if someone clued all the nightlife into what was happening behind closed doors. Calista’ scanned the street. The few cars parked on the curb were empty. She should leave just like Adam commanded, but she couldn’t.
There was only one other time in her life that she’d felt the same gut-wrenching pull to stay put: the day she abandoned Hanna to her fate, too eager for a weekend trip to wait for her friend. That feeling she ignored, and she would pay for that mistake for the rest of her life. At Hanna’s memorial service, she’d made a vow. No matter how busy, complicated, rushed her life became, she would never turn her back on a friend again. She didn’t have a clue who Adam Blake really was, but the Adam from the diner was a friend.
“This is restitution for Hanna,” she whispered in the empty car. Before she could talk herself out of probably the stupidest thing she ever did in her twenty-six years, she opened the door and got out.
Damn, where the hell are the crickets, frogs, fireflies? What do they know that I don’t?
She crept up against the oak tree and glanced around it. Using the long shadow of the tree, she crossed the street and sprinted over the lawn just like Adam did minutes before. No lights illuminated the porch. She then ran across the driveway into the front lawn of the next house.
Staying in the shadows, she crossed into the yard, making her way onto the porch. Just as she gripped the doorknob, a crash sounded from inside followed by a loud groan. She hopped down off the porch and crunched behind a large boxwood. Seconds later, the front door smashed open, banging against the wall, and a man raced from the house. Calista curled into a tight ball. He held his shoulder, blood oozing between his fingers. She didn’t breathe, didn’t move an inch, but she couldn’t help memorizing the man’s every feature: tall, slim frame; square jaw; and long, straight, white-blonde hair. He fled down the steps onto the curved sidewalk and darted across the grass. Calista ducked further behind the bush. She watched as he scanned the porch before getting into his car. He sped down the street before he even closed the door.
Calista inched out of her hiding place. Every nerve screamed to bolt, but her feet edged closer to the door. Her grandfather’s words echoed in her head. Face fear and you control it. Avoid it, fear will swallow you whole.
This was her taking back her control. She peered around the doorway into the foyer. Adam sat on the floor with a woman covered in blood in his arms.
“Is she… dead?”
“Damn it, Calista. I told you to get the hell out of here.”
Did Ludis see her? The thought terrified him. He was in no position to protect her.
“The man who just left, did he see you?”
“No, and he’s gone.”
Rina’s blood pulsed against the skin of his palm. No matter how hard he applied pressure, she was losing blood at an alarming rate.
“What can I do?”
“Hand me the small sweater on the coat rack.”
Calista grabbed the piece of clothing and knelt next to him. He scrunched it into a ball and pressed it against Rina’s chest wound.
It took him only seconds to disarm the two men with Ludis. When he lunged toward Ludis, the bastard panicked. He pierced his knife through Rina’s chest, tossing her body against Adam. The wound was too deep. Nothing he did would matter, but he had to try.
“I’m calling an ambulance.”
“Put the phone down, Calista.”
“You can’t help her.”
“I know. No one can.”
She breathed in sharply. Then she glared at him in shock and scanned the room, settling on the two dead men. One lay sprawled across the Oriental rug, his neck twisted in an odd angle. The second was slumped faceup over the back of the sofa, with two large knives wedged into his abdomen and chest.
He broke eye contact with Calista and glanced down at his friend. White, searing anger raged through him. His chest heaved with lack of oxygen as his heart hammered.
“Adam.” The faint whisper filled him.
“Rina. God, hang on.” He brushed the hair from her face and lifted her closer so he could hear her.
“Ludis… he knows…they both know.”
“Shh, don’t talk…”
“No. Listen. Vasnev knows–”
“Knows what? Rina?”
She touched his face with her blood-covered fingers. He swallowed a sob that threatened to choke him.
Adam shook his head. “No, that’s not possible.” A fist clamped down on his heart and squeezed. How could Vasnev know they lived, that Anna existed?
The moment they had discovered Rina was pregnant, Adam planned their deaths so carefully. Several witnesses reported Rina’s car ramming the guard rail and flipping off the cliff in the Brenner Pass. His taped execution by a radical group in a hole in Afghanistan, perfectly implemented. Adam’s passing was still talked about in the halls of the CIA six years later.
He swiped another strand of matted hair from her cheek. “We were careful.”
“Anna. Promise—she needs you. Keep her safe.”
Rina’s eyes closed.
“Stay with me.” He patted Rina’s bruised cheek until she opened her eyes. “I can’t do it alone.”
“Promise. Anna. Promise.”
Her gaze locked on his as her hand caressed his cheek, then fell to her side as if it weighed a ton. With a slight nod of her head, her body trembled, and went limp in his arms.
“Rina! Don’t you dare leave me.” Adam gently lowered her to the floor and began chest compressions. “Anna needs you. I need you.”
The blood gushed out of the long gashes in her abdomen with each compression.
The air shifted, and he glanced at Calista. She had knelt next to him and wrapped her arm around his waist, resting her head against his back. With her other hand, she covered his hands. Rina’s blood seeped through his fingers, staining her palm.
“She’s gone, Adam,” she said, her face wet with tears. “Who is Anna?”
“Rina’s four-year-old daughter.”
Calista placed a hand on his shoulder. “Where is she?”
Adam observed Calista’s mouth move, but her words didn’t register. The blood smeared over his palm did. An icy vengeance crept into his heart, keeping it beating. Ludis would pay. Adam would make him pay.
Calista shook him hard. “Where’s Anna?”
The desperation in her voice knocked him out of the trance. He stood abruptly and stepped back from Rina’s body. Closing his eyes for only a moment, he focused on two unbeatable forces from within: the soldier and the father. When he opened his eyes, there was no doubt what he had to do. He yanked out the tail of his shirt and wiped his hands. “In the panic room upstairs. Follow me, but touch nothing. Understand?”
“Yes.” She shot him a glare, then her eyes softened. “I understand.”
At the staircase threshold, he stopped again. “I mean it, Calista. I don’t want anyone to know you were here. Your name can’t be linked with mine on a damn police report.”
“I can’t explain now. I have to get you and Anna out of here.”
The upstairs hallway had four doors. He opened the third door down and entered a child’s room, glancing to Calista. “Remember, touch nothing.”
Moving over to the closet, he pushed the clothes away. On the shelf behind the books, he found the hidden metal panel that matched the bookshelves perfectly. He tapped the right corner, and a small door popped open, revealing a touch pad. He punched in an eight-digit code and stepped back. The wall slipped away. A steel door stood in front of him with another keypad. This time, he punched in a code and an iris scanner popped out. Adam placed his eye in the circular disk. It took seconds for a thin light to swipe his eye before the door whooshed open.
He nearly stumbled in his haste to get into the spacious playroom. “Anna?”
His voice cracked. She wasn’t there.
“Anna, baby girl, where are you?” He searched the hiding places behind the sofa and furnishings. He stopped in the middle of the room and listened. Calista stood silently in the doorway.
After a couple of seconds, a faint whimper came from the wardrobe against the back wall. Adam swung open the door and lifted the child curled into the fetal position into his arms. He dropped to the floor and rocked her back and forth. “Anna, talk to me. Are you hurt?”
Burning fear sliced through every nerve as his hand roamed over Anna’s shoulder, arm, and leg, searching for injuries. The hint of berries and vanilla from her shampoo mixed with the coppery stench of Rina’s death. The two scents didn’t belong in the same universe.
Anna had captured his bitter heart seconds after she was born. It was his job to protect her. He wrapped Anna’s trembling body tighter against his. How much did she see? Did anyone see her? The thought of Ludis’s hands on Anna made Adam want to rip the man’s liver out and shove it down his throat.
How in the hell was he going to tell his precious Anna about her mother?
He brushed her hair out of her face. “Look at me, baby.”
Her arms circled his neck, clinging to him as if her life depended on it. Not a sound came from her lips, but she clung to him with such trust as if he would fix everything, make her world normal again.
“I got you, Anna. Are you hurt?”
“No, but Mommy…”
“I know, sweetheart.”
Her body shook as wrenching sobs took control.
Calista stood so still behind him. Why the hell didn’t she drive away like she promised? She brought normal to his life. In return, the horrors of his life spread out on the living room floor, branding the scene in her mind forever.
A hand touched his shoulder. “Adam. We have to get her out of here.”
Once again, his mind churned to order. He stood, wrapped Anna tightly against him. “I need your help.”
“Just tell me what to do.”
He wrapped his free hand around her neck and drew her close to him. Her body heat, her unexpected steadiness settled him as he impulsively pressed his lips to Calista’s forehead, then released her.
He grabbed the red backpack out of a compartment above the door of the wardrobe and handed it to her. He then reached into the wardrobe for a worn stuffed elephant. “There’s a quilt in the trunk,” he said, pointing to the piece of furniture in front of the sofa.
When Calista reached for the lid, he caught her hand.
“Sorry. Touch nothing. Got it.” She shrugged the pack over her shoulder and used her foot to open the lid. She pulled out the quilt. “What else does she need?”
He scanned the room. “The photo—next to the sofa.”
The framed picture was of Anna with her arms wrapped around her mother’s neck, both with huge smiles on their faces. The backdrop—the large ape house at the National Zoo. Adam couldn’t be seen with them, but he watched them, took photos. The memory of that day sliced another deep hole into his heart as he tore open the back of the frame and removed the photo.
Calista picked up a short stack of children books on the nightstand and slipped them inside her purse. “Now what?”
“Hand me the quilt.”
He unfolded the blanket and covered his daughter’s head. “We need to get the hell out of here. Fast.”
“You lead, I’ll follow.”
He re-locked the safe room and sprinted down the stairs, taking them two at a time. Anna held his neck so tightly, it made it hard to breathe. At the bottom step, he paused at the sight of his best friend’s dead eyes. Rina had been part of his life for ten years. No one knew him like she did.
When he stepped out of her life so she could have the type of relationship he couldn’t give her, they found a new depth to their friendship. In a split second, it was all gone. Red, murderous fury filled him with dark thoughts of revenge intermingled with sorrow and regret.
There wasn’t time for hatred or mourning. He headed down the hallway through the kitchen. The door to the basement stood ajar.
The scene in front of him wasn’t Ludis’s style. He left nothing for chance. But this time, he was all over Rina’s home. Why would Ludis make sure there was nothing to find?
Then it hit him. The answer was so clear. “Son of a bitch.”
He grabbed hold of Calista’s forearm, rushed into the kitchen, and stopped near the back door. He then peeled Anna’s arms from around his neck and leaned close to Calista’s ear. “I need to check something. Take Anna, but don’t let her remove the quilt from her face.”
He eased the basement door open and raced down the stairs. It took only a moment to find Ludis’s little package. Enough C-4 to blow the house to hell and back. How long before Ludis set off the C4 was anyone’s guess.
It took him less than five seconds to get back to Calista.
“Adam, what’s wrong?”
They were on borrowed time. “I need you to take her to the car. Backtrack through the neighbor’s yard. Stay in the shadows.”
Calista’s eyes widened. “She doesn’t know me.”
It took everything in him to keep from shoving her out the door. Adam didn’t have time to be nice. He had one job, protect Anna and Calista. He removed a corner of the blanket from Anna’s face. “Sweetie, this is Calista. She’ll take care of you.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek.
“Don’t leave me.”
Adam rubbed his temple when a sharp pain pierced through the back of his head and he met the wide, frightened eyes of his child. “I need to take care of your mommy and the house.” With a nod to Calista, he recovered Anna with the blanket, and opened the back door.
He took a moment to watch Calista until she was out of sight before he entered the living room and knelt next to Rina. “We… You were safe here.” His voice broke. He removed the pearl ring on her left finger and the medallion from around her neck. He shoved them in his coat pocket. With one last caress against her cheek, he rose and moved toward the basement door. On the wall leveled with the top step, he opened the fuse box panel door, flipped the switch he had added months before, and shut the door. If Ludis blew the house, the safe room would go up with it. By the time forensic identified all the human remains and discovered Anna wasn’t among the dead, Ludis and Emil Vasnev would no longer be a threat to anyone.
Calista had just closed the passenger door with Anna in her lap when he joined them. He soundlessly opened the back door of the sedan.
“Calista, please get in the back.” He lifted Anna out of her arms. Once Calista settled, he set Anna on her lap, buckling them both in the same safety belt. “Keep your heads below the window.”
He shut the door and ran around the back of the sedan to the driver’s door. He got in, started the car, and pulled away from the curb without headlights. After coming to a silent stop at the end of the block, his eyes met Calista’s. “I’ll explain everything.”
Just as he turned the corner, a blast ricocheted throughout the quiet neighborhood, shaking the ground. The small home erupted into flames and lit up the night sky in an orange glow. Debris scattered into the street as windows rattled and cracked, setting off several home security alarms throughout the block.
A heart-wrenching moan escaped Anna’s lips. Calista raised her head and peered out the back window. “Good God, Adam. What the hell just happened?”
“Head down, Calista.” He winced at the harshness in his tone, but he didn’t bother to retract it. They faced each other in the rearview mirror. How did it get so fucked up?
He turned another corner and wound his way out of the neighborhood. When several police cruisers barreled toward him, he eased over to the side of the road. Once the emergency vehicles passed, he switched on his headlights, pulled out onto Connecticut Avenue, and took the exit onto the Beltway.
“Adam?” Her voice was breathless. “Did you…”
Color drained from her face as she held Anna close to her. “He blew up the house knowing…?”
“He wants us both gone.”
“We’re in the way of what he considers his.”
“But she’s just a little girl.”
“And my daughter. We both stand in his way.”