“A non-stop thrill ride packed with heat that will leave you gasping for more. Tristan Red stole my heart.” - New York Times bestselling author Meghan March
The second I spared Isabel’s life, everything changed. I used to deal in death wishes. Now the instinct to protect her charts the course. Because every time I turn away from her, something turns me back. She’s uncovered a side of me that I can no longer ignore. Doesn’t change the fact that she doesn’t belong in my world.
Isabel’s learning to hold her own, but nothing can prepare her for the life I’m being called back into. With a long road ahead of us, I won’t make promises I can’t keep. She can barely accept the dark deeds of my past—a bloody history spelled out in a ledger she’s more preoccupied with than I’d like. When an old associate sets a dangerous plan in motion, I can’t hide who I really am. And there’s no turning back…
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New York City
Millions of lights pay homage to the night. Lamps lit for those who live in the dark. Together, the silent pinpricks across the sky create a subtle glow in the one-room apartment. I’m sitting in the living room of Mateus da Silva’s East Village pied-à-terre, content with the view but not the solitude.
Tristan’s been gone an hour. I’ve counted every minute. He insisted he had to take a meeting alone with a man named Crow—a man like him, who takes lives without hesitation.
I still don’t know what Tristan plans to do…about us or Company Eleven or the leash they’re planning to put on him again. I doubt he’ll tell me. He’s been his usual cold self since we made the journey from New Orleans in an exhausting two-day jag. But when he’s cold, he’s working. I’ve learned that. He’s calculating and planning, too focused in his mind to show me the softer side I’ve successfully coaxed out a time or two. Doesn’t make the temperature drop much easier to accept, but acceptance is the only way through this.
Jay’s invited him back into the Company to resume his role as a trained killer—the best of them. I’ve accepted this, at least to the degree that I would follow him in that direction if it kept us together. He could have left me at Halo with Martine and the others. For his part, he seems to have resigned himself to the fact that I won’t give up on us. At least not without a fight.
Yet I find myself missing the mansion on St. Charles now. I miss Martine’s air of quiet confidence, like a mother’s watchful eye over the house and everyone in it. Skye’s unexpected friendship. Even Noam’s merciless training, because it came from his heart. My time with the people attached to Halo wasn’t exactly a fairy tale, but I enjoyed a moment of stability there. Or at least a taste of it.
I pick up my phone and chance a late-night call to Skye, hoping I don’t wake her.
“About time you called.” Her voice is scratchy with sleep when she picks up.
I smile against a strong pang of emotion. We didn’t have much time for goodbyes before Tristan and I took off for New York. As I packed my bags quickly, she was tearful and apologetic for leaving the hotel with Zeda so swiftly. Martine, watching the scene play out remotely, had pulled them out as soon as Tristan blasted onto the scene, gun in hand, ready to use it on the man who’d viciously beaten me. Vince Boswell had a twisted idea about foreplay, but it was enough to collect what we needed to have him call off the hit on my life. At least that’s what we hoped.
“Where are you?” she asks.
“New York. We got here a couple days ago. We’re staying at a friend’s apartment in the city while Tristan does whatever he has to do.”
“And what’s that?”
I trust Skye, but I can’t share Tristan’s business with anyone. Not when he’s in the business of killing people, or at least tied to it for the foreseeable future. She knows what he does, but that’s about it.
“Meeting with an old associate,” I finally say.
She chuckles softly. “So you’re in knots.”
“You can always come back, you know.”
“He needs me, whether he chooses to admit it or not.”
She doesn’t need to say anything. Her inherent distrust of most men extends to Tristan, and her skeptical snort on the other side of the phone confirms it.
“I know what you’re thinking, but I’m his only reason to stop doing what he’s been doing. If I’m out of the picture, I’m afraid he’ll go back to it, and I’ll never see him again.”
“You sure you’re not just prolonging the inevitable?”
I wince. I don’t like the sound of that. I refuse to accept Tristan returning to a life of killing people for money. Will I fight as hard as I can to keep him from going there again, at the risk of my own safety?
“I’m not losing him again,” I say with finality.
I’m not spending another six years wondering where he is or what he’s doing, my heart never healing, just breaking a little more with every passing day. No. I’d face death and danger over the almost carefree life I left to run away with Tristan. I’d make the same choice all over again if I had to. A thousand times over.
She sighs on the other end. “All right then. You know we’ll always be here for you.”
“Thank you. And thanks for picking up. I needed to hear a friendly voice.”
“Anytime, hon. Come back soon, okay?”
I hang up and feel the loss of her daily companionship even more acutely. Living in limbo, not knowing our next stop, is excruciating at times. New York decidedly isn’t a place to hide away without purpose. The soul of the city seems powered by an unending rush to handle matters at hand. And if I stay idle in this apartment much longer just to wait for Tristan to find a way out of his commitment with Company Eleven, I’ll soon be climbing the walls.
I stare at my phone and think about texting him. He won’t answer anyway, so I go to the bedroom instead. In the corner beside my emptied suitcases is a black bag. A little ripple of worry goes through me that Tristan will find me going through his things. But he’s gone and not likely to come back for a while. So I take a seat on the floor, unzip the bag, and begin to unpack it, one item at a time. Rolled-up T-shirts and clothes. Weapons that don’t scare me as much as they used to. Guns and knives and extra magazines. An entire pack of zip ties. I let those drop to the floor without care, because him using them to tie me to the bed the night we reunited is not yet a distant memory. Of course, if he used them now, I probably wouldn’t mind so much.
I continue unpacking until there’s nothing left. I check the smaller interior pockets and find his passports and a few bricks of cash. American dollars. Money that no doubt was obtained carrying out the work of a mercenary. Then the red leather notebook that holds the record of his wrongdoings. Names of the unfortunate. I unwind the leather strap and go through it, somberly, like the pages of a program at a funeral. Most of the names are masculine, some feminine. Round numbers are beside them. Fees earned.
Each one is a bloody story. A story that started with a wish or a grudge or a vow that was made maybe years ago. Maybe decades ago. One thing is certain. Each name holds its own secrets. I run my finger over the faint indentations on the paper made in Tristan’s messy script.
I want to shut the notebook and tie up everything this book represents. Burn it. Toss it into the river to live with the sludge at the bottom and be forgotten. But that won’t make what Tristan did go away. And this ledger has value to him. He calls it insurance, and I wonder now if this could be the insurance we need to get him away from the Company.
Surely they have their own ledger. But what if we unraveled enough to scare them into leaving us alone, once and for all? Because I lived, we could track down the people who wanted me dead. The dead don’t have a voice, but their families do. Their friends do. What if we uncovered enough to buy back Tristan’s freedom?
Keeping the notebook out, I begin returning his things to the bag, when a sliver of white catches my eye. It’s barely noticeable, sticking out behind the rectangular piece of plastic that lines the bottom of the bag. I peel back the barrier to reveal a thick file folder, and as I pull it out and open it, several glossy photos slip out among the papers. The first one paralyzes me.
The pale, wounded body of a man with dozens of sutures across his torso. I touch the photo, leaving my fingerprints on the surface. Tristan. My beautiful Tristan. Marred with the wounds of war. I press my hand to my mouth. Then, slowly, I go to the next photo and the next. His legs. His profile. Shots taken from every angle, like a crime scene. One that, miraculously, he lived through.
Fighting nausea, I push the photos away and sift through the other paperwork in the file. High school transcripts, military forms, and briefings filled with terms I don’t fully comprehend. I pause on a letter with the CIA insignia centered on the page.
I scan the letter quickly and land on one sentence that I read again and again until my eyes blur.
Please accept my highest recommendation of Tristan Stone for placement in the Striker Special Forces training program.
Then the illegible scrawl of my father, signing off on Tristan’s future.
“I’m here to see Crow.”
The tall, brawny bouncer gives me a cursory glance, lifts the velvet rope between the entrance to Topaz 31 and me, and murmurs into the microphone hidden in his sleeve cuff as I head for the front door of the club—an upscale gentlemen’s lounge in Midtown. I half expected Crow to lure me into a seedy bar in South Jersey where he and his mob family hail from. To talk to me or kill me, who knows.
Inviting me here instead may have been his way of putting me at ease, but I’m as on guard as ever. I nearly killed him last time I saw him, a circumstance I’m sure he’s not forgotten.
Once inside, the main area seduces the senses with blue lights, clinks of glass from the bar, and several rows of leather crescent chairs swiveling as patrons casually follow the leggy blonde crossing the stage. She pivots near the edge where a man in a suit peers up at her bared assets.
“Can I get you a drink?”
A topless waitress approaches me from behind. She’s petite, short even in her stilettos. Pretty enough with brown eyes and tawny skin. I’m not interested in this woman’s tits, but for about a half a second, they’re hard to ignore. Unnaturally full but attractive. Just not the set I’m into right now.
She pushes her chest out proudly but wilts a little when I ignore her preening and look around the club for Crow.
“No, I’m here to meet someone.”
“Are you Red?” she asks, drawing my attention back.
“Crow’s in one of the suites in the back. He’s expecting you. This way.”
I follow her around the side of the stage, taking in details as I go. The thin Thursday night crowd. A dozen or so men and one couple whose gazes are fixed on the show. A handful of servers offering massages and bottle service. Nothing obviously suspicious.
The waitress leads me deeper into the club, stops in front of an unmarked door, and opens it without knocking. Dimly lit like the one we came from, the room is small but not claustrophobic. Crow lounges casually with his feet up on a black leather couch that wraps around the base of a narrow runway-like stage. Another beautiful girl is on it, gyrating around a pole in the middle and shooting furtive glances at her only client.
Crow. The big, cocky guy I shot up a few weeks ago. He doesn’t look too sore about it when he notices my arrival. He waves me closer with a hand wound in a flesh-toned bandage.
I take a seat on the opposite side of the couch.
“We meet again.” He pops some peanuts into his mouth and smirks.
“We’re just a couple of world travelers, aren’t we?”
He laughs loudly. “Yeah. It’s good to be home though.”
I glance at the stage briefly and back to him. “I thought Jersey was home.”
He shakes his head a little. “I could be a king there, you know? I want to be a king here.”
I almost laugh at his lofty dreams. Being the king of Manhattan would require wealth beyond anything we could ever make knocking off important people. Even a king’s ransom wouldn’t be enough to be the king here. But I’m relying on Crow’s delusions of grandeur to get me closer to Soloman, so I let him dream.
The waitress returns with two bottles. A bottle of scotch and an eighteen-year-old Dom Pérignon chilling in a bucket of ice.
“Are we celebrating?”
“It’s not for you, asshole.” Crow nods toward the bottle of scotch. “You can help yourself to the Macallan, though.”
“Suit yourself.” He takes the neat pour from the waitress before slipping her a twenty and sending her on her way. “I’m in pain every day, thanks to you, but I refuse to take the shit my doctor’s pushing.”
“Sorry about that,” I lie.
He grimaces over his next swallow. “Thanks, Red. Means a lot.”
“You said you wanted to meet. Here I am. What do you want to talk about?”
“How’s it going with Jay?” Something glimmers in his eyes.
“Why do you ask?”
He smirks. “I don’t know. She’s offering a nice bounty to bring you in. Pretty fucked up since you didn’t kill the bitch when you had the chance, huh?”
Something tightens in my gut. An unexpected blow of resentment that I left Jay alive only to have her turn again so quickly. I don’t know why I’d expect anything else. Maybe my ego or pride in my job superseded the obvious.
“Interesting,” I say thinly.
“Yeah, she said you agreed to come back in, but she’s not sure you’ll follow through. Said if I got to you first, to hold you and she’d make it worth my while. One more job to fatten up my retirement account.”
“So you’re allowed to bow out of the Company, but I’m not?”
“I didn’t botch a job.”
“You couldn’t manage to kill me. Fucked that up pretty good, didn’t you?”
He frowns a little, downing the last of his drink and setting it on the table. “That’s different.”
“Because you’re you. That wasn’t an easy job.”
“Even with all your backup? I’m flattered.”
He blows out a breath. “Listen, Red. I didn’t ask you to come here to see who could piss the farthest. And even though part of me wants to, I’m not going to kill you.”
Good luck trying, you clumsy fuck.
“That’s really sweet of you. What do you want?”
“I want to work with you.”
“I’m not interested in a partner,” I say quickly.
“You’ve got Isabel now.”
I don’t answer. Isabel is none of his business. I don’t even like the sound of her name passing through his lips.
He seems to know this because he grins. “Relax, Red. If I’m not coming for you, I’m not coming for your girl.”
I clench my fist and unfurl it a few times, silently calming myself. “If you have a proposal, I’d suggest you lay it out now.”
“How many hits do you have under your belt?”
“Plenty.” I know the number, of course, but like he said, this isn’t a pissing contest.
“Me too. And what’s an average hit? Like, twenty to fifty K, right? The really important ones are more, of course, but—”
“Get to the point.”
He smiles again. That same smug, glittering smile that could almost be endearing if it came with a good plan to take Jay and her operation down. I really wish he had one, but he’s probably just wasting my time.
“If someone can afford fifty thousand dollars to kill someone else, what’s their life worth?”
I pause and wait for him to continue. Because if he’s proposing what I think he’s proposing…
“I know you’ve got a list, Red. So do I.”
“And you want to turn the tables and come after the people who did the hiring.”
He nods. “You know the kind of clients who hire Soloman. Heads of state. CEOs. Princes. The top of the food chain.”
“Maybe so. But if you do this, Company Eleven will bring an army after you, and whoever you fuck over is going to bring their army too. Good luck with that.”
“I’ve got my own army.”
I barely refrain from rolling my eyes. “I bet they’re a real loyal bunch too. The kind of clients you’re talking about would turn anyone close to you for short dollars. You’d have a bullet in your back in no time.”
He swings his legs down and straightens into a sitting position, wincing slightly. “You’re wrong.”
“Because they’re your family?”
“Fuck no. Because once we pull off one big job, we can buy loyalty. And when we’ve pulled off enough of them, they won’t be able to touch us. We’ll be hands-off—the way Soloman is now. Tug a few strings here and there, get things done, and trigger the payments after. And the best part?”
I’m not sure I even want to hear the best part.
“Company Eleven implodes. We won’t even have to dismantle them. They’ll dismantle themselves. Credibility ruined. They’ll never get another job again. Hell, they’ll be lucky to get out of this business alive.”
I rake my hands through my hair and blow out a breath. Crow’s plan is terrible. Fraught with potential pitfalls. Dangerous ones that would leave both of us dead. Still, I’m strangely interested in talking it through.
“Okay, let’s ignore for the moment that your plan is basically impossible on a large scale. We’d be on everyone’s most-wanted list before we could even think about reaping the rewards. For argument’s sake, though, let’s say we could target one job strategically. One client. How would you collect the intel you needed?”
“The hard way or the easy way. The hard way? We do our homework. Research connections and sniff out whatever shit triggered the hit.”
“And the easy way?”
He smiles broadly. “We snatch Jay and squeeze her for all the details. Talk or else. Plenty of basements in Jersey. Then we pop whoever we need to on the way. Easy.”
“Jesus Christ, you’re a bull in a china shop.” And suddenly I feel like his level-headed life coach trying to turn the pieces of his insane plan into something that could work.
He slaps his hands together and rubs them greedily. “But you’re still here. So I’ve piqued your interest.”
“Which raises the question, why do you need me with this so-called army of yours?”
“Because you’re Jay’s pet project. Poor little grunt who lost his memory. Maybe she wants you dead, but she’s got a soft spot for you. You’re probably the only one who can lure her out. Plus you’re smart as fuck, and I can use you. I think we’d make a good team on this.”
I stare at him in disbelief. He’s a maniac—more than I ever gave him credit for. Then again, what kind of idiot leaves a crime family to kill people for a living? An ambitious one, I suppose. I can’t tell him this, of course. Saying no closes the door to whatever he learns about Soloman’s operation along the way. And Crow’s being friendly now. All that could change in an instant. If I give him a good enough reason, he’s greedy enough to try to snag me in return for whatever Jay’s offering. Not that I’d ever let him.
“What do you know about Soloman?”
“I know how to find him. That’s about it.” He points his finger at me. “Correction. I know how to get a meeting with him.”
“It’s a one-shot thing. We’d need someone with enough legitimate bank to be taken seriously. He doesn’t mess with people who are small-time. Find that person, and I know who can set it up.”
I run through scenarios, but there’s not enough to work with. I know nothing about Soloman or what motivates him. Unfortunately, I don’t think Jay knows much either. If she did, she would have told me more when I was ready to crush her windpipe. She knows what I’m capable of.
“I have people who could get a meeting, but it’d be a huge ask,” Crow continues. “If we don’t get what we want out of it, game over.”
“I have someone too, but you’re right. It’s not worth pulling favors until we know more.”
Mateus would do it in a heartbeat, and he’s got enough money to fund a thousand hits. Doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t put him in that position unless I could put a definitive end to Soloman and Company Eleven and give Isabel the freedom she deserves.
“I’ll think about it,” I finally say.
Crow’s distracted when the music changes. A new girl takes the platform. She’s got raven hair down to her waist. Her face is heavily made up, but her patented seductive pout relaxes into something more genuine when she sees Crow.
He looks to me, suddenly serious. “You know where to find me.”
I take the hint and get up just as the girl begins her dance.