‘THE women need strong, sweet tea,’ Ilya Prakenskii greeted Jonas as he entered the kitchen. His cool, appraising gaze ran over Jonas, noting the smears of dirt and scratches, the evidence of the explosion. ‘I felt the surge in power and knew they’d need help. Is Hannah all right?’
Jonas watched him gather mugs onto a tray. ‘She’s fine. A little shaken up.’
Ilya rested his hip against the counter. ‘You have something on your mind.’
‘The attack on Hannah by the Werners could have been directed by someone with your abilities.’
‘I considered that as well, but I was close to the man. I would have felt it.’ Ilya shrugged his shoulders. ‘Unless you’re implying I was the one directing him.’
‘The girls say no and I don’t think so either.’ Jonas rubbed his shadowed jaw. ‘Is it possible Nikitin has that kind of power?’
‘Absolutely not.’ Prakenskii added a powder to the tea.
‘That could just be an act.’
‘He has no power. He would laugh if you told him anyone had the ability to manipulate energy. I would have known. There’s a charge in the air, much like an electrical current, when the elements are being manipulated. You’ve probably felt it. You have your own talent. It’s the only reason I’m allowed into this home. You’d have shot me and asked questions later if you believed for one moment that I could have orchestrated the attack on Hannah.’
Prakenskii had read him correctly, Jonas couldn’t very well deny the charge. He’d considered the possibility because he had to, but he knew Ilya Prakenskii had saved Hannah’s life, not tried to take it.
‘What did you put in their tea?’
‘Vitamins. A healing compound. All natural and nothing illegal.’
Jonas held out his hand for one of the mugs. Ilya handed him one and took one himself.
‘I’ll give this one to Hannah.’ Jonas watched Prakenskii arrange cups on a tray and carry it toward the living room. ‘Why aren’t you floating it in like the girls do?’
Prakenskii shrugged. ‘Even small things are a drain on energy and I prefer to reserve mine for what lies ahead.’
‘And what would that be?’ Jonas asked, gliding easily in front of the man, blocking his way to the door.
Prakenskii glanced at him. ‘Hunting, Mr. Harrington. I will be going hunting very shortly and I’ll need every ounce of energy I can muster.’
Jonas studied his expressionless face. ‘You aren’t what they say.’
‘I’m exactly what they say. I do the job nobody else wants.’
Jonas continued to lock gazes. ‘Maybe you do, but the real question is not what you do, but who you work for.’
Ilya Prakenskii didn’t so much as blink, but Jonas knew, in the strange way he often knew things, that he had hit a target.
‘I work for Sergei Nikitin.’
‘Is he the mark?’
‘Think what you like.’ Prakenskii stood waiting for Jonas to get out of his way.
Jonas shook his head. ‘You can’t have her, Prakenskii, not if you’re what you want the world to believe, and I think you know that.’
Ilya didn’t bother to pretend not to understand. ‘My relationship with Joley Drake is not your business.’
‘Actually, it is. The Drakes are my family and I look after my own.’
‘Is that what you’re doing?’
Jonas stepped back, allowing Ilya to take the tray into the living room, where the Drake sisters sat, or lay, on the chairs, couches and floor, the drain of energy after helping Hannah taking a toll.
Jonas narrowed his eyes, watching as Ilya carefully handed each woman a mug of tea, giving Joley the one he’d sipped from. He opened his mouth, but a cough instead of words came out, and Joley frowned, looking up at him as she sipped, and then at Ilya.
‘What did you do?’ she demanded, her voice husky. ‘I felt that small flare.’
Jackson crossed the room to touch Elle’s cheek, placing his body carefully between her and the Russian. Jonas knew him well enough to know he had put himself in a position to get a clear shot if necessary.
Ilya appeared not to notice, but when he moved away from the sisters, he settled with his back to the wall, directly facing Jackson and the other fiancés of the Drake sisters. ‘I put natural vitamins in your tea. Nothing poisonous.’
Hannah took another swallow. ‘You’ll have to tell me how you make it. I can feel the difference already.’
‘Jonas,’ Sarah called him to attention. ‘There’s a message for you from a man named Duncan Gray.’ She straightened in the chair and pushed back her dark hair. ‘He said to tell you Petr Tarasov died a few hours ago from injuries sustained during the attempt to break him out of custody. He also said the agent he told you about has been identified.’
‘Who is Duncan Gray?’ Libby asked. ‘Why is that name so familiar?’
‘Jonas worked for Gray when he first got out of the Rangers,’ Sarah said. ‘Why would he suddenly be calling you now, Jonas? Is this anything to worry about?’
‘Who is Petr Tarasov?’ Joley asked.
‘Petr Tarasov is the brother of Boris Tarasov, one of the most violent mobsters alive today,’ Elle answered. ‘Boris Tarasov is wanted around the world for just about everything from fraud to murder. Word had it that the defense department arrested Petr for murdering one of their agents, and was holding him in an unknown location. A few days ago, an attempt was made by Boris’s organization to get him free.’
‘What else do you know, Elle?’ Jonas demanded.
‘Petr was shot and again taken to an undisclosed location for treatment.’ She looked directly at Jonas. ‘There must have been someone in the defense department feeding Boris information for him to find both locations, and if I’m not mistaken, the cryptic message to Jonas was to tell him the traitor has been identified and is now deceased.’
‘How the hell would you know all that?’ Jackson demanded.
Elle lifted an eyebrow at him and took a drink of tea to avoid answering.
Jackson took a step toward, going from protective to menacing in a heartbeat. ‘We had a talk about this, Elle. I told you to quit.’
She stood up, her dark eyes flashing fire at him that fast. ‘You tell me a lot of things. I told you to quit and I see you’re still a deputy.’ She glanced at Prakenskii. ‘Giving me orders doesn’t work, Jackson, so back off. And now isn’t the time for this anyway.’
‘This isn’t over, Elle,’ Jackson said.
‘It is for me,’ she replied.
Jonas held up his hand for peace, looking around the room at the women he called family.
They were tired and pale, but the tea was helping. ‘Let’s just put this aside for now. We’re all tired and upset.’
‘I have a bit of news that may interest you,’ Ilya said, watching him closely. ‘There is a rumor going around that four of Boris Tarasov’s crew went missing and when the fifth delivered the news, telling an outrageous tale of a house eating a man, trees coming to life and windows shattering and repairing themselves, Boris put a gun to his head and shot him.’
Jonas went absolutely still. Everything in him froze. The news was a sucker punch to his gut. Hard. Out of nowhere. Completely debilitating. For a moment he couldn’t think or move, his mind screaming a denial. It was impossible for Boris Tarasov to connect him with Petr’s arrest. Impossible. That sneak and peek in the alley had been completely off the books. Gray had picked Jackson and Jonas up himself. No one else knew they had been there except Gray, and Jonas trusted him implicitly.
The silence stretched. The tension in the room climbing.
Had someone seen him? Recognized him? No one in San Francisco would know who he was. A stranger brought in, no name, no connection. He’d gone to the clinic, but hadn’t used his own name. They’d been careful to give no ID, careful of touching anything in the room. No one could identify them.
His gaze jumped to Hannah. He loved her with every breath in his body. He couldn’t be responsible for the attack. He couldn’t be responsible…
The attack. The pain. The terror. Her life destroyed because of him.
His eyes met hers across the room in sudden knowledge—in complete and utter despair.
‘The picture.’ His lungs burned. ‘God. Oh, God. The fucking picture, Hannah.’
He couldn’t look at her—at any of them. Without a word he turned and walked out of the room, slamming the kitchen door closed with such force it shook the house. A chair hit the door with an ominous crack and the sound of glass shattering followed.
Jackson started toward the kitchen. The Drake sisters pushed out of their chairs. Their fiancés followed them. Hannah beat them all to the door and stood in front of it, blocking the way.
‘No. Leave him alone. Everyone. Leave him.’ Her blue eyes glittered with real menace, backing them all up. ‘This is mine. No matter what, you stay out.’ She decreed it, facing them down, knowing whatever was wrong, Jonas would never want them to see him so completely out of control.
Sarah nodded and waved her sisters back into the living room. She waited for the men to reluctantly follow before she squeezed Hannah’s hand and left her alone.
Hannah took a deep breath and cautiously opened the door. Slipping inside, she turned the lock and took a look around the room. The chairs were turned over, one was broken.
Plates lay smashed on the floor. Jonas was across the room, his arm and shoulders moving rhythmically as he hit the wall with his fist. With every strike, blood sprayed and he swore obscenely. His face was a mask of fury, the punching merciless.
Hannah stepped carefully around the broken glass, deliberately moving into his view.
‘Jonas. Stop. Whatever this is, whatever happened, we can deal with it.’
He turned to her, his eyes alive with pain. ‘Can we, Hannah?’ He shook his head.
‘There’s no dealing with this one. Not now, not ever.’
She reached out to him and he jumped out from under her fingers, denying physical contact. ‘Tell me then. Just say it.’
‘It was the picture.’ His lungs burned. ‘Hannah, I’m so fucking sorry. They found the picture at the hospital. It was there, in my shirt pocket, and they cut my shirt off of me. I just left it there on the floor when we went out the window. It was my mistake. Mine.
He sank to the floor, his legs turning to rubber. ‘It was in my shirt pocket,’ he repeated, rubbing his hands down his face. ‘I did this.’
‘I don’t understand, Jonas. What did you do?’ Hannah’s voice was gentle, compassionate, loving.
He couldn’t bear for her to be loving. Or understanding. He wanted to put a bullet in his fucking head.
‘Which picture, Jonas? Start there.’
‘The one of you Sarah took outside in the backyard. You were surrounded by flowers and you were laughing. I was looking down at you. Sarah gave it to me and I kept it with me all the time.’ He looked up at her in complete despair. ‘I should have known. It was in the back of my head when I saw the picture on my dresser. For a moment it was there and I lost it again. I didn’t want to know.’ He slammed the back of his head against the wall.
‘Damn it. Just damn it.’
She eased her body down next to his, thigh to thigh, not touching, but close, so close she could feel his heat—and the jumble of emotions so intense they swamped the room. She was careful to allow them to wash over her and not let them in to affect her own emotions. Jonas needed her steady, not reacting.
‘I loved the way you look, but…’ He bit off a curse. ‘Anyone looking at the picture would know I’m in love with you.’
Hannah tried not to fixate on the blood dripping steadily from his knuckles but the sight of his mashed and bleeding flesh made her slightly queasy. She wanted to put her arms around him and comfort him, but he was ramrod stiff. She let the silence stretch out, forcing herself to allow him to tell her at his own pace.
‘You’re a supermodel, Hannah. No one knows who the hell I am, but your face is everywhere. They took one look at that picture and they knew just how to get to me. The fucking bastard is going to die for this.’
She was beginning to comprehend. Maybe she’d known from the moment he’d gotten that look on his face, the dawning horror. She twisted her fingers together to keep from touching her face. In a way, it was a relief to know. She could never imagine why someone would hate her so much, but it wasn’t about her. It had never been about her.
‘Boris Tarasov did this to me because he was trying to get to you?’
‘I should have known when there was no magic involved. It was too brutal. The killers were amateurs and both were reluctant. He must have threatened their child. And he would have done it quite brutally. Tarasov has a certain reputation for bloody vengeance.
He probably made them believe that if they didn’t carry out the attack exactly as he instructed, he would chop their little girl into pieces and send her back to them one piece at a time. That’s the kind of thing he’s famous for.’
Jonas looked at her then—at the scars on her face and throat. ‘I spent my life trying to take care of my mother and then all of you. I wanted you more than anything, Hannah, but my old job was so dangerous, and I was afraid I’d bring that danger on you and your sisters. So I stayed away. When I took the job with the sheriff’s department, I thought we might have a chance. It was so much safer than what I had been doing.’ He dropped his face in his hands. ‘All those years of being careful, and in the end, I still brought the violence straight to you.’
Hannah’ looked into his eyes—his gorgeous, dangerous eyes—and saw such misery, such rage and hopelessness. She forced her brain to slow down, not react, but to think. Jonas spent his life trying to save people. He put himself in harm’s way every single day in order to help others and it had cost him far more than he realized. He hadn’t done this. He could never be responsible for what another human being chose to do and somehow she had to find a way to make him understand that.
‘No, Jonas. You didn’t put that knife in my attacker’s hands. You didn’t force him to use it. Boris Tarasov did. He’s the one responsible, not you.’ She put her hand over his knuckles, pushing healing energy to take the sting away.
‘Don’t!’ he said sharply. ‘This is… unacceptable, Hannah. You’re my damn world and to have someone try to destroy you over something I did…’
‘You don’t,’ she answered with equal sharpness. ‘Don’t you dare! I mean it, Jonas. This isn’t about you and don’t try to make it that way. Your mother’s illness wasn’t about you either. You take on too much, you always have.’
‘She was over forty when she had me. She was too frail to have a child and she never recovered.’ He shoved both hands several times through his hair, needing to hit something again. ‘Her immune system shut down after I was born.’
‘She wanted you more than anything else in the world. Both your mother and father did.
You have no right to take that away from them. It was their choice and one they never regretted.’
‘She suffered, Hannah. Every damn day. She suffered.’
‘She was very strong, not frail, and she fought it long and hard because it was her decision to stay with you. I’m an empath. I went with my family to see your mother. I knew what she wanted, and it wasn’t death. Not even to escape the pain. She wanted every single minute she could have with you.’ She took his hand again, linked their fingers together. ‘And that’s what I want, Jonas. Every single minute I can have with you.’
‘Look what happened to you, Hannah.’
‘It happened. It was frightening and horrible and we both wish it hadn’t happened, but it did. And something good came of it. In a way, Jonas, I found my strength. I know who I am and what I want. I gained my freedom.’
‘Damned hard way to get your freedom, baby. And you’re going to have nightmares for the rest of your life.’
‘So I’ll have nightmares. Don’t we all? Don’t you?’ She framed his face with her hands because everything she said was true. She was stronger and she did know what she wanted. ‘We’re partners. Now. Forever. You can’t shield everyone you love from bad things, Jonas. They’re going to happen. When they do, we’ll handle them together.’
Jonas stared into her eyes for a long time, searching for the truth. ‘I don’t know if I can forgive myself.’
‘Have you heard a word I’ve said? Jonas, if we’re going to make it together, if I’m as important to you as you say I am, then you have to listen to me. I want all of you. Every single bit of you. I won’t accept a man who is afraid to love me with his entire heart and soul and body. If I can’t have all of you, then there’s no point in this. You can’t control the world, Jonas, and you can’t continue to blame yourself for things beyond your control. I never asked you to be different. Yes, you scare me sometimes, but I’ll take fear over you trying to be someone you’re not.’
Jonas opened his mouth and then closed it. If he had remembered the picture, then Tarasov would never have connected Hannah to him. He wouldn’t have destroyed an entire family… He groaned. He couldn’t take that on, too. The couple had choices. They could have gone to the cops, put their daughter into protective custody, but they’d elected to murder an innocent woman to protect their own. That was on them. He rubbed his hands over his face and looked down into Hannah’s face.
‘I’m not going to tell you that you’re right.’
‘But I am.’
His eyes softened. A small smile tugged at his mouth. ‘Hannah. You didn’t stammer. Not once—not even when you were putting me in my place.’
He leaned in to kiss her. Gentle. Tender. So sweet it brought tears to her eyes.
‘Are we good?’ she asked.
‘We’re good,’ he answered. He’d live with what happened because he had no other choice. He’d made a mistake and she was right, there was no going back. He wasn’t about to lose her over it. If she could look him straight in the eye, then he was man enough to do the same.
He looked slowly around the room. ‘I don’t suppose the house repairs furniture and dishes?’
Hannah laughed. ‘No such luck. But if you notice, there’s no hole in the wall. Next time you decide to go crazy and punch the wall, you might remember, this house could protest and just lock your fist inside, and then where would you be?’
He narrowed his eyes and looked warily at the wall. ‘This place is definitely creepy.’ He kissed her again. ‘I suppose I’m going to have to face everyone. I hate telling your sisters that I put you—and maybe them—in danger.’
‘It isn’t like we haven’t been in danger before, Jonas,’ Hannah reminded him.
The truth was, he could barely stand the idea that he had exposed his family to a madman like Boris Tarasov. The Russian was brutal and vengeful, his reputation scared even seasoned investigators. With a small sigh, he stood up and reached down to take her hand, pulling her to her feet.
‘I guess I have to get it over with.’ But instead of going into the living room, he wrapped his arms around Hannah and held her against him, his hands sliding down her jeans to cup her bottom and bring her tight against him. ‘Thank you.’
‘I love you, Jonas.’
‘Thank you for not telling me what an ass I am for tearing up the kitchen. Sometimes I have so much anger in me,’ he confessed in a whisper against her ear, ‘so much rage, it scares the hell out of me.’
She pressed her mouth to his throat, remembering very vividly the day, long ago, he had come into their house so angry he couldn’t stand still. Waves of grief poured off him and mixed with impotent rage. He’d torn up the kitchen then, too. Her mother had taken Libby and had gone to do what they could to ease Jeanette Harrington’s suffering. Mrs.
Drake had never chastised Jonas, but she had handed him a broom.
‘It doesn’t scare me, Jonas,’ Hannah said. She kissed him again. ‘But after we’re married, if you break my dishes, be prepared to clean up the mess and then go out and get me new ones immediately.’ She reached back, tugged at his hand until she had possession of it and brought his injured knuckles once more to her mouth. ‘Let’s go. I can feel how worried the others are about you.’
The moment they entered the living room, he was swarmed by Hannah’s sisters—his sisters. They crowded around him, their hands soothing, bringing peace, healing his knuckles—healing his soul. Sending him waves of love and support. He went from wanting to viciously beat something with his bare hands, to being choked up. The Drake sisters. His family. Hannah. The love of his life. Who could be luckier?
‘Are you all right?’ Sarah asked gently.
He nodded, wanting to ease the concern on their faces. ‘I lost it there for a minute.’ He glanced back toward the kitchen. ‘I made a mess, Sarah, I’m sorry.’
‘Tell us what’s upset you.’
‘Boris Tarasov went after Hannah to draw me out. I’m the real target. He’ll try to kill her because she matters to me. He might try to kill all of you.’
Joley frowned. ‘I don’t understand. Why would a Russian mobster want to kill you? That doesn’t make any sense, Jonas.’
‘Duncan Gray is my old boss and he asked me to do a little job for him, nothing dangerous, or at least I didn’t think it would be, but we caught Petr Tarasov on tape murdering an undercover agent.’
Ilya Prakenskii made a small noise at the back of his throat. There was silence, as if by that one small sound, everyone instantly understood the chilling repercussions.
‘I was shot in the ensuing battle and went to a clinic. I had a picture of Hannah and me, one I always carried with me. Tarasov’s crew must have found the picture, and in order to bring me out into the open, they attacked Hannah using an innocent family to do so. My guess is, we’ll find that the mother has ties to Russia and that’s how he chose her. She would know his reputation and believe absolutely that he would kill her daughter if they didn’t do what he said.’
Joley’s hand moved defensively to her throat. ‘Is that true, Ilya? Would someone be so convinced they’d kill another human being?’
Ilya stroked a caress down her hair, a gesture of comfort. ‘Unfortunately men like this exist, Joley, very evil, and yes, those who know of him would do whatever they could to spare their loved ones the brutality of his chosen executions.’
‘Then you have to stop him, Jonas,’ Sarah said. ‘We all do.’
‘Do you know where this man is?’ Joley asked Prakenskii.
Rare expression rippled across Prakenskii’s face. ‘Joley, these people…’
‘Want to kill my sister, Jonas and possibly us. Do you know where they are?’
He pushed away from the wall. ‘I’ll take care of it.’
Jonas shook his head. ‘This is my fight, Prakenskii. He did this to my woman, not yours.
Where is he?’
Prakenskii swore in Russian. ‘You cannot arrest such a man, Harrington.’
Jonas lifted an eyebrow and remained silent.
Prakenskii swore again. ‘He’s on a yacht with several of his crew.’
Jonas nodded. ‘We’ll need Duncan to get the necessary warrant to board. We’ll have to strike fast before he has a chance to launch another attack. Can you girls give us the weather we’ll need and help from here?’
‘Of course, Jonas, tell us what you need,’ Hannah said. Prakenskii shook his head and walked out. Jackson hesitated a moment and then followed.
THE Drake sisters may have overdone the fog, Jonas decided as he approached the boat where Duncan’s grim-faced men waited.
‘These people play for keeps, Jonas,’ Jackson warned softly. ‘If you leave Tarasov alive, he’ll keep coming at you—even from jail.’
‘I heard Prakenskii, same as you,’ Jonas snapped. ‘Where the hell is he, anyway? You’d think he’d want in on this.’
‘He didn’t show, but then, with Duncan Gray running the operation, I can’t blame him too much.’ Jackson flashed a small grin. ‘Gray thinks Prakenskii’s both a spy as well as the world’s best hit man.’ The smile faded. ‘You know Duncan’s going to want to take Boris into custody. It would be the biggest international arrest of the decade. It isn’t going to matter that Boris is after you and your family. We have to get to him first.’
‘I know.’ Jonas leaned down to examine his gun for the hundredth time to avoid looking at Jackson.
‘I’ll take him out, Jonas,’ Jackson said.
Jonas shook his head. ‘It’s my responsibility, Jackson, I’m not laying it on you.’
Jackson didn’t bother replying. He’d already had a long conversation with Prakenskii—well, as long a conversation as two men like Ilya Prakenskii and Jackson Deveau needed when protecting a friend. Jonas had the courage to charge hell with a bucket of water, and he never walked away from a fight or a fallen comrade, but he didn’t have the makeup for the kind of extermination job they needed to do. Jonas had been raised to revere life, in the same way the Drakes had been raised, and had far too much compassion in him to live comfortably with what needed to be done. He’d do the job, but it would haunt him.
Jackson wasn’t going to let that happen.
‘The girls will be waiting in case we need them. Already they’ve got the fog thick and still, so we’ll have plenty of cover going in,’ Jonas said. He stepped aside to allow Jackson to enter the boat with Gray and the rest of his team.
Gray barely looked up from studying the yacht’s layout for the millionth time. ‘Our information says Tarasov’s got fifteen men aboard the yacht and no civilians. All of his men are armed and will cut you down without thought. These four are the most dangerous. Don’t get close to them for any reason. Don’t try to cuff them. Don’t try to disarm them. They know more ways to kill a man than you could possibly imagine.
Contain them and wait for my team to apprehend. This is our target.’ Gray passed around photographs.
Jonas found himself staring at Boris Tarasov. The man was short and stocky, with a shock of gray hair and bushy eyebrows. He had heavy features and mean, bullish eyes.
The second picture was of the captain. He was taller with an athletic build, a very handsome man.
‘That’s Karl Tarasov, Petr’s son. He’s been the number one hit man for his family for years. He’s ruthless and bloody and doesn’t mind killing women and children,’ Gray continued. ‘No one has ever come up against him and lived. He’ll do anything to protect his uncle.’
‘If we don’t arrest them, Jonas, you and the Drakes are never going to be safe.’
That was a blatant lie and it twisted Jonas’s gut into knots. Gray knew as long as any of the Tarasovs were alive, Hannah would never be safe. Never. And that meant they had no choice but to see to it that each of them were executed. He sighed and rubbed his temples where the beginning of a headache was throbbing. He thought he was long out of that business.
‘How do they let someone like that into the country?’ Jonas asked, disgusted.
‘We didn’t know he was anywhere near the area,’ Gray said, ‘not until you brought us the information about the yacht. Our last information was that he left the country after Petr was arrested. You’re absolutely certain of your informant?’
Jonas wasn’t going to give up Ilya Prakenskii, not to Gray. Duncan was ambitious, and if he arrested Prakenskii or Tarasov or even Nikitin, his political career would be made.
Whatever Prakenskii was, he’d saved Hannah’s life and Jonas wouldn’t betray him.
‘Yeah, I’m sure.’
‘The other two I’m really interested in are known for their extreme violence. Yegor and Viktor Gadiyan are brothers. Yegor was married to Boris and Petr’s sister, Irina. She died some years ago, but the Gadiyan brothers continued to work for Boris.’
‘Great family business.’
‘It was Yegor and Viktor who tried to kill Sergei Nikitin some years ago. The other Russian families stepped in when Nikitin brought in Ilya Prakenskii as his bodyguard. I don’t think any of the families wanted to chance having Prakenskii come after them.’
Jonas studiously avoided looking at Jackson. ‘It’s funny how these men have such badass reputations, but no cop in Europe or here can pin a thing on them.’
‘This cop is going to,’ Gray said. ‘We can’t waste any more time. The fog being so thick is a huge asset but it can’t last. We’ve got to move now.’
THE men were grim-faced and silent as they approached the yacht, moving through the rippling water, their boats climbing waves and slapping down with enough force to shake their teeth, yet there was absolutely no sound. Jonas knew the Drake sisters were controlling the air around them, but he wondered what Duncan’s men were thinking. It was eerie to move over the choppy surface surrounded as they were by dense gray fog.
Within the fog bank, darker colors swirled and moved, but the heavy mist layers were thick and still, stubbornly holding position for several miles in either direction around where the yacht lay stationary. Waves slapped the sides of the ship while men patrolled the deck, peering through the fog in an effort to see.
It was imperative that Jonas and Jackson reach Tarasov first. If Gray did, he would do everything to keep the mobster alive. It had taken effort and a lot of persuasion to get Gray to agree to allow Jonas and Jackson to slip aboard first. Fortunately, they’d always held that position when they’d worked for Gray, so in the end, he’d agreed it was best for them to do what they knew.
Jonas and Jackson slipped into the cold water, some distance from the yacht, pushing their waterproof gear ahead of them while they swam toward it. Jonas felt a nudge against his body as a gray shape slid soundlessly past him. His heart jumped and he whipped his head around, trying to peer through the water to see what was coming up below him.
Beside him, Jackson pulled his spear gun out, but it was impossible with the combination of fog and darkness to see anything around them.
Voices rose and fell in the fog, soft and melodious, feminine. The voices sang of dolphins, sea creatures aiding sailors. The notes danced in the mist and slid easily into their minds. Both men relaxed, and when the dolphins pushed beneath their hands, they caught hold of the offered fins and accepted the ride.
As they neared the large bulk sitting in the water, Jackson caught Jonas by the arm and pointed at the splash of red on the side, down near the water line. The dolphin pulling Jonas suddenly abandoned him, diving deep, straight down. Jonas moved closer to examine the red smears.
‘Fresh blood, Jackson, and a lot of it.’
Jonas took a slow look around him. Waves slapped his face as the dolphin returned to the surface towing something behind him. Jonas saw the hand first, fingers outstretched and reaching up through the dark water. It seemed to come out of the fog and water, detached, a gruesome macabre sight. The knuckles had a tattoo across it, much like the one Rudy Venturi had described. Jonas reached to snag the sleeve and pulled hard. The dolphin let go, but the body seemed weighed down, too heavy to keep on the surface for more than a few moments.
Jackson reached over to help, tugging the arm out of the water. Shoulders and chest followed, and then the face with the heavy, handsome features and the gaping wound circling his throat from ear to ear like a ghoulish smile. Karl Tarasov had died hard. His eyes were dull and glassy, his face a mask of horror. He wore the coat of a captain, and beneath it, Jonas could make out the shoulder harness with the gun still in the holster.
Jackson indicated something under the body weighting it down and Jonas nodded his understanding before allowing the body to drop away, back under the sea.
Jonas boarded first, moving as soundlessly as possible, trying to puzzle out the implications of Karl Tarasov’s execution. He gained the deck and lay flat, waiting for his heart to stop pounding as he oriented himself to the surroundings. Jackson slid into position beside him and they pulled their gear from their waterproof bags and readied themselves for war. Jackson fit the radio piece into his ear and gave Gray instructions for his men. Two guards patrolled the deck. They would take them out as quietly as possible to allow Gray to get his men onboard.
Jonas signaled Jackson forward and he moved in the opposite direction, circling around to get in position to take out the guard as he came back around. He drew his knife and waited, heart pounding, a bad taste in his mouth. This day would haunt him. He knew it had to be done, and he was more than willing to kill these men to keep the Drakes safe, but that wouldn’t make killing any easier. He just wasn’t wired that way. His mother—and the Drakes—had seen to that.
The guard loomed out of the fog, his footsteps muffled, merging with the sound of water slapping the sides of the yacht and the occasional cry of a bird overhead. Jonas let the man go past him and stepped in, arm whipping up fast, knife sinking deep. He let out his breath, holding the guard while the life drained out of him before easing him to the deck.
He asked the universe for forgiveness even as he was making his way down to the next level, seeking Boris Tarasov with every intention of ending his life—and wasn’t that irony? Sometimes he made himself sick.
Jonas heard Jackson whispering through the earpiece. ‘I’m looking at Karl Tarasov alive and well. He’s talking to two of the guards in front of the master state room.’
Jonas frowned. There was no doubt in his mind that Karl was anchored at the bottom of the sea. ‘Are you sure?’
‘It’s him. He just patted a guard on the back. They laughed together and he went into the stateroom. The guards definitely think it’s him.’
‘One at the helm,’ Jonas said. ‘He’s got a bird’s eye view, Gray, get one of your best on him.’ He made his way slowly down the stairs, hugging the wall, careful to make no sound as he eased each foot forward.
Someone laughed as he passed the salon. Jonas crouched down, making himself small as he studied the layout. The rooms were spacious, but there weren’t a lot of places to hide.
Movement attracted his attention. Karl Tarasov came out of the master stateroom, clapped a hand on the guard’s shoulder and gave him orders. The guard snapped to attention. Jonas studied the Russian captain. He was tall and broad-shouldered. His uniform jacket was immaculate, not a wrinkle, the same with his pressed trousers. The shoes were polished and every hair in place. He walked down the hall to the salon and disappeared inside. Only then did Jonas realize he was wearing thin black gloves over his hands.
Jonas swore under his breath and lifted the gun, silencer in place. Before he could pull the trigger, both guards went down almost simultaneously, a crimson hole blossoming in each forehead. Jackson moved past them, kicking the guns out of the way and reaching for the door.
‘Damn it, Jackson.’ Jonas had no choice but to cover him.
Jackson slipped inside the master stateroom, Jonas right behind him. Boris Tarasov lay on the bed. His eyes were wide open, staring and glassy. The bed beneath him was soaked red and around his throat was an obscene smile.
‘Son of a bitch,’ Jonas said, and then spoke into his radio. ‘Gray. Tarasov is dead. I repeat, dead. It looks like Karl Tarasov killed him before we got here. I saw him coming out of the room just before we entered.’ He hesitated a moment before tossing in the red herring. ‘I think we stumbled into a power play, a takeover, going on here.’
Gray swore softly in his ear. ‘Ben reported seeing Karl go toward the salon where the Gadiyan brothers were last seen. Everyone be damn careful, and for God’s sake, keep the son of a bitch alive. We need one of the major players talking.’
Jonas shook his head. If that was the real Karl Tarasov, then who was in the water? And if it was Karl, he would never be taken alive, Gray should know that. He was handicapping his team, sending them against a lethal killer and ordering them not to fire.
They moved in tandem, Jackson point man, clearing the hall, and Jonas sweeping each room as they passed, then guarding their backs. Gunfire erupted in the vicinity of the helm.
Jackson let out a sigh. ‘There goes any advantage we might have had.’
More gunfire burst out on the deck, this time a volley answered by another volley.
The doors to the salon burst open and bullets sprayed the hall, slamming into the walls and shattering glass, tearing up everything in their path. Two men stood side by side, automatic weapons blasting as they hurtled themselves out of the salon toward the stairs.
Gray’s men returned fire. One agent screamed and lay writhing on the floor, another was flung backward into the wall.
Jonas felt the familiar rage welling up and forced it down, taking careful aim, taking his time, making the shot count. Yegor Gadiyan went down without a sound. Viktor Gadiyan reached with one hand to try to grab his brother’s collar and drag him even as he continued to spray the hall in a systematic and very thorough sweep. The noise in the small confines of space was deafening as well as frightening. Jonas stayed crouched low in the tiny alcove, sweating, pinned down, and waiting for an angry bullet to strike him.
Off to his left, Jackson signaled him, putting three fingers up, one by one indicating in three seconds Jonas needed to draw Gadiyan’s fire. Jonas closed his eyes and sent up a silent prayer. He counted to three and allowed the edge of his shoulder to show for half a second and jerked back into cover. Bullets thudded all around him, spitting splinters into his face and shoulders. He heard the single shot Jackson squeezed off followed by a heavy body hitting the floor and then absolute silence.
Jonas looked at the wall around him. Bullets had smashed into the wood in every conceivable spot without hitting him.
Some higher power was working to save him, but he didn’t believe it could have been the Drakes this time. He allowed himself a moment to slump against the wall in relief. Viktor Gadiyan would have killed him given another few moments. He saluted Jackson, who was already checking the bodies.
Once more they began the dangerous task of clearing rooms. Overhead they could hear the firefight continue as Tarasov’s men fought Gray’s unit.
The earpiece erupted with a burst of chatter. ‘Karl Tarasov is trapped on the upper deck!’
Gray began snapping orders and both Jackson and Jonas took the stairs quickly, racing to try to intercept Gray’s men. Jackson circled to the left and Jonas went right. Tarasov’s back was to Jonas. The Russian snapped off an occasional shot to keep the agents away from him as he made his way to the railing. The agents were trying to surround him and take him alive. Jonas silently slipped into position behind him, cutting off his escape.
The fog thickened, swirling in and around the yacht, closing them into a gray, wet world, muffling sounds and cutting visibility nearly to zero. Karl Tarasov turned and ran right into Jonas.
The two locked wrists as Tarasov brought up a knife in one hand and a gun in the other.
Jonas drove him back toward the railing as they thrashed around, his body between Tarasov and the agents, preventing them from a clear shot. Jackson twice brought up his weapon and dropped it, when Jonas was thrown into the line of fire, unable to see through the blurring action and the thick veil that shrouded the yacht.
Jonas slammed Tarasov hard against the rail, still struggling to control the weapons. The gun dropped into the sea. Tarasov, in a sudden burst of strength, threw Jonas back a step and smashed his fist hard into Jonas’s jaw. Jonas staggered and the Russian turned and dove into the churning water. Duncan Gray ran to the edge of the railing and peered over.
‘Damn it. Just damn it.’ He pounded the railing with his fist. The water was choppy and dark, the fog making it worse to see. ‘He can’t survive in that. It’s too cold. He doesn’t have a wetsuit on and we’re too far from shore for him to swim. Get out there and look for him. He’s got to surface.’
Jackson reached Jonas and whipped him around, examining him for injuries. He pulled his earpiece free. ‘You hurt? That had to be Prakenskii.’
‘I recognized his eyes,’ Jonas agreed as he pulled off his own radio and slipped it into his gear bag. He rubbed his jaw. ‘He enjoyed that just a little too much,’ he said. ‘I’m going to have a whale of a bruise.’
‘Quit belly-aching. Those women have made you go soft. Two minutes after you hit the front door, they’ll be all over you.’ He pitched his voice higher. ‘Oh, Jonas, darling, does it hurt? Let me make it all better for you.’
Jonas shot him a glare. ‘You’re just jealous because they don’t fuss over you.’
Jackson watched the boats searching the water in a grid pattern. ‘He’s long gone, Jonas, they’ll never find him.’
‘That was always the point, wasn’t it?’ Jonas felt inexplicably tired, weariness setting in all the way to the bone.
Jackson surveyed the damage. ‘I’m just glad this is over. Let’s get home.’
‘Sounds good to me.’ More than anything else, he wanted to be with Hannah, because wherever she was, that was home to him.