Surviving Ice Page 3

They barrel out the back door.

I’m still frozen, unsure if it’s over or not.

“Hello? Hello?” A muted voice calls out, over and over again, and I finally remember the dispatcher pressed against my chest.

“They’re gone,” I whisper into the air, my voice hoarse.

And then I snap out of it.

I drop the phone and scramble out from under the desk, dashing for the door, my shaking hands snapping the dead bolt shut before those two can decide that it’s better to hole up in here. The dispatcher calls to me from beneath the desk. “They’re gone, out the back!” I yell, hoping she can hear me. I struggle to catch my breath and my balance, staggering down the hall toward the front of the shop, using the walls to keep me upright. I’m drenched in sweat, the relief so overwhelming. “Ned!” I’ve never been so happy to have the police coming for me. “They’re gone!” I round the corner. “It’s going to be—”

My words cut off with the sight of Ned’s slumped, still body, a puddle of blood soaking into the wood grain floor beneath him.

TWO

SEBASTIAN

It’s just a regular ringtone. For me, though, it’s the wail of a war siren, and I’m immediately alert. There is only one person who has this number, and I didn’t expect him to use it again so soon.

The tile is cool against my bare feet as I roll out of bed. I collect the phone from the nightstand with one fluid movement, unhindered by sheets or the morning sluggishness that an average person might face. Stepping through the propped-open patio doors and onto the balcony, I answer with a low, curt “Yeah.” The sky is just beginning to lighten over the quiet bay. Dozens of boats sit moored below, their passengers lulled into deep sleep by the ocean air and rhythmic waves. I’m high enough up that I’m not likely to offend anyone with my lack of clothing, especially at this hour. Not that I’m truly concerned by it.

“Ice.”

The code name is a sharp contrast to the warm breeze skating across my bare skin. My adrenaline begins to spike, all the same. Hearing it means that I will be forced to leave this haven soon. Sooner than I had hoped.

“How is recovery going?”

I instinctively peer down at the angry red scar on the outside of my thigh, where a bullet drilled into my flesh and muscle just three weeks ago, outside of Kabul. I nearly bled out before I made it to the doc. He patched me up on a makeshift operating table, buried deep in a maze of rooms, and charged me a hefty price. “Like new,” I lie.

“Good.” Bentley’s voice is rich and smooth, a welcome sound in a sea of strangers. “Where are you now?”

I peer out over the beautiful vista of crystal blue water and whitewashed stone buildings, the volcanic rock cliffs in the distance, reluctant to divulge my location. I sank a good chunk of my last payout on renting this one-bedroom villa for the month. It’s my private sanctuary, where I can revel in anonymity and peace for a while, before finding somewhere else to drift to.

Bentley has never asked before. But he also has the technical capabilities to trace this call. If he really wants to find out, then he will. In fact, the second I picked up, he probably already had his answer. “Where do I need to be?” I say instead.

“San Francisco.”

I hesitate, caught off guard. My assignments are all in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Never on homeland soil. This doesn’t make sense. But I also know not to question him, especially over the phone. “Give me four days.” My rent here is paid up for another three weeks.

“I need you here in two.”

“Then call someone else.” I say it, knowing he won’t. Bentley has plenty of highly trained resources at his disposal. If he’s calling me, it’s because he can’t call anyone else. He needs me.

“Fine. Four days. We can discuss more at my place.”

Again, I’m taken aback. Never before have I met directly with Bentley when being handed an assignment. But something is different about this one, I’m sensing. Something in his voice tells me that it’s more urgent than usual. “I’ll contact you with arrival particulars.” I don’t wait for his answer before I hang up. Our calls are never very long or detail heavy. Just enough for me to know that I’m about to get my hands dirty again, all for the greater good.

A soft meow catches my ear. The resident tabby cat—a whore who hops from one villa to the next, sharing her affections without discrimination—struts across the thick balcony wall to me, her tail curling in the air as she approaches. I stroke the soft patch of fur beneath her chin and listen to her purr while I begin to mentally prepare myself for my return to California.

It’s been almost five years since I last stepped foot on American soil. Soil that once brought me purpose, love, and determination. Then pain, weakness.

Disgrace.

What will it bring me now?

My hand drops from the cat’s chin, deciding I’ve given her more than enough. She leans forward, head-butts my arm—allowing me a chance to reconsider, to show her the kind of love that I am no longer capable of—before giving up and scuttling away.

With a sigh and one last glance over the peaceful blue waters, I flick the cigarette butt that sits mashed up on the railing and venture back inside to where an olive-skinned Grecian beauty is sprawled across my bed. She’s the smoker, and an unexpected outcome of last night, while I enjoyed a quiet solo meal by the water. A curvy, sensual woman, much like the tabby cat, stalking in to impose herself on my life. Except her affections weren’t as easily dismissed, wearing away at my defenses over the hours with throaty laughs and wandering fingertips.

Manipulating my loneliness.

I rarely succumb to it, but last night, I did.

I also must have had too many glasses of that pricey Limnio, because I don’t usually end up in my own bed with a prostitute.

I slide a hand back and forth over the smooth skin of her hip until she stirs with a small groan. Eyes as blue as the Aegean Sea below us flutter open to meet mine. Her plump natural lips—that were wrapped around my cock with such expertise last night—curl into a smile. “Good morning, American,” she purrs in her thick accent, reaching for me. “You want more, don’t you?”

Had I not just received that call from Bentley, I probably would have taken her again. But minutes within getting news of my next assignment, my mind is already shifting focus, shutting down my weak human urges, preparing the rest of me for what is to come.

I quash her efforts for a repeat by filling her groping fingers with her crimson dress. “You can let yourself out.”

“But . . . last night was . . .” She stumbles over her own surprise. “Will I see you again?”

There’s no use pretending that either of us is something we’re not, that we will be more to each other than we were for a few paid hours last night. So I don’t bother answering, leaving her on my bed to head to the bathroom, feeling her anger blazing into my back.

“You will pay me!” she suddenly demands.

That catches me off guard and I stop to face her again, to search for the joke in her words. “I already paid you, last night.” She was quite adamant that she got her cash before her dress came off. I haven’t forgotten. I didn’t have that much to drink.

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