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The Organization

Sequel to

Asset Management




Annette Mori & Erin O’Reilly




2017




Back of the Book



The feisty, fiery women from Asset Management are back for another heart-stopping adventure! This time, their sights are set on a new mob boss Leonid Petrov who is more cunning and ten times more ruthless than the slave trader they took on in Asset Management.

No one is more surprised than Val when she is tagged as the go-to member of the team. Her task…infiltrate Leonid’s inner circle and work with another agent already on the inside. Val’s impenetrable exterior is starting to crumble, but Maggie, the head of The Organization doesn’t have a better option. Tasked with keeping Leonid’s impossible new wife, Gina, safe, Val encounters more problems than solutions.

Will wild card Gina provide Val the inspiration to take on her violent husband, or will that inspiration lead to Val’s downfall? Find out in this intriguing, fast-paced, romantic adventure just what love can do. Will it be Val’s Achilles heel and lead to her demise, or will it fill her with a strength she didn’t know she had?



The Organization

Copyright © 2017 by Annette Mori & Erin O’Reilly


Smashwords Edition


All rights reserved.


ISBN: 978-0-947528-56-0


First Edition


PDF, ePub, mobi


Published: July 14, 2017


This book is Published by

Affinity eBook Press NZ LTD

Canterbury, New Zealand


E-mail: affinity@affinityebooks.com


Editor: JoSelle Vanderhooft

Proof Editor: Alexis Smith

Cover Design by Irish Dragon Designs

* * *

This work is copyrighted and is licensed only for use by the original purchaser and can be copied to the original purchaser's electronic device and its memory card for your personal use. Modifying or making copies of this work or distributing it to any unauthorized person by any means, without limit, including by email, CD, DVD, memory cards, file transfer, paper printout or any other method, constitutes a violation of International copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines or imprisonment. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions.

* * *

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.




Acknowledgments



Annette Mori


The biggest acknowledgment goes to my cowriter, Erin O’Reilly, who teased me along to finally complete the continuation of the story. It was such an honor and a privilege to work with Erin on this project. I’m sure that like with my first love, if I ever cowrite a book again, I will undoubtedly compare that experience with this first one and it will be hard to surpass. I am honored to call her a friend and have her support me in my journey. I would also like to express my gratitude to Affinity Rainbow Publications and the wonderful trio (JM Dragon, Erin O’Reilly, and Nancy Kaufman) who continue to provide feedback to tighten up manuscripts that need assistance and publish my sometimes unconventional work. I am eternally grateful for the opportunities they give me to let my stories see the light of day. My other family members who are also very supportive include my nephew, Aaron, his wife, Chelsea, my two sisters, Val and Kim, and my father who struggles to read my books with one eye.

Thanks to JoSelle Vanderhooft for her magic as the final editor to tighten the story even further. Inevitably, there are those pesky final errors that slip through, so many thanks to Amy Herman-Pall for a final proof of the manuscript. Nancy Kaufman is a rock star with her covers and a promoter extraordinaire. A huge thanks to all the other readers and fellow writers who kept pushing for a continuation of the story via e-mails, sneaky messages embedded into the reviews of Asset Management, and posts on Facebook (you know who you are). The Affinity authors are an especially supportive group and often share posts or send words of encouragement. Finally, my wife, Jody, continues her support in so many ways. I need a keeper, and she always jumps in to make sure I have everything I need.


Erin O’Reilly


I do not have enough words to praise Annette, who invited me to write the sequel to Asset Management with her. We have two very different approaches to writing, and through this whole process she was patient with me and my need to think things to death before putting my ideas on paper.

Thank you goes out to everyone on the Affinity team who helped make this story possible. Without them and their support, I would be a lesser author.

Finally, thank you to the readers who take the time to read my stories and comment for it is with feedback—both positive and negative—that I can continue to grow as an author.




Dedication



To Mel for reasons I know she understands.

To my wife who I love dearly for her patience and her ability to take care of me when I fail to do that myself.

For Lisa


Also by Annette Mori

Captivated

The Termination

The Review

The Ultimate Betrayal

Locked Inside

Out of This World

Asset Management

The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Elves in Love

(Affinity 2014 Christmas Collection)

Love Forever, Live Forever

The True Story of Valentine’s Day

Vampire Pussy…Cat

Nicky’s Christmas Miracle X3

(It’s in Her Kiss, Affinity’s Charity Anthology)



Also by Erin O’Reilly

Specter of Fear

Next Time

Ready for Love

Return to Me

If I Were a Boy

Through the Darkness

Deception

Fearless

’55 Ford

Fractured

Specter of Fear

That Kiss

Revelations

Wolf at the Door

Sandcastles

Writing with JM Dragon

Take Me as I Am

Against All Odds

Earthbound

Quest for Love

New Beginnings

Atonement

When Hell Meets Heaven Series

Echoes of the Past

Paradox of Love

The End Game

Requiem



Table of Contents



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

About the Author

Other Affinity Books






Chapter One





Val opened the door to reveal her compact quarters and sighed, “Hovel sweet hovel,” before sniffing her clothes and saying, “Ick.” Surveillance work was boring and dirty and she hated doing it. The warehouse she had just been staking out was repulsive, and she wouldn’t be surprised if she caught some disgusting disease.

Going straight to her sink and then washing her hands thoroughly, she began singing “Happy Birthday” to herself like she’d been taught as a little girl by her mother, who was a nurse. She turned around and faced her deluxe, stainless-steel refrigerator and opened the door to the freezer.

Peering inside, she found one lonely pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. Otherwise, the freezer was like a barren desert. She popped the top of the carton and looked inside. One measly spoonful of her treat was left at the bottom. “God damn it, Char.”

Val was furious. She was tired, dirty, and hungry—not necessarily in that order. She marched out of her quarters and down the hall, and started banging on the first door to the left. She absolutely did not care one bit if she interrupted Char and Toni in whatever stage of lovemaking they might be in. It was late at night, so she knew that would undoubtedly be occurring.

New love, ugh, they’re like rabbits for shit’s sake. They had raided her fridge for the last time. Isn’t anything sacred anymore?

Bang, bang, bang

“Open the fucking door, Char! You better have at least one full pint of ice cream left, or so help me, I’ll forget we’re on the same side and put a god damn bullet in your hand for stealing my main food source!”

Val instantly regretted her words. Char was like a sister to her—Val was just cranky tonight. Maggie—head of The Organization, a covert group of women working toward eliminating the sleazier side of society—had relegated her to watch what those animals were doing to the young girls, and it made her skin crawl. If it were up to her, she would have killed them all, but she had her orders and the last thing The Organization needed was for her to compromise the sting they were setting up.

Images of the past returned, and a cold fury washed over her. At least she’d been the one to put the bullet in Viktor Borsky’s head. It almost scared her to think that the one event had given her more joy than anything in her life—past or present.

Val was an impatient person, and the fact it took them eighteen months to take down Viktor was unacceptable to her. She wanted to move faster with Leonid, the newly appointed head of the Russian mob. He’d been able to reestablish Viktor’s slave trade business in mere months. Unfortunately, he was twice as cunning and ten times as ruthless as Viktor. Leonid was also a paranoid bastard who vetted his employees carefully, so they hadn’t found a way in to his inner circle yet.

Val didn’t generally agree with her fellow agent Ronda’s perspective on how to address the Russian mob, but in this instance, she thought her colleague had the right idea. Ronda’s answer to the problem was to execute every last one of them. Val thought that was the perfect solution and right up her alley. She excelled at executions.

As far as Val could tell, his only Achilles heel was his beautiful new wife. He had numerous enemies and didn’t want his wife to get caught in the crossfire. She, however, refused to feel like a prisoner in her own home and insisted on living life as a normal person without a string of bodyguards to protect her. His jealousy was legendary, and he’d already terminated three bodyguards for what he perceived as their inappropriate attention toward his wife.

Val was about to break the door down when a disheveled redhead opened it and blinked at her. Behind her, a dark-haired woman peered around her lover with an unrepentant smirk.

“Jesus, Val, it’s midnight. I didn’t realize you would be back so soon. What happened? Anything we need to know about?” Char asked.

“No, I’m just in a foul mood. Maggie took pity on me tonight and sent Ronda to finish the shift. She probably thinks I’ll go off the deep end and shoot all the fuckers before we have a chance to infiltrate the organization. You know how she is—always wants to wait for an opportunity to cut off the head of the snake. I’d be more worried about Ronda. Now that is one crazy-ass bitch,” Val answered.

“Ronda’s calmed down quite a bit now that Cindy is calling the shots. That’s what you need, Val, the love of a good woman. It ought to calm you right down,” Toni, Char’s lover, piped up from behind her.

“No thanks. My job here isn’t exactly conducive to a healthy, loving relationship.” Val held up her hand. “Nope, don’t want to get involved with another agent who might be just as bat-shit crazy as I am. I prefer living my life just the way it is right now. I get an itch and I find a beautiful woman to scratch it for one night only. That’s the rule and I’m sticking to it.”

Char looked at Toni and smiled before placing a gentle kiss on her lips. “That’s the way I felt before I met Toni. Your day may come. Never say never.”

“Can we get to the more important subject of where I can get my fucking ice cream? I want my own untouched pint of perfection, not something you two got cooties all over. I know you incorporate it into your little love games, and I’m not interested in any additional flavor.” Val shuddered.

“Try Dani. I think she may have a Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough left. She might still be in the lab, though. She was working on some new prototype. She won’t even disclose anything about it to me. I’ll pay you in ice cream if you can manage to get her to spill the beans.” Toni chuckled.

“Thanks for the tip, but I’m staying clear of any discussion of your egghead inventions. I’m the muscle part of the operation. I don’t understand what the two of you are talking about most of the time, but I’m happy to try out any new weapon. Ronda and Sophie got to have all the fun with those poison darts, so I’m next in line to try out any new prototype.” Val shook her head. “Next time you decide to raid my fridge, I expect a replacement before the night is over.”

“But the whole reason to raid your fridge is because we’re too lazy to go out and get our own,” Char reasoned.

“Not my problem. Next time I won’t be so nice,” Val growled.

“Who said you were nice this time?” Toni grinned. “Never mind, I’m on to you. Face it, Val, your bark is much bigger than your bite.”

Val pulled her Glock from her shoulder holster and pointed it at Toni. “I’ve killed for far less. Don’t push it, Toni. Consider yourself warned.”

She secured her gun back in the holster. After she turned and began walking toward the lab, Toni whispered, “She wouldn’t really shoot one of us, would she?”

Val chuckled. She enjoyed keeping people guessing. She was a coldhearted killer and that would never change, but of course that wouldn’t extend to one of her sisters in The Organization. However, she didn’t want them to know that deep down inside she’d die before she let any of them come to harm.



Val stalked down the hallway and entered the lab, vowing not to admit to Maggie that lately she was on the verge of losing it. Flashbacks from her past kept playing in her head late at night when she had nothing better to occupy her active mind. She lamented that they were returning. She thought she’d conquered her fears, but that part of her life just wouldn’t let go of her.

Tonight when she watched a man drag a struggling, chained young girl into the cement basement of the industrial complex, it all came flooding back. She felt the cold steel against her wrists and smelled the coppery scent of her own blood. Twelve years was a long time and she should have been able to forget, but tonight she couldn’t. When she’d reached for her phone, her hand was shaking uncontrollably. She called Maggie and asked for a replacement, and Maggie had sent Ronda without asking why. That was how Maggie was. She never pried, so she never knew the horrors that had befallen Val before Maggie caught her in the midst of picking that rich fart’s pocket.

Val blinked against the bright lights of the lab as she pushed open the door and saw a familiar head bent over one of the special computers. Val had a soft spot in her heart for Dani, who had her own skeletons and nightmares to overcome. Dani was a sweet kid, but Val wouldn’t think of revealing any of her terrifying nightmares to her. Dani’s physical barriers after being shot still plagued her, and the nightly reminders had not lessened. She simply could not accept that she wasn’t able to move about as well as she could before the undercover mission went terribly wrong.

“Hey, kiddo,” she said, her voice softer than usual, “your big sis told me you might have a few extra pints of Ben and Jerry’s hidden away in your freezer. If you can see your way to liberating them for me, it might save her life.” Val smiled.

Dani looked up and chuckled. “Stole your ice cream again, did she?”

“I keep threatening to shoot her, but she never listens. Next time I’m making good on my threats. You tell her that,” Val growled. “I don’t understand why she doesn’t steal from you.”

Dani shrugged. “I think she likes to rile you up. It’s been quiet for her since they got back from vacation, and I’m fairly certain she’s getting antsy and bored. You are her favorite entertainment at the moment.”

“Now I’m definitely going to put a bullet in her.”

“Please don’t do that. She’s the only sister I have, and she does have redeeming qualities,” Dani pleaded half-jokingly.

“I’m just kidding, but she does piss me off sometimes.”

“Yeah, me too, but you know she’d risk her life for either one of us.” Dani struggled to stand and wobbled before Val rushed over and steadied her. “Come on, I’ll get you my secret stash right now.”

“Where’s your crutches? You look like you might need a little extra help tonight. You’ve been pushing it lately, haven’t you?” Val frowned.

“Geez, suddenly I have six mothers and Maggie to contend with. I don’t need you playing that role as well. I’m just a little stiff from sitting for so long. I’ll let you offer your arm to steady me until I work out my stiffness, but I don’t need the silver sticks tonight.” Dani latched on to Val’s arm and took a few tentative steps as Val walked alongside.

“So what were you working on? You had that intense look you get when it’s something really innovative,” Val remarked.

The glint in Dani’s eyes told Val everything she needed to know. This was a special project that she imagined Dani was particularly proud of.

“I think I’ve developed an algorithm that will predict where Leonid’s wife will go with 85 percent accuracy. This means we can track her movements and eventually track Leonid’s. He accompanies her 38 percent of the time. Sixteen percent of that is at social functions that will provide us with the opportunity to get close enough to use Toni’s biological bug.” Dani’s smile disappeared. “I know that still leaves us without an in to their organization, but it’s a start. He isn’t as easy to infiltrate as Viktor was. So far we haven’t been able to plant tracking devices on his guards in the same manner that we used with Viktor’s cell phones.”

“That’s brilliant, Dani. I know you and Toni will figure out a way to get in. I have faith in both of you, but don’t tell Toni that; she’ll just get a bigger head. Fucking brainiac is already such a smartass. We can’t have her becoming too confident, now can we?”

Dani laughed. “How come you’re not afraid I’ll get too cocky?”

“You? Never. You’re the sweetest person in this cynical organization. Everyone else is arrogant, badass, or a sociopath like me.”

Dani smacked Val’s arm. “You’re not a sociopath. I see beneath that badass exterior you try to present to others.”

“Shhh, you’re ruining my street cred by saying those words out loud.” Val grinned.



The echo of Leonid’s confident footsteps reverberated in the dingy warehouse. His shiny Italian loafers contrasted sharply with the dark and foreboding room. A low-wattage bulb hung from the ceiling, barely illuminating the large man sitting in a plain wooden chair. Zip ties securely fastened his feet and hands to the legs and arms of the chair. A dark stain stretched out below the man and formed an even pattern of liquid slowly spreading across the cement. Two men bookended Leonid as he walked farther into the cavernous room.

Leonid narrowed his gaze at the man and noted the droplet of sweat that traveled down the side of his face. His wide-eyed stare didn’t mask what Leonid presumed was terror. He counted on his reputation to keep his men in line, and when they stepped out of line, his response was quick and deadly. Leonid took joy in personally carrying out each execution for actual and perceived indiscretions.

Sometimes he took his time, torturing the intended victim, and at other times, he was quick and merciful. His mercy, however, was never the result of his desire to end the agony quickly, but rather his limited time to deal with the problem. Tonight he planned to resolve the situation quickly because he had plans with his wife for the evening.

Before sending his intended target to the depths of hell, he always patiently explained his reasoning. Men deserved to know why Leonid decided to execute them. “You did not perform your duties with honor. I warned you not to look at my wife as if she were a piece of meat to devour. Your eyes should have traveled everywhere else but upon my wife to ensure her safety at all times. I thought you Italians knew the importance of family and respect for another man’s property,” Leonid pronounced before turning to one of his bodyguards, who handed him a gun.

Without further delay, he lifted the gun, placed it against the condemned man’s forehead, and pulled the trigger. Blood and brain material exploded from the back of his head. Leonid looked at his hand in disgust when he realized a small amount of blood splatter had landed there.

Leonid handed the gun to the man who had provided it and in an even tone said, “Please take this trash out for me. Consider him fired. I need you to find a replacement for him, and don’t bring another Italian into my inner circle. From now on, we only hire Russians. I made an exception for Gina’s brother, but those wops think with their dicks, not their heads. Even a woman would be a better choice.” Leonid paused. “Yes, that is a much better idea. I do not trust my Russian comrades. Bring me a woman qualified to keep Gina safe. I don’t care where you get her, fly to Russia if you have to, but I want the best. Put her through a comprehensive screening before bringing her to me for final approval.”

Leonid snapped his fingers and the other bodyguard pulled a clean handkerchief and a small container of Purell from his pocket. After Leonid coated his hands with the liquid sanitizer, he wiped them dry and handed the soiled cotton cloth to his employee. “Get me a new shirt and be sure to send his family flowers. I wouldn’t want those uncivilized wops to think we lack respect.”

Leonid laughed as he walked away from his poor selection of a bodyguard to protect his most prized possession—his wife.



Until she’d received the call from Val, Maggie was content to sit and listen to her favorite CD, The Four Seasons. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she reflected on Val’s strained request. Val was slowly unraveling, and Maggie wasn’t sure she would be able to use her much longer unless Val got the help she needed to chase away her demons.

So far, they hadn’t managed to figure out a way into Leonid’s inner circle. She sighed, realizing that as much as she didn’t want to call Antonio, his offer of assistance might be their only option. Her most trusted team had listened intently to her explanation of their connection, but Sophie’s training as a former FBI agent made her remain guarded.

Connecting with Antonio again was dangerous on so many levels. Their philosophies not only differed, but she was afraid her feelings for him might resurface after she’d learned about his wife’s recent fight with cancer. Sevilla hadn’t survived, and Antonio had been alone now for over two years. The presence of another woman was no longer the barrier in rekindling the old flame.

Her private cell rang and she scrunched her face as she looked at the number flashing on the screen. She didn’t recognize it. Only those she trusted most in The Organization had this number, but something was instinctively telling her to answer the phone.

“Hello,” she hesitantly spoke into the tiny device.

As Antonio’s rich baritone oozed through the speaker, she envisioned his broad smile.

“How did you get this number?” She immediately regretted her sharp tone. She listened to his explanation and learned about the recent developments in Leonid’s organization. “Yes, I think I may have someone who would be nearly perfect for the job. My major concern is that lately she’s displaying abnormal amounts of stress and instability, and that is not like her. Unfortunately, she’s the only one who can speak fluent Russian and possesses all the other needed attributes.” Maggie sighed.

She continued to listen to Antonio’s information. “I suppose we don’t have much choice at this point, because this opportunity isn’t likely going to present itself again. I understand and appreciate that you have assets that are also at risk, but I don’t like to send someone into the lion’s den without thoroughly evaluating our choices…. I’ll call you tomorrow…. Yes, I know what to do to set the stage…. Dani has been looking for a challenge—I believe this will provide her with a big one if we decide to use my person for this job.”







Chapter Two





Val wasn’t sure what to think about the summons to the small conference room on the other side of the lab. She knew Maggie trusted her, but normally Maggie activated her when she needed Val to perform very specific duties that tended to hover on the periphery of the action. Her eyebrow rose when she noticed the high-powered agents of The Organization lounging in the conference room. She hadn’t expected that.

She was happy to see that Ronda was one of them. They had similar worldviews and tended to want to act more quickly than the others, who gravitated toward a more strategic approach. She smiled when Sophie nodded to her. Sophie was a hard one to figure out. She wasn’t exactly in line with Ronda and Val, but she wasn’t inclined to agree with the heavy thinkers either. Over the past month, Val had detected some tension between Maggie and Sophie and wondered what that was all about. Maybe this meeting would enlighten her.

Kim, Sophie’s lover, was absently stroking Sophie’s hand. Val suspected her caresses were an attempt to reduce the visible tension in Sophie’s rigid posture.

Dani sat next to Char and Toni. Toni and Dani were whispering to one another—two eggheads relishing each other’s brilliance. Val wasn’t stupid, but next to those two, she felt inferior.

Maggie cleared her throat, and seven sets of eyes turned in her direction. “There’s been a new development that will require immediate action. I’ve decided it’s in our best interest to work collaboratively with Antonio to take down Leonid Petrov. Since Antonio has already managed to infiltrate his organization and place two individuals very close to Leonid, he’s offered us an opportunity to combine forces. It seems Leonid is looking for a new bodyguard for his wife and is adamant that this person be Russian and a woman.”

The team began looking around the room, clearly trying to decipher which agent Maggie would choose for this dangerous assignment.

“I must be missing something, because while we’re all women, none of us speak Russian well enough to fool Leonid. Not even Char could pull that off.” Sophie removed her hand from Kim’s and folded her arms across her chest.

A foreboding sense of unease slowly crept into her body as Val realized why Maggie had invited her to the party. She hadn’t ever wanted anyone to stick their nose in her business, and now she had to reveal a little of her history.

“I speak fluent Russian,” Val offered.

“Thank you, Val, I was just getting to that,” Maggie explained.

“What the fuck, Val. I never knew that,” Char interjected.

Val glared at Char. “You haven’t exactly told your life story to any of us, have you? I prefer to keep my past exactly where it belongs—ancient history. I think the term don’t ask, don’t tell applies here. Suffice it to say, Leonid will not question my Russian roots.”

“Everyone is entitled to their privacy, so no questions. I’ve made my decision and now I need the rest of you to support the plan. Dani, Toni, and Sophie, you need to perform your magic to create a solid background for Val. There can be no holes in her identity for them to drive through. Kim, we may need your special brand of expertise later if we require a disguise that will enable another person to have access to Leonid’s residence or his central operations hub. Ronda, you’re on retainer in case we need firepower quickly. Char, I need to meet with you later as my co-strategist. I want to pick your brain for ideas.” Maggie looked at each agent as she laid out her instructions.

“As much as I hate to admit this, I’d like to work with Ronda as backup firepower. We understand one another,” Sophie offered.

Maggie nodded. “Toni, can you work on your special biologic tracking device? We now have a way to begin tracking Leonid more accurately than before. I appreciate all the progress you’ve made, Dani, but now that we have an in, the tracking must be 100 percent accurate. We’ll also need a way to stay in constant communication with Val without blowing her cover. I believe that you and Dani have been refining your prototype. Will it be ready in less than twelve hours?”

Toni grinned at Dani. “It’s ready now.”

“We’ll need more than one item of clothing, because we can’t very well have her wear the same jacket or shirt every day. Will you be putting it in her bras or panties?” Maggie inquired.

“It was actually Dani’s idea to place the device in lingerie. She’s a clever little minx.” Toni fist-bumped Dani.

“One for every day of the week, but I didn’t stitch the name of each day into the thongs. That was way too tacky and there wasn’t enough material for us to do that. I sure hope you like wearing thongs.” Dani grinned.

“Can I wash the thongs and still have the communication device work?”

Toni nodded.

“How is that even possible?” Val asked.

“Trade secret, my friend, but think waterproof watches or cameras. It’s not that complicated. Now you can’t shoot me when I take your ice cream because my invention will be saving your ass.” Toni chuckled. “You need me.”

“You promise the device is completely undetectable? I wouldn’t put it past Leonid or one of his henchmen to insist on frisking every inch of my body, and these guys think nothing of stripping you down—and taking particular pleasure in touching the more intimate areas.” Val’s eyes searched Toni’s for assurance.

“Aww, I have no idea how you can endure that. I guess that’s why I was never in the position of trying to seduce any of those sick fucks. I wouldn’t even want them touching my arm!” Toni exclaimed.

“It’s a good thing I have no problem stripping down to my birthday suit, because I’ll break their fucking arms if they try to feel me up,” Val declared.

Sophie raised her eyebrow. “Not that this conversation isn’t fascinating, but can we get back on track now? Oh, and you might want to try to control your gas. I for one don’t want to hear you farting over the commlink.” Sophie smirked at Val.

“Just couldn’t resist that jab, could you? And here I thought Toni was the juvenile one of the bunch,” Val retorted.

“Okay, enough. We have work to do.” Maggie stood. “Sophie, can I have a word with you in private? Kim, you don’t mind, do you?”

Toni, Dani, Ronda, and Val exchanged looks but didn’t question Maggie’s request.

Kim smiled at Maggie. “Of course not.”

“I need to brief Sophie on something while the rest of you get started. Toni and Dani, before you finalize your work on the commlink, can you please get to work on that background for Val? Sophie will join you in a bit. Don’t underestimate Leonid’s expertise in ferreting out a fake.” Maggie frowned. “He has the best technological support money can buy. It’s a little-known fact that the Russians are leaders in cybersecurity. He has a key player at Kaspersky Lab, which is the first Russian company counted as one of the world’s leading software organizations. There are rumors that the CEO was tied to Russian intelligence.”

“No wonder we’ve been having such a fit trying to break into his computer system,” Toni whispered in Dani’s ear.

Val was curious about the private meeting with Sophie, but she would never think to question Maggie. She didn’t know what to do with herself after Maggie and Sophie left, so she just watched the others. Kim walked over to the section of the lab that housed her latex masterpieces, while Toni and Dani made a beeline for the main computer. Ronda shrugged and walked out after Sophie and Maggie. Val thought she might be heading to Cindy’s unit. They had an affair going on that wasn’t as secret as they thought it was. Chancing a rejection, Val decided to learn more about what Dani and Toni intended to do when creating her persona.

Val had always been a loner and carefully kept everyone at a distance. She and Char had shared their perspectives about keeping people at arm’s length, but that was all. Val’s gaze turned to Toni, who was cautious around her, but always eager to share her research.

“Mind if I hang out and see what you’re doing and get a head start on memorizing my background?” Val asked as she strolled over to Toni.

Dani waved her over. “Not at all, we’d love to show you what we’re doing.”

“Yeah, and maybe get your perspective on what to build into it,” Toni added.

Val smiled. For maybe the first time, she felt included. No one had ever bothered to ask her opinion before. She was now an integral part of the team, not just the firepower relegated to the periphery of a mission. “Thanks.” Val’s face flushed and was embarrassed they may have noticed.



Maggie motioned for Sophie to sit in her comfortable brown leather chair. Maggie noted Sophie’s introspective expression and applauded her patience.

“Would you care for some tea or coffee?” Maggie asked.

“No, I think I’d rather you get right to it.”

“Very well. I am not going to reveal a lot of Val’s very personal history, but I do want to set things up a bit.”

Sophie raised her eyebrow.

“I brought Val into The Organization when she was almost thirteen. Suffice it to say that she’s suffered things beyond what you or I can even begin to imagine. I won’t go into detail other than to say that under that tough exterior is a very vulnerable woman. I want to make sure nothing bad happens to Val. If I had another choice, I wouldn’t put her in this position, but I don’t. I need you to prepare her for what to expect as an undercover agent. I trust you to make sure you adequately groom her for this mission. I know you still have your misgivings about working with Antonio and I understand, but if you can’t support this 100 percent, you need to tell me now. Val is as dear to me as Char, and I need to know you will do everything in your power to protect her.”

Sophie’s chilly gaze penetrated Maggie, and Maggie felt like several hours passed before she responded. “Why aren’t you asking Char?”

“Char is a brilliant strategist and a very good undercover agent, but she doesn’t have the right skills to mentor someone. Besides, Char and Val fight like sisters. I know they love and respect each other, but they also tend to push one another’s buttons.”

Sophie nodded. “You have my commitment. Now that I’ve made that decision, I won’t waver. I’ll not raise another objection to Antonio again. I’ve come to trust your judgment. Val saved our asses on the last mission, and I intend to make sure she comes out of this alive and well.”

“Thank you, Sophie. Don’t let her hard exterior keep you from imparting all of your wisdom and expertise,” Maggie warned.

“Oh don’t worry about that. Remember, I’ve been dealing with Toni for the last several years. She’s damn near impossible to get through to sometimes. Val will be a piece of cake compared to her.”

“Don’t be so sure about that,” Maggie quipped.



Holding a pint of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Sophie was about to knock on the solid wood door when it opened. She hoped Val wouldn’t be too pissed when she learned that Toni had snuck in a tiny device into the ice cream that once ingested would allow them to provide audio instructions.

Val narrowed her eyes and focused on the treat. “A bribe?”

“No, a peace offering because I’m not any good at subterfuge. I apologize in advance if I am abrupt in my approach. Kim has tact. I do not,” Sophie stated.

“Perfect. I don’t respond well to bullshit anyway.” Val waved her hand toward her couch and walked into her small quarters.

Sophie followed her inside. All the living spaces in the primary hub of operations were cramped units that took some time to get used to. Anyone with a tendency toward claustrophobia complained bitterly. Dani’s inventions designed to fool the casual observer that these units had windows to the outside world only went so far if carefully inspected. Dani never explained exactly how they worked, other than describing a high-tech, ever-changing image connected to a timer designed to emulate whatever was happening on the outside. Dani tried to show her how she’d intersected data from an anemometer and barometer with thousands of images and sounds to reproduce what would be seen and heard in any location in the world. When Sophie asked why she didn’t just install a camera on the outside and project images from it on the window, Dani had acted like she was offended. She’d huffed and said that was child’s play, and people liked variety. Sophie preferred the Fiji Islands and set the dial accordingly, but she was still getting used to all the new technology. For most, they did the trick, complete with the requisite bird sounds in the morning.

When Val pointed to the Ultrasuede couch, Sophie sat and placed the ice cream on the small oak coffee table. An empty ice cream container on it had a dirty spoon sticking up like a periscope watching every move Sophie made. She wondered if Val would go to the tiny kitchen to retrieve a new spoon or use this one.

She didn’t have to wait long to find out as Val shrugged, sat in the matching recliner, retrieved the dirty spoon, flipped off the lid of the new ice cream, and dug in with gusto.

“Okay. Spill,” Val said through a mouthful of ice cream. “Mmmm, so good. Points for buttering me up before you tell me what the fuck is going on.”

“We have no more than two days to get you ready for your assignment. I will instruct and you will shut the fuck up and listen. You saved my ass when you shot Viktor, and now I’m about to save yours.”

Val set the spoon on the table, leaned back in her chair, folded her arms across her chest, and glared.

“Good start. It’s easier with the stoic badasses versus the incorrigible smartasses. First thing you need to do is prove your worth to Leonid. I like your creative approach of taking off your clothes before they maul you—with the excuse of checking for wires and guns. That will work fine, but then you need to break someone’s bones. My guess is that at least one of the bodyguards will reach for you and you’ll need to take him down. I assume you have advanced martial arts training?”

Val nodded.

“Good. You get extra brownie points if you manage to get his gun and turn it back on him. The key is to control the situation without directly threatening Leonid.”

“You know, Sophie, you’re as much a psycho as Ronda. I like that about you, which is the only reason I’m listening to your instruction without rearranging your face. If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s taking care of myself and getting out of impossible situations,” Val stated.

“Don’t get too cocky, because that, my friend, will get you killed.”

Val smiled and Sophie wasn’t sure what that was about. Was she mocking her or agreeing? It wasn’t a smirk, though, so she took that as a good sign.

“Okay, here’s the hardest part. I could never do it, but sometimes when you’re in deep cover, you have to do things that might turn your stomach. I know you’ve killed before, but can you kill someone Leonid directs you to kill? If you can’t, you better figure out how to prove your loyalty some other way. Think about that tonight, because you’ll want to work that out before you’re presented with a test that has consequences you can’t take back.”

Val frowned. “I never considered that. Depending on who I might be asked to kill, I suppose I would rather die than terminate someone who didn’t deserve that sentence.”

“Shit. I guess I expected that—a moral assassin. You’ll just have to keep that commlink open at all times so we can barrel in and save your righteous ass.” Sophie chuckled.

“No offense, Sophie, but how in the hell did you get mixed up with the brainiac and the thespian? You’re more like me,” Val observed.

“We developed a college friendship and sometimes opposites attract, you know.”

“Is Kim your one true love?”

“Yeah, she is. She’s the only one who can calm the savage beast. She’s the kindest, gentlest, sweetest person I know. She’s good for me, just like Cindy is good for Ronda. You could use someone like that in your life.”

Val reached for the spoon again and dug out another chunk of ice cream. “I prefer living alone. Lovey-dovey coupledom isn’t my cup of tea. They’d only disappoint me. Sex I like; love I don’t.”

“Hey, is there any chance I can get some coffee? We might be at this a little while. I’d like to tell you what I know about the inner workings of the Russian mob. It might help you.”

Val jumped up. “Oh shit, yeah, sorry. See, I’m a terrible host and even worse at relationships. I have no manners and that usually doesn’t go over too well with women.”

Val was somewhat of an enigma to Sophie. She’d watched as Val interacted with Kimiko, the young girl she had rescued from the previous mob boss, Viktor. Val was patient, tender, and loving with Kimiko, and all Val’s roughness dissipated whenever they were in the same room. Sophie suspected if Val ever did fall in love, she would make an excellent partner. All the love she tried to hide would spill out of the tough exterior if only someone could crack that hard shell.







Chapter Three





Val squinted at the enormous mansion laid out in all its glory. Same Bat time, same Bat channel. Val chuckled to herself as she thought about the many hours she’d spent in front of the TV trying to master the English language and being hooked on Batman. It was ridiculous and campy, but she loved that show. She remembered how Maggie would just smile when she walked by and found her glued to the TV.

Leonid’s mansion was nearly a carbon copy of Viktor’s—gaudy and overwhelming. She thought they both tried too hard to prove their immense wealth and standing in the community as a whole.

Val strode confidently to the front door and pushed the doorbell. Big surprise when two burly men ushered her inside and attempted to frisk her. In less than fifteen seconds, she broke one bodyguard’s nose, wrenched the gun from the other, and pointed the muzzle in his face. She hadn’t done anything particularly fancy—one head butt and a wrenched wrist had done the trick. Val was quick—she was very, very quick.

The bodyguard with the broken nose hadn’t learned his lesson and lunged for her. Without breaking a sweat, Val roundhouse-kicked him and sent him flailing to the ground.

“Oomf.”

Obviously thinking she might be distracted, the other bodyguard attempted to retrieve his gun, and Val rewarded him with an elbow to the face and the second broken nose of the day. She then shot his leg for having the audacity to try to get his gun back.

Rich baritone laughter filled the foyer, and Val got her first look at Leonid. She was surprised to see the handsome, chiseled face surrounding cold, gray eyes, and her body had an immediate reaction to his laughter. Something about his laugh was familiar, and for a split second the dungeon from her past flashed before her eyes. Stuffing the fear deep inside, she met his steely gaze with her own penetrating stare.

Val set the gun on the marble pedestal. She removed her backpack, set it on the floor, and proceeded to strip. She noted the bodyguards warily watching as they looked back and forth between their boss and her.

Standing completely naked before Leonid, she stated, “I do not like to be touched. The next time I will kill them. As you can see, I am not wearing a wire, nor do I currently have a weapon.” Val glanced at the pedestal with the stolen gun and smirked.

“Duly noted,” Leonid remarked. “You may put your clothes back on. Normally I would conduct an interview, but I believe you just passed the first test. You are Russian, yet you speak perfect English? I don’t detect an accent.”

Val shrugged. “One of my many talents. Do you need proof of my Russian background?”

Leonid narrowed his eyes. “Not necessary. My background checks are thorough. My wife is not Russian and does not speak the language. I suppose it is a plus that you speak perfect English.”

The bodyguard she’d shot groaned as he held on to his leg.

Leonid glanced to his left and gave an almost imperceptible nod to another large man standing on the other side of the room. “Take care of this mess. If the blood leaves a stain, terminate him. That will be the test of his worthiness to continue to serve me. I do hope he manages to protect the floor from his blood better than he protected me.”

The injured man stared wide-eyed at Leonid and tried to stem the flow of blood.

Leonid turned his icy-gray eyes in Val’s direction and commanded, “Come. I will show you to your room. I trust the accommodations will meet your requirements. You won’t object to one of my men checking your bag?”

Val shrugged. “Fine by me.”

She followed Leonid and another large man who had miraculously appeared by his side as soon as the other guard moved toward the temporarily incapacitated guards.

“How did the small female overpower my best guards?” Leonid asked him in Russian.

Val smiled to herself as she contemplated his calculated use of the language. She would answer him back in flawless Russian.

“Never underestimate me. It will be a fatal mistake,” Val growled, her voice was low, but loud enough for Leonid to hear every syllable.

He turned and caught Val’s eyes in a laser stare. “For one who lacks the equipment, Verushka, you have very big brass ones. I will be sure not to underestimate you, and I am counting on that to protect my precious property.”

Val cringed internally when Leonid referred to his wife that way, but left her face blank. She knew not to let the misogynist bastard trip her up by revealing a reaction of disgust. “Vera. I prefer to be called Vera.”

Leonid nodded. “Very well. Vera. Your Russian is flawless.”

Val thought the name they had chosen for her alternate identity was perfect. She’d always admired the 1960s model, Countess Vera von Lehndorff-Steinort, and Vera was close to her real name. She’d also read somewhere it meant “truth.” The irony was that she was a stranger to everyone, and no one person knew who she was or her full backstory. She was suddenly reminded of her father and the realization he and Leonid were cut from the same cloth dawned on her. She hated them both.

The fake name also meant “faith.” The Organization was putting their faith in her to find a way to work with Antonio’s undercover agents, whoever they were, to once again unravel the newly formed slave trade that seemed stronger and less vulnerable than Viktor’s previous organization.

No one knew who Antonio’s plants were and Val had no idea if they were in close contact or even communicated. Maggie had assured her that she had faith in her skills at discerning who was working on their side and who wasn’t. Her survival and fighting skills were excellent but she wasn’t as sure with her insight into others. How the hell am I supposed to work with someone without knowing their identity?

Leonid snapped his fingers and the big blond man picked up Val’s bag and then handed him a pager. Leonid opened the door and motioned Val into a spacious bedroom complete with a large flat-screen television and a love seat. The room was larger than her whole quarters back at the compound.

Leonid tossed Val the pager and she caught it. “You will carry this at all times. You are on call 24/7. Whenever my wife wishes to go outside this compound, you are responsible for her safety. If one hair on her head is harmed, consider your employment terminated,” Leonid threatened.

“I will give you six months and if I still desire your generous compensation package, I may reconsider giving you more time. Don’t ever threaten me again, because you won’t like my response. I’m the best you’ll ever find, so don’t give me a reason to quit before I start.”

Leonid laughed. “Brass something. You remind me of myself when I was younger.”

Val watched impassively as the man rifled through her bag, tossing out her pen and electric toothbrush along with all the clothes, including the underwear.

“Asshole,” she muttered as they left.



Val took a look around the room. She opened the door to her right and found an enormous walk-in closet filled with a variety of clothing, from expensive evening gowns to casual shirts and pants. Neatly pressed jeans lined one corner. Silk and cotton shirts butted up against casual and business pants.

Val pulled one of the shirts from the hanger and looked at the tag. Size eight—her size. She didn’t want to know how Leonid knew that. She suspected the fake persona Dani had created had every possible piece of information to make her existence believable—down to the size of her underwear and bras. She wouldn’t need to wear the underwear he provided for her, so she needed to make a big show of tossing aside whatever was available in the dresser and replacing it with the pairs Dani had placed in her bag.

Val walked to the rich mahogany dresser containing what she assumed would be underwear, socks, and other clothing exactly her size, like t-shirts and shorts. She opened the first drawer and yanked out the several pairs of neatly folded underwear and threw them on the floor. She didn’t bother to fold the ones on the bed that the ape had pulled from her bag before she shoved them in the drawer and closed it.

Val jumped when inside her head she heard, “Good job, grasshopper. Although I might not have challenged him quite as much as you did.”

“What the fuck?” she cried out.

Careful, don’t say another word. Act like you just stubbed your toe or something. Leonid will definitely have your room bugged. He’s a paranoid bastard. Now, you didn’t think we would leave you completely incommunicado with us, did you? Toni found a way to put a biological commlink inside your ear so we can communicate with you. Sorry we didn’t tell you before you left today. It was a last-minute enhancement because the undies only let us hear what’s going on and we needed a way to talk to you.”

Val listened to Sophie laugh inside her head and vowed to kick her ass when this mission was over. Though she had to admit, she might find this humorous if the shoe were on the other foot.

“Well, I guess I should be impressed that Leonid has good taste in women’s clothing,” Val said to the empty room. She figured that should explain her earlier expletive.

Nice recovery.”

Val wanted to tell Sophie to shut the fuck up, but she knew she couldn’t react. That pissed her off even more, and she knew Sophie would have a big laugh at her expense. She would probably have plenty of time over the next couple of months to think of ways to get her back.

She put the rest of her belongings back in her pack and looked around the room for a place to store her bag and finally found a corner in the closet. She had hoped they wouldn’t examine too closely some of the other ordinary contents like her pen with the tranquilizer darts, and the electric toothbrush with a disruptor hidden inside. The man hadn’t given either item a second look as he pulled them from the side pocket and tossed them next to her meager supply of clothes. She plopped on the bed and decided she would take advantage of her free time and get in a quick nap before meeting the pain-in-the-ass wife.







Chapter Four





Paulie Maggio grabbed his sister’s wrist and twisted. “Don’t you fuck this up for me.” He gave her tall and willowy frame, her long white-blonde hair, and her eyes the color of a clear summer’s sky a once-over before sneering.

“You leave a bruise and I’ll make sure Leonid knows it was you.” Gina smirked. “And you know what he does to anyone who harms what is his.”

“I’m warning you.” Paulie let go but moved so he was toe-to-toe with her. “If you leave him, he will hunt you down, and then you will be on the wrong side of his gun.”

“I said he was a pig, not that I was going anywhere.” She motioned at the palatial house in front of her. “This is what I’ve dreamed of all my life.”

Paulie noted her sarcastic tone as he pulled her into a hug. “If you fuck this up, we are both dead,” he whispered. “I have big plans for the future, so you should keep that in mind before you do something you’ll regret.”

“Let go of me,” Gina whispered back. “His spies will tell him we’re planning something.”

Paulie took a step back. He knew listening devices were everywhere and that he’d be dead with one wrong word. His sister was his ticket to the big time, and he’d make sure she played nice with Leonid until his plans were in place. He grabbed her arm again, making sure he didn’t squeeze too hard but enough to get his point across. “Are you with me?”

Gina nodded while looking at the Hummer limousine that came to a stop near the mansion’s front door.

Leonid Petrov emerged from the vehicle and beckoned her to join him.

“Make sure you don’t get me killed in your grandiose scheme,” she said before walking away.



“Darling, what took you so long? I’ve been waiting for over an hour.” Gina wrapped her arms around her husband’s neck and kissed him passionately. The act made her stomach turn, but she’d made her choice, and because of who the man was, she had to live with her decision. She knew all the right words and actions to keep Leonid happy.

She and her brother grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, dirt-poor and with alcoholic and drug addicted parents who were absent for most of their lives. They were survivors and knew how to play the game, doing whatever was necessary to win. Paulie was also tall, but where her features were on the fairer-side, he was dark with obsidian hair and skin that revealed his Southern Italian roots. The only thing that distinguished them as siblings was the distinctive color of their eyes. Of the two of them, he was the more brutal in taking what he wanted. He’d never known how to finesse a situation to his advantage, but his intellect and cunning made him a formidable ally and enemy. Whatever he was planning, she hoped her relationship with Leonid would stay intact. She would never jeopardize the sweet deal she had going for her with the man in her arms.

“Come on, let’s go inside and find somewhere private,” she cooed. “I want to be alone with you.” Her stomach lurched and she choked back the bile that threatened to rise.

I’ve made my bed and have to sleep in it.



Gina grinned inwardly at how easily Leonid would succumb to her overtures. He was a ruthless mobster, and she suspected he’d killed all the bodyguards she’d had over the eight months they’d been married. She was under no illusion that he was anything other than cold and calculating in all his dealings except with her. It had taken her a while to figure out, but she now knew how to walk the narrow line so he didn’t realize she was manipulating him into revealing many of his secrets—secrets that, if the time came, she would use against him. No one was better at twisting situations to their benefit than she was, and that always gave her the upper hand.

He was rough when he took her, and to her dismay, that was becoming a daily occurrence—sometimes even more. Fortunately, it never took long and all he ever wanted was for her to spread her legs and let him enter her. For that, she was grateful. The thought of doing anything else with him was even more repulsive and sickening than what she did with him now. Her involvement with the man was a means to an end and the reward outweighed her sacrifice, but she now questioned the wisdom of the path she’d chosen.

Paulie was another problem for her. She needed to keep him in check before he went on a tear and ruined this for them both.

A knock at the door had her pulling on her light yellow silk robe. “Come in.”

A short, round woman opened the door. “Ma’am, I have a tray for you. The mister said to bring it,” she said in a heavy accent.

“Thank you, Irina.” Gina sat up in bed and allowed the maid to place the tray over her legs. “This looks great. Please tell Cook thank you for me.”

Da,” Irina said as she backed out of the room.

Gina shook her head. She was no threat to any of them, but over time, she’d noticed that no one in the household ever turned their back on her. Fear was pervasive in everyone who associated with Leonid. He was a vile, evil man, and she was glad he hadn’t turned that evil on her. For a fleeting second, she wondered how long that would last. How long could she keep up the pretense of being a dutiful, loving wife before it became too much for her?


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