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Blinking snowflakes off her lashes, T-FLAC operative Alexis Stone shot a quick glance down at the toes of her brand-new, size-eight combat boots as she teetered on the edge of the snow- encrusted roof. The excruciating headache that had plagued her for the last several minutes intensified. A headache was going to be the least of her damned problems if she didn’t move.
Jump. Get it over with. Quick and painless.
What the . . . ?
Jump across, she told herself. Not down. Across. Between the buildings. A relatively easy jump, yet she hesitated. Terminal velocity wouldn’t be in effect in such a short drop. She’d only fall about a hundred and fifty feet, not the four hundred necessary to pick up the hundred and thirty- five miles an hour to achieve terminal speed.
What was she thinking? Mouth dry, heart pounding, Lexi shook her head to clear it.
Mathematically, a falling object—her—increased its velocity by thirty- two feet per second as it fell. Acceleration to gravity—
Over. Not down.
She’d be on the ground in less than two seconds—
Over. Not down.
Jump. Do it now.
Crap. She blinked white out of her eyes, her breath coming hot and fast. The training simulations hadn’t aptly portrayed what it felt like to be out in the field under hostile conditions. Not the cold, not the pressure, not the frantic tattoo of her heart. Not the irrational thoughts clouding her mind. One word summed up the experience.
Focus. Fortunately, she was a pragmatic woman. Flights of fancy weren’t in her DNA. Or hadn’t been before to night. She’d trained with the best of the best. Now she just had to put it into action. She could do this. Do not imagine being shot in the back.
Do not picture falling.
Do not look down.
Her mouth was too dry to even attempt swallowing. She started counting, silently, to slow the rushing thud of her pulse, which made it hard to hear and intensified the headache.
Her gaze climbed upward incrementally until she focused on the hotel across the alley. Only eight feet separated the two buildings.
Fifteen stories to the snowy ground below.
She’d never been afraid of heights before. Lights popped on in some of the dark windows as dusk fell like an unwelcome blanket over Moscow.
They’d followed her. She knew they had. Jump! her brain screamed.
Despite the bone- chilling cold, sweat beaded her face. Her entire body was damp and clammy beneath her black civilian clothing. The familiar weight of the Glock, all seven ounces of firepower, felt as heavy as a boulder in her numb fingers.
Running footsteps, crossing the roof behind her, sounded like a freaking herd of crazed wildebeests charging. Her galloping heart jumped into her throat. Too late. Her hesitation was going to cost her. She glanced down at the shadowy drop just beyond the tips of her boots, then back at the dark footprints just behind her. Easy to follow her trail when her steps were clear in the snow blanketing the rooftop.
She’d had a five- minute, eleven- second head start. They’d caught up. The men following her had scaled that blasted metal fire escape in record time. And probably without being terrified the thing would pull away from the crumbling brick wall as they scrabbled for purchase.
The high- pitched whine- piiiing and yellow sparks of a bullet ricocheting off metal just a few feet away made her flinch. Close. Too close. Do it, Lexi. Just freaking jump.
No. Return fire. Then jump.
Cautiously, but as fast as she could manage, she walked backward in her own footprints. As soon as she felt the heated metal of a four- foot- wide exhaust flue against her back, she spun and dropped into a crouch behind the only cover for a hundred feet of flat white rooftop.
A dozen indistinguishable exhaust fans dotted the roof, belching unsynchronized clouds of foul- smelling steam. The steam and stink collided with the rapidly falling snow, making visibility nearly non ex is tent in the pseudo fog the mix created. If she couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see her. She hoped.
Crouching to below their eye level, Lexi squeezed off a half dozen textbook- perfect shots. Night was falling as fast as the snow now, and the spare illumination was a thick, barely transparent charcoal. She knew exactly how to get to where she needed to be. Like a lodestone, she had ID’d the black shutters against the whitewashed walls of the safe house seven buildings southeast.
Five men had chased her all the way from Belorussky Railway Station on Tverskaya Zastava Ploshchad, through the alleys and up onto this rooftop half a dozen blocks away.
Piiingpiingpiing. They weren’t messing around.
Sparks shot out like fireworks as a hail of bullets struck metal. The men were firing blind. A waste of ammunition, but pretty much a guarantee that one of the stray bullets would hit their target. Her.
Six. There’d been six of them, she corrected, seeing them come out of nowhere in her mind’s eye. A mathematical mistake could very well bite her in the ass.
One guy was way ahead of the pack, moving fast and low, closing the gap between them.
Shifting her trigger finger off the frame of the Glock, Lexi squeezed off a shot. The impact of the bullet hitting him square in the chest knocked the guy off his feet. With a brief look of annoyance he went down soundlessly.
Went down . . . and dissipated into nothingness before his body hit the ground.
Ducking out of sight, back flat against the warmth of the pipe, Lexi sucked in a startled breath. Shit. My first kill shot. A wizard? Her heart beat hard enough to block out the sound of running footsteps. She felt the vibration through the soles of her boots and took a chance, angling her head so she could see them coming. And there they were. Thirty yards and closing.
Five men, dressed in black, their shadowy forms barely visible.
Narrow- eyed, she watched a second guy break from the pack, coming at her flat- out, long legs closing the gap between them. Weapon raised, he stopped, head shifting as he searched the rooftop for her.
Two other men joined him, snow veiling them where they stood, warm breath thick in the air around their heads.
“Did she jump across?” the middle guy asked the other two in his native Rus sian, glaring down at the gap between the buildings. Lexi followed their gazes. Her footprints teetered right on the edge. Visibility was iffy, and unless they looked closely, they wouldn’t notice the faint blurring of her double steps. She hoped.
She held her breath as two more men caught up, the murmur of the voices blending. One man indicated they separate, and they spread out on the roof.
Her pulse shot into overdrive, and her mouth went dry as a metronome ticked off the seconds in her head. They’d find her in moments. And there was no wondering what they’d do to her if they got their hands on her. She freaking knew. She’d seen too much. And she was as good as dead unless she could make that jump.
As much as she wanted to plot things out to the last variable, as much as she wanted to calculate the exact trajectory necessary to leap the gap and how she should fall on the other side, Lexi literally took a running leap of faith.
The run, followed by an ungraceful jump had her body suspended over nothing but air for what felt like an eternity. Rapid fire, followed by shouts, accompanied her leap across the abyss. Too pumped up on terror and adrenaline to feel any pain, she landed hard on the other, slightly lower, roof, and stumbled into a low run.
Go. Go. Go.
Her breath led the way as she found the extra speed necessary to leap between the next two buildings, a jump of at least twelve feet this time. One foot skidded out from under her as she landed in wet snow on the other side. Sheer willpower pulled her upright and she kept running.
Go. Go. Go.
Chunks of cement exploded inches from her feet, sending bits of it stinging into her skin through her pants. She spun, returning fire. She knew she wasn’t going to hit anyone; her aim was too wild, and she couldn’t see a damn thing now that it was fully dark. Numb with cold, the snow was a soft menace as it landed soundlessly on any exposed skin. A stark blackand- white movie with her frantic heartbeats and sawing breath as theme music.
The whine and the hot slice of a bullet as it cut through her coat and into her shoulder made her curse under her breath. It would probably hurt like hell later. Well, no probably about it, but right now she didn’t feel a thing. Lexi ducked behind the dubious protection of a small cement maintenance shed in the middle of the rooftop. Hat down, collar up, just her eyes visible, she scanned the area. The cold, and the vicious vise of the headache, made her eyes water and burn, forcing her to waste precious seconds blinking things back into focus.
There they were. Running, spreading out, determined to catch her. Catch her, hell. Kill her.
No CGI- generated bad guys. No drill. This was as real as it got.
Reaching into her tac belt, she grabbed a new magazine and wiped the sweat out of her left eye onto the shoulder of her jacket. Let the training take over. Deep breath in. Rapid reload. Pop the empty clip, slam in a new one. Thumb the slide- stop so the slide jacks forward and fire again. And again. Chest high, level and steady. Wrist firm, firing hand pressed securely against her opposing palm. Double- tapping in controlled bursts, tiny lateral movements to avoid creating gaps in the kill- zone.
Visualize the target; see the slap of the bullet.
She squeezed the trigger. A scream indicated she’d managed to hit one, even in the dark.
She heard the thud of his body with grim satisfaction. That one wasn’t a wizard. Or if he was, he was a dead wizard.
Her weapons instructor would be proud.
Two down. Four to go. And six more buildings to navigate before reaching the safe house.
She couldn’t lead these yahoos there. Four more kills, or a wild goose chase across the rooftops of Moscow. In the dark. God, what a choice.
Lexi tried to come up with a plan. Heart manic, sweat stinging her eyes, she leaned against the cement wall.
Easier said than done when an anvil pounded behind her eyeballs and every instinct told her to run like hell. Odds were she’d be shot within the next few minutes.
Take a deep breath. Center yourself. Think.
Somehow she had to circle around behind them.
Couldn’t see them, but Lexi heard their voices. Whispered Rus sian, carried away on the light breeze, impossible to hear well enough to interpret. She prayed they’d conclude she’d managed to evade them.
For a moment a stray bit of light reflected off the snowy ground and she saw them. They’d gathered in a tight little group at the edge of the roof, a knot of dense darkness barely visible against the even bigger blackness of the night. Big mistake, boys.
Four shots. Rapid. No hesitation.
They wouldn’t expect her to return the way she’d come— straight at them.
Pulling the extra fabric of her turtleneck over her mouth and nose, Lexi welcomed the few seconds of warmth. Good time for a tac- reload. Quietly, she slid the clip out of the mag well and replaced it with a fresh one, stowed the partly spent one in her belt. Then, blocking out the cold, she dropped to the ground. A shallow, twelve- inch- high wall ran around the perimeter of the flat roof. On her belly, using her feet and elbows to move her forward, she crawled up against the wall, the fully loaded Glock in her right hand.
One chance to do this.
She could hear them more clearly the closer she got. Confused. Undirected. They weren’t sure what to do next. Good.
Sucking in a breath, she squeezed off a shot. Another, and another. Three down. One to go.
The remaining guy fired back, yelling in Rus sian as he tried to pinpoint her location from her muzzle flashes. But she’d already moved. She was practically under his feet as he fired blindly into the darkness. Rolling to her back, Lexi aimed for the underside of his chin. She let out half a breath. The big oaf looked down just as she squeezed the trigger.
In that instant, some of those training details that seemed so hard to memorize came back effortlessly. Nine- millimeter, 124- grain, plus- P rounds. For a Glock 19, that translated into a muzzle velocity in excess of thirteen hundred feet per second—
Her bullet punched into his gaping mouth and blew the back of his head off. His body instantly turned to a fine black powder.
Shuddering, she didn’t pause to congratulate herself on her marksmanship or her mastery of weapon specs. There wasn’t time. All the gunplay and shouting would draw the curious, or stupid, sooner or later. Lexi hauled ass and ran as if the hounds of hell were on her heels.
Stretched out on the narrow sway- backed bed, hands stacked beneath his head, Alexander Stone dozed lightly. Since the room was on the top floor, he opened one eye when he heard pounding footsteps on the rooftop just above the window.
Curling his fingers around the butt of the Sig Sauer lying on the mattress beside his hip, he lay still, just another shadow in the room. Seconds later, the window slammed back against the wall. A slight figure, dressed from head to toe in black, catapulted feet first through the opening as if jet propelled.
He could barely make out her slender form in the darkness. Hands on her knees, head down, Lexi struggled to catch a wheezing breath. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”
Alex sat up, swinging his feet to the floor. “How was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
At the sound of his voice, coming as it did out of the darkness, she let out a startled yelp as she straightened. But damn if she didn’t come up weapon raised.
“Turn on the light.” Still out of breath, but her voice was strong.
“Hell, Lexi. I could’ve shot you ten times by now. Shoot first, ask questions later.” Alex leaned over and switched on the light beside the bed. He immediately noticed the dark red wetness on her right shoulder. “But it looks like someone already beat me to it.” Jesus. What the hell was Lexi Stone doing in Moscow? Bleeding? When the innkeeper had assured him his room was ready, Alex had had a moment of confusion. He hadn’t already checked in . . . Alex Stone. Alexis Stone. No relation. Not even third cousins five times removed— he’d checked.
Might be confusing for the accounting department, but he’d never expected to see her anywhere but HQ in Montana. Didn’t make a damn bit of sense seeing her here.
She belonged at her desk in the research department. She was completely out of context in a shit- hole of a safe house in Rus sia.
Dove- soft gray eyes blinked at him, her expression a mixture of confusion and irritation. “What are you doing here?”
“Here in Moscow or here in our room?” He’d forgotten how tall she was. He was used to seeing her hunched over her computer at her desk at HQ. “It isn’t our room. It’s my room. My op.”
Her . . . op? “Do you own Moscow as well, or is that up for grabs?”
Annoyed, she pulled a black knit cap off her head and stuffed it into the pocket of her coat. Well, hell. Her hair used to be a very pretty, glossy light brown. And long. She used to wear it in some sleek, complicated braid thing on the back of her head. She’d cut about a mile and a half off. Now it was chin length, fashionably choppy, and a sunny blond. “Cut your hair yourself ?”
She raised a hand to her chin- length bob and didn’t bother answering the obvious. “You’re supposed to be in Paris.” She touched the bridge of her nose. Damn it to hell. She used to wear glasses as well. “True.” He pushed back on the edge of the bed to lean against the wall, dangling his hand off his bent knee. “You wearing LockOut under that jacket?” Hiplength black Thinsulate coat, black jeans, soaked to the hem of the coat, and the smallest damned combat boots he’d ever seen, carry ing a Glock, and packing an attitude a mile wide.
With a fucking bullet crease in her shoulder. Color crept into her already chill- bright cheeks. “I just went to—”
“Get shot?” he said dryly. “We’d better take care of that.” He shoved himself off the bed in one lithe move, tucking his Sig in the waistband at the back of his pants. She backed up. “Did you manage to hit anyone?” Yeah. She was taller than he remembered. Her sunny hair would brush his lips if he were to hold her. Which of course he had no intention of doing. His gaze dropped to her lips. Mistake. She had the kind of soft mouth that would distract most men.
Didn’t distract him. Alex concentrated on eye contact. Up went the chin. “I was trained by Darius, what do you think?”
The best of the best. No need to ask further. “Were you followed?”
She shot a ner vous glance over her shoulder at the open window and the night sky beyond. “I don’t believe so.”
Shit. Damn. And fucking hell. “You’d better be sure.”
“I—” She wanted to tell him to go to hell, Alex could see it in the mutinous line of her lips. “I’m not sure,” she admitted somewhat belligerently. Lexi. Honest to a fault.
He gave a lugubrious sigh and slid the Sig out of his waistband, not sure who else was coming through that window. “Get that coat off and go into the bathroom. Take a shower. I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll go with you.”
If he was any judge of women, and he was, the lady was about to puke or pass out. Possibly both. “How will I explain your bloodless body to your supervisor in the— What department is it again? Accounting?” She was the girl with the glasses and great legs in the research department.
From the Paperback edition.