To say the house wasn't what he expected was the understatement of the year.
There was nothing overtly wrong with it. It wasn't a crumbling, derelict, boarded-up ruin, or a neglected, ramshackle, junkie-filled wreck.
In his opinion, there was simply nothing overtly right with it, either. In fact, the longer he looked at it, the more he realized—it was one of the dullest, plainest, most suburban, most middle-class, most depressingly American houses he'd ever had the displeasure to see.
Sidesplit style, with two large windows above a double garage on the left, a front door with a sidelight in the centre and a ground-level kitchen and living room space to the right. From the garnet red trim around the windows and doors, and the running bond-style, decorative brick façade, it looked to be thirty to forty years old.
The two-year-old, silver Audi A6 parked to one side of the drive was the only up-to-date thing about it.
But even the Audi wasn't quite right. As he remembered, Kirill had always been more of a BMW man.
He noticed the Audi was parked in front of a skip (or did they call it a dumpster bin here), and that the skip was full of household debris, including the dismembered remains of what was probably the original kitchen, a truly horrendous panelled fireplace surround, and an angular, three-piece bathroom suite in a vomit-inducing shade of green.
Ah, the eighties. The decade that style, taste, subtlety and colour coordination forgot. He remembered his Uncle Arthur and Auntie Jean having a similarly terrible suite in their house near Wimbledon Common, back in the day when colour bathrooms were all the rage, but instead of Avocado Green, they'd gone for a wonderful shade called Harvest Gold. Or maybe it had been Autumn Tan. He couldn't remember.
At least whoever was living here—and he dearly hoped it wasn't his old Russian friend—had decided to finally give the ridiculous colour the chop.
Good for them. Life was far too bloody short to spend it sitting on a shitter the colour of a sick toddler's turd. Then again, in his (not remotely humble) opinion, life was far too bloody short to spend any of it—even a day—living in suburban American hell.
"Live and let live, Liam, my son," he muttered to himself. "Pretty sure none of the wankers who live around here want to spend their Saturday night strangling people to death, or shagging some guy they just met in a bar."
Or maybe they would. To paraphrase the great and mighty Batman himself, who knew what kinks and obsessions lurked in the hearts of America's middle-class women and men?
He leaned over to pull a Post-It note out of his pocket, on which someone had hastily scribbled a one-line address. He checked the street name against the blue and white sign on the post at the corner, and the number against the wrought iron plaque on the front of the house.
Sadly, he was in the right place. He hadn't accidentally driven himself to Broadview Place instead of Road, or parked his car across the street from 11602 instead of 11206. So, unless the provider of the address was lying, or had gone looking for information about the wrong man, this was indeed his Russian colleague's new home.
Jesus H. Christ. How the high and mighty had fallen, indeed.
Not that he'd ever enjoyed the pleasure of visiting Kirill's previous home. For all he knew, the man could have lived in an equally terrible house, in an equally hellish suburb of Moscow, with his doting but equally middle-class gran.
It seemed unlikely, but as he'd just noted, when it came to people, one could never be sure.
The provider of the address had mentioned something about a crash. So, maybe Kirill had bashed his head, fallen into a month-long coma and woken up a completely new man with a completely new set of interests and needs. Maybe for the reformed version of Kirill, an eighties house in suburban McLean in need of some serious reno work was exactly what he'd always dreamed of. Maybe now, he collected wine and played golf on Sunday mornings as well…
"Look on the bright side, Liam," he said. "If he's a whole new man, he can't possibly be as much of an arsehole now as he was before."
Liam just hoped the crash in question hadn't damaged the pretty face…
He stuck the Post-It note back in his pocket, checked his side mirror for oncoming traffic, and seeing the road behind him was clear, quietly let himself out. He did a quick but thorough three-sixty scan, listening for an idling engine, looking for someone twitching their curtains or a pedestrian hanging around down the street, but saw nothing that gave him any cause for concern.
What the hell would he even see, in a place as tedious and normal as this?
Satisfied he wasn't about to be mugged, stabbed, run over or shot, he locked the car and stuck his hands in his pockets. Still scanning, he ambled across the deserted street, then up the path to the front door. As he walked, he noticed the lawn was slightly unkempt. So, wherever new-Kirill was spending his time, he obviously wasn't spending it on his domestic maintenance duties. Then again, the lawn was on a slight slope, and the Russian had never been the type to garden uphill…
Annoyingly, there was no name on the number plaque on the wall—nothing to tell him anything useful about the person (or people) who lived in the building.
The sidelight was made of translucent glass, so, instead of peeking in, he paused to listen at the door. He heard muffled voices and background music. A television, a CD player, or maybe even a radio channel. Somebody was in the house—precisely who, remained to be seen.
"Keep calm and carry on," Liam reminded himself. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
He raised a finger to push the bell; instead of a 'bing' it made a deep buzzing sound.
On the other side, footsteps quickly approached. A few seconds later, a woman opened the door.
A very attractive woman, if you were into that sort of thing (which he himself absolutely wasn't). But just because he wouldn't ever want to take her to bed didn't mean he couldn't see she was quite pleasant to look at, if in a predictably American way.
Early thirties, tall and slim, with long, tawny hair and eyes the same hazy shade of grey as his gun. She didn't pull the door all the way open, but instead stood halfway behind it using its bulk as a shield, so he couldn't quite see the rest of the package. At first glance, she seemed like the kind of woman who might be his Russian friend's type.
"Hey, there," she said, sounding friendly and wary at the same time. "Can I help you?"
"Hi, uh, yeah, I was wondering, is there where Kirill Orlov lives?"
Her smile faltered, and she closed the door over another couple of inches. An unconscious reaction, no doubt, but one that told him what he needed to know. Only someone who was indeed living with Kirill Orlov, and knew what kind of man he was (or, at least, what kind of man he'd once been) would know to be instinctively suspicious of random strangers asking after him at the door.
She frowned and gave him a tight-lipped nod. "Uh, yeah, actually, it is."
"Don't suppose he's at home right now?"
This time, she shook her head. "He's gone down to the store. Just a quick errand. Should be back in say, ten, maybe fifteen minutes?"
"Any chance I could come in and wait for him to get back?" He held up his hands with the palms out and blessed her with his most charming smile. "I'm an old friend of his from work. I don't bite, I promise."
Not the God's honest truth, but not exactly an outright lie, either. He did bite, as it happened. But only men, only when he was shagging them and only when they asked him nicely.
Her eyes narrowed slightly. "What did you say your name was again?"
"Sorry, I didn't." He held out a hand. "The name's Liam. Liam Bell. Lovely to meet you. And you are?"
Instead of answering him or accepting the hand, she drew away slightly and crossed her arms. "An old friend from work," she repeated. "So, you're with the agency, then?"
Shit. Which agency did she mean? Had Kirill signed on with a secretarial temping firm, and was hiring himself out at $25 per hour for 75 words per minute? Or, even worse, was he now an NIA asset as well?
In the absence of more information, his only option was to brazen it out. "The agency, yes. Been with them for almost eight years."
"No offense, Mister Bell, but you don't sound like the kind of person the agency would hire."
Hmm. Probably not a temping agency, then. But if his accent was wrong for the people in question i.e. not as American as mom's apple pie, surely Kirill's would be as well?
"I'm sure some people would say the same thing about Kirill," he said.
Her coolness thawed very slightly. "Yeah, good point," she said with a rueful smile. She sighed, checked her watch, then pulled the door all the way open to wave him into the hall. "Why don't you come in?" she asked. "Kirill shouldn't be long."
With the barrier gone, he got a much better view of the rest of the package. It was just as good as the face—nice arse, and slender legs all the way up to a beautiful, nicely-sized pair of tits. But the belly made him stop in his tracks.
She was pregnant.
Not watermelon-up-the-jumper or hosting-an-alien-face-hugger pregnant, but there was definitely a fast-rising bun in the good lady's oven.
Jesus. What the fucking fuckity fuck had Kirill gotten himself into now?
He and the FSB man had never exactly been the closest of pals, but you wouldn't have to be his Best Friend Forever to know that Kirill wasn't the type to take the marriage and parenthood option.
But maybe, he had this all wrong. Maybe, as well as having a long-lost twin brother, Kirill had a long-lost younger sister or half-sister as well? Maybe, instead of this house being his home, he was simply a transient guest, living with her for a couple of months while he settled and found a place of his own?
Screaming inside, Liam smiled and stepped into the hall. He was relieved to see the interior décor was nowhere near as bad as he'd feared. It was quite tasteful, actually—no suburban clutter or kitsch, but lots of understated colours and smooth, elegant, minimal lines. It matched the Audi in the drive far more than it matched the dated exterior finish. Perhaps the reno work was ongoing, and the garnet red trim and brick façade would eventually be replaced in time…
"Can I bring you something to drink while you wait?" the woman asked as she led him through to an equally stylish, dining kitchen at the rear of the house. The kitchen itself was bright, modern, spacious and sleek, and given the Miele appliances (matching, stainless, top-of-the-line), it must have cost the owner a couple of bucks to put in. "Coffee, tea, soda, beer?" she offered.
"Cup of coffee would be lovely, thanks."
He actually wanted a cup of tea, but he'd long since learned the hard way that Yanks couldn't make it for shit, the same way most of his fellow Brits couldn't brew a good pot of joe if their dangly bits depended on it.
He hovered politely at the edge of the room as she pulled a china mug out of the cupboard, grabbed the pot from the machine (a lovely Krups number, no less), and filled the mug to just below the brim.
"Kir made it less than an hour ago, so it should still be hot." She smiled as she handed it to him. "Cream or sugar?"
"Black is fine, thanks. Not having some yourself?"
She smiled again and patted her stomach. "Would love to, but not allowed. No coffee, no sushi, no wine. Gonna be the longest nine months of my life."
"When are you due?" he asked. Not that he really cared, but it seemed like the polite thing to do, and gave them something neutral to talk about while they waited.
"Doc says the first week of July."
"Do you know what you're having?"
She shook her head. "We decided we'd rather wait and see, so we deliberately didn't ask."
"Not really, no. Just want it to be healthy, have the right number of fingers and toes."
"What about Kirill?" he asked next. "Bet he's hoping for a boy, yeah?" If his old friend was indeed the father, Liam couldn't see him knowing what the hell to do with a daughter. Come to think of it, he couldn't see him knowing what the hell to do with a child at all.
She grabbed another cup from the cupboard then opened the fridge to pull out a carton of juice. "Actually, he hasn't said one way or the other." She grinned as she filled her own mug. "To be honest, I think he's been too busy worrying about becoming a parent to think about it that much."
So, the budding crotch fruit was indeed Kirill's. Worst possible outcome confirmed.
"Shitting himself a bit, yeah?"
She snorted. "That's putting it mildly. Every time I try to show him how diapers work, he gets this look on his face like he wants to run off to join the French Foreign Legion."
Except the French Foreign Legion probably wouldn't touch him, not after everything he'd done, not even with the shitty end of somebody else's dick. "Sure he's going to do fine."
"He'll have to."
Liam took a gulp of his coffee, not quite sure of what else to say. As good at chit-chat as he usually was, parenthood was one of the few subject matters about which he had absolutely nothing to offer.
"So, are you in the same department as Kir?" the woman asked, turning to put the carton back in the fridge.
"More or less, yeah."
"You must know Ted, then."
He tried not to smile—he'd been in this business long enough to know all the most devious tricks—he could smell a pre-arranged verification trap from the other end of the street. "Can't say I do, sorry. He must be in another part of the group I don't interact with."
Her slightly disappointed expression told him he'd just avoided her snare. Not that it had been a difficult snare to avoid, but it was interesting that she and her other half had even felt the need to set it. Did that mean she knew exactly who and what Kirill was? Or, at least, who and what he'd been before?
Actually, bugger that. Never mind who and what Kirill was—what about who and what the hell she was? Was she an 'agency' asset as well, part of an elaborate scheme to keep the Russian out of sight?
"Sorry, I don't think I caught your name," he said.
"Jesus, of course, yeah, sorry, I'm Kate," she said, holding out her hand.
He took the hand and shook it briefly, pleased to note she had a firm grip. No feeble, limp-wristed handshakes, here. "And you're, um, Kirill's wife? I guess?"
"Girlfriend," she corrected. "Not married yet."
Yet. Oh, dear. The high and mighty hadn't simply fallen—they'd thrown themselves out the back of a plane at twenty-three thousand feet without a goddamn fucking 'chute.
"You set a date?"
"Not yet, no. I think we're going to wait until after the baby's born." She shrugged slightly and sipped on her juice. "People don't seem to disapprove of that now as much as they used to, so we're not in a massive rush."
"And if you don't mind me asking, Kate, what do you do for a living?"
"I'm a Physician Assistant," she said.
"Oh, really? And what's your specialty?"
Which made her an extremely useful person to know—someone who could pull out bullets and put in stitches with ease. "And may I ask, which hospital are you based in? One of the big emergency centres, I guess?"
"I'm over at MedStar Washington right now, but the commute's a bit of a nightmare from here, especially when I'm working a normal shift, so I'm probably gonna look for an opening at a facility this side of the river."
"Pity the CIA building doesn't have a medical centre," he joked. "Much nicer commute, sure it would be interesting work."
"Oh, no," she said, holding up a refusing hand and vehemently shaking her head. "They don't need me working for them as well."
So, that was the agency she'd meant. Kirill hadn't faked his own death and run off to build a new life in the States. He was still very much in the game, but working for the Americans, now. And not just any Americans. The worst possible Americans. The one group of Americans who could put the NIA in its place.
There was no point in staying. If Kirill was now a Company man, not only would he not be willing to help, he would probably hear what Liam had come here to say then set the CIA, the FBI and even sodding Interpol on him.
Time to finish his coffee and make himself scarce.
He feigned surprise and looked at his watch. "You know what, I just remembered there's somewhere else I'm supposed to be," he said, setting his half-empty mug on the counter. "Sorry I can't wait any longer, but please tell Kirill I popped in for a visit."
He suddenly wished he hadn't used his own name. Oh, well. Water under the bloody bridge now.
With perfect timing, the front door slammed. "Just me," he heard a familiar voice say. "Sorry I took so long. Giant Food had run out of eggs, so I had to stop at Safeway as well."
"We're in the kitchen," Kate called out.
The incoming footsteps paused, then quickened. "Who is we?"
And there he was. Kirill Alexandrovich Orlov, previously of the FSB. His erstwhile Moscow man and very occasional partner in violent but highly lucrative crime. Walking, talking, breathing and, contrary to all official Kremlin reports, not dead for two-and-a-quarter years, but very much in the land of the living.
He looked a little bit older, and slightly more worn around the edges, but strangely, healthier and more content as well. He'd put on a couple of pounds, and grown his hair out very slightly—just enough to almost cover the nasty scar along the right side of his head. He seemed to be walking with a slight limp, but overall, his body language was far more relaxed, and his features were no longer set in a churlish, semi-permanent frown. His new life, as boring and middle-class as it seemed, was obviously agreeing with him.
"Hello, Kirill," Liam quietly said.
Kirill's response was one of his trademark thunderous scowls. "What are you doing here?" he asked. His tone was calm, but the tension in his jaw and shoulders told a different story.
"Just popped in to say hello, see how you and the missus are doing, catch up on old times."
"Okay, wait a minute," Kate interjected, holding up a protesting hand. She aimed a finger at Liam's face. "You told me you knew Kirill from work."
"He does," Kirill sourly said. "But we have not spoken for quite a long time." He stepped around Liam to drop three bags of groceries on the counter, then went to give his pregnant girlfriend a kiss. "There is nothing to worry about. Liam is a very old friend."
"You told me you didn't have any very old friends."
"I have this one." Kirill took Kate gently by the shoulders. "It is fine, Katenka, I promise. Why don't you go look at the nursery colours again, leave the two of us to have a quick chat?"
She sighed, set her mouth in a stubborn line, but eventually gave a curt nod. "I'll be upstairs if you need me," she said. She finished her juice, set her empty mug in the sink and headed towards the stairs leading up, giving Liam the mother of all suspicious glares as she passed.
Once she had gone, Kirill made no immediate effort to talk, but turned to empty the grocery bags, putting some eggs, juice and milk in the fridge. Only when the unpacking was done did he once again acknowledge his visitor's presence.
When Liam made to speak, Kirill held up a silencing hand. "Not here," he firmly said. "Let us talk in the garage instead."
The garage. Of course. A huge, empty, wide open space totally hidden away from the world, with a smooth, polished concrete floor that was all too easy to clean. What better place to quietly turn him into a corpse?
"I am not going to kill you, Bell," Kirill calmly told him in Russian. "I simply don't want to talk somewhere my girlfriend can listen in."
"Does she speak Russian?" Liam asked in the same tongue.
"No, but as you have probably noticed, she is already extremely doubtful of your intentions, and the simple act of us speaking it will make her even more suspicious."
"Fair enough." But he wasn't setting so much as a foot in that bloody garage, not for all the tea, blow jobs and automatic weapons in China. "But I'm not good with windowless rooms full of razor sharp tools. Let's go into the garden instead. That work okay?"
Kirill sighed, nodded and waved at the door that led out to the deck. "After you."
"You first. I insist."
Sighing again, Kirill went to the sliding door, unlocked it, leaned down to pull a jamming rod out of the track then slid it open and vanished outside.
Liam followed a few steps behind, sliding the door firmly closed behind him.
"Nice place you have here," he lied. "Bet the neighbours are all wonderful people."
"What do you want?" Kirill coldly asked.
So, it was going to be like that. Pity. He'd been hoping for a much warmer and more helpful reception. But he wasn't ready to give up just yet.
"You're looking well," he said. "Your new life seems to be agreeing with you."
Kirill glared and folded his arms.
"What, an old friend can't drop in unannounced while he's passing to say hello?"
"You are not an old friend, Bell. You and I were never friends. We were business colleagues. There is a difference."
"Okay, fine," Liam huffed through gritted teeth. "Can't an old business colleague drop in unannounced while he's passing to say hello?"
"No, Liam, he cannot. You know as well as I do that ours was a purely professional relationship, and that we did not socialize or interact outside of work commitments. I never allowed you into my personal life when I was living in Russia, and I have no intention of allowing you into it now. And you are never just passing. If you are at my door, it is because my door is exactly where you intended to be. So, I will ask you again, what do you want?"
Liam sighed and leaned up against the railing overlooking the garden. He noticed the lawn in the back was just as in need of some maintenance work as the lawn at the front.
Good question, though. What did he want?
"I want a lot of things, darling. I want Interpol and MI6 to decide I'm not such a terrible chap. I want Chelsea to win the FA cup and the Champions League. I want my left knee to not ache when it rains. I want to be able to eat chocolate and tomatoes without having a reflux attack. I want the exceptionally attractive young man I fucked senseless last night to call me back today so I can go fuck him senseless again tomorrow."
Kirill rolled his eyes. "Let me be more specific. What do you want from me?"
"The answer is no."
"At least let me tell you what it is I need your help with."
"There is no point. Whatever trouble you are in, I cannot assist."
"Can't, or won't?"
"Does it matter?"
"As a matter of fact, yes, it does. I mean, I don't go for all that 'honour among thieves' malarkey, but if you're going to give me the bum's rush, I'd much rather you didn't spin me a bloody line while you're doing it."
"I cannot help you," Kirill admitted. "My new employer has made it abundantly clear that I am on a very tight leash. If I help you to do something illegal, and they find out, they will send me back to the FSB. I'm sure you understand when I say I would rather that did not happen."
So, the other rumour his information man had told him was true. The FSB had let Kirill go, but that didn't mean he wasn't on their list of offenders. They probably wouldn't pursue him while he was in the States, but if he ever tried to set foot in Russia again, they would kill him the minute he crossed the border. Or maybe they would keep him alive, take him to Lubyanka or Lefortovo for a 'special interrogation' first. Whatever they did, it wouldn't be pretty, and would almost certainly end with his death.
"You can just say the CIA, mate. No need to be coy. I know that's who you're working for now."
"Then, you know how little leeway I have. I made a deal with them when they brought me out of Russia, and I have no intention of breaking my word. For Katenka's sake, as much as my own." He sighed and carefully lowered himself into one of the chairs. "But even if I could help you, I would not," he added.
"Because I am not involved in that kind of work anymore. I am trying to do better work. For better reasons. With better people."
"Am I not better people?"
Kirill snorted. "Not even remotely."
"I think you just hurt my feelings."
"That is surprising."
"Because I think you have very few feelings to hurt."
"Jesus Christ, mate, what the fuck happened to you?" Liam demanded. The last thing he wanted to hear right now was a pious, sanctimonious sermon, especially from someone as profane and immoral as Kirill. This was a man who'd once shagged a girl in the narthex of an Orthodox church. "You might think this new, improved Kirill's a better person, but he seems like a tedious fucking arsehole to me. Where's the old Kirill Orlov I knew and loved?" Or, at least, knew and sometimes appreciated, but the point was the same.
"He died in a car crash in a tunnel in Moscow. And you didn't love him," Kirill stiffly pointed out. "He was just a man you occasionally found useful to know. Just as he occasionally found you useful to know. Ruka ruku moyet, vor vora kroyet."
"Hands wash each other, a thief covers another thief," Liam murmured.
"Or, if you prefer the American version, you scratched his back and he scratched yours."
"When did it happen? The car crash, I mean."
"Just over two years ago."
The last time they'd met, the FSB had just put Kirill on a babysitting assignment. He'd still been a federal agent, but he'd been making a chunk of money on the side running 'errands' for Yuri Gretkov as well. Liam couldn't imagine how a setup that simple could go so horribly wrong, but given that Kirill was here in the States, and Gretkov had been murdered in prison before he'd even been brought up for trial, it must have been a clusterfuck of epic proportions. No wonder the FSB were leaving his old colleague alone—the higher-ups had no doubt realized the safest solution was to sweep the whole business very firmly under the rug and calmly move along.
"So, let me get this straight," he said. "You were working for Gretkov, but did or were involved in something that caught the Company's eye, so, when you had that crash, instead of leaving you somewhere to die, they took care of you, brought you back to the States, gave you protection and a job in return for you working for them, and promising to be a good boy? Is that what happened?"
"Not quite that simple, but more or less, yes."
For the first time in a very long time, Liam didn't know what to say. He was angry to lose such a useful aider and abettor, especially because he had actually been starting to think of him as a friend. But he was green with fucking envy as well. What he sometimes wouldn't give to receive a cushy offer like that, especially from an agency as powerful as the CIA. If the Company offered the same deal to him, the NIA would have to call off the hunt. And yes, he would trade one agency master for another, but given how well Kirill seemed to be doing under the CIA's care, how bad could that really be?
"Must be a bloody good job. What'd they do? Give you a secretary with tits like balloons and a fancy corner office?"
Maybe that explained the luxury Audi as well…
Kirill shook his head. "No secretary, and I work at a cubicle desk. The job is not great, but it is good enough."
"And how'd she happen?" Liam asked, pointing at the bedrooms above. "Because the last time we spoke, you were about as interested in marriage and fatherhood as you were in letting me sixty-nine you."
"William introduced us. She is the younger sister of his wife."
That answered another question he'd had. "So, you finally found him then? After you were brought back to the States?"
Kirill flashed a ghost of a smile. "It would be more accurate to say that William found me."
"And what's he like? Was I right? Is he as much of a sanctimonious arsehole as you?"
Liam jerked round as the door to the deck slid open again. To his surprise, it wasn't Kate, checking Kirill was still in one piece, but another man.
For a split-second, Liam almost panicked, until he realized the new arrival wasn't his lover from his SAS days, come to rip him several new ones at the same time for the Vega fiasco in New Orleans. Given his uncanny resemblance to Ty, who he'd already noted bore an uncanny resemblance to Kirill, there was only one person this new guy could be.
Speak of the devil, and he doth appear. The bastard's ears must have been burning.
William was shorter than Ty (both brothers were, but not by much), with longer sideburns and neater, more orthodox hair, but just as intimidating, and worryingly, just as well built. In fact, he looked so much like Ty that Liam was sure if he showed a stranger a photo of Ty and the Orlov boys together and asked them to pick out the two who were twins, Kirill probably wouldn't be one of the choices.
Liam flashed a disarming smile, then stuck out a hand for the new arrival to shake. "You must be William," he said.
William looked at the hand as if it was a festering shit. "Yeah, that's me," he said, in a way that managed to sound both calm and threatening at the same time. "And you are?"
"Liam Bell. I'm an old friend of your brother's."
To Kirill, in Russian, William said, "Is he really a friend?"
"No," Kirill replied in English. "He is someone I used to work with from time to time when I lived in Moscow. And he speaks Russian as well as you do."
"Might surprise you to know this, mate, but you're not the only person in the world with long-lost Russian relations," Liam explained, switching to Russian to make the point.
"You don't sound very Russian," William complained, going back to English again.
"That's because I'm not."
"Figured that. British, right?"
Liam nodded. "London born and bred."
"Little bit, yeah."
"Thames or Vauxhall?"
Meaning Thames House or Vauxhall Cross—MI5 or MI6—domestic or foreign intelligence service. For various reasons, that was a question Liam would rather not answer. "Ah, well, you see, that's complicated."
Kirill muttered, "But of course it is."
"Officially, I've never worked for either."
"What about unofficially?" William asked.
"Not sure I'm really allowed to tell you."
"Forgive me, Liam, but you don't strike me as the kind of guy who worries about what he's allowed to do."
Jesus. Right now, William reminded him so much of Ty it was scary. Not in terms of personality and mannerisms—William seemed contained and controlled, while Ty was restless legs in human form—but the 'don't fuck with me' attitude was exactly the same. He'd mentioned the military, so perhaps there was an obvious explanation for why that might be.
"William, by any chance, were you ever in the Marines?"
To his disquiet, William nodded. "Eight years, yeah."
"Force Recon, perhaps?"
Marine Embassy Security Guard. Not as difficult to make as Recon, but not an easy MOS by any means. It explained why William looked and carried himself like a man who knew what to do in a fight. He could probably kick all kinds of arses…
"Ever go anywhere interesting?" Liam asked.
"A few places, yeah. Austria, Israel, Japan, Peru, New Zealand, Yemen, Eritrea."
"Yemen?" Liam repeated. He let out an admiring whistle. "Rather you than me any day, mate. Been to a few shithole countries myself, but never much liked the look of that part of the world."
William shrugged and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Your loss. Has its fair share of problems, but it’s actually a beautiful place."
"And tell me, William, do you work for the CIA as well?"
"I do, yes."
"What kind of work?"
"It's complicated," William repeated, lips curling very slightly. "And I'm definitely not allowed to tell you."
Liam knew then that his trip was a bust. Given the time to make a convincing appeal, he might have been able to persuade Kirill to help him, if only as a last hurrah for old times' sake, but if William was now his younger brother's Langley-appointed keeper, he had less than a snowball's chance in hell of securing the assistance he needed.
"Must be something in your genes. Intelligence work, that is." Liam smirked, suddenly feeling witty and clever. "Don't suppose your mum or dad was in the business as well?"
Kirill groaned, William visibly bristled. Too late, Liam remembered the story behind the brothers' separation. Which meant a casual remark about mum and dad was very much the wrong thing to say.
"Why are you here?" William asked, just as coldly as his brother before him.
"Like I said, I'm an old friend of Kirill's. I was in the area, decided to stop in and say hello, see how Kirill was doing."
"Except that nobody's supposed to know where Kirya lives."
"Ah, yes, well, about that…"
"And I don't think you give a shit about how he's doing."
"He does not," Kirill quietly added.
That was the moment Liam realized he couldn't have been more wrong. Two-and-a-bit years might have passed, but Kirill was even more of an arsehole now than he'd ever been before.
Two could play the arsehole game. He wasn't about to take this Orlov bullshit lying down.
"Never mind me," Liam shot back at William. "Why the fuck are you here? And please, don't tell me you were just in the neighbourhood as well. If you're not buying it from me, I'm bloody well not buying it from you. I don't care if you live at the other sodding end of the street."
"I'm here because Catherine called me," William revealed.
Kirill groaned and swore under his breath.
Catherine. That must be Kate. The pregnant girlfriend supposedly looking at nursery colours upstairs.
William looked to his twin. "When the two of you bought this place, I told her that if anyone ever turned up at the door looking for you, and they made her spidey senses tingle, no matter how slightly, she should give me a call, and I would be here as soon as I could." His gaze moved to Liam. "She called me six minutes ago, panicking, told me her spidey senses were tingling all the way up to eleven." He sneered slightly. "She's not in our line of business, Liam, I mean, she heals people for a living, but even she knows you're a piece of shit."
Liam glanced up, looking for movement or a shadow at the back bedroom window.
"Don't worry, she's not listening in," William told him. To Kirill, he said, "When she called, we'd just collected the kids from the pool, so we drove straight here. When I came into the house, I sent her out to sit in the car with Mike. She's angry and worried, but perfectly safe."
Kirill sighed and cradled his head with his hand. Someone was obviously going to be in a spot of trouble later—no hanky-panky in the Orlov bedroom tonight.
"When I got out of the car, I gave my phone to my wife, with my contacts at three different government agencies on speed dial and ready to go," William revealed, addressing Liam again. "I told her to hit the button and call all three if I wasn't back at the car in ten minutes." He glanced at his watch. "Been almost four minutes already, so I'm gonna ask you one more time, why are you here?"
Liam sighed. He knew he was fast. He could maybe take Kirill, especially if he went for the leg. He could probably take William as well. MESG marines were good, but they were no match for the Special Air Service. What he couldn't do, not even on his best day, was take both of them together.
There was only one way out of this mess that wouldn't end with his face smashed into the wall—tell them what they wanted to hear, tuck his tail between his legs, and head straight for the bloody door.
"I'm in a spot of bother, and I need some help," Liam admitted.
William snorted. "It must be something they teach you in the British armed forces."
"That phrase. I know an ex-Navy guy in MI6 who says it as well. First time I heard him use it, he'd accidentally spilled printer toner all over the floor. Second time I heard him use it, a few minutes later, some fucker with an M05 put a goddamn bullet in me."
Liam shrugged. "What can I say? Subtle understatement's one of our national talents. Not like you Yanks, swinging your poxy dicks in everyone's faces, insisting everything American's automatically the greatest, biggest, bestest bloody thing in the world."
"Not sure you have a right to complain about Americans swinging their dicks in people's faces," Kirill drily pointed out. "From what you have told me about your personal habits, you are quite fond of doing that yourself."
"Especially the poxy part," William muttered.
Liam had heard enough. He was totally, utterly, fucking done.
"You know what? I think Kirill was right," he said to William.
"Back when we were working together, I told him you must have inherited all the good Orlov genes, because it wasn't possible for anyone to be even more of an arsehole than him."
"I was wrong. I mean, he is an arsehole, so not about that, but you're so much more of a fucking arsehole, you make him look like the bloody Pope in comparison."
As cool as ice, William looked at his watch. "Five minutes," he said.
"Okay, fine," Liam said, feeling his jaw clench and his blood pressure soar. "I've got some people after me, and I'm running low on places to hide. I was hoping Kirill might be willing and able to lend me a hand."
"Who's after you?"
William narrowed his eyes. "That's bad," was all he said.
"Why are they after you?" Kirill wanted to know.
Strange that neither man had asked him what the NIA was, which meant either they already knew, or they simply didn't care. Given who their employer was, Liam's money was on the former. "They think I killed my handler," he said.
"Did you?" William asked.
"The only way the NIA'll take you off its kill list is if you give them the person who really did it."
"I know. I'm working on it."
Kirill said, "Are we allowed to ask who really did it?"
"You ever heard of the Vega cartel?"
Now it was William's turn to let out a low whistle. "Jesus, Bell, you really pissed off the wrong people, there," he murmured. "And good luck with clearing your name, if you need to take down the Vega cartel to do it. I would say I'm glad I'm not you, but given what an asshole you are, that probably goes without saying."
"Go fuck yourself William, there's a good chap."
"I'm guessing from what you said a few minutes ago that you can't go back to the British for help."
"Yes, well, technically, when I left their employ, they sort of knew I was leaving, but I didn't exactly obtain their full, written permission."
William snorted. "So, technically, as far as the SAS is concerned, you're a deserter."
There was more to it than that, of course. He thought he'd been making the right decision at the time, but now, in hindsight, almost a decade later, he wasn't so sure. Not for the first time, he wondered where he would be right now if, like Ty, he'd simply refused the NIA's offer.
"So, can you guys help me or not?" he asked, looking from one brother to the other.
William checked his watch again. "Let's go inside. If we're gonna talk, we shouldn't do it outdoors."
"What, you worried someone might be listening in?"
William blew out an impatient sigh. "Liam, do you know why Kate and Kirill decided to buy this particular house?"
"Good transport links and a daycare at the end of the road?"
"Partly that, but also because this part of McLean is literally the CIA's back yard."
"Which means half the people who live on this street are Company employees as well. And not the kind of employees who clean the johns or run the canteen. The kind of employees who work with highly classified information, and who need to know their homes are secure. There are so many cameras watching this block, even the squirrels don't come into the gardens to steal the nuts. So, yeah, you bet your ass I'm worried someone might be listening in."
And every one of those cameras would have logged him approaching the house. With his own uncovered head and clean-shaven, undisguised face. From a car he couldn't afford to burn.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
He followed the brothers into the house, through to the living room at the front.
William went to the window to peek out the blinds. When he turned back a few seconds later, he said, "I'm sorry, but neither of us can give you somewhere to hide."
"Any particular reason?"
"Mostly because it's too much of a risk for Kirill," William said, nodding at his twin. "He can't afford to be caught doing something he shouldn’t, especially for someone on the run from the NIA."
"Do you have any contacts who can?"
"I do, but I don't know you well enough to send you to them."
"Kirill can vouch for me."
A declaration that made Kirill snort.
"Actually, he can't," William said. "He doesn't know the contacts himself, and yes, he's my brother, but for the people I'm talking about, that's not enough. They'd probably accept me vouching for him, but until they get to know him better, they won't accept him vouching for you."
"If you can't help me to lie low for a while, is there any chance you could lend me some cash?" Liam asked. More giving than lending—he didn't plan on ever being in a place or position to pay the loan back.
"That depends. How much do you want?"
"Five grand? Ten if you have it?"
William looked at Kirill, who shrugged and said, "We have it, but after what I did in December, Katenka has been watching the safe like a hawk. She will notice the money is gone."
"Take whatever you're comfortable with," William instructed. "If Kate's really pissed that it's gone, tell her to give me a call, I'll back you up."
Kirill nodded and jogged up the stairs that presumably led to wherever the safe was installed.
Liam briefly considered trying to make some small-talk with William while they waited for Kirill to return, took one look at the murderous expression on the older twin's face, and decided that 'Silence Is Golden' was occasionally a good rule to obey.
Kirill was back less than a minute later. As he arrived, William glanced at his watch. "Three minutes left."
Kirill held the money out—from the looks of it, a new bundle of Grants. But that was only five grand, not ten.
"Thought you said you had ten."
"We do, but William said to take whatever I was comfortable with, and I am not willing to give you the full amount."
"You always were a cheap date. Can't remember a single time when we went out for drinks and you picked up the tab."
"Usually because then, as now, you were in a situation where you needed my help." Kirill wagged the bundle of money at him. "Five grand. Take it or leave it."
Five grand was a decent amount, but it wouldn't take him as far as he wanted to go. "Don't suppose I have much choice, do I?" Liam muttered, reaching to take the pack.
William's hand shot out to grab his arm around the wrist. "Before you take it, let's discuss the conditions."
Why, why, why were there always bloody conditions? Why could nobody ever do something nice for him out of the goodness of their own hearts? He rarely (if ever) did that himself, but surely that wasn't the point? Sighing, he made a 'continue' gesture.
"Condition one," William started. "You walk out the door, forget you ever came to this house, forget where Kirill lives, and that Kirill even exists. No talking about him to other people. No contacting him, no following him, no watching him, no tapping his emails or calls, and do not, I repeat, do not even think about Kate. Got it?"
Liam nodded. He got it. He had no intention of ever darkening Kirill and Kate's doorstep again, so, as conditions went, this one wouldn't be too hard to live with.
"Condition two. I need to know the name of the guy who gave you Kirill's address."
But this one would. "Sorry, mate. Can't do that. You know how it works. Snitches get stitches and wind up in ditches."
William snatched the bundle of money. "Then I guess you can pay your own way." He nodded at the front door. "As a professional courtesy, from one ex-soldier to another, I'll give you a fifteen minute head start before I start making my calls."
"You wouldn't dare."
William stepped in so close Liam could almost tell what brand of toothpaste he used. "Try me," he murmured.
Jesus Christ. What the hell was it about ex-Marines? Not so much as an ounce of sanity, modesty, restraint, common sense or bloody prudence between them.
"You're asking me to give up a source."
"Would it help if I told you I'm not gonna kill him?"
"Not even remotely."
"This isn't a negotiation, Bell. Either you give me that name, or you leave here as poor as when you arrived, with three federal agencies hot on your tail."
Liam huffed. "Fine. His name's Eddie. Eddie Holland. And that's all I'm saying."
"That's all I need."
William held out the packet of money. Liam grabbed the other end, but William refused to let go. "Just so you know, Bell, you break your word, you tell someone where Kirill lives and there's any kind of fallout from it, I will can in every goddamn favour I have to find you. And a lot of people owe me favours. A lot of very useful people, in places like Interpol, and CSIS, and DGSE, and MI6. You piss me off, you might want to think about moving to North Korea or Russia, cus that's literally gonna be the only goddamn places on earth your sorry ass'll be safe. You understand?"
Liam rolled his eyes so hard he almost saw his brain. "Quite the little drama queen, aren't you, Billy? Can see why your mum chose to keep you instead of your runt of a brother. You must have been the closest thing she had to a daughter."
He never saw the fist coming.
It punched him hard in the solar plexus, making him grunt in pain and driving the air right out of his chest, then grabbed him firmly by the throat. Squeezing with just enough pressure to stop what little air was left in his lungs from flowing, William pulled him close. "Did nobody ever tell you that you sound a lot nicer when you shut the fuck up?" he said. "If you want to leave this house with your throat in one piece and your balls still attached, I recommend you choose your next words with care." Warning delivered, he loosened his grip.
Liam jerked back, coughing slightly, smoothing his ruffled jacket back into place. "Easy, darling. No need to get so hot and bothered under the collar. Just having a bit of fun."
"This may be fun to you, Bell, but your behaviour is putting the people I love at risk, and I really don't like that." William checked the time again. "Ninety seconds left. Time to shit or get off the pot."
Liam sighed and gestured for William to give him the money. "I won't even think Kirill's name. I promise."
William carefully scanned his face, no doubt looking for signs of deceit, then nodded curtly and threw him the cash. "Now get the fuck out of my brother's house and don't ever come back."
For once, Liam was happy to do exactly as he was told. The sooner he put a hundred miles between him and the Orlov brothers, the happier and more relaxed he would be. He strode to the door and pulled it open.
He couldn't bring himself to leave without a witty departing remark. Smiling, he turned to Kirill and said, "Good luck with the whole parenthood thing. I would tell you you're going to have the time of your life, but I think I'd be lying out of my arse. A year from now, you'll be the one begging me for somewhere to hide."
He flashed them an insouciant grin and left as smoothly as he'd arrived.
They stood at the window, shoulder to shoulder, watching Liam jog down the street.
Until Kirill remembered the stopwatch was running. "Don't you need to contact Michelle?" he said. "Let her know the problem is solved, ask her to cancel making those calls?"
William shook his head. "I was bluffing. We're fine."
"Well played, brat."
"That's what I thought."
Kirill let out a tiny huff. "But I think I should also feel slightly insulted, that you were not actually willing to summon the government cavalry on my behalf."
"Kir, if it was any other day of the year, I'd have been happy to call out the Army, Navy and National Guard, but not today."
William turned to raise his brows at him. "You do remember what day it is?"
"The seventeenth of March."
"Day, dummy, not date."
Kirill racked his brain. What the fuck was so special about today? He groaned as the answer finally came. "It is St. Patrick's Day." An event he would normally mark in a bar, over a well-pulled pint of his favourite beer.
"All the guys I know who could help are of Irish-American descent. Or, at least, they claim to be. They'll all be in the nearest Irish bar, using that terrible chat-up line about having some Irish in you, wearing stick-on leprechaun hats and drinking pints of Guinness and Harp."
Kirill let out a disconsolate sigh. "What I would not give for a pint of Guinness right now," he muttered. Or even a pint of Harp, for that matter. Just saying the word 'Guinness' out loud made his neglected liver ache.
"Kate still making you stay off the sauce?"
"She says it is because the smell of alcohol makes her sick, but I know it is because of what I did in December."
William shrugged. "If that's the worst punishment she's handing out, take it, and count yourself lucky," He flashed a mischievous grin. "Seven months without vodka and beer'll do your liver the world of good."
"Liver, yes. Emotional stability, no."
The sound of a car engine starting made them turn to the window again. A hundred yards or so down the street, a blue Honda Civic pulled out from the curb and carefully drove away.
"You think Bell's gonna keep his word?" William asked.
Kirill nodded. "I think so, yes."
"I'm not so sure, but you know him much better than me."
"That is not difficult, since you don't know him at all."
"He would have to be a monumental idiot to ignore your conditions."
"Makes you say that?"
"He is on the NIA's kill list, and the only way he can prove his innocence is by taking down the Vega cartel. His life will be complicated enough for the next few months or years as it is without you gunning for him as well."
"You'd think that, but I'm worried he's the type of guy who fucks with people, not because he has a good reason, but just because he can."
"A scorpion," Kirill murmured.
"An old folk story babushka Maria once told me. A scorpion is at the side of a river. He cannot swim, so he asks a frog to carry him across. The frog refuses, because he thinks the scorpion will sting him. The scorpion points out that if the frog dies, he will drown. The frog agrees to carry the scorpion. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog cries out 'But why? Now you will die as well!'. As they are drowning, the scorpion shrugs and says 'It is just my nature.'"
"You think he's gonna try to sting us, even though it might get him killed?"
Kirill had done a couple of jobs with the man, so knew it was deeper and more complex than that. "Yes, but the sad part is, he will not even realize what he is doing. A man like Liam, he stings as easily and automatically as he breathes. It is not simply in his nature. It is deep in his soul as well."
"You really know how to pick 'em, don't you?" William wrily said.
Kirill shrugged again. "One does one's best."
"You think he'll be able to take down the Vega cartel?"
"I did not know him very well as a person, but I do know he is an extremely talented and determined man, so yes, I think he eventually will. But it may not solve his problems as well as he thinks."
William nodded. "Taking the cartel down will get the NIA off his back, but depending on how cleanly he does it, he could end up being hunted by a bunch of pissed-off Vega henchmen instead."
"Iz ognya da v polymya," Kirill murmured.
"Out of the frying pan, into the fire, exactly."
"Whatever happens, Liam will likely survive."
"Not a scorpion so much as a salamander, right?"
"You do realize that is a myth?" Kirill said. "And that salamanders are no more fireproof than you are?"
William huffed. "Don't ruin my philosophical moment."
Kirill hesitated for a few moments before speaking again. "Viko, can I ask an awkward question?"
"Is it a question about my sex life?"
"Of course not."
"Is it a question about your sex life?"
"What exactly is the NIA? Some people at work have mentioned it, but nobody will actually talk about it. Most of the people in my team don't believe it even exists, so I only have rumours and hearsay to go on."
"What do the rumours say?"
"That it is a toothless, useless, bureaucratic arm of the CIA that nobody in their right mind loses any sleep over."
William sighed. "Unfortunately, it does exist and these days, it's far from useless."
"What does it do?"
"It's basically a paramilitary organization. It only recruits ex-military types, even for the back office roles, and the field guys are almost all ex-special forces. It deals with the dark and black ops the CIA either can't or won't do."
"Is it legal?"
"Not even remotely. It used to be pretty well-contained, had a fairly limited brief, but in the last few years, it seems to have developed a mind and a life of its own. Last I heard, the people up on the seventh floor are so worried about what it's becoming, they're looking for the slightest excuse to shut it down."
"Did they ever try to recruit you? The NIA, I mean?"
William nodded. "Once, a few years ago."
"Told them to take a hike."
"Not what you want to do?"
William shook his head. "God knows we have enough problems as it is trying to keep everyone in the CIA on the right side of the law"—he held up surrendering hands—"and yes, before you say anything bitchy, I know I haven't always kept to the right side myself. Last thing the Company needs is a covert, black ops, assassination division." He snorted slightly. "Or rather, another covert, black ops, assassination division. Christ knows Treadstone and Blackbriar were bad enough."
Now Kirill knew all the facts, an interesting comparison came to mind. "Would it be fair to say the NIA is the Zaslon of the CIA?" he asked, thinking back on the time he'd spent in the SVR's officially non-existent special ops unit.
"I guess it would, yeah."
Which gave him another potential problem to worry about. "Do you think the NIA will try to tap me?"
"I doubt it," William said. "They'd probably love to have someone with your knowledge and skills, but the fact you learned them in Spetsnaz instead of a special forces unit they trust makes you too much of a risk."
"I am too old for that kind of work now anyway."
"Speak for yourself."
Kirill huffed an impatient sigh. This was one topic he knew much more about than his brother. "Viko, have you ever been a black ops or wet work asset?"
"Not in the usual sense, no."
"Well, I have. And if you had, you would know it is a younger man's job."
William smirked. "Too hard on the hips and knees?"
"And eventually on the soul as well."
"Bell seems to be managing fine."
"Bell doesn't have a soul."
"Won't argue with you there."
"You should let Nigel know Bell was here," Kirill suggested. He wondered if Nigel knew who Bell was. But if he didn't, some of the people he worked for almost certainly would.
"Yeah, I was thinking that. As a professional courtesy, of course."
Out in the street, somebody parped a horn.
William grinned. "That'll be Mike and Kate, wondering what the hell's going on." He made for the door. "You stay here, I'll send Kate home, tell her everything's fine."
"She is going to rip my balls off again." And he'd only just recovered from having them painfully torn to shreds over the Venezuela affair. Not that he hadn't deserved it, of course. And, if he was being honest, he probably deserved it again today.
"Just remember, if she's angry, it's because she's scared," William said. "This'll be the second incident she's had to deal with in the last four months. She needs to know it's not gonna be a regular thing."
"That makes two of us."
William's expression softened. "Don't worry, brat. You might not believe it right now, but it's eventually gonna be okay." He pushed the latch down and pulled the door open.
"Thank you," Kirill quietly said. "If you had not turned up, I am honestly not sure how the situation with Bell would have ended."
"Probably with one or both of you bleeding."
"Hopefully, not with the two of you having sex," William drily added.
Kirill wrinkled his nose. "There is an image neither of us needs."
"You need anything else?" William asked, brows slightly raised. "Safe for me to leave?"
"We are good for now. Say 'hi' to Mike and the kids."
While he waited for Kate to return, Kirill trudged up the stairs, heading for the smallest of the upper level's three rooms.
He scanned the space, taking in the unopened roll of soft-fibre carpet, the sampler pots of paint carefully packed on a tray near the wall, the antique rocking chair in the corner and the boxes of various sizes and shapes full of furnishings and supplies, trying to be calm about the fact that, three-and-a-half to four months from now, the bedroom would have a baby in it.
His daughter or son.
He wasn't ready. He was trying to be, for Katenka's sake, but he wasn't sure he could do it. What if the baby arrived, and he couldn't summon any paternal feelings for it? What if, when he held it for the first time, instead of fatherly love, he felt only disgust? Or, even worse, felt nothing at all? How long would his attempt at fatherhood last before everyone, including Michelle, realized Kate and the child would fare much better without him? And what would that do to his relationship with his twin? Would his failure to be a good father drive him and William apart all over again? For obvious reasons, absent fathers weren't exactly William's favourite people…
And what if the child was a girl? What the fuck would he even do with a daughter? He at least had half an idea what to do with a son—stuff like soccer, hockey, hunting and cars. What the hell did a former assassin know about ballet, ponies, makeup and dolls, and whatever the hell else it was that little girls did?
Although, Tatiana was a girl, and William seemed to have figured her out. Yes, he bought her dolls, and yes, he took her to ballet lessons, but to monster truck shows and karate lessons as well.
And at least they were only having one. He wondered how their own father had felt when he'd discovered their mother was having two. Had he welcomed the news with open arms, or also wanted to run for the hills?
His hands and fingers started to tingle. Something was making a strange buzzing sound, and was it awfully hot in here, or was it just him?
His legs felt weak, his mouth was dry, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't seem to take a deep breath.
Oh, God. Not again.
He only just made it to the rocking chair in the corner before his legs completely gave out.
This was his third panic attack this year. Or anxiety attack. Or whatever the fuck it was his useless body was currently doing. Katenka would probably know, but he hadn't wanted to ask her for help. Between her job, buying the house, him trying to run away and finding out she was having a baby, she had enough on her plate as it was. She didn't need him adding his stupid emotional problems on top.
It was ridiculous that he was even having these moments at all. He'd spent ten years doing one of the world's riskiest and most deadly jobs, and the worst he'd ever had to deal with was a light case of the stomach flutters. Why did the prospect of becoming a father reduce him to a sweating, shaking, blubbering mess, when jumping out the back end of a plane at twenty-five thousand feet had barely even made him blink?
He focused on trying to breathe the problem away. In slowly through the nose, out slowly through the mouth. It seemed to be working, until he looked at the wall, which was covered in small patches of paint in various shades of yellow and green. The samples Kate had applied over the last couple of weeks, trying to decide which colour to use in the room. Before his brain went into fight-or-flight mode, he decided he liked the pale, mossy green in the top, right corner the most. It reminded him of one of the herbs his mother had grown on the veranda of the Berlin apartment.
"Kir, where are you?" he heard Kate call out.
His chest was so tight and his mouth so dry he could barely speak. "Nursery," he managed to croak.
Ten seconds later, she appeared at the door, shoulders hunched, tight-lipped, no doubt ready and willing to rip him a new one about the visit from Liam Bell. As she saw him, her eyes went wide and the tension flooded away. "Oh, God, are you okay?" she asked, peeling out of her coat and rushing over to kneel in front of the chair.
He couldn't speak, but managed to shake his head.
"Are you having a panic attack?"
"It's okay, it's okay," she murmured. "Just focus on breathing deeply. Follow my count." She held up her fingers to count them down, giving his brain the distraction it needed. "Breathe in through your nose." One by one, her fingers went down. "Now out through your mouth." One by one, her fingers went up.
She ran through the cycle again. Gradually, his racing pulse slowed, and the numbness and dizziness passed.
"Better?" she asked.
He still couldn't speak, but managed a nod.
"Keep your head forward for a few minutes. Don't try to lean back or stand up just yet." She reached up to tenderly smooth down his hair. "Is this because of what just happened with Liam?"
He nodded mutely again.
"I spoke to William when he came back to the car. He told me everything had been sorted out, that Liam was gone and wouldn't come back. He said there was nothing to worry about."
He tried to speak, but it came out as a choking sob.
Jesus. What the fuck was wrong with him? Why the hell was he on the verge of completely falling apart?
She frowned and laid her hands on his knees. "It's not just Liam, though, is it? You didn't think this would ever happen, and now that it has, you're worried it might happen again."
He licked his lips and took a deep breath. Finally, he found his voice. "When I lived in Moscow, I knew and worked with many people like Liam. He is not a good man, but he is not the worst of those former associates, either. Not by a very long way."
"So, now you're worried that if Liam was able to find you, even after all this time, then one of those other former associates might be able to find you as well. And that their visit might not end on such peaceful terms."
He nodded, feeling his throat close up again.
She shifted position to sit cross-legged. "Kir, I, uh, I think I need to ask you a difficult question."
"What question is that?"
"When you tried to run away in December,"—she paused—"was it really because you were feeling totally overwhelmed, and terrified of becoming a father? Or, was there something else to it?"
She'd accepted his excuse at the time, but she wasn't stupid. She'd probably spent the last three months going over the events of that day again and again, trying to decide if the explanation he'd told her was true, or if he'd had some deeper, darker reason for reacting the way he did. His instinct at the time had been to tell her the truth—she deserved nothing less—but William, fearing the fallout that confession might bring, had persuaded him to stick to a cleaner and less troubling story.
But William wasn't here now.
"There was something else to it," Kirill confessed.
Anger briefly flashed in her eyes. "Was it because you were worried about what might happen if someone bad from your past ever came looking for you?"
"You figured if you were on your own, they could only get to you, but if you were living here, they could get to me and the baby as well?"
He couldn't answer her question out loud—even thinking about someone harming her or their child made him want to be sick—so, he simply nodded again.
"Kir…"—she paused, sighed and scrubbed her face—"You've never told me much about your years in Russia, and I know that's because they weren't happy years, and you're trying to leave the past in the past. I get that. Really, I do. But now, after what just happened with Liam, I feel like not knowing much about your old life means I don't have the information I need to make good decisions." She took one of his hands in hers. "So I have to ask, what did you do when you were living in Russia, that you're scared of who might show up at our door?"
A question with an unpalatable answer. But however hard it would be for her to hear, if they were going to make it as a couple, she needed to hear it. Maybe not the full, brutal, uncensored truth—as strong as she was, even she could only handle so much—but a sincere and honest version of it. He didn't want to repeat his father's mistakes, which meant no trying to build a relationship on a foundation of secrets and lies, but he didn't want to scare her off, either.
"You know that I previously worked for two different Russian security and intelligence services?"
She nodded. "The FSB and the SVR, right."
"And before that, I was special forces for almost ten years."
"Spetsnaz, yeah. You told me something about that already." She furrowed her brows. "But those were all government jobs, right?"
"More or less, yes."
"So, why would any of them cause problems for you to the extent you thought had to run away to protect us? I mean, I can only imagine what kind of work a group like Spetsnaz does, but it can't be any worse than Delta or the Green Berets. And I know from what Michelle told me about her time in Moscow that the FSB isn't the nicest bunch of people, but they're still a Russian law enforcement agency, right? Not some secret terrorist organization."
"The FSB is the domestic security service. The Russian equivalent of the FBI."
She threw up her hands. "So, what's the problem?"
"The problem is that I harmed people, Katenka." He stuck with 'harmed', because it sounded simple and clean, unlike 'terrorized' or 'murdered' or 'killed'. "Mostly on orders, but sometimes…"—he forced himself to be honest—"sometimes just because I could."
Her eyes went wide, and she moved away slightly. "What kind of people?" she murmured.
"When it was orders, inconvenient people."
"You mean, like, political opponents?"
He nodded. "People Putin and his friends considered enemies of the state."
"Like that journalist woman. The one who was shot."
"Anna Politkovskaya, yes."
And Alexander Litvinenko, and Artyom Borovik, and Stanislav Markelov, and Sergei Yushenkov, and Anastasia Baburova, and Sergei Magnitsky, and Natalia Estemirova—the list of victims went on and on.
"And when it was just because you could?"
Cheeks flushing with shame, he dropped his gaze to the floor. "Whoever happened to get in my way."
Another question with an unpalatable answer he wasn't sure he was ready to face. "I… I don't really know," he said. "Because it made people scared of me. Because it made me rich. Because it gave me power. Because I could. Because nobody ever tried to stop me. Because nobody ever told me I shouldn't."
"Those are all absolutely lousy excuses," she said. "That last one, especially. If your reason for hurting people is that nobody ever told you you shouldn't, you need to go look at yourself in the mirror, and think very hard about what kind of person you are."
"Katenka… that is the problem. I was never deceiving myself. I always knew exactly what kind of person I was."
"A flaming asshole, from the sounds of it."
"If there is an asshole scale, I was all the way up to the top."
She fell silent for a few moments, then said, "But you've changed, right? You're not doing that now?"
"Yes, and no. I am just a translator, now. No harming people, I give you my word."
"Tell me more about Liam," she said.
"What do you want to know?"
"Where and when did the two of you meet?"
"In Moscow, three-and-a-half years ago."
He shook his head. "In a bar, of all things." He smirked, remembering what had gotten the two of them talking. "I looked like someone he knew."
"But he's British, right? Not Russian?"
He nodded. "But he did not work for the British government. By the time I met him, he was more of an… an independent consultant instead."
Her face turned to stone. "You mean he's a hitman."
"I am sure he would prefer the term assassin, but yes."
She blew out a sigh. "Should I even ask what kind of work the two of you did together?"
"It is not what you think. Apart from one job, I mostly sold equipment to him."
"What was the job?"
"We blew up a bridge in Ukraine."
"Why the hell'd you do that?"
"To settle a territorial issue between two drug-running gangs." He waved her emerging question away. "Don't ask. It was complicated."
"Where'd you get the equipment you sold him? You steal it from work?"
"Sometimes, when it was a small order, yes. For larger orders, I put him in touch with local suppliers instead."
"I thought the FSB was supposed to be law enforcement."
"Then, why the hell were you doing business with local suppliers?" She made air quotes around the last word, letting him know she knew exactly what kind of people he really meant.
"Katenka, the FSB is not like the FBI. It is supposed to be law enforcement, but it is also completely corrupt. It has its fingers in every dodgy racket in town. Half the men at the Lubyanka do business with the suppliers as well."
"Don't they worry that they're breaking the law?"
"In Russia, they are the law."
She sighed again. "Not like there isn't corruption in the CIA."
"There is, but to nowhere near the same scale. The CIA has its faults, but as far as I know, it is not in bed with organized crime."
She snorted. '"I dunno. Sometimes I kinda think the CIA is the organized crime."
Given the stolen Pekos seed money, the Treadstone affair and the NIA, he couldn't really say she was wrong...
"What made you change?" she asked next.
He frowned at her. "What do you mean?"
"You said you were an asshole all the way to the top of the scale, right?"
"And you're not an asshole now," she said. "I mean, you have your moments, don't get me wrong, but they usually only warrant a three out of ten. A four at the very most. Never an eleven."
"Thank you. I think."
Her smile was the purest and loveliest thing he'd seen all day. "So, what made you change?" she asked again.
"Finding William did."
Even thinking about the moment of their reunion again made a shiver run up his spine. The wave of emotion that had threatened to drown him when a pale-faced, tight-lipped, trembling William had appeared in his hospital room—a roiling, seething, tumultuous blend of shock, surprise, disbelief, anger, joy, love and shame—was something he never wanted to deal with again. By the end of that day, the old Kirill—the man who'd harmed people because he could, because nobody had ever told him he shouldn't—had turned to dust in the wind.
"Funny how family works," she murmured, taking his hand in hers again. She turned it over to stroke the jagged scar on his palm—the result of trying to block a Dagestani knife with his hand. "Sometimes, they're the people who drive you away. Sometimes, they're the people who turn on the light that brings you in from the storm."
For him, William had been the latter. "Viko gave me a reason to be a better person. And Michelle." Even more so than William, if he was being honest. He'd been a complete and total stranger to her, but her support for him, her belief in him, had never wavered so much as an inch. "Then later, you too."
She let go of his hand. "What about the baby?" she asked, gently patting her stomach. "Can you be a better person for it, as well?"
"I am trying to be." He leaned forward to gently rest his forehead on hers. "It is just an awful lot to take in."
"Not exactly a walk in the park for me, either. Not like this baby was planned."
The flush returned to his cheeks. He had to remember the uncertainty he was feeling about the future impacted her as much as him. "I’m sorry," he murmured. "I didn't mean to be selfish. I know it has been hard for you, too."
"Is there anything in particular that's worrying you?"
Another awkward moment of truth. "To be honest, I am most worried about how I will feel when the baby is born."
"What do you mean?"
"When I hold it for the first time, what if"—he sighed, frustrated he couldn't quite put his thoughts into words—"what if I don't feel the right thing?"
"What do you think it is you should feel?"
She snickered and kissed him. "Kirill, honey, I'm a Physician Assistant, and yeah, I work in an emergency room, not in obstetrics, but you'd be amazed by how many women in labour we've had to deal with over the last couple of years, so I've attended my fair share of births."
"And trust me when I say the reaction most men seem to have when that baby pops out isn't love. It's fear."
She nodded. "Pure, unadulterated fear. Especially once the baby's been weighed and dressed, and you hand it to them, and they realize they're stuck with it for the next twenty years, and there's no going back. I mean, the love follows pretty quickly, but the births I attended? Silent panic's always what I saw first."
"So, it is not just me."
"It's not just you." She patted his knee. "You know, if you need some support, the person you should really talk to is Will. He'll probably deny it, but Michelle said he was a mess when Andrew was born."
"Really?" That didn't seem like the William he knew—mister cool, calm and collected himself.
"The only time she's ever seen him go completely to pieces. Said he got so bad at one point, the doctor offered to drug him for her."
"Suddenly, I feel much better."
"Good." She held up a warning finger. "And just so you know, I don't mind if you go to pieces when I'm in labour, or even if you faint, as long as you don't crack your head open on the way down, but do not under any circumstances try to tell me what to do. Our baby's birth is not going to be a military operation."
"I promise that if I give any orders, it will be silently, and to myself."
A plaintive, high-pitched wail from downstairs cut into the conversation.
Something pitter-pattered towards them. A few seconds later, Morana appeared at the door. She looked at Kate, blinked twice, then looked at Kirill, probably trying to decide which of her two puny humans was most deserving of her attention. Wailing again, she ran to the chair and leaped onto Kirill's knees. He winced as she started to knead, digging her razor-sharp claws straight into his legs.
"Somebody wants fed," Kate said.
Except he'd fed her barely three hours ago. "Somebody is shit out of luck."
"Can't believe how much she loves you."
"She loves her daddy, it seems."
"Baby's gonna love her daddy as well." Eyes wide, Kate's hand flew up to her mouth. "Oh, shit. I wasn't supposed to say that."
Every cell in his body froze. "We are having a girl?"
She smiled softly. "Yeah, we are."
"How do you know? When we went to the ultrasound appointment, we told the doctor not to tell us."
"One of the fourth-year medical students was in tears on Thursday, cus she realized she hadn't checked an abdominal ultrasound off her procedures list. I, uh, I kinda volunteered to let her do one on me, so she wouldn't miss out on the marks."
"She scanned the baby?"
Kate nodded. "She didn't know I hadn't found out what we were having, so she told me straight up I was expecting a girl."
"And is the baby okay?"
"Strong heart, one head, two arms, two legs, ten fingers, ten toes."
A daughter. Bozhe moi.
Still holding Morana, he leaned back in the chair, fingers tingling again, trying to calmly absorb the news.
"Kir, are you okay?" Kate asked.
He swallowed, clenched and unclenched his hands, took a deep breath and leaned forward again. Disturbed by the motion, Morana grumbled and jumped away. "I think so, yes."
"Are you sure? Cus you have that look on your face again."
"This kinda pinched look, I guess? Like you're thinking about packing your bags and running away to join the French Foreign Legion."
"I am not thinking about running away, I promise." He kissed her gently on the head. "And certainly not to join the French Foreign Legion."
"What, the Frenchies not good enough for you?"
"Katenka, La Légion is for old women and frightened children." He wrinkled his nose. "And they wear the silliest hats."
"Not sure anyone who once served in the Russian Army has a right to complain about silly hats."
"Russian hats are very manly."
"Manly. Sure. Let's go with that."
He gestured at the patches of paint on the wall. "Speaking of things being manly or not, if we know we are having a girl, does that mean we need to start with colours again? This time, in shades of pink?"
"Thought about that, but I'm not really a fan of pink. I was leaning towards one of the greens."
"I like the one in the top, right corner."
She peered at the square. "That one's called Kiwi, I think. I like the one two below it. It's called Relish."
"Does not look like any kind of relish I know."
"It's just a name."
He sighed, resigning himself to relish-toned walls. At least it was a good Russian food. Kiwi, not so much. "If it is what you want, it is what we will use. I can go to the store to buy the tins tomorrow."
"Speaking of names…"
"What about them?"
"Knowing we're having a girl got me making some lists."
"And, you know I said I wanted to use a name from my side of the family tree?"
A fair request, in his opinion. He'd expressed a hope they could use a name that also existed in Russian—something to go with Kirillovich or Kirillovna—but other than that, he hadn't imposed too many conditions. It wasn't that he didn't care, he just didn't think he had much right to complain when she was the one who would have to give birth.
"You mentioned that, yes. You were thinking of Helen, after your mother, or Stephen, after your father's father." Both of which had respectable Russian versions—Elena or Stepan.
"I decided Helen didn't feel right, because my mom's still alive. And yeah, I know Will and Mike named Andrew after our dad, and he's still alive, but that was their choice."
"We could go with Stephanie instead of Stephen."
"What about Alexandra?" She held up a hand to block the complaint she knew was coming. "And I know it's close to your father's name, which you probably don't want, but it's my maternal grandmother's name as well. And I really like it."
It was too close to his father's name, which he absolutely didn't want. He no longer hated the man—Michelle had persuaded him to let the hate go—but that didn't mean he was ready to name his daughter for him. It was an honour his father didn't (and would never) deserve.
Alexandra Kirillovna Orlova.
It certainly rolled off the tongue.
"William won't like it," he warned, knowing his brother had an even lower opinion of their late father than he did.
Kate snorted. "No offense, but William can bite me. Last time I looked, he's not the one who's having the kid."
"Is Alexandra really what you want?"
"If you hate it, I'll stick with Helen instead. Or Stephanie. It's not worth us falling out over."
He shook his head. "I don't hate it. It is a good Russian name. The name of two Czarinas, as well."
"Okay. Alexandra Kirillovna it is."
"Choosing the name would be much easier if we lived in Russia."
"If we could not decide, we would simply wait for the baby to be born, then use the name of whichever saint was being celebrated that day."
She wrinkled her nose. "Not sure I like the sound of that. Seems a bit impersonal to me."
"It is how I got my name," he told her.
He nodded. "May twenty-fourth is the feast day of Saints Cyril and Methodius."
"Huh. Didn't know that." She snickered. "Guess I should be glad you didn't end up being called Methodius Orlov instead."
He mirrored her grin. "Speaking of saints, did you know it is St. Patrick's Day today?"
"Kir, my great-great-grandfather emigrated here from Ireland. Course I do."
He turned on his best puppy dog eyes.
She rolled hers. "I know that look. Spit it out."
"I know you said you don't want me to drink, but is there any chance you would let me have a Guinness tonight? Just one. Not a whole pack. For cultural reasons, if nothing else."
She heaved a sigh. "I suppose." She held up a finger. "But only one, and only if you make me a promise."
Kirill tensed. What condition was she about to impose on him now, and would he be able to meet it? "What is that?"
"Promise me we will never, ever see Liam Bell again?"