“I’d kill a man before I fell in love with him,” she says and I look over, quietly stung by her words. “I never get too close.”

For a moment I’m not sure what to say to that.

“Well then I take back what I said about Fredrik—Niklas is a better option for you. Besides, Fredrik might have something with that waitress.”

Nora chuckles. “If you believe that, you’re lying to yourself.”

“Why? He seems to like her. It’s been two weeks and he hasn’t lost her or gotten rid of her yet—I think she’s sweet. He needs someone like her.”

“Oh, Izabel,” Nora says in a pitying manner, “that man cannot be with a sweet, innocent girl like her. Trust me on this: no one can ever replace Seraphina except a woman who is practically her equal—mark my words.”

I don’t want to believe that. I want Fredrik to be happy, and so far Emily, a kindhearted waitress who knows nothing about any of us, seems like she might be someone to give Fredrik that happiness. I choose not to believe Nora. Of course, in the back of my mind, I can’t help but wonder if she’s right. Because she usually is.

“What about you?” she asks.

“What about me?”

“Don’t you think your life would be easier if you didn’t let attachments get in the way?”

I think on it.

“Sometimes,” I answer, looking out the windshield, watching the double yellow lines get swallowed up by the hood of the car, because sometimes Nora tends to drive down the center of the road for some reason. “I know that attachments to people are a hindrance in this line of work, but I also think it’s a disadvantage not to be able to love and feel love.”

“Why?”

I pause, thinking about Victor, about Dina.

“Because I believe love makes a person stronger,” I answer.

I see Nora shake her head from the corner of my eye.

“Stronger?” she says. “No, Izabel, it’s exactly the opposite. To love someone is to take on the responsibility of keeping them safe, of worrying about them. It’s just a burden.”

“Well, I think you’re wrong,” I say. “To love someone means you have something in life to fight for, something to live for—I guess you wouldn’t know, you’ve never felt love, so you can’t possibly understand.”

I decide to leave it alone, concluding that there really is nothing more I can say to someone like Nora because she’s, in a sense, not as human as the rest of us.

But then she says, “I loved my sister,” and I swallow my thoughts.

“In fact,” she goes on, “I loved her for a long time before I knew that I was going to have to kill her because of my feelings for her. Live and learn—I’ll never make that mistake again.”

I smile over at her with a trace of sarcasm.

“You say that, Nora, but one day, you’ll see that I’m right—you mark my words.”

She shrugs and then flips on her blinker.

“So then you don’t regret being in love with Javier?”

That catches me off-guard; it takes me a moment to gather my thoughts. I’ve said on more than one occasion that I’m ashamed to have ever loved a man as cold and brutal as my captor, Javier Ruiz. And I am. The part of me that knows it’s not acceptable in society, is ashamed. But the rest of me is grateful to have loved him.

“No,” I say, “I don’t regret loving Javier. Because that love I felt for him was the only thing that kept me alive the nine years I spent in that compound. It gave me strength—it kept me alive. It wasn’t the same kind of love I feel for Victor, but it was love, nonetheless, and it saved me.”

For the first time ever, since Nora and I met, she seems to have no worthy response.

~~~

Victor is not in the bed when I wake up the next day. He’s always up early, sometimes before dawn. But usually he wakes me with him—says he functions better throughout the day if he can fuck me first thing in the morning. Certainly no arguments here.

I’m disappointed that’s not the case on this day. The only thing left of him is his delicious scent on the pillow next to me, and all over the sheets, and the welcome ache between my legs from the sex we had last night.

I crawl out of bed naked and hop in the shower to get ready for my meeting with everyone eight a.m. sharp about the mission last night. I get dressed in a black pants suit and a pair of black heels. Doing my hair up in a ponytail high at the back of my head, I pull it tight, staring at myself in the mirror for a long, drawn-out moment. I don’t know why I’m so nervous this time; maybe it’s because neither Nora nor Victor would talk about the mission when I was alone with them. Usually they say something, even if only small comments here and there—they’ve never called a meeting to discuss my missions before. Everyone will be there—minus Niklas—even Dorian Flynn; it’ll be his first time joining us at the table again since Victor let him out of the cell, since finding out that Dorian’s loyalties not only lie with Victor Faust, but also with U.S. Intelligence.

Maybe that’s what this is all about, why a meeting has been called: Dorian is being reintroduced into our circle.

Yeah, that’s got to be it, I try to tell myself as I take a deep breath and step away from the mirror. But it doesn’t quell the nervous feeling in my gut.

The large double-doors to the meeting room are closed when I come upon them carrying a bottle of water in one hand and my cell phone in the other.

“Thank you,” I tell the guard standing outside the doors as he opens one for me.

I inhale a deep breath as I step into the large room and five sets of eyes are on me, following my every move as I make my way down the length of the table to my seat on Nora’s right. She sits to Victor’s right now, which bothers me on so many levels, but I know better than to say anything aloud about it.

To break my own tension, I look at Dorian first, and smile.

“It’s good to see you back,” I say as I sit down in my chair.

“It’s good to be back,” he says with a smile even bigger than mine.

His bruises, inflicted by his interrogation by Fredrik, have disappeared. But I notice there are two matching cuts that are still healing, running along both sides of his neck, starting just behind his ears and moving down toward the center of his throat to create an almost perfect upside-down triangle. I shudder and swallow nervously when the image of Fredrik drawing his blade across Dorian’s flesh passes through my mind. But Dorian, so far, seems to be the same as he ever was, sporting that short, spiky blond hair framing a handsome face equipped with a devilish smile and multi-faceted blue eyes he’s famous for.

I turn to Fredrik now, setting my water bottle and cell phone on the table, and I offer him a slim smile, more in my eyes than on my lips. He nods at me in return, which doesn’t seem like much, but is a good sign, considering. I’ll take what I can get, because I love and miss my brother, Fredrik, even if he’s a sick, demented bastard with a bloodlust unmatched by any killer I’ve ever seen.

“Let’s get this underway,” Victor speaks up, raising his back from the chair; he folds his hands together on the table in front of him.

Every one of us turns to look at him simultaneously.

“If it isn’t already obvious,” Victor begins, “I have come to an agreement with Flynn”—all eyes glance at Dorian briefly—“I let him live…at least long enough to see what his employers have to say regarding this deal that Flynn spoke of. I will be meeting with them in two days to discuss an arrangement.”

This isn’t the first I’m hearing of this; Victor has talked with me privately about his decisions concerning Dorian, but as always, I’m sure he didn’t tell me everything, and so I hang on every one of his words just like everybody else at the table.

“In any other case,” he continues, “Flynn would be dead by now, but this is a delicate matter. I do not trust him”—Dorian eyes me regretfully across the table—“but I do not believe he is deceptive in his reasons for being here, either.”

“So you’re going to make a deal with his employers?” Nora speaks up with suspicion in her voice.

“That is still in question,” Victor answers. “As I said, I will be meeting with them first. What decisions are made during and after that meeting will depend on many factors.”

“I think it’s signing a deal with the Devil,” Nora warns. “If you agree to work for them, we’ll all pretty much be under their control—”

“No,” Victor cuts in, and then looks right at Dorian with a sort of quiet threat. “My Order will remain my Order, as Dorian and I have discussed. Nothing will ever be carried out that I do not fully agree to. No changes in my organization will take place unless I am the one to make them. I will owe them nothing and they will abide by my terms, or they will get nothing.” Victor’s eyes fall on each of us in turns as he explains with stiff assurance. “If a deal is made, nothing will change other than the addition of a new client. I will not be intimidated by the government; I will not be threatened; I will not be controlled.”

He turns to Dorian again and holds his unwavering gaze.


Tags: J.A. Redmerski In the Company of Killers Book Series
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