Flames of Redemption (The Omni Towers, #5) - Jamie A. Waters - E-Book

Flames of Redemption (The Omni Towers, #5) E-Book

Jamie A. Waters

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Beschreibung

Beware the games that can leave you burned…

Valentina has spent her life working as an elite agent for the Coalition. After a rescue effort goes horribly wrong, she's taken to the Omni Towers where she finds herself embroiled in a masterful game of chess and she's the hunted queen.

With the Coalition poised on the brink of civil war and ready to rescind their alliance with The Omni Towers, Valentina must quickly get to the bottom of who is behind the sinister plot targeting their leadership.

When shipments of weapons go missing and buried secrets emerge, Valentina is forced into facing her past and playing the deadliest game of her life. Unfortunately, the stakes of this gamble are higher than anyone could have anticipated and not even a love forged in fire may be enough to save their people from destruction.

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Flames of Redemption © 2018 by Jamie A. Waters

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Cover Art by Deranged Doctor Designs

Editor: Beyond DEF Lit

ISBN: 978-1-949-524-10-9 (Hardback Edition)

ISBN: 978-0-9996647-8-0 (Paperback Edition)

ISBN: 978-0-9996647-9-7 (eBook Edition)

Library of Congress Control Number:  2018907712

First Edition *November 2018

Contents

The Omni Towers Series

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Sneak Peek

Spirit of the Towers

Also by Jamie A. Waters

About the Author

The Omni Towers Series

Flames of Redemption

Ruins of Fate

Beneath the Fallen City

Shadow of the Coalition

Tremors of the Past

Drop of Hope

Flames of Redemption

Spirit of the Towers

Chapter One

The air pressure shifted in the darkened room, indicating the door had been opened. Valentina, pretending to be asleep, continued to breathe deep, regular breaths. The intruder’s movements were silent, but she could sense him moving along the wall and toward the bed.

She counted the seconds and anticipated the closing distance, her heartbeat slowing in time with the progression of her would-be assailant. When he was almost within touching distance, she rolled out of bed and threw a scalpel in his direction. It planted itself into the wall with a thump, and she dropped to the ground, waiting for retaliation.

“Ah, Valechka, you always did have trouble holding on to your weapons.”

Her eyes narrowed at the taunt, and she withdrew her one remaining scalpel. “If I had known it was you, Seryozha, I would not have missed.”

“You wish to dance?”

Thankful he couldn’t see her smile in the darkness, Valentina slipped under the bed, trying to track his movements. She was better at stealth, but Sergei usually had more patience. Tilting her head, she focused on each of her senses to detect his location. He was moving around the edge of the bed, his confident footsteps painstakingly slow and noiseless. If they hadn’t been trained by the same people, she never would’ve known he was there. She slid out from the opposite side of the bed, determined to approach him from behind.

Palming the second scalpel, she moved forward in the darkness and froze. How could he be back on the other side of the bed? She waited, knowing it was a trap but unsure of where he was.

“Behind you,” Sergei whispered next to her ear before grabbing her wrist and bending it backward, causing the makeshift weapon to fall to the ground with a clatter. She followed it, using the momentum of her weight to force him to either release her wrist or unbalance him. He let go and jumped backward, narrowly missing her leg swiping out toward him.

Anticipating the move, he grabbed her ankle and yanked her in his direction. She slid along the ground and kicked out, forcing him to unhand her again. Valentina rolled away, pushed off the ground, and sprung back to her feet. The movement pulled at her abdominal injury, and she inhaled sharply.

“Lights on, eighty percent,” Sergei ordered, and light flooded the room. Valentina blinked at him and frowned, annoyed he’d curtailed their game too soon. A few more minutes and she would have been able to get the other scalpel out of the wall.

“How badly are you hurt?” Moving forward, he reached for her shirt.

Valentina narrowed her eyes and took a step backward before he could make contact. “I did not invite you to touch me, Sergei.”

He froze and lowered his hands to his sides. They stared at each other for several heartbeats, both assessing and considering. The few minutes she’d seen him in Sofia’s camp hadn’t been nearly enough time to notice all the changes. His blond hair was longer than when she’d last seen him, reaching almost to his shoulders. He used to wear it much shorter, but now he looked much more like one of these Omnis. She tilted her head, wondering if that had been his intention so he could better fit in with them.

His physique had filled out even more too. He’d once been as slender as her, with gray eyes too large for his face. The changes were appealing, though, even if she noticed a few more scars than he’d had before. Then again, they all had more scars. Some were more easily seen than others.

He straightened his body and took another step toward her. “Nikolai wanted me to make sure you were well. Let me see the injury.”

Valentina carefully kept her face blank; inwardly, she doubted Nikolai had said any such thing. Sure, Nikolai was probably concerned. After all, what good is a blunted blade? But Sergei needed to be reminded she wasn’t his weapon to wield.

Taking another step backward, Valentina lowered herself onto the bed and began unbuttoning her shirt. She shrugged out of it and dropped it beside her casually as if she didn’t care she was only wearing a bra. Tracing downward from her collarbone, she moved her hand over her breasts and to her abdomen where Pavel’s blade had entered. Sergei swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing as his heated gaze followed her leisurely movements. There was no outward sign of a wound; only a small line marred the surface of her skin.

But Sergei wasn’t particularly focused on looking for a scar.

He moved toward her, and she leaned back on the bed, letting him see the invitation in her eyes. “If Nikolai wanted you to make sure I’m well, then do whatever he wishes. You know I would never refuse any of Nikolai’s orders.”

Sergei froze, his entire body tensing, and his jaw clenched. He grabbed her shirt and threw it at her. “Get dressed, Valentina. If you wish to whore for him, that’s your choice. I’m not interested.”

Feigning indifference, she picked up the shirt and turned away from him so he wouldn’t see her hands shake when she put it back on.

He dropped something onto the nearby table. “This is Pavel’s blade.”

Valentina turned, her eyes widening at the sight of the knife Pavel had used on her when she’d gone to Sofia’s camp to help rescue Ariana. Unable to suppress her shock and confusion, she reached out, her fingers sliding over the hilt of the blade. For Sergei to be gifting this to her meant he’d declared vengeance in her name, and it was now settled. She lifted her head to meet his eyes, the light gray color reminding her of another blade from long ago.

It was enough to make her turn away, her heart clenching at the memory. She pulled back her hand. “You should give this to Ariana or her lover. They’ll want to know.”

Sergei paused for a long moment, the weighted silence making it difficult for her to breathe. She forced her body to stay relaxed, mentally chastising herself for revealing too much. If given the opportunity, he’d use it against her, just as she would with him.

“The blade is for you, Valechka.”

Her heart thudded in her chest, and she turned around to face him. A hundred questions went through her mind, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask any of them. She couldn’t even force herself to make a flippant response to drive him away. As though sensing her weakness, he took a step toward her.

Valentina looked up into his eyes, drowning in their gray depths. There was a small ring of gold around his irises as though an internal flame lit him from within. He took another step in her direction, and she swallowed as the heat from his body radiated outward, offering to chase away any lingering shadows of memory.

Almost of its own volition, she raised her hand and rested it against his chest. His nearness seared her skin like a brand, but she couldn’t bring herself to push him away. He moved even closer, pinning her against the edge of the bed. His magnetism pulled her in, captivating her, and demanded she surrender to its insistent plea.

Footsteps sounded in the outside hallway, rapidly growing closer. Shoving him away, Valentina snatched the knife from the table, tucked it into the back of her waistband, and slid back on the bed just as the door opened. Sergei had already moved several steps away, pretending to inspect the empty juice container on her table.

Brant, the security agent who had escorted her back to the towers after her injury, halted at the sight of them. She flashed him a genuine smile in greeting, part of her relieved by his timely interruption. The last thing she needed was to get caught in Sergei’s web.

Brant eyed Sergei with a frown before turning back to her. “Am I interrupting?”

She shook her head, motioning for him to come in. “No, we’re finished catching up.” You have no idea, but you just saved me from myself.

Sergei leaned against the wall, making it clear he wasn’t going anywhere. Valentina glanced at him, doing her best to keep her expression blank but wishing he would take the hint and leave. Please don’t make me try to hurt you, Seryozha. Just go.

Brant placed a small box and a large covered cup on the table beside her. “You didn’t seem to like the cookies here in the medical center, so I thought you might want to try these.”

Touched by the gesture, she scooted over to investigate. “You brought me cookies?”

Inside the box were several cookies that didn’t bear any resemblance to the small, biscuit-style offerings the medical center had given her earlier. She picked one up, the heady aroma of sugar and spices wafting toward her nose. They were still warm. Breaking off a piece, she offered it to Brant. Once he’d put it in his mouth and swallowed, she took a bite. Leaning back on the bed, she closed her eyes and let out a soft moan at the explosion of flavors on her tongue. They were heavenly—decadent, rich, and better than anything she’d ever tasted.

Valentina opened her eyes and sat up to reach for the tea, hesitating for a fraction of a second at the realization that both men were staring at her with heated expressions. Well, that was rather unintended, but it might have some benefits. She pulled off the cover of her tea and offered the cup to Brant. He chuckled but drank from the cup before handing it back to her. She beamed a smile at him and took a sip.

The moment the tea passed her lips, she realized she’d found another piece of nirvana. It wasn’t only the taste, but the smell too. She inhaled deeply, her senses alighting as she breathed in the light floral scent. There was no comparison between this delicacy and the imitation brew they offered back in her camp on the surface. Was it any wonder Sergei was intent on staying if this was just a sample of what the towers had to offer?

“Brant, these are heavenly. Even my babushka never made anything this divine, and she was a wonderful cook.”

Brant smiled, obviously pleased by the praise. “Well, you lost a lot of blood, and the doctor wants you to try to replenish your fluids. Since you refused medical treatment, I thought cookies and tea might be the way to encourage you to keep drinking. There’s a small café down a few levels. I can take you there when you’re better so you can try some of their other items.”

Sergei pushed off the wall, his gaze furious. “You refused medical treatment?”

Holding his gaze, Valentina reached over to break off another piece of the cookie. Shoving it in her mouth, she began to slowly chew, taking her time so he would have to wait for a response. His eyes narrowed, the small throbbing vein on his neck the only other outward sign he was angry. She swallowed the last bite and made a dramatic show of licking a stray crumb off her thumb. Sergei’s eyes lowered to her thumb, and he swallowed, his expression suddenly guarded.

“I did,” she agreed. “They wanted to give me some sort of blood substitute. You know how I feel about needles.”

What she didn’t need to say was that she didn’t trust these people. The only reason she decided to eat and drink the items Brant brought was because he had shared them with her both times. So far, Brant hadn’t given her the slightest hint his motives were dishonest. This would be the way if he were going to do something nefarious though. Those cookies really were divine.

Sergei, however, was a different story. He may be living here with these Omnis, but two of their people had just abducted an OmniLab resident. Even though she’d intervened to rescue Ariana, there was no way in hell she’d allow these Omnis to do any sort of treatment until she knew whether there would be repercussions from Pavel and Sofia’s actions.

“This is not acceptable, Valentina,” Sergei retorted, clearly not agreeing with her assessment.

She shrugged and picked up the tea again, taking a long sip. If he wanted to be foolish and trust these people without testing them, that was his decision. She had another scar on her hip to remind her about the dangers in trusting people.

Sergei turned to Brant. “Bring the doctor in here. She will agree to whatever treatment they decide.”

Valentina put the cup down. “No. I am not in any danger, and this is my decision.”

“You will, or I will strap you to this bed!” he shouted in their native language, all traces of his earlier calm gone.

She pushed herself out of bed and stood in front of him, refusing to back down. “If you so much as try it, I’ll pull out Pavel’s blade and gut you right here. Then you can be the one to receive their treatment. You do not have any right to dictate to me, Sergei.”

“I do if you’re being foolish. You nearly died today, Valentina. You should not have been anywhere near that camp to begin with.”

“You didn’t give us a choice!” she yelled, jabbing her finger against his chest. “Nikolai said our alliance was in danger. I was the closest person to Sofia’s camp. My life is nothing compared to the thousands of our people at risk.”

“Your life means everything!” he roared, grabbing her wrist and yanking her close. “Nikolai promised he would keep you out of harm’s way if I took this assignment.”

She jerked her hand away and shoved him. “It was never your place to make an agreement on my behalf, Sergei.”

The door opened, and a vaguely familiar man entered the room. He hesitated for a moment, his blue eyes regarding them both curiously. “Is everything all right in here?”

“Everything is fine, Lars,” Sergei snapped, not looking away from her.

Valentina glanced again at the newcomer and tilted her head to study him. So this was Lars, one of the exiles Sergei had rescued. She’d seen him at Sofia’s camp but didn’t realize he was the one who’d started them all down this path with OmniLab.

Interesting.

Brant cleared his throat. “Valentina is correct. She’s not in any danger. The doctor merely wanted her to keep drinking to replenish her fluids. She just needs to rest and finish healing.”

Sergei’s jaw clenched, and he took a step back. “When will she be released?”

Brant hesitated. “She can leave now, but they would prefer to monitor her for a few days to make sure she doesn’t reopen the wound. I spoke with Alec, and he wanted to extend the invitation to have her stay in the towers until she’s fully recovered.”

“Your offer is generous, but I need to return to the surface,” she replied, eager to put some distance between her and Sergei.

“No,” Sergei said in a clipped tone. “You will remain here for now.”

She turned back to glare at him. “I will not. I have responsibilities on the surface.”

“They will wait until you are fully recovered,” he said in a low growl, edging closer again.

She paused, smiling sweetly at him. “Did Nikolai tell you he wanted me to remain here? Or did he tell you to make sure I was healed up as quickly as possible so I could return to his side?”

Her words had the desired effect. Sergei’s expression blanked, and he took a step back. His eyes were once again shuttered, a mask replacing his earlier frustration. He pulled out his commlink, and she knew he was trying to contact Nikolai.

Valentina crossed her arms, not bothering to hide her irritation. She’d contact Nikolai herself, but her commlink had broken during the struggle with Sofia. If for no other reason, she needed to return to one of their camps to get a replacement.

Sergei switched back to their native tongue, speaking rapid-fire to Nikolai’s assistant. Annoyed, Valentina held out her hand for the commlink. He ignored her, and a moment later she knew he was speaking directly to Nikolai.

Sergei turned away. “It is finished. They are no more.”

Valentina lowered her hand, now more curious than annoyed. He was referring to the end he’d given to Pavel and Sofia. It had been tempting to refuse Sergei’s insistence to receive medical treatment at the towers in order to handle them personally, but by accompanying Brant, she hoped she could learn more about OmniLab from one of their security forces.

Sergei launched into an explanation about her injury, how she’d been stabbed and nearly died but was now refusing medical treatment. Valentina’s body stiffened, knowing Nikolai would probably go out of his mind. Taking a step forward, she held out her hand. “Give me your commlink, Sergei.”

Sergei smirked and dropped it into her hand.

“Valya,” Nikolai said, using the nickname reserved for only those closest to her. “What is this I’m hearing about you refusing treatment? How badly are you injured?”

Dammit. She couldn’t lie to him. Glaring at Sergei, she admitted, “Sergei is correct. The injury was serious, but I am healing. Additional treatments are not necessary. I can return to the surface tonight.”

“No,” he ordered. “I will arrange to have a new commlink sent to you. Sergei has assured me they have state-of-the-art medical facilities in the towers. You will not return until you are completely healed.”

Her jaw clenched, but she couldn’t dispute his orders. “Very well.”

“I need you to assess the situation while you are there. Given what happened with Pavel and Sofia, I have concerns about this alliance and our people. You will let me know if Sergei is unable to hold command.”

She swallowed, not willing to risk glancing at Sergei again. “I understand.”

“Good,” he replied. “Be well, Valya, and return to me soon. You’re missed.”

Valentina ended the transmission and handed the commlink back to Sergei, doing her best to ignore the uneasy feeling in her stomach. Nikolai knew that of all the people she’d ever been asked to investigate, Sergei was the one person she wanted to avoid, and she suspected that’s why he was now demanding she do so. Sergei wouldn’t allow anyone other than her to get close enough to find out the extent of any problems—or even if his loyalty still lay with the Coalition. She’d heard rumblings from their people about the amount of time Sergei had spent with these Omnis and how his sympathies had possibly even fallen in line with the towers.

Sergei pocketed the commlink. “He’s ordered you to remain here?”

“Yes,” she snapped, irritated by his meddling.

It was his fault for putting her in the position to spy on him. Though, it might be for the best. She would at least give Sergei a fair assessment, which was more than what he might get if the assignment had been given to someone else. Sergei had never been particularly good at making friends. He had too many enemies and too many people envious of his command.

“If you’re going to remain here, I have plenty of room in my quarters. You can have one of the guest rooms,” Lars suggested, taking a step forward. “You’ll be more comfortable there instead of staying in the medical center. It’s the least I can do for the woman who helped save Ariana.”

Sergei stiffened. Valentina glanced at him, somewhat amused. He didn’t appear to like the idea of her staying with Lars. Good. She always got perverse pleasure out of annoying him.

Valentina smiled at Lars. “That’s a very generous offer. I would be honored to accept and stay in your quarters with you.”

Sergei glared at her, but she simply smiled sweetly at him.

Oh, Seryozha, you have no idea what you’ve just gotten yourself into.

Chapter Two

Valentina walked down the hall, escorted by Sergei and Lars. Apparently, Sergei wasn’t willing to let her out of his sight just yet. She had mixed feelings about this—she needed to get close to him, but she needed some time to mentally prepare herself. He was a little too good at reading her.

Since her visit to the towers hadn’t been planned, Brant had offered to make arrangements to have some clothing brought to her. She was still wearing her uniform, complete with blood stains. Judging by a few of the shocked and horrified looks from other tower residents, they were more than a little sheltered. Besides, she intended to learn as much about these people as possible while she was here, so blending in with the natives would only help to expedite her investigation.

Lars placed his palm on a panel by a large ornate door, which enabled it to slide open. “I’ll arrange to have your biometrics added to my quarters so you can come and go as needed.”

Valentina nodded. That would make things a bit easier, but it wouldn’t have stopped her even if he hadn’t offered. She’d already reviewed some of the security schematics from their original infiltration of the towers. She’d have to familiarize herself with them again once she received her new commlink.

She stepped inside, immediately taking note of the strange and elaborate furnishings. These Omnis didn’t know how to utilize functionality over aesthetics. There were dozens of places to hide and more potential weapons than she had imagined. Any of these items—vases, glass, metal rods—could all be used to inflict serious damage.

Lars led her down a hallway past several other empty rooms and opened the door to one of them. “You can use this room while you’re here. I’m a bit farther down the hall, so you’ll have plenty of privacy.”

The bedroom was much larger than the suite of rooms she shared with Nikolai. Once again, the furnishings were elaborate, with a large wooden bed that could easily sleep four people, a dresser, and a desk complete with wall monitors. But it was the ceiling that immediately caught Valentina’s attention and held her interest. It was a simulated design depicting the sky outside the towers. Right now, it was darkened with a scattering of stars against the night sky.

“You can turn it off if it disturbs you,” he explained, directing her to the controls and showing how they were touch and audio enabled.

She pressed one of the buttons and cycled through the images, enabling the display on the ceiling and walls. With one touch, a wall shifted and became a lush forest. A rich canopy of leaves and branches spread overhead with a smattering of sunlight trickling through. She pressed it again, and the image changed to a beach scene, complete with accompanying audio of crashing waves. She pushed another control and it shifted yet again to a remote, snowy mountaintop. The panel made several recommendations on temperature adjustments and wind speed to maximize the realism of the simulation.

“How many are there?” she asked in wonder, pressing it yet again to see a desert scene. She could easily spend hours staring at the different images without growing bored.

“I’m not sure,” Lars admitted, rubbing his chin thoughtfully while he studied the latest image. “At least several dozen. I had a few favorites when I was younger, but it was mainly set to the sky. These are installed in most of the bedrooms in this part of the towers.”

Valentina pressed the button to reset it to its default and turned around to find Sergei watching her intently with an amused smile on his face. She narrowed her eyes at him, wanting to wipe the look from his face. Part of her was tempted to throw her blade at him to see if he could still move as fast as he used to. His smile deepened as though guessing her thoughts.

She turned away, prowling around the room, and inspected the rest of the furnishings. “You live alone?”

“Yes,” Lars replied. “You won’t be disturbed if you wish to explore.”

She nodded. It helped that Lars had lived with them for some time. Certain boundaries would be respected without causing offense.

“I’ll warn you against exploring the rest of the towers though,” Lars informed her, clasping his hands behind his back. “We can set up a profile with our security officers to allow you to move freely throughout the public areas of both towers, but the Inner Sanctum is much more heavily monitored. You should have an escort so you can avoid any unnecessary questions once you leave my quarters.”

Pretending to study a small painting on the wall, she glanced at Sergei out of the corner of her eye. He inclined his head a fraction, enough to let her know he’d already discovered a workaround. Good. That would make things easier.

“You have a beautiful home, Lars.” She ran her finger over the frame of the forest painting. “It’s kind of you to allow me to stay with you.”

“It’s my pleasure. I owe Sergei and your people a great deal,” Lars replied, walking over to open the adjacent bathroom door. “This bedroom is fairly private, but it’s close to the common room. I can let you know when Brant arrives. In the meantime, feel free to help yourself to whatever you find. There’s food in the kitchen area, and my private rooms are down the hall. I’ll let you get some rest or explore, whichever you prefer. Please let me know if you need anything.”

When she nodded, Lars turned and started to leave the room. Stopping in the doorway, he looked expectantly at Sergei, who was still leaning against the wall watching her.

Sergei waved him away. “I’ll be with you in a moment, Lars.”

Valentina didn’t bother to hide her irritation. As soon as the door closed behind Lars, she tensed, wanting to draw the blade at her back but not willing to make the first move until she was sure of Sergei’s intent. Knowing him, it could go either way.

Sergei pushed away from the wall. “Is Nikolai sending over a commlink?”

“Yes. It will probably be delivered tomorrow,” she said, relaxing a fraction. He wanted to talk business. “How is security?”

“Better than our initial reports,” he admitted, crossing the length of the room toward her. “You can move throughout this area, but you’ll require a cloned keycard. I’ll upload copies of the floorplans to you once you receive the commlink. Certain areas are completely restricted, and I’m still working on circumventing their security.”

She tilted her head to study him. He’d never been one to overly dramatize the situation. If he said it was good, it was probably better than that. “You have a list of areas which can be used for diversionary tactics?”

“Yes. I’ll send it to you and include the key areas to avoid. Do you have any weapons on you?”

She smirked at him. “Come now, Seryozha. You cannot expect me to answer that.”

A slow smile spread across his face as his gaze perused her body, making it obvious he was taking the opportunity to not only assess her for hidden weapons but also to appreciate her softer attributes. “Only the blade I gave you?”

Valentina shrugged and leaned against the wall. They both knew she’d never answer, but that was part of the fun in the game. They’d confiscated her weapons when she entered the towers, but that wouldn’t stop her for long. Sergei could believe whatever he wanted. She could be just as lethal without a weapon handy.

He leaned in close. “I will enjoy knowing your hands will be wrapped around my blade, Valechka. When you thrust my knife into your target, the pleasure you receive will be mine.”

She lifted her hand, trailing it down his chest, noting how he unwittingly tensed at her gesture. Pleased he was still affected by her, she lifted her head, mirroring his movements, and leaned in closer. “Would you like me to return it to you now? One strong thrust and we can see how much pleasure you’ll receive.”

Sergei threw back his head and laughed, moving away from her. “Tempting, but I shall decline. Until next time, Valechka.”

Valentina couldn’t help the smile that crossed her face as she watched him leave the room. She’d missed their sparring more than she wanted to admit.

Sergei chuckled to himself as he headed out of Valentina’s room and into Lars’s common area, where the former exile was mixing a drink at the bar. Valentina was still as formidable and captivating as ever. It was that edge of unpredictable danger that had always drawn him to her, but she was more than a little distracting. That could prove to be deadly in his line of business.

Lars glanced over at Sergei. “Would you like a real drink instead of that swill you favor?”

“I don’t believe your people understand the concept of a real drink.” Sergei moved toward the bar as Lars chuckled and poured a glass for him.

“So that’s the mysterious Valentina,” Lars mused, taking a sip of his drink. “I’ve heard about her ties to Nikolai Berkutov. Is there anything I should know about her?”

“Yes, two things,” Sergei replied, sniffing the amber-colored liquor in the glass. “One, she can kill you as easily as she breathes, so I would recommend taking care not to offend her.”

Lars frowned. “And the second?”

“And I’ll be the one to kill you if you fuck her.”

Lars froze and then lowered his glass to the bar area. “Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting. I’m afraid that leaves me with more questions than answers, not to mention a lot of sleepless nights in my future.”

Sergei smirked and tossed back the liquid. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t his preferred choice. “Your people have much to learn about liquor.”

“I’m guessing you’re not going to expand upon your comments?”

“No,” Sergei replied, investigating the other bottles on Lars’s bar.

Lars was quiet for several long minutes while he finished off his drink. “What exactly is her relationship to Nikolai? I’ve heard rumors but nothing concrete.”

Sergei frowned. Nikolai was an unwanted complication, but he wasn’t about to admit that aloud, especially not anywhere near Valentina’s sensitive hearing. If he had to guess, she was probably already prowling around Lars’s quarters and investigating. By the time he visited her next, she’d have a small arsenal stashed in her room. He grinned. It would make their next encounter even more interesting.

“You would have to ask them,” he replied, opening a different bottle and splashing it into a glass. “But I would not recommend it.”

“I see,” Lars said, continuing to study Sergei. “You’re being even less forthcoming than usual.”

The resounding door chime interrupted them, and Sergei glanced over at the monitor on the wall to see Brant had finally arrived. Lars headed for the door and opened it for the dark-haired security officer.

Brant held up a nearly overflowing bag. “Alec arranged to have some things sent over.”

Sergei walked over in a handful of steps and snatched the bag from Brant’s hand. Brant’s eyes narrowed, but Sergei ignored him and began digging through the bag. His mouth curved upward in devilish appreciation.

Oh, she will hate this.

They’d manage to accumulate a rather extensive array of flowing dresses and dainty shoes. The silken undergarments were more than a little intriguing, but it wouldn’t do much good to sit there and fantasize about Valentina wearing them while Lars and Brant were watching him search her bag.

“You’re either a perverse bastard or you don’t trust us either,” Brant muttered, grabbing the bag away from him and resealing it. “Valentina wouldn’t eat or drink anything in the medical center until I ate and drank first. Now you’re searching her bag? Just what do you think we’re going to do to her?”

Lars grinned. “She wouldn’t eat or drink?”

“Valentina is cautious,” Sergei agreed. “I was simply curious.”

“A perverse bastard then,” Brant acknowledged. “Where is she so I can hand these over?”

“I will take them to her,” Sergei declared, hesitant to allow Brant anywhere near her. If Valentina wasn’t listening in on their conversation, she was probably getting into trouble that couldn’t easily be explained to the suspicious security officer. Besides, Valentina had been a little too friendly with Brant earlier. Granted, it was most likely because he was the equivalent of a soldier for their once-acknowledged enemy and not from any real personal interest.

She’d view Brant as a possible source of intel, but Sergei wasn’t willing to take the chance he was wrong. She was a little too curious and far craftier than most people gave her credit for.

“I don’t think so,” Brant argued, holding tightly to the bag. “Lars? Where is her room?”

Valentina stepped into the room, feigning surprise at the sight of Brant, and gave the security officer a warm smile. Sergei’d been right. She’d been listening. At least one of his concerns was unfounded.

“I heard a strange chime and wondered what it was,” she said and gestured to the bag. “Is that for me?”

Brant held the bag up. “Yes. It’s a bit heavy though. Would you like me to take it into your room?”

Sergei’s eyes narrowed on the security officer. He’d most likely have to give him the same warning he’d given to Lars, especially given the security officer’s entranced expression as Valentina tilted her head and blinked her eyes at him. A few wisps of her chestnut hair had escaped from her ponytail and framed the delicate features of her face. She was stunning, and even worse, she knew it. Every gesture, expression, and movement was carefully calculated to disarm. It was no wonder Nikolai relied so heavily upon her.

She beamed a smile at him and gestured down the hall. “Oh, that’s very kind of you. I’ll show you to my room.”

Sergei hesitated. Part of him was tempted to follow them, but he knew it would be a mistake to give in to his urges. Not only would Valentina probably make good on her threat to plant her newly acquired blade in his gut, but it would give her an even greater advantage over him. Instead, he sprawled out on the sofa and gave her a sardonic smirk.

Temper flared in her eyes for only a second before she schooled her expression. His grin deepened. The only outward sign of her lingering irritation was the slightest hint of rigidity in her shoulders. As soon as Valentina and Brant disappeared down the hall, Lars rescued his drink and sat on the couch. “I keep having the feeling I’m missing something when you two are in the same room.”

Busy counting the minutes, Sergei shrugged but didn’t reply. If Brant didn’t reemerge soon, he’d abandon all pretense and go in after them.

Lars took a sip, his gaze gravitating toward the hallway. “She’s very attractive.”

Sergei arched an eyebrow. “Have you already forgotten my warning?”

Lars grinned. “I’m curious as to why you haven’t warned away Brant.”

Sergei drummed his fingers on the back of the couch. “I would be disappointed to have to kill you. Him? Not so much.”

Lars laughed. Sergei’s mouth curved upward, but his smile faded as Brant reappeared in the common room. The security officer looked a little too self-assured to have simply dropped off a bag in Valentina’s room. She was definitely up to something.

Brant nodded at them in farewell. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Lars. Have a good evening.”

Lars frowned. “Tomorrow? Do we have a meeting I don’t know about?”

Brant paused. “No. I’m stopping by in the morning to take Valentina out for breakfast. She wants to see some of the towers.”

Lars nearly choked on his drink and darted a quick glance at Sergei. “I see. Well, I suppose I’ll see you in the morning. Have a good night.”

Brant let himself out, and Sergei turned to glare down the hallway toward Valentina’s room.

“I’m not helping you hide the body,” Lars advised.

“There will not be a body left to hide,” Sergei growled, pushing off the couch. He had half a mind to confront the confounding woman and remind her the alliance with OmniLab was tenuous at best, but it wouldn’t do any good. Valentina always did as she wished. Besides, unless she had suddenly lost her touch, she’d have the security officer enamored enough that she could steal all the tower’s secrets by the end of the morning.

Sergei glanced down at Lars. “I’ll return before breakfast.”

Lars shook his head, an amused smile on his face. “Of course you will.”

Chapter Three

Valentina tossed another dress on the bed and resisted the urge to swear. Sure, a little skin went a long way when trying to entice someone into talking, but where the hell was she supposed to keep her weapons? Not one of them had any pockets or enough fabric to hide a knife, much less any of the weaponized objects she’d found in Lars’s quarters.

Walking over to the nearby dresser, she dug around in the drawers until she found a belt. It was a start. Tossing it on the bed, she headed down the hallway in search of more items. Sergei had left shortly after Brant, so she didn’t have to worry about running into him. Lars was still awake and wandering around, but he might have some idea about where she could locate the objects she needed. She’d look for them herself, but time was an unfortunate deterrent.

The soft sound of movement reached her ears. Based on the direction and cadence of the steps, Valentina surmised Lars was in the common room. Slowing her gait to more of a casual stroll, she entered the room. He turned to look at her, his eyes widening as he glanced down at her bare legs under the long shirt she was wearing. She slowed her walk even further, the slightest swing of her hips making the material brush against her thighs.

He swallowed and held up his glass. “Uh, can I offer you a drink?”

“Actually,” she began, tucking her loose hair behind her ear, “I was wondering if you could help me with something.”

His face paled, and Valentina bit back a smile. Lars really was taking Sergei’s warning to heart. Deciding to put him out of his misery, she said, “I need some heavy, pliable material,” she held up her hands to indicate the size, “about this big. I also need some type of thread or twine.”

He blinked at her and lowered his glass. “I’m not sure exactly what you’re looking for, but I might have something that meets your requirements.”

Valentina gave him a brilliant smile and followed him down the hall to his private rooms. She’d explored them earlier but hadn’t spent more than a cursory amount of time in them. Lars led her into his closet and opened one of the built-in drawers. “There’s some thread in here somewhere.”

She approached him, looking over his arm to peer into the drawer as he began rifling through it. He turned to regard her, opening his mouth and then closing it as though he wanted to ask her a question. Valentina softened her gaze to give her an even more unassuming appearance and set him at ease.

After the slightest hesitation, Lars asked, “Would you be offended if I asked why you wanted these things? If I knew what it was for, I might be better able to help you find what you need.”

“I’m not offended,” she said with a small smile, making it clear she wasn’t going to answer his question. “The needle and thread in the back corner of your drawer will work well for my purposes.”

Lars frowned, glancing down and spotting the items she mentioned. He picked them up and offered it to her. Valentina took it and then ran her hand over some of the well-crafted clothes hanging in the closet, admiring their softness and colors. “There are so many. Do you wear all of them?”

He scanned the contents of his closet and shook his head. “No. A few, but I got used to a simpler lifestyle while living on the surface.”

Valentina stroked her hand down a long tunic that would be more than adequate for her needs. It even had small buckles she could cut off and repurpose. “This one is lovely.”

“That tunic?” His frown deepened, and she nodded, letting a small smile play upon her lips. “Would that tunic work for… whatever you’re doing?”

She bit her lip, pretending to consider it. “Why, it just might. It’s a little bigger than what I need, but I could always use the remaining material for something else. If you don’t need it, I wouldn’t mind taking it off your hands.”

“You can have it.” He pulled it off the rack and handed it to her. “I don’t think I’ve ever even worn it.”

“Thank you, Lars.” Valentina headed out of the closet, aware his eyes were once again on her legs. Now she just had to get back to her room, cut up the tunic, sew some hidden pockets on a dress for tomorrow and make sure she had a place to stash some of her weapons. Then she’d have to figure out a way to barricade the door so she could get some sleep. It would be a busy night.

Sergei pressed the button on Lars’s door, mildly surprised when it opened almost immediately.

Lars looked exhausted, his eyes red-rimmed and wary. He waved Sergei inside and then slumped onto the couch. “I’ve been up all night, and it’s all your fault.”

Glancing down the hall toward Valentina’s bedroom, Sergei arched an eyebrow. “Why is that?”

Lars lifted his head to scowl at him. “You know why.”

Sergei grinned and sat on the couch, angling himself so he could watch the hallway from his position. “What did she do?”

“She came out here last night, wearing hardly anything at all. The woman has fantastic legs, by the way. I nearly had heart palpitations. Then she asked me for my help.”

Sergei’s eyes narrowed. He agreed about her legs, but he decided to focus on the most important part of Lars’s comment. “What sort of help?”

“She wanted a needle, thread, and a tunic,” Lars said with a frown. “Maybe the clothing didn’t fit?”

“Perhaps,” Sergei mused, peering down the hallway again. Domestic duties didn’t usually interest Valentina. What was she up to now and where was she?

“I had your warning replaying in my head all night. I was half expecting you to come into my room to kill me.”

Sergei chuckled. “I will not kill you for looking.”

“That’s a relief,” Lars murmured. “Because as long as she’s staying here, I might as well enjoy it.”

Valentina still hadn’t emerged from her room. Sergei frowned, a smidgen of worry beginning to fill him. The entire reason she was here was to recover from her injuries. He stood, wondering if she could be in worse shape than he thought. “Have you seen her this morning?”

“No,” Lars said, shaking his head. “I’ve only been up for about thirty minutes though. I didn’t hear her all night.”

That didn’t mean anything. Valentina had always excelled at sneaking around, but she should have come out to investigate the door chime. Sergei headed down the hall toward her room, pausing outside the door. He lifted his hand to knock but stopped. If she wasn’t injured, it might be more entertaining to surprise her.

He started to open it, but the door held fast. He frowned, pushing against it, but it still wouldn’t budge. His eyes widened at the realization she’d barricaded the door. Taking a step back, Sergei lowered his shoulder and slammed into it. He staggered inside, the large dresser falling to the floor with a resounding crash.

A dagger swooshed by his head, and he dropped to the ground to avoid any other flying weapons. He peered toward the bed where Valentina was sitting, a large shirt hanging off one of her shoulders and exposing a creamy expanse of skin. Her chestnut hair tumbled in waves over her other shoulder, making her delicate features even more arresting.

“Go away, Seryozha.” Valentina yawned and rubbed her eyes. “It is too early to play.”

Sergei glanced up at the knife embedded in the wall less than an inch from where he’d been standing. He grinned. Even half asleep, she had exceptional aim. There was no doubt in his mind that if she truly wanted him dead, he would be.

“What was that crash?” Lars stepped into the room and paused, his eyes widening at the sight of the dresser on the floor. He paled when he saw the knife embedded in the wall. Looking back and forth between Sergei and Valentina, he took a small step backward.

Valentina frowned, her lips curving into an adorable pout. “What time is it?”

“Seven,” Sergei replied, standing and stepping around the dresser. He doubted even Valentina would kill him in front of witnesses, unless she planned to kill Lars too.

“Already? I just went to bed an hour ago,” she complained, slipping out of bed and heading toward a door on the opposite side of the room. Lars was right. She had exceptional legs.

Her comment about just recently falling asleep finally registered, and Sergei glanced around the room to see what had kept her up most of the night. She’d spread out all her newly acquired clothing, and he walked over to a dark tunic she’d started cutting up. Picking up a pile of material she’d sewn together, he grinned.

Lars stared incredulously at the buckles and sewn pieces. “Is that… Is that a holster?”

“Indeed.” Sergei chuckled, tossed it back down, and began poking through the rest of Valentina’s collection of trinkets.

She’d been busy, managing to find a few more knives, scissors, a portable heating element, a few chemicals that could easily be used to create a rather rudimentary explosive, and a couple other highly entertaining objects.

Lars frowned. “Industrious, isn’t she?”

“Mmhmm,” Sergei agreed, hearing the sound of the shower in the other room. The thought of her naked under the water was a little too tantalizing. He walked over to the dresser, intent on distracting himself.

Lars stared at the toppled furniture. “She barricaded the door?”

Sergei grunted an affirmative as he set the dresser upright and pushed it back to the far side of the room. How the hell did she move it without reopening her wound? Unless she did. He frowned at the thought and glanced toward the bathroom door. Dammit. Now that he thought about it, her movements had been a little stiff when she’d climbed out of bed.

He headed toward the bathroom door and shoved it open to find her standing in the shower running soap-covered hands through her hair. She blinked at him with those gorgeous blue eyes of hers. A trail of suds slid over her breasts and down her athletic body. He took a moment or two to appreciate the view, although it could have been even longer. All sense of time and urgency evaporated from his mind at the sight of her naked body in front of him.

She turned away, tilting her head toward the water, and continued to rinse the soap from her body. His gaze followed the sudsy movement and back up again. Her legs were fantastic, but her ass was even better. He was hard-pressed to decide which view was more appealing, the front or the back. Each one had its own set of benefits and very few drawbacks.

At least he was assured she didn’t have any more weapons this time. Although, Valentina had always excelled at improvisation.

Valentina glanced at him over her shoulder and arched an eyebrow. “Are you here to wash my back or just admire the view?”

Sergei took a handful of steps toward her. “Turn around, Valentina.”

She did as he asked and gave him a saucy little smile that seemed to have a direct line to his cock. “You want to wash my front instead?”

He swallowed, trying to keep his disobedient body under control, and raised his hand to brush against her abdomen. Her mouth parted on a gasp, and she took a small step backward. His eyes narrowed on her. “You hurt yourself again?”

“I am fine,” she snapped and slapped her hand against the water control valve to shut it off. She started to brush past him, but he wrapped his arm around her and pulled her against him.

Part of him expected her to fight him, but when she didn’t, Sergei wasn’t sure if he was more relieved or concerned. “The truth, Valentina.”

“Which truth do you want, Sergei?”

All of them, but it wasn’t wise to tell her that. “How badly did you hurt yourself moving the dresser?”

She shrugged.

He sighed. “Will you go back to the medical center?”

“No.”

“Will you allow a medic to check you out here?”

She paused for a long moment. “Yes.”

Dammit.

Sergei’s jaw clenched. She would never have agreed if she wasn’t in a great deal of pain. He released her. “I’ll have them meet you here. Get dressed.”

“Sergei,” she called to him. He turned around, waiting expectantly and trying not to stare at the water droplets trailing over her naked skin. She licked her lips, glancing down at his pants before meeting his gaze. “It would have been more fun if you had offered to wash my front.”

Sergei swallowed, his mouth going dry, and debated whether it was too early to start drinking. He turned away and stormed out of the guest room. That woman was going to drive him insane. She didn’t need any tangible weapons. Her entire body was one, and she was definitely a master.

Lars glanced up and snorted at the sight of Sergei’s damp clothing as he reentered the common area. “You look like you have an interesting story to share.”

“We need to call a medic to your quarters,” he snapped, irritated at himself and Valentina.

Lars stood, heading over to the panel on the far wall. “How bad is it?”

“She’s in pain but will not tell me more than that. I believe she may have reopened the wound. I didn’t see anything externally, but she may have caused internal damage.”

Lars pressed a few buttons on the panel. “They’re on their way. Why would she have moved the dresser? Did she think I would hurt her?”

“It was to prevent me from entering,” Sergei admitted. Maybe if he promised not to try to best her until she was healed, she would avoid taking such risks. Although, she’d likely take offense to the suggestion she was too weak to offer much of a challenge. Then she’d most definitely retaliate, and it would likely be without her usual playfulness.

Lars frowned. “Dare I ask why she would be worried about you entering?”

Sergei waved his hand dismissively, not about to explain their complicated history. “That’s not important. How long until the medic arrives?”

“A few minutes,” Lars confirmed after checking the panel again.