There’s a saying in Brazil. A esperança é a última que morre.
Hope is the last one to die.
The sentiment resonates with me now more than ever as I lurch forward and clutch the armrest. The Boeing 737 touches down and brakes gradually toward the end of the runway. The flight attendant’s voice crackles through the speaker system as she welcomes us in heavily accented English to Dulles International Airport.
I’m back in the United States. I’m home. This should give me solace, but the unexpected homecoming is shadowed by the fact that I’m running for my life, and once more, I’m without Tristan.
Less than twenty-four hours ago, he ordered me onto a private jet with no reassurances that we’d reunite. His only instructions were to get back to DC while raising as little suspicion as possible.
Now I’m exhausted and alone. It all feels so hopeless.
Yet hope is what I cling to as I file off the plane with the other passengers and head toward customs. I have no luggage. Only the contents of my backpack. Soiled clothes, some cash, and two passports. One gained me safe passage into Rio de Janeiro a year and a half ago. The other was pressed into my palm by Leo, the pilot who flew me from Brazil to Panama, insisting it would get me into the States undetected.
On any given day, I’m Isabel Foster. But today, as I walk toward US customs, I’m Isa Santos. An American woman returning from a girls’ trip to Panama. I clutch the customs declaration form and pray I don’t end up in prison as I approach the window separating me and the customs officer. He slides my fake passport through the scanner without making eye contact.
“How long were you in Panama?”
“Two weeks,” I say.
“Business or pleasure?”
“Pleasure.” I smile and invoke a mental image of me on the beach with a tropical drink in my hand to help sell the lie.
“Where did you stay?”
He glances between my passport, his computer screen, and me. My palms are slick with nervous sweat. I may heave and confess everything if he takes much longer.
I distract myself by studying his badge and wondering what kind of man Officer LeBaron is. He looks to be in his forties. Kind eyes. Crew cut. I wonder if he used to be a cop. Or maybe he wanted to be, and this is where he ended up instead. Does he enjoy the power trip of deciding the fate of people seeking entry into the country? Is he having a bad day? What’s he going to do when he finds out I’m a fraud?
I jolt at the abrupt sound of him stamping my forms and filing them away. Only then does he offer a smile, as if he’s been purposefully holding it back all this time.
“Welcome home, Ms. Santos.”
I try not to appear as enormously relieved as I am. “Thanks.”
I collect my passport and head toward the airport exit, filled with new apprehension as the security doors open automatically to a large crowd waiting to greet other travelers.
Tristan told me someone would meet me here and somehow I’d know who it would be. I hesitate past the doors and search the crowd for anyone notable or familiar. My attention snags on a tall man standing on his own near the exit. He’s wearing jeans and a black suit jacket over a tuxedo T-shirt. His short dreads stick straight up, making him appear even taller. He’s holding a sign in front of him that reads Santos.
I walk up to him slowly.
“Hi… I’m not sure, but I think you might be my ride.”
“Nice. You must be Saint.”
I blink up at him. He must be the wrong guy.
Then he points to the sign. “Santos… Saint. Get it? That’s what he calls you anyway. Wouldn’t tell me your name.”
“Oh, you can call me Isabel.”
He lifts an eyebrow. “All right, then.” He hesitates a moment before extending his hand. “I’m Makanga. Everyone calls me the Postman.”
He smiles broadly, his teeth beaming white. “I deliver things.”
“What kinds of things?”
He looks toward the ceiling. “Ah, let’s see. Expensive things. Dangerous things. Really important things.” He looks down again. “Like you.”
He winks and nods toward the conveyer that is depositing bags onto the belt. “You got luggage?”
“No. Just this.” I shrug my shoulder, and my backpack swings forward.
Intrigue glints in his amber eyes. “Let’s go, then.”
I follow him into the parking garage until we reach a two-door sedan. Its black paint is faded in several spots, and large Chinese characters line the top half of the windshield. He reaches for the missing passenger handle and yanks on a bent wire that unlatches the door.
He sweeps his hand toward the open door, gesturing for me to get in.
I hesitate. “I can just take a cab. Really.”
He laughs. “Betsy’s not in the best shape, but she’s a safe ride. Promise.”
My life’s been turned upside down over the past five days. I wouldn’t have ever gotten into a strange car with a strange man in Rio or anywhere else before. Somehow I’m chucking all the normal rules out and operating on instincts now. Tristan is distant and nothing like the man I remember him being, but despite the chaos we’ve been through, I trust him. I trust him to keep me alive. And I don’t get the feeling that Makanga poses a threat to my existence.
So I get into his car, which smells vaguely of grapefruit and coconut oil and is mercifully void of guns or anything indicating its owner is a violent person.
A few minutes later we’re heading down the highway. The sky is a wintery gray. The car heater is at full blast, reminding me that I’m definitely not in Rio anymore.
“So where are we going?” I ask.
“Red gave me instructions to keep an eye on you until further notice. So you can crash at my place until I hear otherwise.”
I contemplate his offer and try to imagine what I might be getting myself into by staying with him. I know nothing about this man.
“Listen, my parents live in Alexandria. Otherwise I have a friend I can stay with in Arlington. You don’t need to put me up.”
He shakes his head with a smile. “You must be new at this criminal underworld thing. You can’t be telling people your name and where you live. You don’t even know me.”
My jaw falls open. “I’m not a criminal.”
He barely masks a smirk. “All right, all right. Didn’t mean to offend. Just figured you were into something if Red’s giving you a nom de guerre and all that.”
I finger the St. Paul medallion around my neck and stare at the trees and office parks whizzing by. Whether I like it or not, I’ve become part of Tristan’s world. And Tristan’s world is probably chock-full of people who deal in aliases, debts and favors, and all manner of illegal activity required to meet a desired end. Including cold-blooded murder.
The truth remains that Tristan was hired to kill me. Never mind that he didn’t. He kills people for a living. What could have led the brilliant, passionate man I once knew to such a violent and heartless existence?
I glance over at Makanga again, my suspicions renewed that anyone in Tristan’s circle of acquaintances likely subscribes to the same code of conduct. As harmless as Makanga seems, I’d feel safer on my own.
“I appreciate the offer, but I’d rather stay with my friend in Arlington. I don’t think Tristan will mind as long as I stay under the radar.”
I should go see my parents. They think I’m lost in Rio, or worse. I can’t imagine the agony they’re going through not knowing whether I’m alive or dead, but reuniting too soon could put us all in danger. For now, I trust Brienne will take me in and stay discreet. We spent four years of college rooming together, a bond that has kept us in touch despite being in different countries living very different lives.
Makanga clucks his tongue and shakes his head. “I think he’ll mind paying me when he finds out I didn’t do my job.”
I think for a moment before unzipping my backpack and withdrawing a stack of bills Tristan gave me before our hasty escape from Mateus’s compound.
“Will this help?”
Makanga grins a little and turns his focus back to the road. “I believe it will. Where to, Ms. Santos?”
“The Clarendon. North Herndon Street.”
Twenty minutes later we’re taking the exit to Brienne’s. I release a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding, relieved that he’s definitely taking me there. I’m wiped out and need a friend, not a stranger pretending to babysit me.
As Makanga pulls up to the front of Brienne’s apartment building, I peer up at the enormous complex. Everything is well lit. New construction. Clean lines and order. Safe. Nothing like Rio.
“Thanks.” I hand Makanga his promised fee.
“One sec.” He leans over and unlatches the glove compartment. The door thunks open, revealing two handguns and a cell phone. He takes the phone out and offers it to me. “This shouldn’t be traceable. Trash your old one if you have it. My number is in there already if you need anything.”
I take it hesitantly and put it into my bag. “I should be fine.” I hope I’m right, though my track record of properly estimating the danger I’m in isn’t stellar lately.
He tosses the cash into the glove compartment and slams it shut. “Pleasure doing business with you, Isabel. Do me a favor and try to stay out of trouble. And if trouble comes to you, call me. I don’t live too far from here.”
“Got it. Thanks.”
My muscles tense when I leave the vehicle and the cool March air wraps around me. Somewhere between my fatigue and swimming thoughts, I find myself missing Rio—all its imperfections, the beautiful chaos. The pulse of the city like a heartbeat of a lover. Slow and steady one moment. Rapid-fire the next. Then memories of Tristan’s greedy touches and possessive thrusts hit my senses in an unexpected rush.
I sigh and push the heavy door to the building open. I put the memories away and resolve to lock them up tight until I find my bearings again.
I scan the postboxes in the entryway and double check the apartment number.
Brienne Wu #717
I check my phone on the elevator ride up and locate my contacts. I only have one. Postman. Nothing for Tristan. After what we’ve just been through, I have a hard time imagining him anywhere else but fighting for his life somewhere in Brazil, where people are still trying to hunt us down.
The elevator stops and dings at the seventh floor. Once at Brienne’s door, I knock loudly and wait. Today is Sunday, so hopefully I’ll catch her home. If not, I briefly consider napping outside her door until she returns. This endless day is wearing on me to the point of pain. I need sleep.
I fantasize about that possibility only a moment before Brienne opens the door.
“Oh my God!” she screams and bounds into the hallway to hug me. “What the fuck are you doing here? It’s not even my birthday.”
She pulls back, her expression reflecting her surprise and then confusion as she looks me up and down.
“Are you okay? You look like hell.”
“Not really. And I know.” I sigh. “Sorry for dropping in on you like this. I was hoping I could stay with you for a few days until I figure out my next move.”
“Definitely. Come in.”
We go in. I let my bag drop to the floor. This isn’t home, but being here is suddenly the most comfort I’ve had in days. The relief hits me hard. I linger there a moment and take it all in.
“Isabel, what’s going on?”
“I’ve been traveling all day,” I say weakly. Running. Surviving. Praying…
“Come on.” She takes my hand. “I’ve got wine.”
One glass of wine, and I’ll be unconscious. “I’d love to get cleaned up first.”
“Sure thing.” She ushers me toward the guest bedroom and the bathroom across the hall. “Make yourself at home,” she says softly, though I can see the desire to pry burning behind her kindness.
Even as I step into the blessedly hot shower, I’m not sure how much of Brienne’s curiosity I’ll be able to satisfy. I’ll need a story that doesn’t make her want to call the authorities, or my parents, the second I leave the room.
I run through my options until the water turns cold. If only I could wash away this new reality. The one where I can’t go home. Can’t go back to my life in Rio. Can’t leave this building without constantly looking over my shoulder.
I turn off the shower, wrap a towel around me, and venture toward Brienne’s room, hoping to snag some clothes. When I walk through the doorway, she’s there, picking up clothes from the floor of her messy bedroom.
“Do you mind if I borrow a few things? I wasn’t able to bring much with me.”
Concern shadows her bright gaze. “Of course. Whatever you need.”
We riffle through some of her drawers for jeans, some warmer tops than what I brought with me, and a silky pajama set that I slip into right away.
I deposit the rest with my things and join her in the living room where she’s unscrewing a cheap bottle of wine.
“So are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
I accept a glass and find a spot on the couch, trying to ignore how the rest of the apartment is especially unkempt. She was never this messy of a roommate, but I have no room to talk. My present life is in total shambles.
“You’re probably not going to believe it,” I say.
“Hit me with it.”
I take a sip of my wine. “Tristan… He found me.”
She stares at me in silence, blinking several times before she speaks. “Tristan. As in, the Tristan?”
“And what? He’s in DC, so you came home?”
“No, we reconnected in Rio.” I chew at the inside of my lip and hope the fact that I’m leaving out ninety-five percent of the story isn’t overly obvious.
She blows out a breath. “Are you back together?”
“Kind of.” By circumstance, mostly. But who knows when or if I’ll ever see him again.
She puts her wineglass down. “Explain to me what ‘kind of’ means. He broke up with you. I mean, he broke you. I watched it go down, remember? You were a wreck.”
“He’s different,” I say cryptically. “We’re different. Everything is.”
Her eyes go wide. “Let me get this straight. He ditched all your well-laid plans for a happily ever after, joined the military, and then ghosted you after sending you a fucking letter. No forwarding address. No hope of reconciliation. You remember all this, right?”
I gulp down a huge mouthful of wine. I haven’t forgotten. For years, Tristan has taken up more space in my thoughts than he really deserved. I should have gotten over him a long time ago. I had…somewhat. I’d been with other people. I’d attempted to move on, but he’s always been the reason why I couldn’t fall hard for anyone else.
“Anyway. What’s going on with you? How’s work?”
“You’re deflecting. I’m not letting you off that easy.”
I offer her a weak smile. “I’m exhausted. I just want to hear about someone else’s problems for a few minutes.”
She sighs. “Fine. But then you’re telling me everything.”
“You did what?”
If I could reach through the phone right now, Makanga wouldn’t have a prayer.
“I dropped her at her friend’s apartment. I scoped it out. Nice neighborhood. Looked fine for a night.”
I grab the keys from the valet at the parking garage outside Dulles, pop the trunk of the black coupe I arranged, and deposit my bag.
“That’s not what I fucking paid you for. I paid you to keep an eye on her until I got here.”
“Well, she pays more than you do, Red. And she’s fine. She promised to lie low. You can track her phone anyway. What’s the big deal?”
“Never mind.” I cuss under my breath and promptly end the call.
When I sent Isabel off on a jet to Panama, I knew I’d have to make a choice. Stay in Brazil and deal with Jay’s backup team, or follow Isabel back to DC, where they’d eventually discover her hiding out. Staying in Brazil meant fighting a war I could very likely lose. I can’t protect her if I’m a corpse rotting in the jungle, and Jay leaves nothing to chance. On the rare occasions I was sidelined on a job, she had a dozen more like me on standby ready to pick up where I left off, which is likely why Crow was tailing me. I don’t imagine Jay has many unsatisfied customers.
If Isabel’s not already on Jay’s radar, she will be soon. Her first instinct upon recognizing me was to follow me through the streets of Rio and into a dangerous alleyway, so I had reason to question her impulses when she landed back home. More times than not, she does whatever she feels is right, which could quickly land her in trouble.
I open up the app on my phone that indicates Isabel’s location. Relieved, I map my way to her friend’s apartment, eager to finish the last leg of a very long journey back to the States.
I’ve been on plenty of assignments but haven’t spent time in this part of the country since my memory went dark. Maybe that’s why Jay never sent me here. Maybe she couldn’t risk the familiarity of the place triggering something in me.
I contemplate that as I drive down the highway. What if I remember more? What if Isabel can break it open now that we’re both here?
Is that even what I want?
I turn the car radio down completely, removing the distraction so I can focus on the visuals. The endless horizon of the highway is dotted with luxury cars and semis. I turn onto the exit that will take me to my destination, hoping for something. Suddenly every building and shop and street sign holds the promise of remembrance but offers none.
The brightly lit entrance of the Clarendon comes into view, and all I can feel is a prickling anticipation to see Isabel. All I can picture is her face when I said goodbye to her. The regret I feel for doing it is uncomfortable, but I’m all the more glad to be reconciling the distance now.
I park, enter the apartment building, and call the number for the phone I had Makanga set up for her. She picks up after the second ring.
“Hello?” she answers tentatively.
“It’s me, Tristan. What floor are you on?”
She’s silent a moment.
“Who is it?” a voice says in the background.
“It’s Tristan,” she whispers.
Fucking hell. “Isabel. The apartment number.”
I hang up without another word. The twenty-four-hour lag between our arrivals was apparently too long. She’s already spilled details to her friend. I know it.
I arrive on the seventh floor. The door is open before I knock. Isabel is there, and before I can say anything, she pulls me inside and slams her body against mine. Twines her arms around my neck. Presses her face against my skin.
The door clicks shut behind us. Her friend is inside on the couch, watching us intently. I hesitate a couple of seconds before slowly returning the embrace. I’m too tired to pretend it’s not a welcome sensation. Like our last night in Brazil hasn’t been replaying in my mind since I watched her take off without me. Isabel is under my skin, and I’m not sure any amount of insubordination will change that. She holds me tighter, sinks in deeper, touches places inside me that I forgot existed.
“You don’t follow instructions very well,” I murmur, breathing her in as I wait for a snarky comeback.
“If you want me to follow orders, you’d better be here to enforce them.”
“Why do you think I’m here?”
She looks up at me like she can’t believe I’m real. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“I wasn’t sure I was.”
I can see the impact of the admission in the slight pinch of her features and the cooling of her affection as she steps away. She turns toward our host.
“Tristan, this is Brienne.”
Brienne waves her hand from her post on the couch. “Heard a lot about you.”
“Really?” I shoot a narrow look at Isabel.
She returns it with a tight smile. “You were kind of a theme in my life before I moved to Brazil.”
“A recurring theme, as it were,” Brienne says, crossing her arms like she might have something more to say on the subject. “I think you have explaining to do.”
She’s a petite woman with dark eyes and smooth olive skin. Her hair is long and straight, falling past her shoulders the same way Isabel’s does.
I look to Isabel again, wondering how much she may have told her friend about the man I’ve become and the danger she’s fallen into.
Isabel clears her throat. “Can we talk for a minute?”
She takes my hand and leads me into the apartment, closing the door behind us after we enter what appears to be a guest bedroom. Her things are in a neat pile at the foot of the bed. I log all the details. The basic layout of the two-bedroom apartment. The impressive view out the window. The clean, modern decor. The accommodations aren’t cheap.
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her we met up in Rio a little while ago and took a trip outside the city last week. Said we ran into some trouble with the locals and I had to fly home in a rush. She bought all of it.”
“And why are you here and not with your parents?”
She flinches. “It’s too dangerous, Tristan. You know that.”
“Yes, I know that. What does she know?”
“Oh, I just said my parents didn’t know about any of it yet. Told her that I haven’t ruled out going back to Rio and I didn’t want to worry them if I could avoid it. Obviously she wants me to stay, and she said I can hang out here as long as I want to. Or indefinitely. We lived together for four years.”
“Which is why you shouldn’t be here. As soon as Jay’s people figure out you’re back in the States, they’ll scour all your contacts in the city. They’ll find you here.”
“I’m not staying with some stranger, okay?” She throws her hands up and sits on the edge of the unmade bed, her head falling into her hands. “We’ve been on the run for days, Tristan, and this is the first time I’ve felt safe.”
“You feel comfortable. It’s not the same.” When she doesn’t respond after a while, I sit beside her. The bed dips under my weight, shifting her closer to me so our sides touch. I curl my arm around her, keeping her there. “We’ll stay here for now, all right? And tomorrow we’ll reach out to your father and see if he knows anything that can help.”
She lifts her gaze to mine. I can see the gratitude swimming in those hazel depths. I touch her silky cheek, draw the backs of my fingers along her jaw. My gaze settles on her mouth. The magnetic force that draws me to this woman time and again lures me forward until our lips meet. The kiss is homecoming and desire and the smallest physical manifestation of all the things she makes me feel.
When I finally pull away, a few tears have fallen, leaving shimmery trails down her cheeks. I want to brush them away and reassure her. Except my reassurances are worthless until I can stop the people who want us dead.