“Thornton, are you listening?”
Shiver, as he was known to most outside of his family, turned away from the window where he’d been looking out at the dormant gardens of Whittaker Abbey. The land had been handed down, heir to heir, since 1547 when the former Cistern abbey was taken over by Henry VIII. Shortly afterward, the estate was given to John Whittaker as a gift from the king for his service.
As a boy, he’d explored every acre of the forested estate and its gardens, knowing that one day, the care and maintenance of the land would be his responsibility. It had seemed a long way off then—not until he was an old man, when his father, the fourteenth Duke, passed away.
Until then, he would remain the Marquess of Wells and, more importantly to him, a high-ranking agent in the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as Military Intelligence Section 6, or MI-6.
“I beg your pardon, Duchess,” he answered, looking lovingly at his mother, the woman who had been the guiding force of their family in the months since his father had suffered a debilitating stroke.
“What news of Sutton?”
Like him, his younger brother by two years, known to most as Wilder, was employed by “Her Majesty’s secret service.” However, he was on the national security side—MI-5.
Shiver sneaked a look at his phone. “He’s expected this afternoon.”
“Very good. You and he will get the trees.”
His first thought was to ask why the groundskeepers couldn’t handle it on their own, as they’d had even before his father’s illness, but he understood his mother was grasping for any semblance of what she considered normalcy. Choosing the trees that would be brought into the abbey and decorated for the holidays was something he, his father, and brother had done together until Shiver had turned eighteen and left for university.
“We will do,” he murmured, wondering how many trees his mother planned to decorate this year. Was more than one really necessary? It wasn’t as though they would entertain this holiday season.
Duchess Victoria was the eldest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland, and still practiced what some believed to be archaic traditions of the English nobility.
“Come, sit with me,” said his mother, holding her hand out to him. “Tell me what’s troubling you.”
Shiver sat, but he had no intention of telling her anything. He also had no intention of lying, so he chose not to say anything.
“Have you seen your father this morning?” she asked.
Shiver nodded. “I read the news to him.”
His mother patted his hand. “You know how much he likes to catch up over his morning tea.”
He wasn’t sure his father had heard a word he’d read, and he’d certainly not had any tea, but as the doctors had told them, the important thing was that the family spent time with him and conversed whether the duke was able to respond or not.
“There’s more,” she murmured.
“Something is on your mind, Thornton, and whatever it is, its weight is heavy.”
Even if he wanted to discuss it with his mother, he wouldn’t know where to begin.
“It’s a woman,” she murmured.
Shiver leaned closer. “It’s nothing,” he said softly. “Let it be, Duchess.”
“For now,” she said, standing and leaning down to kiss his cheek. “I’ll check on your father.”
Shiver nodded and stood too, walking back over to the window.
It had been over a month since United Russia lifted the ten-million-dollar bounty they had on Orina “Losha” Kuznetsov’s head, and yet Shiver had no idea where she was and why she insisted on staying so far underground that no one could find her.
He’d called in every favor—and there had been many—but so far, he didn’t have a single lead as to where the bloody woman was hiding.
“You best be driving in the gate,” Shiver said when he answered his brother’s call a couple of hours later.
Wilder laughed. “At least an hour out, but before you blast me, I’ve spent the last thirty minutes listening to Sir Ranald tell me how he intends to fire you.”
Shiver laughed. “My Christmas wish come true.”
“What in the bloody hell did you do?”
* * *
Shiver pounded his fist on the desk of the office he’d been holed up in, cursing the impotence he felt as much as the walls surrounding him.
Ten minutes ago, his boss had summoned him, but Shiver wasn’t any closer to giving him the answer he sought than he had been two weeks ago when Rivet had first asked for his decision.
Sir Ranald “Rivet” Caird was a career British Intelligence officer for MI-6 who, nine years prior, had been named chief. At the time, he’d been candid about his refusal to serve beyond a ten-year term.
The first in line to succeed him had been Merrigan Shaw, who was now Merrigan Shaw-Butler, happily married to Kade “Doc” Butler, the founding partner of the private security and intelligence firm made up primarily of former CIA operatives—K19 Security Solutions. Merrigan had taken over as managing partner of the firm and had made it perfectly clear that she wouldn’t return to MI-6 regardless of the position offered.
As much as that had infuriated their boss, Rivet had seen her departure coming in the same way Shiver had, and couldn’t begrudge her the happiness she and Doc had in their lives.
With Merrigan out of the picture, Shiver had moved to the top spot to succeed Sir Caird. His lack of enthusiasm, along with his refusal to give the man an answer, incensed his boss.
“He’s pacing,” said Patsy, sticking her head in Shiver’s office. “Would you mind?”
“In a minute,” he snapped, immediately regretting his tone. Patsy was Rivet’s assistant and didn’t deserve his or anyone else’s wrath.
“I take it you haven’t heard anything.”
Patsy was well aware of Shiver’s search for Orina Kuznetsov, and had done everything she could to help. While her level of security clearance was as high or higher than Shiver’s, she couldn’t do too much digging without getting in trouble with Rivet herself.
“Sorry, Pats. Not your fault or your problem.”
“Go talk to him. Get it over with so we can all start enjoying the holiday.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” he muttered, cursing himself again for his thoughtlessness.
Patsy motioned with her head toward Rivet’s office, and Shiver stood.
“You’re not a duke yet,” Rivet barked when Shiver walked in. “Until you are, I outrank you, and I expect you to respond appropriately.”
“Yes, sir. My apologies.”
“The resources of the Secret Intelligence Service are not yours to make use of for personal matters.”
“Understood.” Now wasn’t the time to argue with Rivet, but other than making contact with several of their operatives, Shiver hadn’t used SIS “resources” to search for Kuznetsov.
“That being said, I am authorizing a fact-finding mission.”
Rivet raised an eyebrow.
“I’m not ready to give you an answer.”
“You’re under the assumption that I’m authorizing the mission in exchange for your acceptance of the position?”
“To a certain extent.”
“Get the hell out of my office! In fact, get the hell out of the building.”
“Rivet, I meant no—”
* * *
His brother laughed. “Did you wish him a happy Christmas on your way out?”
Shiver ran his hand through his hair. “He’s frustrated that I won’t give him an answer.”
“No, Shiv, he’s pissed that you thought so little of him.”
When his brother didn’t say anything else, Shiver thought perhaps their call had dropped, but then he heard him take a deep breath.
“We’ll find her, but in the meantime, you have to find a way to compartmentalize.”
If his brother were standing in front of him, Shiver would likely belt him, after which he’d feel equally as guilty as he did about his conversation with Rivet. However, he had no restraint despite knowing he’d experience regret.
“Where the hell is she?” he murmured in a way he wouldn’t to anyone but his brother.
“I wish I had the answer, Shiv.”
Orina looked into the most beautiful deep gray eyes that had ever graced the universe. Kazmir wasn’t just the heavens’ most beloved angel given to her as a precious gift; he was Orina’s world, and she would do anything to protect him.
“What shall we do today?” she whispered, kissing the baby’s brow.
Kazmir cooed and gave her one of the sweet smiles Orina craved.
She’d been in hiding since she first discovered she was pregnant, fearful that United Russia, the modern-day iteration of the KGB and the current ruling party of the country, would force her to terminate it.
Shortly after she disappeared, her UR handler discovered the affair she’d been having with MI-6 agent Thornton “Shiver” Whittaker and openly accused her of being a double agent. Thus, a bounty had been placed on her head and her assets had been frozen.
She’d been prepared for it, though. She’d been planning her defection—because, in essence, that’s what it was—for over two years, knowing the accusation was inevitable.
The burner cell she kept near the bedside table vibrated, and Orina ran to grab it.
“Ovsyanaya kasha,” a woman’s voice said. She and her oldest and dearest friend, Zaryana Ivashov, had agreed on the code phrase years ago to identify themselves to one another.
While Zary was the only person who had the phone’s number, Orina wasn’t foolish enough to think it would stay that way. United Russia’s reach was global, and eventually, regardless of what fail-safes she put in place, they’d find her.
“Hello, Zary,” she responded. “How are you?”
“I’m worried about you, Losha.”
The code name Zary called her by was one her friend had given her years ago. She’d told Orina at the time that her long dark hair looked as beautiful as a horse’s mane.
The two had met when the then-KGB took them and several other teenage girls from the orphanages they were living in, and trained them to be spies.
“Orina, please tell me where you are,” Zary pleaded. “You don’t need to hide anymore. The bounty has been lifted.”
She could hear the desperation in her friend’s voice, and understood that she would’ve felt the same way if the situations were reversed.
If it were just Orina’s life at risk, maybe she would’ve believed the words of the only person worthy of her trust when she assured her again and again that she no longer had to stay in hiding. As it was, she couldn’t be too careful.
“It is difficult for me to believe that United Russia would give up so easily.”
“It wasn’t easily, Losha. Shiver—”
From the other room, Kazmir began to cry, as though he’d heard Zary’s words and understood the pain they brought his mother.
Orina immediately ended the call but knew it hadn’t been quickly enough. Zary had to have heard the baby’s cry.
When she was about to park in front of her rented flat after running some errands, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. Danger was close; she felt it on every nerve ending.
She’d known the day would come; her only question was, who? Had United Russia found her, or had Shiver?
She looked in the review mirror at the beautiful baby sleeping peacefully in the backseat. As hard as it would be to leave the sweet flat they’d called home since shortly after Kazmir was born, they had no choice. Someone had found them, signaling it was time for them to move on.
Her only regret was not being able to spend the upcoming holiday in Lapland. After being almost entirely destroyed during World War II, the region had rebuilt, proclaiming itself the official home of Father Christmas.
Orina supposed spending the holiday here was more for her than her son; Kazmir wouldn’t remember anything of their temporary home.
She turned her car around and was about to drive away, when she recognized a man getting out of another SUV.
Axel “Pinch” Bard. His presence meant three things. Shiver Whittaker was either with him or not far behind; SIS was likely involved in her manhunt; and any hesitation she might have felt over leaving, was long gone, like she soon would be.
“I’m in the States and…I need help,” Orina said when she called Zary three days later.
“Where in the States are you?”
“Tell me what you need, Losha.”
“A place to stay. At least temporarily.” She felt her eyes fill with tears when she looked at her sleeping baby. They’d spent the last two nights in different hotels, and the change in surroundings was affecting Kazmir’s sleep. Orina needed to find a place where they could stay for several nights in a row.
“Let me see what I can do.”
“You can’t tell anyone.”
“I have to tell Gunner,” Zary sighed.
“I can’t help you on my own anymore, Losha. I don’t have the resources.”
“Never mind, then.”
“Wait. Don’t hang up.”
Orina sighed like Zary had. “What?”
“I trust him. If I ask him not to tell anyone where you are, he won’t.”
She didn’t know what to say. Could she risk Zary’s trust of a man she’d never met? Gunner was a former CIA operative and, along with being Zary’s fiancé, he was a partner in a private intelligence and security firm that Shiver had connections to.
Again, she was faced with the same dilemma. If it were only her, she could afford to take the risk, but Kazmir’s life was at stake too.
“I heard the baby’s cry,” Zary murmured. “Let me help you.”
“I’ll call you back,” she said, abruptly ending the call.
Orina looked around the dank and dark motel room. Not knowing when or how she’d be able to generate an income again, she was hesitant to spend any more money than necessary. She’d stockpiled as much cash as she could without drawing attention to it. If UR had noticed, they would’ve been onto her plan before she’d had time to put everything in place.
Zary admitted she’d heard the baby crying; maybe she’d already told Gunner.
A few minutes later, Orina called Zary back. “I need help. If you must tell Gunner, I’ll have to accept that. If there is any way you can help me without doing so, I’d consider it a personal favor.”
“A personal favor? Losha, you saved my life. Countless times, in fact. Don’t you realize I would do anything for you?”
The emotion in her one and only friend’s voice brought Orina to tears.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“I asked you before to give me a couple of hours. Are you able to, or do you need to move immediately?”
“I’ll be okay for a few days.”
“It won’t take that long. Is there anything else you need me to do right now?”
“What is it?”
“No one will know except Gunner and me.”
“Thank you,” Orina whispered a second time.