The foyer held most of my creations. Birds and horses and every creature I’d ever met in the Siberian forests of Mother Russia. It was a zoo made out of bronze and copper.
When I lost my sight, the thing I missed most was sculpting—bringing animals to life even though they’d never draw air.
The contract I’d signed when my blindness had been discovered roared back to mind.
There are only two ways an operative may leave the Establishment.
Upon leaving, the agent promises to never speak of said Establishment to anyone at any time for any reason. They solemnly swear to never talk about missions, details, or history. They must have their affairs in order and swallow the last instruction of duty.
Sharing of secrets is not permitted and the Establishment will not hesitate to carry out orders to erase both ex-operative and person who knows intimate knowledge.
The operative has exactly five weeks from removal to swallow his final task.
If this is disobeyed, the Establishment has full right to hunt, interrogate, and kill.
We are always watching.
Invincible. Impenetrable. Invisible.
Like the fucking schmuck I was, I signed it. I wanted out. I needed out. Every day, I lost more and more of my vision until I relied on a cane to move around. I already lived in hell, but now I lived in complete and utter darkness. I hated every moment of it.
Every day I begged for freedom—and fate finally listened by taking away my sight until I was useless to them.
I signed it.
I learned to read braille.
I left and never looked back.
For two years, I lived a life adrift from others. I opened Obsidian and hired Oscar to oversee it. Using my inheritance from my slaughtered family, I began a new life. I worked during the witching hours and slept while the sun protected me, basking my skin in warmth and safety my eyes couldn’t see.
And slowly, my vision came back.
The pressure of my past stopped crushing me; I believed the illusion that I was free—regardless of the fact that I was supposed to put myself down like a dog. I had everything I ever wanted apart from the privilege of indulging in another human for comfort. I thought I didn’t want it—that I was above such frivolous desires. But I wasn’t.
I wanted Zel like I wanted my next breath. I was dying to touch her. I’d give up my vision all over again if it meant I could kiss her and wrap my arms around her and be sure I’d never hurt her again.
I would undergo any operation or therapy if it meant I could just be normal. All I wanted was to provide and care for a woman who gave me all of herself. I hadn’t given anything in return, and I was sick of taking. Sick of being a mess. Sick of every damn thing.
I wanted to be a man for her. To shelter her, nurture her…learn to love her.
You’re a fucking idiot.
I’d just proved how wistful and fanciful such dreams were. I took Zel by force all because she touched me briefly.
You don’t deserve her.
Damn right I didn’t. I didn’t deserve anything more than a hole in the fucking ground.
The switch inside had flicked on and drowned out everything else. I was inflicted—therefore I had to inflict. Simple. Powerful. Unfightable.
Moving through the house, I didn’t know where I would go. I doubted Poison Oaks would indulge my needs so soon. I’d have to resort to more rudimentary methods and lurk in an alley once again.
The anticipation of a fist to my jaw gave me the willpower to keep moving and not bash my head in with the small rabbit statue sitting on the side table.
Wrenching open the door, I sucked in the early afternoon air. Gulping in freshness, I tilted my head up to the sun.
Shit. No clubs would be open to fight at this time. No alleys would be dark enough. I had nowhere to go to purge my body and punish myself. I needed a physical release, not just a few lines of a razor blade. Even the tools in my workshop wouldn’t give me the wallop I hungered for.
Where could I go to find redemption?
My brain filled with images of Zel again as I stalked around the side of the house toward the garage and my black Porsche.
Her beautifully firm ass as I drove into her. Her gorgeous cascading hair and heart shaped face. The way she looked at me afterward told me exactly what she thought.
Her eyes screamed the truth: I was diabolic. Not fit to be around others. And definitely not worthy of her.
I’d never forgive myself for drilling murderously into her like she was an enemy I needed kill.
Squinting in the glare, I stopped short.
Shit, I hated what I’d done so much, my vision was compromised. A slight film covered my gaze. I’d contaminated myself with horrendous actions toward a woman who deserved a kingdom.
I needed to leave that instant. I didn’t want to watch her go. I’d severed the connection between us, and there was nothing but the cold-hearted mistress of conditioning.
It was over.
I’d wanted to know so much about her. She could see the truth through all my bullshit and knew so much more about me than I did about her. The secrets she kept hidden were so deep inside I had no chance of deciphering them.
All I knew was the driving force behind everything she did was grief.
Sadness, heartache, despair.
I hated to see her so unhappy and not have anyone to lean on.
“Um, hi.” A soft, high pitched voice jerked me to attention. I looked around, searching the large expanse of pebbled driveway. I frowned. In my rush, I hadn’t noticed the white car parked at the front of Obsidian.
All members’ car parks were at the rear of the property. Who the hell had the nerve to park in front of my residence as if they owned the fucking place? I moved forward, wondering what the hell was going on.
“Um, mister? Do you have a key to the big door? My auntie and her friend left me to go talk to my mummy, but I don’t want to wait. I said I’d be good and sit in the car because little kids can’t go inside, but I want to see her.”
I spun around, kicking up gravel.
A perfect replica of Hazel stood behind me.
A flashback grabbed me with its gnarly claws, dragging me deep and dark.
“Congratulations on your promotion, Operative Fox. Tell me again how many family members you had.”
I hated this part. The mind games. The constant mental torture. He knew how many family members I’d had because he made me kill them all.
“I had a mother. Vera Averin. She was a whore, a traitor, and a thief, and deserved to die. I had a father. Alex Averin. He was a womanizer, a cheater, and a liar, and deserved to die. I had a brother, Vasily Averin. He was the spawn of Satan, a heathen, and only evil lived inside him, and he deserved to die.”
The moment the vile lies were spoken, I hastily thought the truth. Silently, I undid the heinous things I said. Vera, my mother, was kind and generous. She didn’t deserve to die. Alex, my father, was a great provider and protector. He didn’t deserve to die. Vasily—
My heart ceased to beat as grief crippled me. Vasily, my brother, was a proficient artist, kind and smart. He didn’t deserve to die.
“Good. And did you know you had a sister?”
My gut churned, threatening an explosive reaction. A sister? No. No, please no. I couldn’t handle killing another sibling. A girl. An innocent, little girl whose only crime was to share my blood.
“You killed her, too. Don’t you remember?”
I blinked. White noise hissed in my ears, drowning out my panic. “Excellent, sir. I do not recall that mission.” Like so many others, I’d wiped them forever from my memory. I wasn’t surprised I couldn’t recall killing yet another sibling. I would rather pull my brain out through my ears than remember.
“Yes. Your mother was pregnant with a girl. A double murder and you didn’t even know.” The pat to the shoulder came with an electric shock. Every muscle seized as the current passed through my body.
“What do you say?” the handler asked, once he’d let me go.
My brain screamed, die you motherfucker. My mouth said, “Thank you, sir.”
I returned to the present with a bang, stumbling as vertigo hit me hard.
Goddammit. I fucking hated them. Hated. Hated. Hated. I wished I could stick a cattle prod in my brain and short circuit my entire system. The flashbacks were the worst they’d been in a long time—brought on by the stress of hurting a woman I cared deeply for.
I knew without a doubt the little girl standing in front of me was hers. There was no mistaking the long mahogany hair, the perfect cheekbones, the shape of her chin. The only difference was eye colour. Green had given way to soulful liquid brown eyes that looked right into my fucking soul.
My breathing accelerated; my heart pumped like a demon. I backed away as fast as my legs could motor.
Don’t come near me. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t have more blood on my hands. Her blood. Zel’s little legacy.
Pebbles skidded beneath my shoes as I practically surfed on gravel in my terror to run. I needed to get far, far away from this miniature replica of Hazel. Before I hurt her.
Her dark eyes met mine, and I lost touch with reality.
“For the third and final time, kill him!”
“No!” Wetness splashed on my eighteen-year-old cheeks and it took a while to realize it was tears. I’d never cried before. Not even when I killed my mother and father. But this…I couldn’t do this.
“You made me take care of him! You brought him to stay with me. I thought you wanted me to train him to be like us!” My voice broke as I looked at my small nine-year-old brother, Vasily. His cheeks were still chubby with youth, his blue eyes wide with terror. A dark stain on the front of his jeans signalled fear had hijacked his bladder.
For three months, we’d slept in the same room, ate together, laughed together. I thought my handler rewarded me for good behaviour and given me a friend. Given me my brother to train and integrate into this new way of life.
I never suspected this.
“Roan. Pl—please help me. Don’t kill me. Please?” Vasily’s soprano voice brought fresh tears to my eyes; my body heaved, fighting against years of conditioning and the wrath of my handler.
“I. Won’t. Do. It,” I snapped, sucking in large gulps of air. I refused to kill my last blood relative. A boy I cared for more than anyone in the world.
“Yes, you will, Operative Fox. Otherwise we’ll torture him until he dies, then cripple you as you’re no longer viable property.”
I couldn’t stand anymore.
My handler grabbed Vasily by his neck, bringing him closer to me. “Do it.”
Vomit exploded from my mouth, splashing onto the concrete floor.
My brother stopped crying, squirming out of the handlers hold. Instead of running away from the man destined to murder him, he ran toward me and wrapped his bony arms tight around my waist.
“Mister? Hey, mister?” A tug on my cuff removed me from my horrible memories, slapping me into reality. “Are you okay?” The high, lyrical voice pierced my throbbing brain.
I charged back, breaking her hold on my shirt. “Don’t touch me.”
The little girl looked down and scuffed her shiny black shoes in the gravel. “Oh, sorry.” Her eyes met mine again, wide and worried. “Are you okay? You were mumbling things I couldn’t understand.” She cocked her head. “What language was that? My teacher said we should learn a language. I’d like to learn, but I don’t know what. Maybe I could learn what you just spoke.” She stepped forward, her little lips never stopping. “Can you teach me? I’d love to learn and mummy would be really proud of me. Would you teach me, please?” Her eyelashes flurried and my fucking heart shattered into pieces.
I sucked in air, locking my muscles, conjuring all the self-control I possessed. If I ever needed complete and utter discipline, it was now. I’d avoided children since losing Vasily. I couldn’t look at them or listen to them or even watch them on television.