London Calling by Veronica Forand
Series n/a; standalone
Genre Adult Contemporary Romance & Romantic Suspense
Publisher Entangled Amara
Publication Date March 25, 2019
Macknight scanned the surroundings outside the hotel room window. Everything seemed as it should be in downtown Minsk. Clear sky, bright sun, no abnormal congregations of people in the plaza. Men and women wearing only a few variations of the same dark business attire and blue-collar workers in somber colors headed to lunch while groups of school children loitered nearby during a break from classes. Up above, on a rooftop over the plaza, a lone security guard kept watch, more interested in his mobile than his job.
“How does this look?” Lucy asked, as though she were meeting a guy she’d swiped right on Tinder.
How did she look? Like bait for a very important fish. Her blond hair tumbled over her shoulders in loose waves. Her blue silk blouse showed an indecent amount of skin. Her short black skirt and sky-high heels gave the impression she’d be easy on the first date. If everything went as planned, she’d be a sure thing.
In the past, watching Lucy prostitute herself in the name of the Queen had pulled at Macknight’s conscience, but she’d always had the choice to say no, and she never did. Not in the five years since she’d joined his team. Her work made asset acquisition easier. Men lusted after her, adding incentive for potential spies to turn traitor to their own countries.
“You look perfect,” Owen answered. He circled her, nodding in approval. “If Panin doesn’t want you, Macknight and I will take you out tonight dancing and drinking and…”
Macknight lifted his hand to shut down Owen’s chatter. “If there’s a problem, we’ll be on a plane back to London to regroup and prepare for our next assignment. She’s not a party favor.”
Lucy’s confidence and ability to step straight into the lion’s den without hesitation should be recognized for the fearless act it was. Mollycoddling her before she set foot on center stage was the worst thing they could do for her.
“Let him be, Macknight. Owen wants what I want—a retirement spent sailing in Santorini and clubbing in Berlin.”
“And Ibiza. That was one insane night,” Owen added.
Macknight checked his watch again. “Five minutes.”
She walked over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder, her touch calming the tension in his muscles. “Isidor Panin shouldn’t be difficult to seduce. He’s a mid-level bureaucrat at the Russian Ministry of Energy. Sounds like a pretty dull existence to me. I’ll add a bit of spice to his life.” After five years of working together, she’d become his sanity, keeping him human, even on his worst days, a sister to replace the family he’d lost so many years ago. “Is everything ready?”
He nodded. “Owen and I will be at a table only a few feet away from you. We’ll have your back.”
“You always do.” Her smile faded. The game wasn’t new to them anymore, the thrill no longer overshadowing the risk. “Did the additional background check reveal anything new?”
Owen took his handgun off the table and secured it inside the waistband of his jeans. “Not much. He’s more than willing to sell his reputation and everything he knows about Arctic oil exploration for fifty thousand pounds per year. He’s drowning in debt, and his wife left him to move back in with her elderly mother.”
“Sounds pathetic, actually.” Lucy checked herself in the mirror again, a perfectionist in her art.
“He’s the ideal pawn. As long as we can keep him safe and undiscovered,” Macknight responded.
Lucy turned to face them. “We always do.”
“I don’t know what MI6 would do without us,” Owen replied, basking in his own praise.
“Let’s not get too confident.” Macknight tended to be the drag on their assignments. That was part of his job. Cross the T’s and dot the I’s. Get everyone home safe.
Once MI6 recruited an asset in a critical industry in a target country, the first few months determined the future effectiveness of the recruit. Money always flowed into their hands, but the transactions often included safe passage to the United Kingdom if anything went sour. When money wasn’t enough, there was sex to keep the asset loyal.
If Lucy wasn’t the right type of bait, Owen took over. He handled men and women equally. Macknight had a different job. If the risk of someone living became too high, he eliminated them. Anyone could be his target—a potential spy with loose lips or even a colleague at MI6 if the person knew too much. Only a few people in the world were safe from him, mainly Lucy and Owen. He didn’t keep a count of his kills, but the number was large enough to send him to the lowest levels of hell.
“One minute,” he said, glancing at his watch.
The conversation stopped, and each team member focused on their own part of the game. Macknight played through the scenario a few more times in his mind and ignored the gnawing in his gut whenever Lucy became someone’s plaything. He and Owen would remain in the background, watching for any threats. Hopefully, that would be enough to keep her safe.
She grabbed her purse off the couch. When she reached the door, she turned toward the men and waved. “Do svidainya.”
Once outside of the hotel room, they’d only speak Russian until they returned to London. Lucy would only refer to herself as Katya Nikonov, a Russian translator who grew up in the U.K. The hotel room had been swept for any surveillance devices when they’d arrived, providing them one small, safe haven where they could relax.
A minute later, Macknight and Owen headed into the plaza and found a not-so-perfect table. Large flower pots ablaze in reds and oranges and huge white and yellow sun umbrellas blocked part of Lucy’s introduction to Panin. As Macknight adjusted his seat to place Lucy in his line of sight, Owen ordered two beers. Beer in Belarus was never as smooth or as cold as a pint in London, but the only other palatable option, Russian vodka, would obliterate Macknight’s ability to assess the situation around him.
He’d dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, his hair pulled back and tied, a bloke out for a beer with his mate, who appeared a bit edgier with his brown hair gelled and spiked into a style only an overconfident punk could get away with. The goal was to keep attention off of them. Not even Panin should know he had a few extra observers in the vicinity. Although they’d guard the potential asset with their lives, his loyalty had yet to be proven. So they remained close, but unannounced.
A crisp May afternoon brought crowds of people outside. Too many for Macknight’s liking. Between the umbrella stands and customers jockeying for a better location on the patio, the view of their targets three tables over wavered between perfect visibility and complete blindness.
The meeting involved three people—Lucy, Panin, and Edward Ross, the MI6 recruiter. Ross located potential assets while flying around the world as an executive for British Petroleum. He’d recruited over thirty members of the Russian government to spy for the British. More professional, rational, determined, and driven than anyone Macknight had ever met, he’d been a mentor to Macknight, introducing him to the style and finesse required while living within the MI6 matrix.
When Ross had learned of Panin’s interest in becoming a mole for MI6, he offered him a large amount of cash—and Lucy—in exchange for critical information. From the smile on Panin’s face and his hand on her knee, he was more than willing to close the deal. Might as well live large while he could. If someone on the other side learned of his turning spy, he was a dead man.
A few people stood up at a table between Macknight and their targets. He feigned an ache in his back and stood up, his height allowing him to see over shoulders and heads.
This location wasn’t his first choice for a meeting. It wouldn’t have been his second or third choice, either, but Panin had requested a public place. Either the information he offered was more valuable than they’d thought, or he was extremely insecure and paranoid. Recruitment involved a dance between conflicting needs and loyalties. The more patient party often won out.
A wee girl brushed by Macknight, leaving a swipe of chocolate ice cream on his pant leg.
“Hey, watch it,” he said in Russian, holding back the swear word that sat on the edge of his tongue. He wiped off the sticky mess with a napkin. About five years old, the little blonde hadn’t meant to ruin his jeans, but the damage was done. She rushed away between the cramped tables and chairs, catching up to her mother and clasping her hand.
“Telling off children now?” Owen raised his glass toward the girl disappearing into the crowd.
“These are my favorite pants.”
“You need a vacation or a woman.”
Macknight pointed to the stain on his knee. “I’ve never had a woman come into my life without causing chaos. Except Lucy.” Dedicated to her job, she was a sympathetic ear after a tough assignment and the peacemaker of the team. She was perfection.
They returned their focus to the conversation at the other table.
Ross took a slow, relaxed sip of his vodka, while Panin and Lucy focused on each other.
“When are you available?” Panin asked her, all sound coming through the wire in Lucy’s ear.
“Tonight?” Her fingers rested on his arm; her gaze fell toward his lips. Sexy innocence oozed out of her every movement.
Panin smiled. A cockiness set his posture straighter. He turned to Ross. “I think this arrangement will work just fine.”
“May it be prosperous for everyone. If you’ll excuse me, I need to find the men’s room.” Ross stood, kissed Lucy on the cheek, and headed inside the bar. He glanced back at the table twice before disappearing into the building.
“Watch them while I meet with Ross,” Macknight told Owen.
“Grab me a beer while you’re in there.”
“One is enough.”
“We’re going to be sitting here for another hour while they make arrangements to shag. I need something to shift my mind off the image of Lucy and Panin in bed together.”
Macknight looked over at Panin and Lucy. Their conversation had veered to blow jobs and handcuffs. Maybe another beer would be helpful. First, he had to meet with Ross to confirm that Panin was acceptable. He pressed through the crowd and found Ross washing his hands in the men’s room, his back to the door, but his eyes focused on the mirror to provide a perfect view of the area. He gave Macknight a short nod to acknowledge the room was clear.
“Another jewel in the crown. Good work,” Macknight said.
Ross was an artist when it came to the subtle and dangerous negotiations that led to new moles inside key government positions.
“Not yet. He’s interested in Lucy, but he doesn’t show enough interest in the money, which might mean he’s playing us.” Ross massaged one of his temples and frowned. “Stay on guard. I don’t trust him yet.”
An uncomfortable chill spread through Macknight’s gut. That was the problem with recruiting. Sometimes people were legitimate, most of the time they weren’t. The Russian Military Intelligence Service, the GRU, could be entrapping Panin as much as MI6 was attempting to turn his loyalty.
“I’m going to say goodbye to Lucy and Panin then head to the airport. If he sends me the documents, I’ll wire his account and give Lucy the go-ahead. Keep an eye on him.”
Macknight nodded. “Maybe I’ll see you at the next go-round.”
“There’s always a possibility.” Ross stalled at the door. “Take care of yourself.”
Macknight gave Ross time to make it back to his table, then left the washroom and turned toward the bar. A pretty redhead came over to take his order. She leaned toward him and didn’t say a word, just lifted her brows in invitation.
“Two glasses of Krynitsa,” he ordered.
“Anything else?” She pulled out two mugs. “I’m free in a few hours.”
He rested against the carved edge of the bar and imagined relaxing with a stranger in a foreign city. Nothing stirred in him but impatience. Owen and Lucy were his priority. “I have to work tonight.”
She gave him a forced smile. “Maybe next time.”
“Sure.” Though he’d never be back. Watching over a teammate meant the closest he’d get to a night of shagging would be listening to the grunts and groans of Lucy and Panin sealing the deal.
Owen’s voice in his earpiece cut through his thoughts. “Is Ross with you?”
“No. He went back to the table.” He scanned the bar. “He’s not here, and the lunch crowd is swelling.”
Before he could make it out the door, an explosion rocked the pub, shattering its windows. He fell to the floor, his hands covering his face to avoid the debris flying in all directions. As the initial shock of the blast left his system, he stood up and pushed several bystanders out of his way.
The roar of terror intensified as people ran from the scene. Screams and cries echoed across a war zone. New sounds came from the terrace now, glass breaking, the hiss of flames, and the wailing of the injured and dying. Smoke billowed from the spot where Lucy had been seated.
His thoughts scrambled, trying to make flash judgments. He ran past the table where he’d sat for the past hour. Owen was gone.
In the middle of the patio, there were at least twenty people on the ground unconscious or dead. Limbs and blood mixed with broken tables and chairs. Macknight pushed past a crowd of shocked bystanders. With each step, guilt, anger, and frustration built inside him. The flowers on the tables had scattered on the ground, adding more red to the blood already splattered everywhere. Shattered remnants of dishes blanketed the area with sharp edges. A few people hurried into the fray, wanting to help. Some turned away, their faces pale after seeing the carnage.
He left his handgun at his waist, afraid the sight of a firearm in his hand would set him up to be arrested. Instead, he crouched low, steadying his breath and focusing on one task. Protect his teammates, then kill the son of a bitch who did this.
He found Isidor Panin dead on the ground. Part of his chest was gone. The part where his heart had been. Blood coated his face and drenched the area surrounding him. His eyes stared out into something beyond this spot, his mouth open in shock. He’d never stood a chance.
Lucy was on the ground about ten feet away. The sight of her stunned him into a moment of paralysis. His heart, his head, his entire being ceased to function. The woman he’d lived with for the past five years hadn’t been murdered, she’d been destroyed. The pounding in his ears blocked out the screams of the living.
Owen was at her side, closing her eyes, moving hair away from her face. Macknight didn’t help. It wouldn’t make her whole again, and he didn’t care to scuffle with his teammate in his grief. Instead, he wanted someone to suffer and die for what they’d done. He glanced away from the bombing. Where was Ross?
“Ross?” he called out.
“Never made it back here.” Owen remained with Lucy, staring and shaking his head.
The pressure of her loss punched into Macknight’s chest. He couldn’t breathe. Lucy’s hair, stained in blood, covered part of her face. She was missing a shoe on one leg. The other leg was gone. His knees gave out until he was kneeling on the ground next to Owen.
“What the hell happened?” He wanted a name, a person he could chase down. Someone had murdered the wrong woman. Someone who would wish they’d never stepped inside Belarus. Lucy had been his sanity. On his worst days, she urged him on. For her, he pulled himself out of his grief and went to work. He slid the earpiece off her to keep her anonymous, even in death.
Owen fisted one of his hands and paused for a few breaths. “I had a decent view of Lucy and Panin, but lost sight of Ross after he stepped out of the bar. When I turned to look for him, the bomb went off. Everything went to hell pretty fast after that.”
Owen glanced away from Lucy’s corpse toward him. Part of his ear was missing.
“You okay?” An icy shiver shot through Macknight’s spine. He clenched his fist to steady the emotions coursing through him. He wouldn’t lose two teammates in one day.
“I’m fine. It’s Lucy…” Owen’s voice trailed away as blood streamed down his neck. He shook his head as though he had a bug in his ear. His skin was sallow, and he swayed like a drunk. “I missed something.”
“We’ll have time to figure it all out. Let’s get you out of here.” The tightening in his chest decreased enough for him to inhale a decent breath of air mixed with smoke and debris.
“Good idea.” Owen tried to stand, but his legs didn’t hold, and he fell back to the ground. Between the shock and the blood loss, his body shut down, collapsing in a heap next to Lucy.
Police and ambulance crews arrived. The sound of the sirens echoed through Macknight’s skull. Lucy was dead. But Owen wasn’t.
He lifted Owen into his arms and waved away the ambulance workers, telling them his friend had passed out from the bloody scene. Owen could get medical treatment on the jet back to London. With a final look at Lucy’s remains, Macknight headed to the airport. Ross better have been abducted, because if he had any part in this, he was a walking dead man.
Tour Wide Giveaway
To celebrate the release of LONDON CALLING by Veronica Forand, we're giving away a $25 Amazon gift card to one lucky winner!
GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS: Open to internationally. One winner will receive a $25 Amazon gift card. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Entangled Publishing. Giveaway ends 3/29/2019 @ 11:59pm EST. Limit one entry per reader. Duplicates will be deleted. CLICK HERE TO ENTER!
VERONICA FORAND is an attorney and an award-winning writer of romantic suspense. She's lived in Boston, London, Paris, Geneva, and Washington, DC and currently resides near Philadelphia. An avid traveler, she loves to roam across continents with her husband and kids in pursuit of skiing, scuba diving, and finding the perfect piece of chocolate.