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The Road to Bliss

 

 

 

Denver, Colorado

Eight years ago

 

Holly Lang stared at the papers. “What is this supposed to mean?”

Scott Lang sighed, barely glancing up from the desk in his beautifully designed Congressional office. “It means what it says, dear. My father was right. You’re a liability. I’m never going to move out of state politics with you at my side. I’m going to make a run at Washington in two years. I can’t do that as long as I’m married to you. Don’t get me wrong. You’re a gorgeous woman. You’re fun, and the sex is amazing. Was at first. I was caught up in it. I should have done exactly what my father told me to do. I should have screwed you until my eyes popped out and then married a proper political wife.”

Rage threatened to choke her. “Well, I think you can tell your father that I feel pretty damn screwed.”

Nearly ten years of marriage down the drain. She’d done everything the bastards had asked her to do. She’d worn the right clothes, gone to all the proper parties, kept her mouth shut when she wanted to scream. More than that, she’d done everything he’d needed her to do. She’d dropped out of college to support him. She’d had their baby.

She looked through the papers, catching on one particular clause.

“Well, I understand you mean to enforce the prenup.”

He sat back, cold blue eyes assessing her. His perfectly coiffed hair had a hint of silver at the temples. His stylist put that in once a month. Scott’s hair didn’t have a hint of silver. Those strands were dyed to give him a regal air of maturity. Like everything with her husband—soon to be ex—it was an illusion created to play to his voters. “That is what a prenup is for, dear.”

“Your timing is impeccable.” According to the prenup, if she’d stayed married for another six months, she would be paid a sizable sum if they divorced. At the time when she’d signed the damn thing, she’d hated that clause, hated the whole idea of a prenuptial agreement. It had seemed so unromantic. But she’d been madly in love. She’d signed it because she’d known they wouldn’t need it.

Two years in, she’d realized that Scott was a vacuous idiot who cheated on her at every given opportunity. But she’d had Micky to think about. Her son was everything to her.

Scott’s fingers drummed along the top of his desk as though he was bored by the whole scene and ready to move on. “I’ve had this on my calendar for years. I was never going to give you that money. I would have divorced you last year, but I was up for reelection, and it doesn’t look good to the voters.”

Bastard. So cold blooded. What had she ever seen in this man? “How is it going to look now? You’re kicking your wife and child to the curb. I’m sure your constituents are going to love that.”

The reptilian smile that crossed his face chilled her to the bone. In that moment, she knew she was screwed. He opened a manila folder. “Oh, I think they’ll understand when they see these.”

Five photos were laid out in front of her, each more damning than the next. Her stomach churned as she looked at those pictures. Whoever he’d paid had done a damn fine job with Photoshop. The woman in the photos was a dead ringer for her. It looked like she was standing outside a seedy motel with her husband’s bodyguard, Rick. Her hand was on his chest, his on her hip. The next picture featured a deep kiss as Rick’s hands delved into her blouse. She turned her eyes away from the other two pictures. They were taken through the window and showed her riding the bodyguard, her head thrown back.

“Dare I ask who played the part of me?” Tears threatened to squeeze out of her eyes. Rick had always been nice to her, but she supposed her husband’s money and influence bought anything he wanted.

“It doesn’t matter. Rick is ready to go on record to the press. The motel manager has proof that you’ve been going there every week for several months. It’s all lies, but that’s irrelevant. The press will see what I want them to see.” He pulled the photos back in and neatly stacked them. “I don’t particularly want to use these. I think it would be hard on Micky, don’t you?”

Micky was only nine, the light of her life. He went to a private school, and they would eat him alive if his mother was involved in a sex scandal. Of course, she wouldn’t be able to afford that school now. She would have to find the best public school she could and do whatever it took to move into the district. “Yes, it would be hard on him. We’ll go. I won’t give you any trouble.”

“You’ll go, Holly. And you won’t give me a bit of trouble or I can make you look like the world’s most unfit mother. If you walk away now, I’ll give you that cabin of my grandfather’s, ten thousand dollars, and monthly visits with our son. If I hear a hint of trouble from you, I’ll make sure you never see him again.”

Holly felt her world fall away, tipping over and rearranging itself into something she didn’t recognize. Micky? Her baby? “You can’t take my son away.”

His face softened marginally. “I can give him far more than you can. You have to see that. He’s an amazing kid. The best thing we ever managed to do together.”

“Then why are you holding him hostage?” The cold, flat line of his mouth told her everything she needed to know. Micky would be the carrot he dangled in front of her to keep her in line.

“He’s a Lang. He’s not going to be raised outside of the family. I’m going against my father by offering you that ratty old cabin. He would prefer you left Colorado, but this way you can see Micky once a month.”

Yes, she could see her father-in-law’s fingerprints all over this scheme. Malcolm Lang hated the fact that his precious son had married a woman with no connections. Her father-in-law made no attempts to hide the fact that he couldn’t stand her. He’d called her a cheap floozy and a gold-digging whore on a regular basis. At the beginning of their marriage, Scott had defended her, but as his career had taken off, he’d simply ignored her.

“Do we have a deal? If you refuse, it’s going to be war, Holly. Do you really want to take me on?”

Oh, hell yeah, she wanted to take him on. She wanted to smash in his cosmetically perfect face. She wanted to torch his car. She wanted to cry because everything she loved was being taken away. She didn’t have anyone. Her parents were gone. She had no siblings. She had her son, and if she fought for him, he could be grown before she saw him again.

If she fought for him, he might end up thinking she was everything Scott would call her. There was no doubt in her mind Scott would go to the press and Micky would get caught up in it.

Any way she looked, her son lost. She had to find a way to mitigate the damage.

“Where is this cabin? We’ve never gone there before.” Defeat began to settle in.

He sat back. The smug look on his face proclaimed his victory. “We don’t go because that town is a bit of an embarrassment. Why my grandfather loved it, I have no idea. It’s a town called Bliss.”

Bliss. There was nothing even vaguely blissful about her life now, but it looked like this town was going to be her home for a while.

“I want to see my son before I go.”

“Of course,” Scott said. “I’m not a monster.”

Holly waited while Scott called her son in. She held her boy and explained that she was leaving. That she had a new home. She hoped Bliss would treat her better than Denver.

 

* * * *

 

Sierra Leone

Six years ago

 

Caleb Burke held himself as still as possible. Night had fallen. He knew it. The crack under the door of his tiny cage had gone pitch black long ago. Cage? It was a fucking reinforced closet, and it was the only place he felt halfway safe. He could feel the wall against his back. All he had to worry about was his front, and he could hear the closet door if it opened.

How long had it been? Weeks? Months? It seemed like forever since that moment the rebels had taken over his clinic, killed everyone in sight, and forced him to march through the jungle to this place.

If only one of the fuckers hadn’t recognized him, he would be dead, his body left behind in the jungle alongside Caroline’s.

It would have been a fitting end to their marriage.

His throat threatened to close up every time he thought about Caroline’s face when she’d arrived at his clinic. She’d sauntered in like she was walking into one of the shops on Michigan Avenue where she spent most of her time. She’d said she had something to talk to him about, something serious that couldn’t wait until he deigned to come home. He’d felt a bit frozen because he’d had something to talk about too. Divorce. He’d had the papers drawn up. They gave her everything he had, all the money, the houses in California, New York, and the Hamptons, the stock. He’d been willing to sign it all away with the singular exception of his charity.

He was glad he’d been gentlemanly and let her speak first.

He hadn’t needed to give her everything he had. She’d taken enough all on her own. She’d told him boldly that she was pregnant. He’d felt his world twist into something ugly. He didn’t love Caroline, but the fact that she’d cheated on him kicked him in the gut.

Especially since he knew damn well who she spent all of her time with.

And then she’d been gone, her eyes dulling before his ears had even registered the shot that had taken her life.

Caroline was dead. His nurses were dead. They’d been raped before they were slaughtered. Two sweet, vivacious girls from the Midwest who had come to Africa because he’d convinced them they could save the fucking world. Africa had eaten them alive. He’d had to hear their screams as they’d been used. He’d been almost relieved when they’d stopped.

And the final insult had been the fact that he’d been left alive for one reason and one reason alone. Money. His family would pay for his return. His privilege, a thing he’d spent his whole life trying to deny, had been the only thing that spared him.

His stomach gnawed with hunger. His family wouldn’t even recognize him anymore. He’d become more animal than man. He survived day to day, but it no longer meant anything.

Still, his breath caught in his chest as he heard a tiny creak that let him know someone was moving in the room outside his cage. He shrank back, the hard feel of the wood behind him a comfort.

What fresh hell awaited him this time? In the early days, he’d been somewhat useful. They’d forced him to play doctor. He’d stitched up their soldiers, some who couldn’t be more than nine or ten. He’d dug bullets out and performed surgeries that turned his gut when he thought about the horrific circumstances surrounding them. He’d put the boy soldiers back together and sent them out to kill some more.

Things had changed in the last few weeks. His hands shook too much. He was too weak. He was starving and losing his will to fight.

Was this the moment when they got rid of him?

“I’m in. No sign of the target.”

The voice was quiet, almost silent. Caleb had to strain to hear, but what he heard was English. Unaccented English.

“Two Tangoes down.”

Tangoes. Military, and not the ragtag group that had taken him. American military.

The door jiggled quietly, the lock holding. And then an amazing sound. A little snick that let him know the man on the other side of the door would make a halfway decent thief.

“Dr. Caleb Sommerville?”

Burke. He’d gone by his mother’s maiden name for years, not wanting to trade on the Sommerville influence. Now it didn’t matter. He nodded his head. No one would have sent in a special ops team to save Caleb Burke. Caleb Sommerville was another story. His brother, the senator, could perform miracles. It was surprising that Eli would bother. He had to know that Caroline was dead.

Caroline, who had been carrying Eli’s child.

“Is there anyone else being held?” The question was quiet coming out of the soldier’s mouth.

In the deep gloom, a single ray of moonlight cut into the small shack, illuminating his savior’s chiseled features. Dark hair, dark eyes, and a square-cut jaw marked the man who reached down to untie him. This was the way he spent most of his time now, bound in a box, only taken out a few times a day to eat and use the latrine.

“Only me. Everyone else is long dead.” His voice sounded raspy. His throat felt like he’d gargled sand. He’d given up talking long ago.

“Can you walk?”

He nodded and fought back a groan as the blood started circulating into his hands again.

“Excellent. My name is Lieutenant Meyer. I’ll be your rescuer today. This rescue of your person is brought to you by the United States Navy and SEAL Team 8. We hope you have a nice rescue, and please feel free to fill out the questionnaire at the end of the trip. Tips are welcome.”

Lieutenant Meyer had a strong sense of snark.

“Sorry, my CO says my sarcasm will get me killed one day. Let’s get you out of here while they’re too drunk to notice we’re leaving. And you can call me Wolf.”

Lieutenant Wolf Meyer put a hand out and hauled him up. It was the first human contact he’d had in months that didn’t cause him to shrink away.

Twelve hours later, he was on a plane back to the States, the knowledge deep in his heart that he would never feel at home again. They could take him to the States, but he’d left his soul behind.

 

* * * *

 

Moscow, Russia

Eight months ago

 

Alexei Markov stared at his partner, Ivan, his mind not quite processing the news.

“We leave for America tomorrow.” Ivan slapped at the small table they sat at, nearly disrupting the vodka shots in front of them.

“America?” He said the word, tasting it on his tongue. It was bittersweet. Even all these years later, he could still remember his brother, Mikhail, talking about how their lives would be when they made it to America. Back then, Alexei had dreams of becoming a professional hockey player. Those dreams died when Dimitri Pushkin had his brother killed. A new dream had been born that day. A dark dream.

“Don’t you see? This means we’re moving up. If Pushkin trusts us to handle his American business, it won’t be long before we’re his right-hand men.” Ivan was grinning, though no amount of mirth could make the man look happy. Ivan looked like what he was—a stone-cold killer.

Is that what he would look like years from now, after he’d had his revenge? The longer he pursued this path, the more he questioned himself.

No. He was too close to his goal. He would not give it up because he’d suddenly developed a conscience. Ivan was right. It was good that they had been selected to go to America. It meant he was one step closer to standing in a room with Pushkin and delivering his brother’s revenge.

“What are we supposed to do?” Pushkin had many business interests in the United States. He had dealings with mobsters, drug lords, politicians. All of the disgusting bottom-feeders.

Ivan snorted. “We have to pick up a painting and bring it back. We’re supposed to meet with someone in Dallas. How funny is that? We can go and be cowboys.”

Pick up a painting? That sounded far too simple. “Something sounds wrong.”

“You worry too much, Alexei. Nothing is wrong. The boss likes paintings. He’s always trying to impress people. I don’t understand it. I wouldn’t pay for a painting a child could do. Have you seen the man who puts paints on his pig’s feet? He has the pig run across the canvas and then sells it as art. Most of the pig’s work is better than the stuff the boss collects.”

Alexei had to force himself not to roll his eyes. Ivan wasn’t the most cultured of men. “Is this painting by someone famous?”

“How am I supposed to know? All that matters is that Pushkin wants the painting. We’re to get it and deliver it to him ourselves.” He slapped at the table again. “I’m telling you, Alexei. This is our time. We will meet with the man himself. A private interview. You’re good with people. I’ll handle the killing. You can handle Pushkin.”

Alexei leaned forward. So far he had managed to work his way up in the organization with fairly clean hands. He’d killed mobsters, of course. Many. Each one had been a killer in his own right. He worried that to move into the inner circle, he would have to spill innocent blood. The thought brought bile to his throat. “Why would there be killing when all we have to do is pick up a painting?”

“There is always killing, my friend.” Ivan hoisted his glass. “Drink with me, Alexei. To America, where our dreams come true.”

His dreams had died long ago. The need for revenge was the only thing that pushed Alexei Markov forward now. He picked up his glass. Long ago, he and his brother had talked about the women they would marry in America. He’d been young, but he’d dreamed of a lovely American bride, with a sweet smile and soft, feminine ways. Silly dreams. He wouldn’t have that woman.

America wasn’t his home. He no longer had one.