Chapter One - James Thomas
James Thomas stared at the photograph, his breath slow and steady despite his racing pulse.
Five long years he’d looked for her, giving up only when the evidence had indicated she’d been killed in an explosion he’d caused. An explosion created to trap her—and kill her.
But yesterday, at ten thirty in the evening, she’d dined at a restaurant one block from his house.
He squeezed his eyes shut.
James didn’t believe in ghosts.
The CIA thought she was dead.
The world thought she was dead.
She could’ve stayed in hiding and lived her life.
James opened his eyes.
He could lie to others, but he couldn’t lie to himself. He knew why she was back: Black Widow had unfinished business.
“Thoughts?” Samuel asked, pulling James from his reeling mind.
He lifted his eyes to his team—to the people he trusted, the people he would give his life for, the people who looked at him now with a strange look that was both excitement and fear. It was a look only someone who had lived their lives could understand.
“It’s her,” James said with a nod. “It’s Black Widow.”
A long, silent yet palpable pause followed. The energy in the room shifted. It had been years since they’d faced a threat like this.
“She’s very . . . close to our headquarters . . .” Samuel said, then cleared his throat. His next words decidedly more upbeat. “Well, things were getting boring around here anyway. She should spice it up nicely.”
James looked to Deacon, Cami, and Jarrod. They held his gaze a moment then, like an orchestra falling into sync, smiles stretched across their lips—more so at Samuel’s enthusiasm than anything else, James suspected.
“What does she want, James?” Cami asked, getting straight to business.
James’s eyes dropped to the photograph, to the woman who had haunted his dreams. He exhaled a long breath then looked back to her. “Me.”
“Because she’s pissed you tried to kill her,” Cami said, more of a statement than an answer.
Jarrod grinned. “That’d do it.”
“We followed her from the restaurant using CCV footage,” Samuel said, “and the good news is she didn’t stop by the headquarters to scope us out. But as we say . . . we don’t like—”
“Coincidences,” James finished for him. “This is not a coincidence. She knew exactly what she was doing. She’s not wearing any form of disguise, not even a baseball cap to obscure her face. She wanted to be seen. We need to know why.”
“Agreed. We followed her to the Tivoli Hotel and we haven’t seen her leave,” Samuel said.
James nodded. He knew the hotel. It was where people like him stayed, people who needed the bathroom cabinets stocked with emergency supplies instead of cosmetics, where the buffet was weapons and ammunition instead of croissants and pastries. He knew it well—he’d never forget it—it was the hotel he’d taken his now wife, Mak, to the night her car had been attacked and later married her on the rooftop. But it was the night her car had been attacked that had changed everything—the night he’d broken every rule he’d made for himself by falling in love and allowing himself to be in a relationship, and it was the best decision of his life. Now, he had only one rule: Some rules are made to be broken.
For the life James Thomas; his brother, Deacon Thomas; and his team led, it wasn’t possible to live in perfectly designed boxes and squares with a neat set of rules. They lived by their own rules, and when those rules needed to be broken and new ones made, they did exactly that.
And that was how he conducted his new role as the director of the CIA. Deacon, Jarrod, Cami, and Samuel ran Thomas Security now, largely without him, while James spent the majority of his time at CIA headquarters. Samuel had also become an integral member of the CIA team, but he never entered the headquarters, working fully remote from Thomas Security. It was an arrangement that worked for them all, but every now and then something popped up that required his attention. Or rather, someone—because that’s the thing about the past, you can never truly leave it behind.
“Of course,” Samuel said, “I am not tapping the Tivoli Hotel’s cameras, but I am watching every exit and every street within a mile radius. I want to know where she goes and who she speaks to. We’re going to refer to her as Widow from now on. Black Widow is too long, it’s inefficient,” he said, matter-of-factly.
The corner of James’s lips turned up and he nodded in agreement. But his smile faded as he thought of the Tivoli Hotel—the only system in the world Samuel didn’t dare hack. The hotel had rules and if you broke them, they killed you for it. That was not a game James was interested in playing, despite his chances of winning. And besides, he enjoyed staying at the hotel when needed.
“Hang on,” Samuel said and all eyes looked to him. “The surveillance team just raised an alert.” Camera footage flashed onto the screens in his office. James leaned forward without realizing it.
“She’s moving. She’s leaving the hotel . . . Where are you going, Widow?” Samuel asked, seemingly more to himself than the team.
James stood, grabbing his keys and cell phone.
“James, don’t do this,” Samuel warned.
“I need to see her,” James said.
Cami stood. “I’ll come with you.”
Samuel shook his head. “No one listens to me,” he said under his breath and James might’ve laughed if he wasn’t about to see Widow in the flesh—the woman who had killed his mentor.
James had been reluctant to take the job with the CIA, but he’d done it because a man named Frederick Ramsey had taken charge of the agency—the agency that had once tried to kill Deacon and James, something they’d never forgotten. But that was before Frederick’s reign, and Frederick had been different. He’d cleaned out the corruption, and he'd shown loyalty and protection to his agents. He’d treated them like family. So, James took the role and it had given him more satisfaction and enjoyment than he could’ve ever dreamed of. He’d worked closely with Fred, and he’d become family. He’d attended family dinner every Sunday, he’d given James’s daughter Christmas and birthday gifts, the same for Deacon’s children and Cami’s. He’d become one of them, and then he’d been taken from them by her: Widow.
For five long years he’d looked for her, but every time he got close she’d slipped away.
Not this time.
Whatever she’d been doing in hiding, she’d given James an advantage. He’d had time to process Fred’s death and was no longer blinded by grief. He was back to the old James Thomas—the one people feared, the one who would go to the ends of the earth to hunt someone down.
Widow had chosen the worst time to poke the bear.
James grabbed an earpiece, inserting it as he walked toward the lift. He stopped at the weapons room to grab a few supplies. Cami was right beside him.
“What’s the plan?” she asked with a grin.
James grinned back. “You know there’s no plan. We observe, then we plan. She wanted to be found, so let’s give her what she wants—for now. Let her think she’s playing us, then we’ll show her our cards.”
Cami’s eyes danced. “I miss you some days, you know.”
James chuckled. “Some days . . . good to know.”
She laughed as they walked toward the elevator. Waiting for the elevator to arrive, he felt that strange sense of chilling excitement pulse through his veins. He missed the field but it wasn’t just that—nor was it only revenge . . . Widow was the only one who had beaten James at his own game. But the game wasn’t over yet.
When the elevator doors opened at the basement, they stepped out and James saw a familiar figure leaning against a black sedan. “Need a ride?”
James grinned at Deacon.
“Let’s go!” James said as he slid into the passenger seat and Cami got in the back. It was like the early days of Thomas Security when it had just been the three of them working the cases. It was rare now for all three of them to be together in the field but James wasn’t the only one who had loved Fred. They all had, and now they would hunt his killer.
“She’s at the Plaza Hotel,” Samuel said through his earpiece. “She’s in the restaurant enjoying tea. It’s a landmark restaurant, James, don’t make a mess.”
James grinned. “I’ll be on my best behavior, Samuel. Which table is she at?”
“Window, fourth table from the left. It’s busy, which will be your blessing,” Samuel said.
“Copy,” James responded
He used the time to strategize but when Deacon pulled up at the front of the hotel, he still didn’t have a solid plan.
They made their way to the restaurant. “Reservation for two for Jack Johnson,” he said, giving his new alias. James knew Samuel would’ve placed a reservation in their system. They’d worked together so long now James didn’t have to ask Samuel to do things like this—he just knew.
The hostess smiled. “Of course, Mr. Johnson, right this way.”
James and Cami walked in sync with the hostess to the table. His pulse raced, but not because he was in danger. It was unlikely Widow would start a shoot-out in the Plaza. That wasn’t her style. No, Widow was much more cunning than that, and she took her victims quietly.
Widow was the best assassin James had ever known.
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