It only took a hot minute for me to be dazzled by Catherine Bybee’s books when I first discovered them, but it was this series in particular that made me irrevocably fall in love with her storytelling, so seeing it come to an end was nothing short of bittersweet. And while I always expected this heroine’s story to be somewhat different from the rest given what we knew of her backstory, nothing could have prepared me for this fast-paced, high-stakes, globetrotting game of cat and mouse that somehow embodies and outdoes every single thing I’ve come to love about this author’s writing style. Bybee keeps us guessing until the very end in this perfect, edge-of-your-seat finale to a much-loved series, delivering an immensely satisfying ending that truly brings the series to full circle.
Her entire life had been a series of disappointments, especially when she thought she could depend on someone other than herself. Her life had taught her to depend on no one. Ever.
The story takes us to Richter, the military boarding school in Germany where Sasha Budanov spent her formative years, and the very place that moulded her into the lethal weapon she is today. Fostering no real friendships in life and with only self-imposed emotional solitude to keep her warm at night, Sasha returns to Richter hoping that her past might hold the key to finding much-needed focus and clarity, but instead of finding a direction, she ends up stumbling across decades-old secrets that threaten not only her life, but also the lives of all those closest to her.
After learning that his sister was shot dead in an execution-style murder for no apparent reason at all, and that another one of her former classmates had also recently died under equally suspicious circumstances, AJ Hofmann’s investigation into his sister’s death leads him to the German boarding school where she spent her teenage years. But when a school is built on the secrets it keeps, and harbouring them is ingrained into the very fabric of the institution itself, getting answers is not an easy task, and AJ’s only hope of infiltrating Richter is by finding someone on the inside and convincing them to help him. Enter one leather-clad vixen who not only has his jaw dropping at first sight, but who also happens to remember his sister from their years together at Richter.
“Two young women a half a world apart murdered within the same month. Both went to this school. A place I know damn well doesn’t JUST teach reading and writing.”
From complete strangers to close allies, AJ and Sasha’s relationship quickly blossoms into a dynamic partnership between two people equally committed to uncovering the truth and bringing all the guilty parties to justice. But as the stakes get higher and higher, their simmering attraction soon becomes too irresistible to ignore, turning into a hot-and-heavy affair that shows no sign of fizzling out, even as Sasha continues to struggle to relinquish control over her own body and heart.
“What are you doing?”
He pressed his body against hers, his intentions clear. “I’m going to kiss you and remind my senses how you taste.”
There was a smile on her face at the sheer unexpectedness of his pursuit. “And if I don’t want this kiss?” She wanted the kiss . . . shifted her legs in anticipation.
“You would have already removed my balls if you wanted me to stop.”
She looked at his lips. “You’ve been paying close attention.”
As more and more Richter graduates become targets of an enemy that won’t stop at anything until all threats to its operations are neutralised for good, Sasha and AJ are joined by friends old and new on a heart-stopping chase across two continents, and in a final showdown where it all began.
This is the kind of high-adrenaline page-turner that captures you from the opening chapter and doesn’t let go. I felt breathless cover to cover, loving the characters, the intrigue, the suspense, but most of all, I loved seeing Sasha—a woman who’s been everyone’s ‘protector’ for so long—finally lower her guard and let herself not only fall in love, but also be protected by others for a change. A character like Sasha Budanov never needed a knight in shining armour to ride in on a white steed and save the day—she only needed a man like AJ whose love and support would become the emotional anchor she didn’t even know she needed in life, a man who’d never want her to be anything less than the heroine of her own story.
“I want to give you a reason to stay,” he told her.
“What do you mean?”
“I want me to be the reason you want to stay.”
AJ was being stood up.
It was half past noon and Sasha wasn’t there.
The Brandenburg Gate was one of the busiest tourist attractions in Berlin. The square was filled with families and walking tours led by someone holding a colored flag on a stick and talking into a microphone while a line of dazed, zombie-like visitors followed behind. Aside from those in the square learning about the history of the place, there were a dozen police officers and security guards moving around. Considering the American, British, and French embassies were all within a stone’s throw of each other, AJ was surprised there wasn’t a stronger military presence.
AJ kept scanning the crowd in search of Sex on a Stick in black leather pants and a bad attitude.
Left without options, AJ dialed his phone number on her phone and waited. It rang twice.
Behind him, the riff of “Bad to the Bone,” his ringtone, shot through him. He dropped his hand from his ear and saw a blonde standing three feet away, her back to him.
Slowly she turned.
Sasha stared back at him, wearing white capri pants and a bright floral top. The blonde wig overdid it but completely camouflaged her in broad daylight. She took a step closer, reached out her hand holding his cell. “Hello, AJ.”
They switched phones. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Half an hour, give or take.”
He looked her up and down. She looked like a typical American housewife, minus the kid in the stroller. “Impressive.”
“I wanted to make sure you were alone.”
AJ glanced around at the passing tourists. “Is there a reason behind the cloak-and-dagger?”
She moved closer, lowered her voice. “You’ve come here to look for your sister’s killer. You think there is some connection to Richter. Went so far as to go there asking questions. You’re stalking the local pub and hitting on, not to mention stealing from, the patrons . . .” Sasha waved her phone in the air before tucking it into her back pocket.
“I’m calling pot to kettle on that last accusation.” Although all the rest she pointed out was spot-on.
“I like to go unnoticed. If someone followed me here, they lost me the second I made the city limits and went clothes shopping.”
“What if someone followed me?”
“Then I would have seen them watching in the thirty minutes you’ve been standing around looking like a lost child without a parent.” She turned and started walking toward the gate.
AJ had no choice but to follow.
“What makes you think anyone is following either of us?”
She smiled, didn’t answer his question. “I used to help your sister on her agility training,” she told him.
The mention of his sister brought his attention back to what he should be focused on. “She wasn’t the most athletic woman.” Amelia took after their mother, who didn’t grow more than five feet five inches tall and had a sweet tooth that always kept her rounder than she’d liked. At least that’s what she’d blame when she went on one of her many diets.
“No. But she held her own most of the time. Everyone at Richter was pushed to do at least that.”
“Her coworkers said she had recently started taking morning walks before work,” AJ said.
“Which explains the police report about her being murdered in the park and tossed in the river.”
AJ stopped walking. “You looked her up.”
“Only because I knew her.”
He jumped in front of her, stopped her from moving. “Then you’ll help me.”
“There is nothing to suggest that Amelia’s death is at all linked to Richter.”
AJ looked over Sasha’s shoulder and noticed a man eating an ice cream cone and staring at Sasha. The middle-aged guy turned his attention away and took a few steps in the opposite direction.
“Maybe she . . .”
AJ felt eyes, turned to his left.
“What is it?” Sasha asked.
“The guy with the ice cream, over your left shoulder.”
She grinned, cocked her head to the side. “We did this last night.”
“Yeah, only I’m not asking you to lay a lip lock on me. Tempting as that might be.” Truth was, he’d thought about that kiss more times than he wanted to admit. “If how you’re dressed is any indication, you’re the expert on all things undercover. You tell me if you feel the weight of someone’s stare.”
Sasha paused, then looked over her shoulder. “That him?” she asked, thumbing toward the guy with the ice cream.
She grabbed AJ’s hand and walked directly toward the guy he thought for sure was watching them.
“What are you doing?”
She didn’t answer. “Excuse me?” Her voice rose a full octave, her smile was sickeningly sweet. Any accent he’d detected from her voice was gone . . . or changed.
The man with the cone turned toward them. “Yes?”
“Are you American? You look American.”
“I’m, ah . . . yeah.” The guy looked directly at AJ.
Sasha kept going. “Good. Would you mind taking our picture? I can’t get the gate behind us with a selfie.”
Again the guy offered AJ unblinking eyes. “Ah, sure.” He reached for the phone Sasha was handing him.
Next thing AJ realized, he was standing beside Sasha, her arm slipped around his waist, and he was smiling like all of the other tourists surrounding them while the man he thought was spying on them took their picture.
The stranger holding Sasha’s phone, while trying to balance his ice cream cone, looked completely out of place.
“Take a second one, just in case.” Sasha giggled.
The sound of her voice didn’t suit her. The hand on his waist, however, suited him just fine. The feel of her there, the warmth, the softness he knew she would hate if he pointed it out, felt a little too right.
“Thank you so much.”
The stranger handed her phone back with a nod. “Have fun.”
She waved. “We will . . . thanks.”
And he was gone.
AJ watched the man slip away as Sasha removed herself from AJ’s side.
He missed her warmth, instantly.
“Any self-preserving spy wouldn’t have made contact,” Sasha told him.
The two of them walked toward the center of the square. “Okay,” AJ started. “Maybe I’m a little paranoid.”
“You’re a lot paranoid.”
AJ paused in the middle of the plaza and stared at the massive horses that sat atop the gate. The image of his sister at Christmas the previous year surfaced. It was the last time he’d seen her alive. “I know Amelia’s death wasn’t random, Sasha. I feel it with every breath I take.”
She sighed. “I know you do.”
He looked at her. “You don’t believe me.”
“I believe you believe.”
He lowered his head, studied the salt-and-pepper colored stones beneath his feet. “You’re not going to help.” Damn it . . . he was back to ground zero.
Another heavy sigh from the woman at his side. “I will help you.”
AJ snapped his head up. “What?”
She placed a hand in the air as in warning. “Not because I think you have anything other than grief inside you. The not knowing, or never accepting the facts, can eat you alive.”
Not ground zero. He wanted to kiss her. Not that she would be receptive to that kind of thing. “Why are you doing this?” There wasn’t anything in it for her. Sasha turned away from him and focused her attention on the Brandenburg Gate.
“Because I’m not bored.”