The breeze blowing over the rooftop of Marta’s building did something to ease the mugginess of the summer night, but not much. Salomeh’s gaze skittered over the crowd. There were more people than she had imagined could fit on the roof of the repurposed warehouse. Groups of thirty-somethings lounged against HVAC units and skylights; some sat on the ledge around the perimeter of the building, as if life weren’t precarious enough in this city. A smattering of families and a few pets positioned themselves safely in the middle of the crowd.
Salomeh tugged at the hem of the white halter dress she had borrowed from Marta as if she could magically make the length closer to her knees than her ass. Her hair was down around her shoulders in curly ringlets—a markedly different look from the bun she usually wore pulled tight on the top of her head. Her hair, paired with the oversize sunglasses she had worn earlier in the party, had provided her with a sense of security, but now that the sun had set, she was forced to leave her face open to inspection.
To her surprise, people hadn’t suddenly turned on her as if she were Frankenstein’s monster, driving her from the rooftop with pitchforks. She had worked up the nerve to wander to the bar by herself once, and she had even made small talk with a lovely couple visiting from Michigan. Still, she kept waiting for the moment when someone would recognize her from the newspapers, and her night of fun would come crashing down around her ears.
“So, I met a cute guy in front of the building today, and I invited him to the party,” Marta said, distracting Salomeh from the knot of worry roiling in her stomach. They had just refreshed their drinks and were standing under the strings of red, white, and blue lights that demarcated the bar from the dance floor.
“A guy?” Salomeh asked, moving away from the crowd near the bar and toward the edge of the roof. “I thought you’d been done with them since twelfth grade.”
“He’s not for me, obviously,” Marta said, and Salomeh didn’t have to look at her to know her friend had rolled her eyes.
Salomeh surveyed the men in the crowd. While most of them seemed perfectly nice, she couldn’t imagine what she could talk to them about. Before the nightmare of the scandal, she had been so busy with school and mentoring she hadn’t had time to even think about dating. Now that time was her largest commodity, hitting the singles scene was the last idea she wanted to entertain. She wasn’t exactly in the mood for boring chitchat with some jerk looking for a roll in the hay. She was even less prepared to meet someone she actually liked. How exactly would she explain that she might pop up in his local child-predator registry? The thought alone made her cringe.
“Do you have another friend here you’re trying to set up with some weirdo you met on the street?” Salomeh asked.
“Calm down,” Marta said, giving her arm a reassuring pat. “I didn’t offer anyone your dowry; I invited a guy to a party. He’s probably not even going to show up anyway. I don’t see him, and the fireworks are about to start.”
As if Marta’s words were some kind of call to action, people started to crowd in around them. Apparently they had chosen to stand in prime fireworks-watching territory.
Marta laughed suddenly and gave a too-wide grin as a tall Asian woman approached. Salomeh realized the woman must be the neighbor she had heard referred to as “the Korean Cutie” several times over the past few months.
Salomeh shook hands with the woman, who introduced herself as Daisy, and then took a small step to the side when Daisy turned back to Marta. She knew that underneath the cheery banter Marta had been throwing at her all night, her friend had been stressed too. She hoped the gods would be kind and provide Marta with a reward for being such a great friend, and if Daisy were part of that reward, Salomeh didn’t want to be a third wheel.
Just then Salomeh noticed a short, dark-haired woman in the crowd give her a sharp look and whisper something to her friend.
The first frissons of panic crept up her spine, lodging in an uncomfortable ball between her shoulder blades.
The woman’s friend turned with an attempt at casualness, but she clearly looked at Salomeh before turning back and nodding at her friend. They began whispering animatedly.
Salomeh’s entire upper back stiffened, the uncomfortable prickling sensation spreading from her spine up her neck. The beginnings of a panic attack.
They could be talking about anything. They could be saying they like my dress, or wondering if I’m Marta’s jealous lover, or calling me a hooker for wearing this short dress, Salomeh told herself, but her chest tightened, and her breath went shallow at the possibility she had been found out. She knew she should stand tall—considering she hadn’t actually done anything wrong—but she couldn’t summon the fighting spirit that had pushed from her bed and out into the real world only the day before.
Instead the overwhelming need to escape came on her fast. She looked at the far side of the roof, where a water tower loomed over the empty stretch of tar-streaked ground like a lone sentinel, its slate-gray exterior lit by moonlight against the indigo sky.
“I’ll be back,” Salomeh said, struggling to keep her voice normal, her smile light.
Marta looked at her in concern and moved to join her, but Salomeh stayed her friend with a touch.
“I’m okay, really. Daisy, can you do me a favor and keep Marta company for a moment?” she asked. The woman had barely nodded her head before Salomeh turned and made her way across the roof at a determined pace, ducking through the crowd and then propelling herself over a low division that signaled she was moving onto a different property.
She felt an odd sense of relief when she reached the water tower. She leaned back against one of its rusted metal legs, heedless of the possible damage to her white dress.
A collective gasp rose from the crowd on the other side of the roof as the first of the fireworks burst in a glory of pink, hydrangea-like beauty, illuminating the sky before dissipating. A sharp memory stabbed at her then: the first assignment she had given Yelena’s class had been an essay describing what they loved most about the summertime, and the girl’s words had stood out to Salomeh immediately.
I love fireworks
, Yelena had written. When I see fireworks they remind me that the world is full of small moments of beauty, and that even when they seem to have disappeared, their traces remain, like trails of glittering light behind your eyelids.
A pang of sadness cut through Salomeh at the memory. Yelena had a strong yearning for beauty; she had hidden all her ugly secrets behind stories of the fantastic and wondrous until she could no longer contain them. They had come pouring out to Salomeh in a rush of words and tears.
Salomeh sighed deeply.
Yelena had confided in Salomeh, had depended on her to help, but at the first hurdle, she had let the girl’s future slip between her fingers. Granted, having your life’s work and reputation ruined was a rather large hurdle, but no one had ever said that being a teacher would be easy. She didn’t know if she would even be allowed to work again. If something had truly happened to Yelena, if the girl were lost to whatever horrible forces had destroyed Salomeh’s life, Salomeh’s work would have all been for nothing.
What am I doing here? The first time I leave the house, and it’s to go to a party instead of to help the child, she was thinking bitterly to herself when a deep, unfamiliarly accented voice broke her from her reverie.
“Not feeling patriotic?”
“What?” she squeaked, turning to face the man who had somehow crept up next to her while she was preoccupied with mentally flagellating herself.
“I was just observing that you don’t seem very patriotic,” he continued. He stood next to her, arms folded across his chest as he gazed at the fireworks. In the afterglow of the fireworks, all she could make out clearly was a head of shaggy black hair and the profile of a Roman nose and a well-defined jaw. He was tall, much taller than her five-feet-seven inches, and muscled. For a moment, fear coiled in Salomeh’s stomach. Could he be here to hurt her? Did he have something to do with Alexi?
“What are you talking about?” Salomeh snapped, irritated with him for invading her space and at herself for succumbing to distress. The jolt of anxiety segued into anger at the realization that she would have to suspect everyone until she could find Yelena, and hopefully, expose this Bardhyn character.
She took a sip of her gin and tonic and tried to rein in her annoyance, but she was tired of having her privacy invaded. All the people who had harassed her over the past weeks, the reporter with the fake card her neighbor had encountered the day before, the women across the rooftop just moments before, and now this man—all of them seemed to think it was perfectly okay to just barge into her life.
A huge burst of purple and yellow fireworks lit up the night sky, and from other parts of the roof, she could hear people clapping and whistling at the elaborate display. The man turned to her then, and in the glow of the fireworks she could see bright green eyes shining from under the fringe of his hair. His olive complexion provided a contrast that made his eyes seem even more brilliant. A smile touched his full, rosy lips. He was definitely handsome, although that didn’t change that fact that he was a nuisance. A very well-built and overly confident nuisance.
Salomeh watched surreptitiously as he reached up to run a hand through his hair. A thrill went through her at the way his biceps flexed and his pectorals tightened as he moved. His raw power was apparent even in this most casual of motions. Part of her wondered what it would be like to have all that strength concentrated on touching her. That same part, located between her legs, suddenly clenched when he shifted slightly closer to her.
“I’m sorry,” he continued, his accent still unfamiliar to her. It had the melodic but dolorous tone of something not quite European. “It’s just that it’s a beautiful night, the sky is filled with lovely fireworks, it’s the anniversary of your country’s independence, and you seem…unimpressed with it all.”
Salomeh rolled her eyes, although she was fairly certain the action was hidden by the shadow of the water tower. “I wasn’t aware that Homeland Security would be doing patriotism spot checks,” she deadpanned. He stiffened, as if she had offended him somehow. Good, she thought viciously, the scent of elderberry tickling her nose as she took a sip of her drink. “That’s what this is right? I mean, you’re not just some creep who roams the rooftops of Brooklyn, sneaking up on unsuspecting women for no reason, are you? Because that would be kind of weird.”
He raised his eyebrows at her, which she noticed only because the thick locks of hair hanging over his eyes shifted upward.
“You’ve seen through my disguise,” he said with mock severity. “We’re always on the lookout for suspicious characters. A woman lurking in a strategically isolated position such as this during a party merits an investigation. There must be something driving her away from everyone, no?”
He leaned in slightly just as a shower of white light exploded in the sky. Salomeh could see that his eyes were narrowed, his gaze entirely focused on her despite the world-famous light show occurring just above their heads. She had become used to scrutiny since her story had graced the covers of the tabloids. People had looked at her with disgust and disbelief and pity. But the look this man gave her was different. It was teasing and friendly and, most of all, interested.
She felt her cheeks warm. His face was close to hers, and the way he regarded her was comforting and seductive at the same time, somehow.
She’d told Marta she didn’t want to meet anyone. She told herself she had come out tonight just to prove that she could, but under this man’s watchful gaze, she felt that both of those things were lies. She had come out because she wanted to forget, and he seemed like someone who could help her to do just that if only she would allow it.
“I don’t fit the description of a sleeper cell agent, do I?” she asked, the irritation leaving her voice in increments.
“Not necessarily,” he murmured, his eyes still keen and evaluating. “But you are hiding in the shadows as if you’ve done something wrong. Why is that?”
Salomeh mused that the stranger didn’t know how right he was, couldn’t possibly know, or he wouldn’t be talking to her. Tears stung her eyes, sudden and embarrassing, but she blinked them back. She was so easy to read even a stranger could tell she didn’t fit in.
He leaned to his side so he was closer to her ear. “How about this? I won’t reveal that you’re a terrorist sending secret dispatches from this water tower if you promise to start enjoying yourself.”
His breath smelled of sweet dark rum, of summer abandon.
“That sounds like blackmail,” she said, starting to take another sip of her drink and realizing she’d already finished it. The stranger moved closer to her, and Salomeh felt another emotion start simmering in her belly. It wasn’t the fear that had become her everyday companion, but something unfamiliar and infinitely more welcome: lust.
His head dipped toward hers again, and this time when the smell of rum wafted over to her, she allowed herself to wonder what it tasted like on his lips. Her tongue dragged over her bottom lip at the thought, as if engaging in its own private roleplaying session, and she saw his gaze linger on her mouth.
“If I was going to blackmail you, I think I’d have something more interesting in mind than that,” he said drily.
Salomeh thought of Marta’s words to her the previous day.
You can do this, she thought, tugging at her dress absentmindedly. One night of fun.
“I’ve added another clause to our deal,” the man said, and when Salomeh looked at him, he reached out slowly and plucked her hand away from the dress. His touch was no more of the laying of his fingertips on her skin, but her entire body heated in response. “No more pulling your dress down. That hemline is quite perfect right where it is.”
Salomeh laughed at his ridiculous bargain. The sound startled her, as she hadn’t genuinely produced it in weeks. She marveled at the giddy feeling it inspired in her. She had thought she was forever incapable of feeling carefree, but here she was laughing. He hadn’t released her hand, and his rough warmth provided her with an odd sense of protection. It was ridiculous that a stranger should make her feel this way, but the who’s and why’s didn’t matter. She just wanted the sensation to last.
The finale of the fireworks show had started, and the loud bursting of the display nearly drowned out the cheers of the partygoers. The cacophony built and built, each boom resulting in larger bursts of colored light. The beauty of millions of shimmering specks raining down from the sky finally sank in, and Salomeh withdrew her hand from his to clap along with the crowd as they shouted their appreciation. As the raucous celebration quieted and the last embers of fireworks drifted down like tiny shooting stars over the city, she looked up at the stranger beside her.
“So, are you going to have fun, or am I going to have to call in reinforcements?” he asked with a mischievous smile.
“Secret agent man, you’ve got yourself a deal.”
* * * *
As Julian and Salomeh made their way toward the bar where most of the guests were now clustered, he tried to calculate the probability of Salomeh Jones being the woman his neighbor had wanted him to meet. Math wasn’t his forte, but he knew the odds were approximately slim to none. That he had fucked up terribly by not immediately revealing his identity, however, was a much safer bet. Something about the woman wrecked his common sense. All he could think of was drawing out that wonderful laugh of hers again, and perhaps getting her to produce some other more sensual noises if he were stupid enough to continue this farce.
“Do you want something to drink?” she asked, turning to him with a shy smile.
Stupid was an understatement because he was ready to keep his lips sealed until Judgment Day if she just kept smiling at him like that.
He had thought her beautiful in his fantasy, and even more so standing apart from the crowd in the shadows. Now that they were in a more well-lit area, her loveliness hit him like a punch to the gut. He actually felt a surge of guilt for his five-finger salute to her earlier. The fantasy version of Salomeh didn’t hold a candle to the woman in the flesh.
“I don’t take drinks from strangers,” he said and then extended his hand. “I’m Julian.”
Tell her the rest, asshole. All you have to do is tell her now, and then you can get around to catching Bardhyn, he thought, but something prevented him from taking the obvious course of action. Maybe the fear that she would turn tail and run, or that she would start talking to him like he was an agency robot instead of a man.
“And I’m…Salomeh,” she replied, taking his hand with a grip that was delicate but firm. He’d heard the hesitation in her voice and was happy when she gave him her real name. Why? Maybe because it meant she really had nothing to hide. Julian held her hand a bit longer than appropriate, knowing the move took him further away from his purpose but again unable to help himself. Her eyes widened, and something shone in the dark-brown depths, an emotion that wasn’t fear or sadness or annoyance. Whatever it was, it sent a jolt of excitement through him.
“I’m surprised you revealed your name so easily,” he said with a smile, despite the fact he already knew her middle name, alma mater, and shoe size. “There can’t be too many beautiful terrorists named Salomeh running around Manhattan, can there?”
She wrinkled her nose at him as if considering the validity of his statement. “Do lines like that usually work on women?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, almost as shocked as when she had randomly made her Homeland Security crack. No one ever called him out, especially when he was turning on the charm full blast.
“Well, Salomeh is just one of my many aliases,” she countered, poking him in the ribs, “so you’d best keep your guard up.”
Julian wondered at the transformation in her behavior. She had gone from standoffish to flirtatious, but clearly wasn’t too swayed by his allure, judging by how she swatted away his compliment.
“You’re pretty bad at this whole sleeper-cell business,” he said. “Rule number one: never confirm you’re not who you say you are. Rule number two: if you do blow your cover, make sure to take out whoever knows your secret.”
“What makes you think I’m not going to take you out?” she asked, batting her eyelashes at him. “Enjoy this drink I’m getting you. It may be your last.”
“I’ll take a rum and Coke, then,” Julian said as she moved away from him.
“I know,” she said and merged into the crowd.
Julian didn’t know why he was turning the charm up to eleven instead of asking her more productive questions, but somewhere between his first sighting of her and their exchange under the water tower, the plan had changed from checking out a lead to figuring out how to please her. He told himself it was because she had information that might be helpful to him, but even the most deluded part of his brain wouldn’t allow that fallacy. As unusual as it was for him, it appeared he actually liked her.
But he still had to maintain some semblance of professionalism.
He whipped out his cell phone and texted Yates, hoping he sounded professional and detached. I ran into the teacher Jones at rooftop party at my building. Currently trying to see if the lead is viable.
Are you serious? Stop messing with me on my day off
, was the initial reply, followed by Wait, if this is true does that mean you’re going to harass her on the first night she’s worked up the nerve to go out in weeks, and probably ruin her entire night? Awesome.
Julian frowned, fingers flying over his phone’s small keyboard. I’m not going to interrogate her, just see if I can gather any intel relevant to our case.
He thought that was vague enough to sound believable.
So you haven’t told her who you are
, came the rapid reply, instantly followed by another. You do realize you’re not James Bond, don’t you?
And then another. This should go well. Don’t do anything stupid, Tamali.
Julian searched the crowd and homed in on Salomeh’s white dress. He had spent some time in Saudi Arabia, where modesty police could chastise women for revealing the smallest amount of hair or skin. Salomeh’s dress would cause those guys to spontaneously combust. The way the halter top cupped her heavy breasts taunted him with how easy it would be to release those twin beauties. The dress draped over her curvy hips and stopped right below her ass, revealing long, long legs.
She held two drinks in her hands but been had stopped by his matchmaker neighbor. The woman seemed to be doing an interrogation of her own as a small group of guys began to advance on them. Given the smooth expanse of dusky skin that was exposed to the night air, he was surprised the guys weren’t moving faster.
I never do anything stupid. Why would I start tonight?
he texted Yates before slipping his phone back into his pocket and heading for Salomeh.
“I’m fine. I was just getting a drink for someone,” she was saying to her friend as he approached. Her voice was shy again, and Julian felt a stab of guilt as he saw Salomeh’s small, hopeful smile.
“Who is someone?
Is this mystery friend the reason you pulled a Usain Bolt across the rooftop earlier?” Marta asked, crossing her arms under her ample bosom. The men milling about them leaned closer expectantly, as her shirt was already dangerously low-cut.
“She’s not allowed to make new friends?” Julian inquired easily as he stepped in front of their other admirers, a smirk lifting a corner of his mouth. “Is there something I should know about you two?”
Salomeh rolled her eyes as she handed him his drink. “This is Julian, an unsavory character I found skulking in the shadows. Julian, this is Marta, my very best friend.”
“Hello, neighbor,” Marta said, a grin on her face as her gaze flitted back and forth between them. “If this is why you ditched me, I fully endorse that decision. I knew it as soon as I saw him!”
Understanding lit in Salomeh’s eyes as she looked at him. “So this is him?” she asked, and he could feel her pulling away, hastily rebuilding the walls she had been hiding behind when he first approached. The less callous part of his mind thought he should let her, but the self-serving part of him wanted to spend time with her, whether it was disingenuous or not.
“No, not ‘him,’ still Julian from the water tower,” he said in a cajoling tone as he moved closer to her, looking down into her eyes.
She returned his gaze, her eyes moving back and forth as if she was attempting to read him and wasn’t sure the story was worth her time.
He smiled and looked over at Marta. “Can you help me out here?” he asked.
“Well, you look very nice, despite the fact that you’re fully clothed now, but the important question is: are you funny?” Marta asked, her eyes narrowing a bit as she assessed him. “Salomeh here needs someone to make her laugh. And I don’t mean when he pulls down his pants.” She guffawed at her own joke, jovially elbowing a bearded guy who had sidled up next to her.
Julian wasn’t sure that Marta’s joke would necessarily fall into the category of helpful, but her belief that Salomeh might give him the opportunity to remove his pants probably meant she approved of him.
Salomeh cringed and whispered to her friend, “Are you okay? Do we need to go?”
“I’m fine,” Marta whispered back. “I’m just having fun acting like a weirdo until Daisy gets back up here and saves me from these hipster dudes. And I enjoy messing with you, of course.”
“Marta, I’m going to—”
“Thank me for inviting you to this party so you could meet the fine specimen of male you’re talking to? You’re welcome!”
Marta spun away from them then, slipping back into the drunken-ditz role that was keeping her entertained.
“Are we having fun, or do I have to take you in?” Julian asked in a low voice.
Salomeh seemed to steel herself before shaking her head in mock complaint. “I’m going to hurt that woman,” she muttered as she took Julian’s arm and maneuvered him a few yards away. Her hand was warm and soft, and she didn’t recoil when her fingers grazed against the ridged scars on his forearms. Julian felt an odd sense of gratefulness that she had chosen to continue talking to him, tinged with distress that she had chosen incorrectly. Was this how she had gotten mixed up with Bardhyn, a lack of instinct? It didn’t match up with how she seemed to be reading him, despite his subterfuge.
“She’s very straightforward.” Julian laughed quietly, pushing his thoughts away. He would figure out her connection to Bardhyn, and soon, but conjecture was pointless.
“Yes, that’s one way of putting it,” Salomeh said. “She was right, though. About me needing some fun in my life. But you’ve already accomplished that tonight, so your work is done.”
“That’s all girls ever want from me.” Julian sighed, shaking his head ruefully. “A drink, a laugh, and then I’m kicked to the curb.”
Salomeh giggled and looked up at him. “You’re very good at this. I should be paying you,” she said, a goofy grin illuminating her face.
He fought the urge to kiss her. That couldn’t happen. He would enjoy his time with her, but he was talking to her for a reason, and despite what certain organs were telling him, it wasn’t to get laid.
“The only payment I accept is information,” he said instead. “Answers to questions such as: what brought you here tonight? Although I’m sure it was the little blonde pixie who questioned my manhood. And why were you standing forlorn in a corner waiting to be saved by your court jester in shining armor?”
Salomeh stared off into the distance for a moment as though she was contemplating her answer.
“Yes, Marta invited me. She lives in the building, obviously. And as for my damsel-in-distress routine, you made me promise to act like I was having fun, so let’s not discuss that.” Salomeh paused and then gave him a look of pure curiosity. “What’s up with this crazy accent? I can’t place it. It’s not French or Italian, but it sounds Indo-European. I think. It’s not one of those random Hellenic languages, is it?”
Julian hadn’t known his inner language nerd was capable of arousal, but hearing Salomeh discuss linguistic groupings was basically intellectual foreplay. In addition to getting him wound up, he realized this discussion could segue into discussing Bardhyn if he played it right. “My accent isn’t ‘crazy,’” he said disdainfully. “It’s Albanian, and it’s much sexier than either a French or Italian accent. American accents don’t even rate a mention, of course.”
He held his head up haughtily, extending his pinky as he took a sip of his drink, watching her from the corner of his eye to catch her reaction.
She smiled and shrugged unapologetically at him. “Well, beggars can’t be choosers,” she said. “All the boys with the cute accents are already taken, so I guess I’m stuck with you.”