I sat on the floor of my tiny studio apartment staring at the piles of cash around me.
The boxes arrived a few days ago from Russia, sent by my Uncle Harry. Despite receiving a stern email from him warning me not to open the boxes, I didn’t waste any time tearing into them.
I was the weird one in my family. The only one who had chosen not to pursue a life of crime. I rarely spoke to anyone related to me and hadn’t seen my Uncle Harry since my father’s last parole hearing over ten years ago, when I was still a teenager. So when I received the boxes and a cryptic email from my uncle addressed to his favorite niece I was, of course, suspicious.
And judging from the stacks of cash taking up half my apartment floor, I had every right to be.
Five hundred thousand dollars.
FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS!
My uncle had sent me five hundred thousand dollars through the freaking mail.
What was strange was, each box only weighed about six pounds. I totally would have thought thousands of hundred-dollar bills would have weighed more. Although, to be honest, that wasn’t the truly strange part. The truly strange part was that I had freaking FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS strewn about on a ten-dollar, slightly stained throw rug I had purchased from the Salvation Army last month.
Once again, I picked up my cell phone and tried to call my Uncle Harry. I had no idea what time it was in Russia, or even why he was there, and I didn’t care. I wanted an explanation. When he didn’t answer, I tried calling my other uncle, Uncle Frank. If anyone else was involved in this mess along with Uncle Harry, it would be my Uncle Frank. They were two petty criminal peas in a pod. Uncle Frank’s cell number was disconnected. Typical. Tossing the phone aside, I sighed as I surveyed the money.
There wasn’t a doubt in my mind this money was dirty, like really, really dirty. Anything anyone in my family touched was always filthy. They wouldn’t know how to make an honest dollar if it slapped them in the face.
What the hell was I going to do?
I glanced at the alarm clock and cried out. Damn, I was late for work. Work, another concept my family was completely unfamiliar with. I was the first in our family to attend community college. Now I was scraping money together for a real estate broker license.
Four thousand three hundred and sixty dollars, that’s how much I was in the hole right now. Between the pre-licensing courses, licensing exam, my basic real estate agent license and now the desk fees at the brokerage where I worked to become a licensed broker, I was in serious credit card debt. It had taken me three years of saving some of my server tips just to scrape enough together to cover costs while I took a huge pay hit launching my new career.
I lifted the edge of my Murphy bed and tucked it back into the wall cabinet so I could open the bathroom door, and turned the knob for my shower. The old pipes rattled and clanked. Rusty water spurted from the faucet. I turned the knob to cold so I wouldn’t be wasting hot water and money as I waited for the water to run clear. I turned on the coffeepot and reached for my toothbrush. One thing about being poor and living in a tiny studio apartment, everything I needed was literally within arm’s reach, especially when the kitchen and bathroom shared the same sink. Swishing the mint foam around my mouth as I brushed, I glanced over my shoulder at the money still lying on the floor.
Forty one-hundred-dollar bills.
Forty out of five thousand one-hundred-dollar bills.
That’s all I would need.
Forty thin pieces of rectangular paper and most of my problems would be gone.
Disgusted at my thoughts, I spit in the sink and shrugged out of my T-shirt before stepping in the shower. My breath seized in my lungs as the icy water hit my chest. I had forgotten to turn the hot water knob. Sidestepping out of the freezing stream, I frantically turned the knob to add warm water, but it broke off in my hand. With a resigned sigh, I inhaled a deep breath and braced myself for the arctic chill as I flipped my long hair over my head and reached for the shampoo.
As I closed my eyes to avoid the suds, all I could see were the neat stacks of cash lying only a few feet away.
Wouldn’t I be doing a good thing by using just a tiny portion of the money for honest purposes? I wanted to have my own brokerage firm one day. A firm where female real estate agents could safely work without having to worry about getting their asses pinched or being told to fetch coffee. It may be the twenty-first century, but in many ways the real estate industry was still living in the 1950s.
In order to do that, I needed money, way more money than I was currently making. It would be at least ten years before I could afford to start my own business, unless — I peeked around the shower curtain at the money.
With a frustrated huff, I finished scrubbing the suds out of my hair and got out of the shower. Wrapping a slightly scratchy towel around my middle, I poured coffee into my favorite chipped mug and added sugar and powdered cream. No daily Starbucks on the way to work for me. I couldn’t afford such tiny luxuries.
I unplugged the coffee maker and plugged in the hair dryer. As I combed through the tangles in my hair with my fingers, I looked in the mirror and once again saw the cash.
It wasn’t like I would use it all, maybe just fifty thousand dollars’ worth. That would be enough to cover rent for a year, office furniture, equipment, and some splashy colorful marketing brochures. If I borrowed just a few thousand more, I could even get a professional website done instead of a basic do-it-yourself WordPress one. The appearance of wealth in this business was essential in getting the higher-end clients. Money attracted money. It was why I spent my rent money on nice dress suits and real-looking pearl necklaces. I would get nowhere in this business showing up in an ill-fitting thrift store outfit.
I leaned over the sink to apply mascara. My gaze traveled again to the cash. Okay, sixty thousand dollars and not a penny more. I would buy myself a decent wardrobe and maybe lease a nice Lincoln Town Car to shuttle my clients around Chicago to different properties for sale.
Sixty thousand dollars wasn’t that much, only six hundred bills out of five thousand. It probably wouldn’t even be missed. I would then donate the rest to charity or maybe play Santa Claus to the other hard-up residents in my building. I could leave little envelopes of cash for each of them to help cover rent and food. I couldn’t go to hell for using dirty money if I used most of it for good, right?
Going to the police was out of the question. I may have distanced myself from my criminal family, but I still shared their aversion to authority. Besides, with my juvenile record, there was no way they would take me at my word that the cash had just arrived on my doorstep and that I had nothing to do with it. And of course there was the bonus that it had arrived in boxes from Russia. Sure, nothing shady about that. My eyes rolled so hard I gave myself a headache.
I tiptoed between the piles of cash as I crossed the room to my bedroom/hall/linen/pantry closet. I selected a deep cranberry red A-line skirt with white flowers and matching white silk blouse that I had gotten a few weeks ago at the Anne Taylor Factory outlet and got dressed. I completed the outfit with a pair of black ballet flats and my favorite fake-but-real-looking pearl necklace.
I would rather wear four-inch platform heels to make up for my five foot six inch frame, but I had an open house today and would be on my feet for hours. It was smarter to wear the flats. It was a shame. My life was a little easier when I was taller than the men around me. Especially when one of those men was Larry, my boss. Middle-aged, balding and with a pooch of a belly, he somehow thought he was God’s gift to women.
I stared down at the cash at my feet. It was nice to dream, but there was no way I was going to touch one lousy bill of it for myself. That’s how it would start. Compromising my principles once would make it that much easier to compromise them again, then again. I had turned away from that life when I was a teenager. It had taken years to clean up my act and break free of my criminal family’s binds, and I wouldn’t turn back now. Even if abandoning those principles now made my dream of owning my own brokerage firm a reality, I would always know I had purchased it with tainted money. It wouldn’t be truly mine. It wouldn’t be something I had earned through hard work and determination.
With a sigh, I bent down to pick up several piles of crisp one-hundred-dollar bills. I turned and surveyed my apartment. Where the hell could I hide all this money until I figured out what to do with it? I had precious few options in my studio apartment. There were no cabinets under the sink, and I'd already stuffed my closet full of clothes and ramen noodles. I surveyed the Murphy bed. It would have to do.
I pulled the bed back down to the floor, piled the cash on top and then quickly raised the bed frame back into its upright position. I snatched several wayward bills as they floated in the air and shoved them between the mattress and wall.
With one last sip of my now lukewarm coffee, I raced out the door. I would figure out what to do about the dirty money later, after I got ahold of one of my uncles. For now the money, and I, were safe enough. Although we weren’t close, there was no way my Uncle Harry would have shipped the cash to me if he thought someone was actively looking for it, or if it would put my life in danger. Family was still family.
So, it wasn’t like I had to worry about some big Russian thug breaking down my door for it.
I had every intention of murdering whoever was on the other side of that door.
Cold-blooded, heartless murder, and I would get away with it too because anyone who pounded on someone’s door at seven o’clock in the morning deserved to get murdered in the worst way possible.
After flicking open the pathetic excuse for a lock, I snatched at the brass chain secured across the door, further loosening the already wobbly screws. Putting the chain across each night really was a useless endeavor. Basically only good for a false sense of security. An asthmatic eighty-year-old man could cough on this ancient door and it would fall open. Such was the life of a penniless graduate student living in a first-floor apartment in a slightly dodgy neighborhood.
With a huff, I threw the door open. “Who the hell do you think you—?”
My mouth fell open.
In a rather ironic twist, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind. The man standing on my threshold had come to murder me instead of the other way around.
There really was no other reasonable conclusion. The fact that I had done nothing, at least to my knowledge, to warrant someone wanting to murder me was immaterial. I couldn’t imagine this man being anything other than a murderer or at the very least a violent criminal.
This was all incredibly confusing considering he was also the most devastatingly handsome man I’d ever laid eyes on.
He was insanely tall. I mean, really? Was it absolutely necessary to be that much over six feet tall? All those extra inches did was make a girl feel small and vulnerable, and make her wonder what it would feel like if he crowded her against a wall and did that super sexy lean in move.
The darkly inked tattoos on his hands and neck were in stark contrast to the obviously expensive tailored suit he was wearing. His jet-black hair was wet and slicked back as if he had just showered. I could pick up the hints of musk and jasmine from his aftershave.
Scariest of all were his eyes; they were black and hooded, almost like the demon eyes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His head was slightly down as he stared at me, giving him an even more sinister appearance.
My hands shook as I tightened the belt on my leopard print silk robe with the pink trim . Those same demon eyes flashed down to my waist, then slowly rose to my chest, then back to my face to pierce me with a glare. Thankfully, I'd been so tired last night I fell asleep in my bra and panties instead of naked as I usually did. It wasn’t much but at least they were some protection beyond just my flimsy robe.
He twisted his jaw as he gestured to me with his left hand, which seemed weighed down by a heavy silver signet ring. “Is this how you answer the door? Dressed like a woman begging to be fucked?”
It took a moment for my mind to register what he said because of the heavy Russian accent. My eyes widened the moment it did. With an outraged cry, I tried to slam the door in his face. His flattened palm prevented it. I had no choice but to take a step back as he entered the apartment and closed the door. He reached behind him and twisted the lock just above the doorknob. It slid into place with an ominous click.
The air seized in my lungs. Since they'd painted half the windows shut and the other half were rusted shut, there really was no other way out of the apartment. I could scream but I doubted even my next-door neighbor, old Mrs. York, would hear me. The only good thing about the dilapidated brick building my apartment was in was its crazy-thick walls. Well, usually it was a good thing for when you wanted to play your music loud or have a party. When you were being threatened by a possible homicidal criminal, not so much.
My phone was in my purse on the sofa.
Keeping my gaze trained on him, I took a few steps back. The sofa was in my peripheral vision. I needed to get to the other end to my Loungefly embossed skulls and Hello Kitty black and pink purse. The man surveyed my apartment with a mixture of disgust and shock on his face. As he turned his attention to the locks on the door behind him, I made my move. I lunged over the back of the sofa and stretched out my arms to grab my purse. My hand slipped inside and grasped the rounded edge of my cellphone. Dragging it out of my purse, I swiped the screen with my finger and moved to tap the emergency button on the lower left-hand corner when a pair of warm hands wrapped around my hips.
His legs pressed against the back of mine, making me painfully aware of the short length of my robe. With me bent over like this, it barely covered my ass. His entire body leaned over mine as his right hand slid up my outstretched arm and pulled at the phone in my grasp. I clung to it tightly, as if it were my only lifeline. His other hand tightened on my hip, an unmistakable warning.
His breath teased the skin on my neck as he breathed near my ear, “You won’t be needing this.” With his accent, the you sounded like a low purr, and the won’t sounded more like the scary villain von’t. Instead of putting the inflection at the end of the sentence, he put it in the middle, which strangely emphasized the force of his command.
He pulled the phone free and tossed it out of my reach. Not willing to give up so easily, I started screaming, “Hey Siri! Call the police!”
Don’t Stand So Close to Me by The Police played.
Oh great. Hey Siri, please play my Perfect Songs to Get Murdered To playlist.
Shifting my hips, I placed my weight on my left foot and tried to break free of his grasp. I was spun around and pulled flush against his body by a powerful arm wrapped around my waist. My head tilted back to stare up at his uncompromising face. Caught between him and the back of the sofa, my hips ground against his. Something hard and long, really long, pressed against my abdomen.
Oh. My. God.
The handsome criminal quirked an eyebrow, the right corner of his upper lip rising with a satisfied smirk. He had the audacity to not show the least bit of chagrin. Meanwhile, my cheeks flamed scarlet. Grasping at the open neckline of my robe, I scrunched the fabric near my collarbone in my fist as I lowered my head to avoid his arrogant scrutiny.
Raising my chin with a finger, he asked “Is this the apartment of Emma Doyle?”
Once again, his Russian accent was so thick, I had to focus on the words as he rolled his R’s and made my roommate and best friend’s name sound more like Eeema than Emma.
It finally clicked.
He was a big fucking scary Russian dude and my roommate was dating a big fucking scary Russian dude. This could be bad. Either this man was a friend of Dimitri’s — or an enemy. Until I knew which, I couldn’t possibly endanger my best friend.
Twisting my head to break his grasp on my chin, I dug my fingernails into my palms to keep myself from shaking. Inhaling a hesitant breath I said, “I don’t know who that is.”
The tip of his finger traced over my cheekbone, down the side of my face and under my jaw to stop at the base of my throat. “Your beautiful throat flutters, right here, when you lie.”
I licked my lips and watched as his dark gaze zeroed in on my mouth. “I’m… I’m not lying. I’ve never heard of anyone named Emma Doyle.”
His hand moved quickly to grasp me around the throat just under my jaw. Dropping my grip on my robe, I wrapped my fingers around his wrists and tried to claw at him, but my short red nails did nothing to force him to relent.
He leaned in low, the scent of coffee and peppermint on his breath. “Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. Don’t you know it is dangerous to lie to a man like me… Mary?”
My body jerked as if someone had slapped me.
He knew my name.
I swallowed. “What do you want?” I rasped.
He shifted back slightly and looked down. With his free hand, he slipped two fingers inside the neckline of my robe and pulled it open.
I whimpered, but his grip on my throat held me in place.
His hooded gaze flicked up to mine. “Shhh, krasotka. Ne dvigaysya. YA prosto khochu prikosnut'sya.”
I had absolutely no idea what he was saying, but it sounded both scary and sexy as hell, which was so beyond twisted and wrong that it would take half a bottle of tequila for me to even start analyzing what I was thinking right now. There was just something about his heavy Russian accent. It was so deep and low, a somber purr that was hypnotic.
His fingertip traced the red ribbon which ran in and out of the lace outline of my black bra. “It was wrong for you to open the door dressed like this, krasotka. There are many dangerous men out there who would take advantage of a beautiful woman such as yourself… who’s all alone.”
“Dangerous men, like you?”
He rubbed the pad of his thumb over my lower lip. “Exactly like me.”
I rose on my toes to try to loosen his grip. “I’m not alone. My boyfriend will be back any second now.”
He smiled — and it was terrifying. “I hope for his sake you are lying to me again. I hadn’t planned on killing anyone today, but if a man were to walk through that door and try to claim you as his own, I would shoot him between the eyes.”
Claim me? What was I, a piece of luggage on an airport baggage carousel? Who talks like that? Had he really just said he hadn’t planned on killing anyone — today? Meaning on other days that option was up for grabs?
He released his grip and took a step back. He flicked open the button on his suit jacket and opened the flaps to reveal a shoulder holster with a gun in it. Wrapping his fingers around its handle, he pulled the weapon free. It was gold-plated and massive, like something out of an action movie.
He leveled the gun at the door and pulled back the hammer. “So which is it, krasotka? Are you lying or do I shoot the next person who walks through that door?”
My shocked gaze raced between the gun, his thin-lipped, determined expression, and the closed door. This couldn’t be happening. Of course there was no boyfriend. There hadn’t been a boyfriend in ages, but there was my best friend, and she could return home at any moment.
Raising my arms, I waved my palms. “Stop! Stop! There is no boyfriend. Please put the gun down.”
He uncocked the hammer and set the weapon down on the side table. Curling his hands into fists, he leaned in and rested them on the top of the sofa on either side of my hips, caging me in with his body. “So you were lying to me… again.”
What the hell was I supposed to say? My mind went blank. “I… I….”
He shifted and pressed his lower body against mine.
I stilled at the threatening press of his hard shaft, afraid to even breathe. Everything about this man screamed danger, run away, from his demeanor to his intimidating height, from his arm and chest muscles to his tattoos. He wasn’t tall with lean muscle like someone who worked out at the gym or played sports. He had that bulky, brute strength kind of build. The kind that said gyms were for posers, I’d rather just get into bar fights and flip cars to keep in shape. With his dark looks and arrogant smile, he also screamed bad boy trouble. Which is of course why my nipples were hard and pressing against the scratchy cheap lace of my bra, and my thighs were clenched.
My brain was shrieking homicidal criminal psychopath, run! While my body was ready to lay back and scream take me now, make it hurt!
With a single finger he started to circle one erect nipple through the silk of my robe. His voice was deceptively soft and low. “What kind of punishment do you think you deserve for lying to me?”
My cheeks flamed as he continued to caress the curve of my breast. Humiliated he had even noticed my involuntary response to him, I swallowed past the dry fear in my throat. “I know what you are trying to do and you don’t scare me. I’m not telling you anything.”
He ran the back of his knuckles over my stomach. “Your bravado is admirable but unnecessary. Dimitri Kosgov sent me. We are business partners. He is concerned about the lack of security in your apartment. He wants to make sure you and Emma are safe.”
There was absolutely no reason why I should, but I believed him. It sounded like precisely the type of thing Emma’s new overbearing and overprotective boyfriend would do.
Slipping that single finger into the knot at my waist, he tugged, loosening the belt. As my robe fell open completely, exposing my bra and bare midriff, he continued, “And trust me, krasotka, scaring youis the last thing I want to do to you right now.”
My knees buckled. I reached back to grasp the sofa behind me to stay upright. I had to force myself to breathe, feeling every shaky breath that entered and left my lungs as I tried to focus on his intense gaze. “Who are you?”
“My name is Vasili Lukovich Rostov, but you may call me Vaska.”
“Why are you doing this?” I was no longer referring to why he was in my apartment asking about Emma.
He shrugged. “Because I can. In my world, nothing is off-limits. If I see something I want,” he paused and ran his heated gaze over me, “I take it.”
I blinked. I wasn’t expecting such raw honesty. “In my world, a man asks permission first.”
He chuckled and responded in his heavy Russian accent, “Then I guess it is a good thing we are not in your world.”
“We are in my apartment,” I boldly fired back with more moxie than I felt.
“True, but it is still my world, and in my world, I make the rules and decide the punishments for those who break them.” His fingertip traced the top of my panties.
This had gone way, way too far. There was allowing myself to get lost in a dangerous bad boy fantasy for a moment and then there was the reality of a dangerous man with a gun standing in the middle of my living room threatening to punish me.
My shrieking brain finally won out. I ducked under his arm and desperately ran across the living room. Crossing the threshold to my bedroom, I turned and slammed the door shut, locking it. I backed away and frantically scanned the room looking for something to prop against the door. The room was too small for anything more than a double bed and a rickety vanity with two loose table legs.
I could hear his measured footsteps on the other side of the door.
I backed away as I tightened the dangling robe belt around my waist and braced for his angry shouts or pounding fist.
Vaska did neither.
Without warning, he kicked the door open and stalked into my bedroom.
Three years earlier.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
As the sharp edge of my voice cut through the chilly darkness of the bookshelf-lined study, Nadia turned, her bright blue eyes wide with shock. Her arm hung suspended in midair as the silver flask clutched in her hand stopped just before touching her lips.
The soft, blueish white glow from the moonlight streaming through the large windows illuminated her pale face. It gave her an ethereal quality, as if I had startled a beautiful specter during her nightly hauntings. The muted noises of dancing and laughter sounded a world away. Since we were in the far wing of the house, they might as well have been.
From this distance, no one would hear her cries for help.
Just over her shoulder, insolently lounging in her older brother’s ox-blood leather chair with his feet on the desk, was a man I didn’t recognize, but not knowing his name would not prevent me from killing him.
He spread his arms wide, palms out. “Relax!” Foamy spittle fell onto his tie from his lips as he slurred the word. “She can have a swig or two. It’s a party.” He swung his head in Nadia’s direction. The man took a moment to refocus his drunken gaze before giving her an exaggerated wink.
It was all I could do not to seize her in my arms and bodily carry her out of the room.
How dare she put herself in danger like this?
Wandering away from her own party to sneak a drink with some unknown man?
This wasn’t like her.
Most of the guests were assholes in cheap suits and women in tight dresses reeking of even cheaper perfume. In other words, the usual crowd of business associates, political dignitaries and crime bosses that congregate at an Ivanov party. They were all here to celebrate Nadia’s birthday. Well, truthfully, none of them were actually here to celebrate her birthday. Few could even pick her out of a line up.
They were here for one reason, and one reason only: to get close to her brothers.
Each drawn to the unchallenged power the family yielded.
Each coming with a false smile and an open palm, hoping to curry favor and line their pockets.
Each ignoring the guest of honor, the birthday girl.
No wonder she had wandered off unnoticed, but only because I’d been occupied by dragging a drunk who had accosted her friend Yelena out the back.
The moment I returned, I knew she was gone. It had become a habit over the years to always look for her. As the Ivanovs’ head of security, technically it was my job to watch over her, to protect her.
My job and my own private hell.
I wasn’t sure which part angered me more.
That she had wandered off alone when the house was filled with strangers.
Or that she had wandered off with another man.
My fingers curled into a fist at my side.
If I can’t have her, no one can.
It was an irrational and selfish thing to think, especially since I had never even so much as allowed myself to touch her, but then I wasn’t thinking straight in that moment. Something tightened in my chest as I reined in a primal howl of mine.
As she fidgeted under my unrelenting gaze, her two front teeth sunk into the soft plump flesh of her lower lip. An adorable nervous tick of hers. My tongue flicked out over my lip as if I could taste the cherry sweetness of the flavored lip gloss I knew she liked.
Nadia bowed her head and turned. She leaned over, stretching her arm across the wide expanse of the polished oak desk, to hand the man his flask back. As she did so, the ruffled edge of her floral dress rode up the back of her thighs. She had the cutest freckle which peeked out from behind her hem, high on the back of her right thigh, just below the soft curve of her ass. I resisted the urge to tilt my head to the side in a juvenile attempt to catch a glimpse of her panties.
Speaking of hell, that was precisely where I was going. Her two brothers would be the ones to send me there.
This was madness. If her brothers knew what I was thinking, they’d put a bullet in my head. My years of loyalty be damned.
The fact that Nadiam had finally turned eighteen didn’t matter. She may have been legal to touch, but that didn’t make it less wrong. Nadia was the protected baby sister of the Ivanov family, and the very definition of forbidden fruit. I wouldn’t blame Gregor and Damien for taking me to one of our off-grid warehouse locations and beating me bloody to within an inch of my life for even looking at her this way.
As she stood before me, she fidgeted with the charms on her silver bracelet and rambled, “Mikhail, this is Adam. Adam Fischer. He’s Peter’s older brother. You know Peter, right? Samara’s boyfriend? Adam graduated several years ahead of us.”
He wasn’t Russian. Another strike against him. At least now I had a name for his tombstone.
Adam lifted his flask in a mock salute and called out, “Na zdorov’ye!” He then took a long gulp.
I cast an annoyed glance in Nadia’s direction. She at least had the presence of mind to look embarrassed at Adam’s incorrect use of a toast most Americans thought Russians used every time we took a sip of alcohol.
Adam leaned over to hand the flask back to Nadia. “Take another sip, sweet stuff.”
My control snapped. I surged forward.
Nadia sprang out of the way, a small cry of fear on her lips as she raised her arms.
I moved past her and swiped at Adam’s feet, knocking them off the desk. My fists twisted into the extra fabric of his ill-fitting polyester suit blazer, and I wrenched him out of the chair. Even before knowing his name or hearing his voice, I knew he wasn’t Russian. A Russian man would never disgrace his hosts by wearing the same wrinkled suit he had worn into work that day to a celebrated event in someone’s home.
I leaned in close to rasp in his ear. “YA vyrvu tebe glaznyye yabloki i zasunu ikh v tvoye degenerativnoye gorlo.”
Adam’s thin lips stretched wide over small teeth in a crooked smile as he shoved his forearms up, then against my wrists, breaking my grip. “Shove off so Natalia and I can get better acquainted. Don’t worry,” he sneered, “I’ll hand her over to you once I’m done.”
Since I had just told him I was going to rip out his eyeballs and shove them down his degenerate throat, that would not happen. After dragging him from behind the desk, I swung around and shoved him toward the door.
“Her name is Nadia, you piece of shit, and you’ll touch her over my fucking dead body.”
While we were matched in height, each over six feet tall, I had at least thirty pounds of muscle on him, which gave me an advantage. That, and the fact I was raised in the unforgiving icy wilderness of Siberia and not some cushy American suburb. Although I knew Adam didn’t have any political power and wasn’t connected to the Ivanovs’ criminal enterprise, it still would look bad if I hauled him out of the party bloody and bruised. Against my better judgement, I would have to let him go with a warning to never go near Nadia again.
At least that was my plan until he took a swing at me. Then all bets were off.
Adam snatched a brass double-headed eagle figurine from the bookshelf nearby, and swung his arm wide, almost clipping me on the chin.
I took a step back and grinned. I slipped out of my suit jacket and tossed it onto the desk behind me. Slowly circling Adam as he continued to lurch about and swipe his arms at me, I rolled up my shirt sleeves.
Nadia’s plea came from behind me. “Mikhail, don’t. It’s my fault.”
I tossed her a look over my shoulder, and warned, “I will deal with you in a minute.”
This time when Adam swung the brass figurine, it slipped out of his hand and sailed across the room. It almost hit Nadia in the shoulder before shattering the window behind her. With a snarl, I snapped my right arm out, hooking him under the chin with my fist. He staggered back. I hit him again and again. I didn’t give a damn if he was drunk. If he was sober enough to toss a punch, he was sober enough to take one. The final time I swung out, I felt his cheek bone shatter beneath my knuckles. Adam fell to his knees, howling in pain as he clutched his face. A swift kick to the jaw silenced his cries.
As his body fell limply onto the Persian carpet, Ilya, one of my men, appeared in the doorway. “Alarm went off, signaling a breach.”
Lowering onto my haunches, I wiped the blood from my knuckles onto Adam’s shirt. Motioning with my head, I indicted the window. “Broken window.” I rose and pointed to Adam. “Mr. Fischer has overstayed his welcome. Please see him out.”
Ilya snatched Adam up under his arms and walked backwards as he dragged his limp body toward the door. “Consider it done, Boss.”
As I followed him to the threshold, I instructed, “Ubedites', chto gosti nichego ne vidyat.” The last thing I needed was a scene with the party guests.
Ilya nodded, then casually asked, “Should we kill him?”
There was a soft gasp behind me.
Ilya started as he looked past me, deeper into the dark room. “Izvini, Boss. YA yeye tam ne videl.”
Of course he hadn’t seen Nadia. It was a common occurrence. As the quiet little sister of the great Ivanov brothers, everyone often overlooked her.
Everyone but me.
At barely over five feet tall, Nadia didn’t even come up to my shoulder. She was like a living doll. She had a light smattering of freckles over the bridge of her tiny nose, a delicate cupid’s bow of a mouth and an adorable bundle of soft strawberry blonde curls. Each time she nervously bit her lip, I wanted to do dark and dangerous things to her.
Yes, everyone else may see past her, but not me.
She was the first person I looked for when I entered a room and the last one I thought of at night. Every time she left the house, even if it was only to go to school, I was on edge till she was back safely at home, under my control. The Ivanovs led a dangerous life with ruthless enemies who could strike at any moment. Nadia was a vulnerability, a weak point their enemies would think nothing of exploiting, but that would never happen. Not on my watch.
The number one rule in the Ivanov household was no one talked business in front of or within earshot of Nadia. It was the family’s wish she never be aware of the extent of their criminal activities. As far as she was concerned, her father had owned a successful import and export business that he passed on to her brothers at his death. The intense security I and my staff provided were explained away as America being a dangerous country.
I waved off Ilya’s apology. “Nichego, Ilya. Prosto delay, kak ya govoryu.”
As soon as they were both gone, she spoke up, although her voice was barely above a nervous whisper. “I should rejoin the party. My mother will be looking for me.”
With a flat palm, I pushed the door shut. I slid the heavy brass bolt that secured just below the top of the door into place.
Turning, I faced Nadia. “You’re not going anywhere.”
She knew I was watching her.
Like an innocent creature in the woods who sensed danger nearby, her body reacted to the force of my gaze. Only the trained eye of a hunter could pick up the signs. There was the slight tensing of her shoulders. The way her head tilted in my direction but didn’t fully turn. Her hand self-consciously rose to cover her heart as if her palm could smother the sudden rapid beating.
She angled her head a little further as she swept a thick golden curl behind her ear. I could just see the high curve of her flushed cheek as she trained her gaze downward, no doubt trying to catch a secretive glimpse of me from under her soot-black lashes. Her pink tongue flicked out to lick her lips. The champagne light from the chandelier suspended above picked up on the faint shimmer left behind.
Balls of ice clattered then settled in my glass as I tipped the smooth, amber liquid past my lips. The Macallan Rare single-malt scotch might as well have been rotgut whiskey for all I tasted it. The smoky vanilla and clove tones of the liquor did nothing to soothe my anger or cool my rising lust. Placing the now empty glass on the silver tray of a passing catering server, I crossed my arms over my chest as I leaned against the doorjamb.
The little minx was now doing her best to ignore me.
Her head was thrown back, and even over the annoying din of the surrounding party guests, the sound of her laughter reached me. It was too high-pitched and hollow as if she were forcing the sound past stiff, nervous lips. Some asshole in a cheap off-the-rack suit grabbed her hand and pulled her onto the makeshift dance floor set up in my parents’ spacious living room.
I didn’t recognize him but then I didn’t know many of the guests. I suspected neither did my little sister, Nadia, despite it being her eighteenth birthday party. Many would be high-profile businessmen with their wives as well as the occasional politician or policy maker. These were the people my family associated with in the light of day to help keep up the veneer of legitimacy.
My job in the Ivanov family was to associate with the types who only crawled out of their holes in the dead of night. I kept to the corners of fine society. Dark corners for doing dark deeds. It was how I had earned the moniker Demon Damien. If I showed up on someone's doorstep, there were no more second chances. It was game over.
I nodded a greeting to my brother Gregor. He stopped a server and gave them some quick instruction before approaching. Despite being separated by several years, we were thick as thieves, always had been. We stood silently surveying the crowd. The same server approached with an old-fashioned glass filled with clear liquid, only one small cube of ice. No doubt Stoli Elit, his favorite vodka. Although Russian to my very core, I never developed a taste for the stuff, preferring the rich malty flavor of scotch instead.
Gregor nodded toward the server. “You need another?”
I trained my gaze back on her.
The DJ was playing I’m on Fire by Bruce Springsteen.
Hey little girl is your daddy home; did he go and leave you all alone…
Ignoring her dance partner, her body swayed to the soft, somnolent beat. Each curve hugged by crushed pink velvet, the dress slinking all the way down to her ankles. No doubt a designer dress she’d stolen from some boutique. She turned her back on me and shifted her hips from side to side. The velvet fabric caught snatches of light, illuminating the gentle swell of her ass. Her slender arms rose and slipped under her thick curtain of hair, raising the long length to expose the vulnerable pale skin of her neck. I could just make out the image of a small pink heart tattooed in the center. Irrational anger twisted in my stomach at the thought of another man touching her in such an intimate place, even if it was only with a tattoo needle.
I shifted my stance, trying to ease the increasingly pleasurable pain below my belt.
The little minx was toying with me. Foolishly thinking this crowded house full of guests would protect her.
She played with fire.
Knowing I had better at least be mostly sober for the fight that was brewing between me and her, I shook my head and waved the server away.
The man she was dancing with placed his hand on her hip, and I stiffened. Fortunately — for both of them — she swayed in the opposite direction, dislodging his grasp. She did it so effortlessly there wasn’t a doubt in my mind she had had plenty of practice dodging unwanted grabs. My jaw clenched so hard I swore my back teeth cracked. I took a deep breath through my nose, forcing myself to remain calm.
“His name is Pavel Rasskovich,” offered Gregor. I didn't even bother to pretend to not know what he was talking about. “A low-level thug for the Novikoffs. He’s here as a bodyguard for one of the useless brothers.”
If he touched her again, he was a dead man.
I had no right to feel so possessive toward her. No right at all.
In fact, it was practically criminal. The girl was barely eighteen to my twenty-seven years.
Yelena Nikitina, my little sister’s best friend… and the very definition of trouble.
Stubborn and untamed, her father had let her run wild since her mother’s death with virtually no supervision or discipline.
There was the time eight years ago I’d caught her stealing a few silly makeup items from a local store. I had been home from college for the weekend. Her mother had just died, if I recall. She fought me like a wildcat when I snatched her by the arm after witnessing her pocketing the stolen loot. Her arm was so thin, I was worried I would break a bone if I squeezed too hard. She looked so small and vulnerable, but those big blue eyes still shone bright with defiance. Ignoring her protests, I had dragged her to the McDonald’s next door and bought her a Happy Meal.
She ate every bite as if it were her last meal. Or more accurately… her first.
It had made me sick to think that may have been the only half-way decent meal she had had in days. I'd made a mental note to have my parents speak with her father. He was a low-life hanger-on who occasionally did small jobs for my family. The sort of stuff we wouldn’t dirty our hands with. True to her nature, she’d stared me down the entire time, refusing to utter even a single word. She did, however, slip the small Hello Kitty toy that came with the meal into her pocket when she thought I wasn’t looking.
As I came back to the present, the same sick feeling twisted in my gut, but this time it was guilt. I'd spoken with my mother about Yelena’s welfare but that was as far as I'd taken it. Shortly after, Gregor got into that mess at his college and was shipped off to St. Petersburg. My life became more complicated with him gone. It was no excuse; simply the hard truth.
Still, I should have made sure my parents took an interest and looked after her.
I wasn’t technically responsible for her welfare but that wasn’t how I saw it.
I had let her down, abandoned her to the sloppy care of that piece of shit she called a father.
And now that little girl with the big blue eyes had grown into a woman — a young, still naive one — but nevertheless a woman.
And now she was in trouble — real trouble.
This time, I wouldn’t be able to pay off a simple shopkeeper and threaten him not to call the police.
She had gotten herself in deep with some ruthless people so dirty even my family refused to work with them.
Her only hope was for me to do what I should have done years ago.
I would let it be known she was under my protection.
I wasn’t sure even that would be enough to save her, but I’d be damned if I’d let her down again.
I would get her out of this mess and then send her far away. I’d lock her up in some European college where she would be safe from her own mistakes.
And from me.
There was no denying it. I wanted her, badly. My gaze hardened as I watched her body sway to the next song. Jealous of every undeserving man in the room who was witnessing her display. A display I was certain was done purely to antagonize me. I couldn’t say why. It wasn’t like I had spoken a word to her or even seen her in years. Just somehow, I knew she was as aware of me as I was of her. I could feel it, even across this distracting sea of chattering guests. A primal clash of wills.
Her soft hair fell in waves down her back. I itched to wrap the long locks around my fist as I claimed those full lips. I could practically feel the warmth of her skin and ached to inhale her scent as I crushed her to my chest. I needed to know if her eyes changed color when she was aroused. Would they become a deeper sapphire blue?
Clearing my throat, I forced myself to look away.
She was my little sister’s friend and barely an adult.
This was wrong.
If I was truly going to save her, then it had to also be from myself. While I might be a better man than her father, it was only by a few degrees.
My life revolved around blood money. Selling arms to the highest bidder with no thought to who or what that man or country may be and not having the slightest care regarding their intentions. I wasn’t the one pulling the trigger, so I didn’t give a damn what they did with the guns I sold them. I never had a choice about entering the family business so there was no point in being morally judgmental about it. It was better to accept it and move on; after all, family was family, and they came first.
I didn’t have a choice, but I would make sure Yelena did.
She wasn’t like us. Her family didn’t have an empire to protect. She could escape this life if she chose. And even if she didn’t choose, I was choosing for her. She deserved better. I had the money to buy her a decent life… one away from me and all this violence and bullshit.
Glancing at my brother, I asked, “Have you seen Samara yet?”
He shook his head.
Speaking of family bullshit, my brother was being forced into an arranged marriage with our little sister’s other close friend, Samara Federova. Unlike Yelena, Samara’s family did have an empire. One they sold her to protect. It wasn’t my brother’s idea. It had been our father’s dying wish, one Gregor would see through no matter his feelings on the subject. His unenviable responsibility as the eldest son. Family was family. The millions Samara’s father demanded for her hand in marriage was paltry compared to the business and diplomatic connections we would receive once the Ivanov family was joined in marriage to the Federovs.
Gregor reached into his pocket and pulled out a Regius Double Corona cigar. They were the finest cigars in the world. Like me, he always demanded the best. It was part of the golden handcuffs which kept us tethered to this lifestyle. The luxury our ill-gotten gains afforded us had a rather seductive pull.
“I’m going to escape out the back and have a smoke. You coming?”
I shook my head.
Gregor followed my gaze as I once more watched Yelena on the dance floor. “When are you going to take care of that little situation we learned about today?”
Gregor was of course aware of the trouble Yelena had caused a few days ago. He had planned to handle the situation himself, but I insisted on taking ownership of the problem.
Just because I was forcing myself not to touch her — to claim her for my own — didn’t mean she wasn’t mine. In some strange way, I felt responsible for her. Her problems were my problems. “Soon.”
Gregor nodded as he took another sip of his drink. Laying it on a nearby tray, he nodded to me again and slipped through the crowd.
I returned my attention to Yelena.
Another man in a cheap suit had grabbed her from behind, wrapping his fat arms around her slim middle.
All my previous good intentions were gone.
Fuck my good intentions.
Someone with my black soul had no business having good intentions anyway.
Yelena was mine and right now that asshole was touching her, which meant he had to die.
I stormed toward the dance floor… and her.
“We’re going to get caught!”
Ignoring the warning, my boyfriend tugged harder on my arm.
The clatter of music and laughter from the party faded the farther Peter pulled me down the dark corridor. When I glanced back, I could just make out a shaft of light as it stretched across the marble tiled entrance to the great hall. The servants had moved the ancient furnishings out and rolled the Persian carpets up to make room for the celebration. Hired catering staff dressed in ill-fitting tuxedo jackets passed around silver trays with either caviar canapés or glasses of Veuve Clicquot while everyone smiled and pretended to like one another.
From where it was tucked away on a thickly wooded lot along the Rock Creek Parkway, visitors could be forgiven if they thought they’d arrived at a creepy gothic manor. My friend Nadia’s massive granite house was probably over a hundred years ago.
The estate screamed old money and tradition, even though it was far from the truth.
It was only what they wanted people to think.
Instead, it was all just smoke and mirrors.
But I wasn’t allowed to talk about such things.
Peter’s warm hand was sweaty as it roughly clung to mine. As he dragged me down the shadowed labyrinth of hallways, he stopped before each threshold, twisting one doorknob after another to see if they were locked. Soon, the muted rattle of metal against wood and Peter’s soft curses replaced the music. Before long, he found a door the servants had neglected to secure. We slipped inside, and Peter softly clicked the door shut.
The room was mostly dark, only hints of moonlight filtering through the gauzy silver curtains covering the floor-to-ceiling windows.
We didn’t dare turn on a light.
I took a few careful steps inside, not wanting to bump into any furniture. Although I had played in my best friend Nadia’s house since I was a child, I hadn’t been paying attention, so I wasn’t sure which room Peter had pulled us into. I knew the first floor on this side of the house mostly contained a mixture of bedrooms, gaming areas, and offices.
A distinct scent clung to the air, the unmistakable mark of the room’s occupant.
Closing my eyes, I inhaled.
It was a warm woodsy scent with a hint of ginger and spice.
My eyes snapped open.
I knew that scent.
“We have to leave.”
Clasping Peter’s forearm in a tight grip, I bent my knees and tugged, throwing my weight backward. “Please, Peter. We can’t stay in this room!”
My slight frame was not enough to budge him.
“No. All the other rooms are locked. Besides…” He snatched me around the waist, then yanked me against his chest. “This one has a bed.”
Peering over Peter’s shoulder, I widened my eyes as I could just make out the ominous outline of the four-poster bed.
That was his bed.
Clawing at Peter’s fingers, I freed myself from his hold.
I had to get out of here!
“No, Peter. You don’t understand!”
I couldn’t be caught in this bedroom.
In his bedroom.
Of course, I should have known he would be here tonight.
It was Nadia’s eighteenth birthday, after all.
It had been five years since I had last seen him, but it didn’t matter.
Ten years… hell, twenty years could pass and it still wouldn’t matter.
I would still be terrified of him.
I wasn’t sure why I was nervous.
It wasn’t like he cared--if he even knew who I was.
I had stopped myself from asking Nadia if he would be attending her birthday party at least a million times.
Because it didn’t matter.
If I kept telling myself that, it might actually be true. It had to be true. Besides, I had my own life now. I even had a boyfriend. I wasn’t that foolish little girl with a crush. Not anymore.
But that scent.
Bleu de Chanel.
The unmistakable scent of him.
Goose bumps rose on my arms.
He was here.
Pivoting on my heel, I clamored in the darkness for the doorknob, desperate to return to the party. Back to the music and light and dancing, to people and laughter… and safety.
As soon as I managed to open the door a sliver, it was wrenched from my hands and slammed shut.
Peter took hold of my shoulders, spun me around, and pushed me against the door.
“You’re such a fucking cock tease.”
The dim lighting threw his face into shadows, contorting his features into harsh lines. His breath had the fetid yeast smell of stale beer from the drink he’d stolen from the bar before the party began.
“What? Why would you—” Confusion scrambled my thoughts.
He clawed at the neckline of my dress, tearing it.
His palmed my breast, ruthlessly squeezing it. My eyes teared at the searing jolt of pain.
“The saintly Federovs and their virginal daughter. Your family thinks they are so much better than everyone else,” he jeered as he forced his knee between my thighs.
Digging my nails into his wrist, I struggled to break free. “Let me go!”
“I’m tired of hand jobs and dry humps. Come on, Samara,” he whined as he down crowded closer and tried to kiss me.
I stretched my head to the side, avoiding his lips. My mind could not keep up with Peter’s crazy display of emotions. Angry one second, but pleading the next. I knew he wasn’t happy with my decision not to go all the way, but he was insane if he thought I was going to have sex with him at my friend’s birthday party with my mother and father just down the hall.
Craning my neck, I kept pulling on his arm, trying to dislodge his painful grip on my breast.
“Peter, get off me!”
His free hand went for the zipper of his jeans. “I’ll be quick. I’ll even pull out, so you won’t get pregnant.”
This isn’t happening.
Although we could never talk about Nadia’s family business, I knew security guards always patrolled the grounds. Maybe if I cried out, I’d get lucky and one would be in earshot and come help me. With the loud music, there was no chance of anyone from the party hearing me. As I opened my mouth to scream, there was the soft shush of a sliding door opening. The cool rush of midnight air brought with it the acrid scent of cigar smoke.
Peter released his grasp, whirling around.
We both stared as the immense dark figure of a man stalked in from the stone patio running along the northside of the bedroom.
It was him.
Nadia’s older brother.
In the barely lit room, he was still deep in shadows, but I knew it was him.
My gaze followed the glowing end of the cigar he must have been smoking outside.
Without saying a word, he stepped inside and leaned against the front of the desk. He took another slow drag from his cigar; the end glowing brightly like an evil, all-seeing eye. When he exhaled, a halo of sweet tobacco smoke encircled him. With slow deliberation, Gregor set the cigar aside, slid open a side drawer… and withdrew a revolver.
My hand flew up to cover my mouth.
Peter shifted behind me.
When Gregor’s chilly voice finally broke the tense silence, my body started at the sound.
“Were you aware that Russians did not invent Russian roulette?”
Flicking the chamber open, he reached into the drawer a second time, then raised his arm. The bright casing of a single bullet caught the moonlight.
“An American author made it up for a short story,” Gregor continued as he slid the bullet into the revolver chamber with a click.
“Who is this guy?” Peter whispered over my shoulder.
“Shut up,” I hissed through clenched teeth, afraid to even move my lips. My body tensed so tightly it felt like brittle glass. I was sure the slightest loud sound or sudden movement would make me shatter.
Gregor straightened to his full height.
Peter and I both gasped, stumbling a few steps backward.
“Still, everyone believes it must be true. Probably because we Russians are so crazy, no?” Gregor said as he took several steps toward us.
Peter’s fingers dug into my shoulders as he pushed me forward.
My fingers turned to ice as all the feeling left my body. My tongue felt heavy when I tried to form my next words. “Gregor, it’s… Samara, I’m Nadia’s—”
“I know who you are, Samara.”
My heart lurched at the sound of my name on his lips—at the seductive way he softly rounded the r.
Despite both of our families living in America now, Gregor had been sent back to Russia just over five years ago because of some hastily covered up scandal at his college. So his accent was thicker, giving his voice a decadent darkness that was almost mesmerizing.
My brow furrowed. How could he know who I was? The last time I’d been around him, I was nothing more than his little sister’s awkward friend, barely thirteen years old. He hadn’t known I was alive.
Without warning, Gregor reached out and snatched Peter by the collar, dragging him out from behind me. Peter’s gangly limbs flailed as Gregor manhandled him across the room. He tossed the man into a chair in front of the cold fireplace.
Placing his hands on the armrests, Peter immediately tried to get up. When Gregor raised the gun, Peter fell back onto the seat. His high-pitched voice broke as he stuttered, “We didn’t mean to come into your room.”
Gregor cut his grey gaze toward me.
I hugged myself around the waist, trying to stop my body from trembling. His steely eyes surveyed me from head to toe.
He took a step forward.
With a gasp, I stumbled backward. I couldn’t help it.
As much as the man enthralled me…
He terrified me more.
Except now, he was even bigger and scarier with way more tattoos. Even in the darkened bedroom, I could make out the outline of an image on his neck and several more on his hands, making the tailored suit he wore a mockery of civility. The man radiated dark energy and barely leashed anger.
His eyes narrowed. I could tell my reaction displeased him.
Switching the gun to his left hand, he kept it trained on Peter. After giving him a warning look, Gregor returned his attention to me. He raised his right arm.
Instinctively, I moved back again. The hard look on his face stilled me. After holding my gaze long enough to freeze the blood in my veins, his eyes lowered to the torn neckline of my dress.
Glancing down, it mortified me to see the top of my pink lace bra exposed. Despite the low lighting, you could already see the beginning of a bruise on my soft flesh from Peter’s rough handling.
Using two fingers, Gregor pulled aside the fabric, exposing more of my skin to his gaze. Using just the tip of his middle finger, he caressed the outline of the bruise. I hissed in air through my teeth when he touched a particularly sensitive spot.
His jaw tightened. The steel of his eyes turned to molten fire.
Turning his head, he looked at Peter as he cocked back the hammer.
Peter’s eyes widened as he threw up his hands in pitiful defense. “No!”
His plea fell on deaf ears.
Without saying a word, Gregor pulled the trigger.
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“So you just knocked on a strange man’s door in the middle of the night? Do you have any idea what could have happened to you? A little girl like you all alone? Unprotected!” he raged as he swallowed the contents of his glass before slamming it down onto the counter so hard I heard the crystal crack.
Was he serious?
Forgetting all about my fear, my humiliation and my naked state, I rose onto my knees. “You!” I accused, pointing a finger at him, “You happened to me! And it wasn’t in the middle of the night!” I finished petulantly, my lower lip sticking out as I put my hands on my hips.
He moved so swiftly I didn’t have a chance to escape.
Wrapping his fist in my curls, he wrenched my head back as he pulled me against his warm body. Aware of my naked breasts brushing against the dark hair on his chest, my heart thumped wildly.
His black eyes narrowed as his lips twisted into a sneer. “And what were you going to do, детка? Beg him prettily on your knees for the money?” The angrier he got, the thicker his Russian accent became. His voice was nothing but a low guttural growl to my untrained ears, but I understood enough.
With a cry of rage, my arm flew up, ready to slap him and damn the consequences.
A vice snapped around my thin wrist. In one smooth move, he had my arm locked behind my back.
“Perhaps I should make you beg me for the money?”
My vision blurred.
“Would you do that, детка, my sweet little baby girl. Would you get on your knees and open that beautiful mouth for me?”
My body’s reaction to his dark threat was nothing short of sick and twisted. I felt the rush of heat between my legs. I clenched my thighs at the thought of being submissively prostrate in front of this dangerously powerful man. My mouth open and begging for his… his… oh, God! Heat rose on my cheeks as the wanton image played behind my eyes.
Without thinking, my tongue darted out to wet my lips.
Pressed close to his chest, I felt the vibrations from his growl.
His other arm swept against my upper thighs just under my ass as he lifted me off the bed. Carrying me before him, he strode across the room. Pressing my hands against his shoulders, I squirmed in his embrace. “Where are you taking me?”
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A Ruthless Russian Arms Dealer crosses paths with an innocent Librarian student and decides to claim her for his own, despite the consequences.
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.”
- Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
I had run out of time… and options.
Tuition was due next week.
I had no choice but to beg for the money tonight, or I’d be kicked out of school.
I gripped the cold, wrought iron fence railing and tried to calm my breathing. I reached up to straighten my bangs as I checked to make sure the topknot securing my hair was still in place. Normally, I just threw my hair up in a messy bun with two twists of a scrunchy, but today I had taken the care to smooth it into a tight, elegant bun. I had hoped it would make me look older and studious. The effect was almost worth the headache the tight hair band and bobbypins were giving me. I couldn’t wait for this to be over. The first thing I would do would be to take my hair down.
Giving myself one last inspection, I bent down to wipe a small smudge off the toe of my Doc Marten Mary Janes before straightening my pink plaid skirt.
Hefting my leather backpack onto my shoulder, I swung open the gate. Wincing as it squeaked, I paused, waiting for… I’m not sure what. The sounds of angry dogs barking? A warning gunshot over my head?
Sliding first one foot along the brick-paved walkway, then the other, I forced myself to walk up the short set of stairs.
Rolling my eyes, I sighed. The house would have an imposing glossy black door with a massive brass lion’s head clasping a heavy ring in its jaws for a door knocker. All I was missing was some misty fog and the sound of the Thames lapping at the shore and I’d be in some Dicken’s novel with me playing the part of the poor urchin begging for scraps.
I wasn’t the poor urchin.
Squaring my shoulders, I reminded myself I was the heroine of my story. And like most of Austen’s heroines, this particular heroine desperately needed this man’s money! As Lizzie Bennet said to the arrogant Mr. Darcy: My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.
With more boldness than I felt, I raised my arm to grasp the metal ring. Before I could, the door swung open with such force, a blast of air ruffled my bangs.
With a small cry, I took a step back.
In my vivid imagination, the person seemed more beast than man.
With his legs planted wide, his shaved head barely missed hitting the top of the doorway. The black goatee covering his upper lip and chin only highlighted the sharp planes of his jaw and nose. Beneath his right eye there was some sort of slash mark or scar which gave the already pretty freaking scary-looking man an even more ominous appearance. Naked from the waist up, his muscled chest was covered in brightly colored tattoos. Good Lord! Was that an image of a dagger dripping with blood on his neck?
A grim scowl clouded his features as he stared down at me with cold, stormy eyes.
“I… I… I….” My brain froze. My jaw was too stiff to form any words.
In reality, I knew he had spoken some normal, English-language words, but all I heard emanating from his lips was the deep, threatening growl of a beast. It didn’t help that he had the distinctive guttural purr of a Russian accent.
This man was definitely not Mr. Linus Fitzgerald III elderly son of my former benefactor!
My tongue felt thick and awkward in my mouth. “I’m so sorry. There’s been a mistake.”
My body jerked off-balance as my heel slid out over the edge of the top step in my effort to back slowly away from the angry, bear-like man.
His giant paw snatched me by the upper arm and dragged me over the threshold. I fell against the hard heat of his body.
“There is no mistake, моя крошка. You’re mine for the night.”
The heavy black door swung shut, cutting me off from the safe sounds of civilization.
It was too late.
I was alone with the Russian beast… inside his lair.
Elizabeth's emerald gaze darted over my shoulder to the exit.
My body tensed, ready to pounce.
Her foot slid to the right, as she slowly turned her body in the door's direction.
"I wouldn't if I were you," I warned.
The sudden bark of my voice echoed off the bare brick walls and visibly startled her.
She leaned forward slightly... then my little bird took flight.
Running in an arc, she bolted for the door.
I was too quick for her.
Lunging, I stretched out my arm and caught her around the waist, pulling her struggling body against my chest. Her delicate frame no match for my strength. I could feel each thin bone and soft curve of her body as I pressed it to mine.
So easily breakable.
Elizabeth screeched and clawed at my forearm. "Let me go! Let me go!"
Wrapping another arm securely across her shoulders, I tightened my grasp on her. The pressure against her ribcage stifled her breath and ceased her struggles.
Taking the soft lobe of her ear between my teeth, I bit down. "Never," I growled.
My blood was up. I wanted this fight with her. Needed it.
Releasing my hold, Elizabeth stumbled forward before swinging to face me.
Pushing her damp curls away from her face, she just stared at me with those wild, beautiful eyes of hers. A single tear coursed down her flushed cheek.
I would never get my fill of this woman... of this.
I wanted to swallow her screams and taste her tears. The wicked beast inside of me craved to devour every innocent glimmer of light within her soul till I had filled it with the same shadows as my own. I knew there was darkness inside of her. It called out to me. There was nothing in my life so enthralling or so challenging as drawing it out. Forcing it to the surface to come play my twisted, depraved games.
Backing up a step, keeping her palms defensively before her, she breathed, "It was a mistake to return."
Reaching for my belt, I slowly slipped the long leather strap through the sterling silver buckle as I took a threatening step toward her. "Yes, it was."
What was the point in denying it?
She had angered and betrayed me.
As I told Andrew, life had consequences.
Especially when you dared to fight me over something I wanted to possess.
And I would possess Elizabeth. In time, I would burn away all her defiance until she finally accepted that her fate lay with me... and only me.
Scrambling backward, her chest rose and fell with each quickened breath. I could see the sharp outline of her nipples through her still-damp t-shirt. Closing my eyes for a moment, I imagined her in the shower. Soft, warm water caressing her skin as foamy, iridescent bubbles clung to each curve. My cock swelled and pressed painfully against the zipper of my jeans.
"Richard, I love you, but we have to end this. It's too toxic. It's become too twisted," she pleaded.
I nodded as I pulled my belt free. Running my hand down the long, thick length of leather before folding it in half in my right fist. "The only way you escape me, Elizabeth, is in death. You were mine from the first moment I laid eyes on you. Nothing has or ever will change that."
I took another step toward her. My intent clear.
With a cry of alarm, Elizabeth scanned the wall before grabbing at one of my displayed swords. She chose a rather ominous Russian Cossack saber. Pulling it free of its hardened black leather and gold sheath, she exposed the long, flat, razor-sharpened blade.
Holding the hilt with both of her small hands, she extended the heavy blade in front of her, pointing it at my mid-section.
"Don't come any closer," she warned. Her voice sounded high and thin with a slight warble.
She was afraid.
She should be.
Keeping her gaze locked with mine, I took two deliberate steps in her direction. Wrapping my left hand around the blade, I ignored the harsh sting of pain as its sharp edge sliced into my fingers.
Elizabeth gasped, her cherry lips opening in shock as I placed the point of the blade over my heart.
She tried to back away, but the wall prevented her. Keeping my grasp on the blade, I lifted it higher till the point leveled over my heart. Refusing to take my gaze off her, I let the tip sink into my flesh.
"Oh God," she whimpered.
Releasing the blade, I stood there. Watching as small drops of my own crimson blood trickled down the blade's bright silver edge.
"Do it, Elizabeth. Thrust the blade into my heart."
Tears streamed down her cheeks.
"Richard, please... I can't... don't make m-"
"Do it," I yelled, my harsh intake of breath driving the point in a little deeper. Hissing through my clenched teeth at the pain, I reached past the blade and placed my left hand over her trembling grasp. "Drive it deep into my heart because that's what you will do if you leave me."
This might take my sadistic manipulation to new levels, but I didn't give a damn. I would not go back to my colorless, jaded existence. It was her and her love or nothing for me.
With a cry, she dropped the sword.
Kicking it aside, I pounced.
6/9/2020 10 Comments
"I hate you!"
I did. I truly hated him in that moment. I hated every controlling, manipulative, toxic thing he had done to me. More than that, I hated that I loved him. Despite everything, I still loved the man.
I would never forgive myself for that fact.
Reaching for a crystal decanter, Richard poured himself a glass of brandy, turning toward me as he raised it to his lips. It was still early in the morning, but I had just tried to shoot him less than an hour earlier, so I guess he was entitled to a stiff drink.
Unable to hold back, I let out a primal scream and threw his phone at him.
Richard smoothly ducked out of the way. The iPhone crashed through an antique glass window, sending shards of glass showering down onto his shoulders then the thick, Persian carpet at his feet.
Pointing to the now shattered window, I raged. "The phone proves it. It was all lies. All of it!"
The man had me so turned around I didn't know what was real anymore. If he had told me the sky was purple and unicorns exist, I probably would have believed him.
Somehow he had slowly and methodically taken over my whole life. Everything revolved around him. He had become my sun, the only source of light and energy in my world. Without him, I was certain I would wither and die. I knew this deep in my bones, just as surely as I knew that same light had burned away all that remained of my own identity... had burned away my very soul.
It was true what they say, anything could be poisonous... it just depended on the dose.
Richard was toxic for me, but there was no denying I willingly drank his poison.
But this time he went too far... him and his games. I was done.
Crossing my arms over my chest, I challenged, "Are you going to try and deny it?"
Richard reached into his glass and pulled out a jagged piece of glass. Keeping his cold sapphire eyes on me, he placed it between his lips and licked the amber liquid off its slick sharp surface before tossing it aside.
The man's unassailable arrogance and confidence was maddening.
Was it any wonder I was now mad as a hatter?
Was it any wonder I just tried to kill him?
Careful to keep the desk and two heavy upholstered chairs between us, I frenetically paced the length of the room, forced to grab fistfuls of fabric and lift my skirts high as I did so. Having no other choice, I was wearing one of the Victorian gowns Richard had provided. With no petticoat, my heavy skirts dragged on the floor; that this dress was one of my own creations just rankled me more. I remember loving how the cobalt blue taffeta matched his eyes.
All of this. The dress. The estate. The servants. Me.
We were all just pawns on a board. Players in a game only he knew the rules.
To think he almost had me believing his lies! If it hadn't been for his disdain for modern technology, I might never have come across his phone, abandoned and silent, in his desk drawer. Proof the modern world, which had haunted my dreams, existed.
It was then I also found the revolver.
I may never know if I missed on purpose or accidentally. Yet, I did know, the second before I pulled the trigger, I wanted him dead with every fiber of my being.
How I felt the moment after?
When the bullet left the chamber?
That I couldn't say, and yes, I hated myself for it.
Gripping the back of the chair, my nails dug into the paisley tapestry as I bravely met his hard gaze. "Say something."
One sharp eyebrow raised. The only hint of emotion on his chiseled, handsome face. His voice was deceptively casual as he asked, "Does this mean our little game is over?"
My mouth fell open in shock at his cavalier attitude.
Once more he brought the brandy glass close to his lips, then paused to muse, "I wonder who won?" Taking a sip, he then smirked. "Me, of course."
Claws bared; I flew at him.
Richard threw his glass aside and latched on to my wrists before they could scratch long red marks down his perfect cheeks.
"It's over! Over! We're done!" I screeched as I struggled in his grasp. My cumbersome skirts tangled between my legs.
Spearing his fingers into my long, loose hair, he twisted, securing a handful in his tight fist. Wrenching my head back, he leaned over me to threaten. "It's over when I say it's over."
Swallowing back a sickening rush of nausea as my stomach twisted in knots, I marshaled my courage and choked out through clenched teeth, "I'm leaving you, Richard, for good this time."
Every limb in my body went cold at my own pronouncement. I had willingly killed the sun in my universe and now felt a creeping, clawing chill run over my body, as if all my warm blood, all the passion and desire he had brought to my life, had drained away.
His eyes harden as his large hand enclosed around my exposed throat. Like a rabbit caught in a snare, I stilled, my eyes wide with fright. The only sound in the room was the incessant ticking of the mantel clock and the sound of his harsh breathing. The minutes, or were they seconds, dragged on.
My eyes closed as his fingers squeezed. Welcoming death at his hands, my last macabre thought was how warm his fingers felt wrapped around my throat.
His lips crashed down on mine. Whimpering, I willingly opened my mouth for his assault. Taking possession, his tongue swept in. He tasted of blood and brandy. Releasing his grip on my throat and hair, his hands tore at my dress as he pressed me backwards. The edge of the desk dug into my hips before he lifted me high and placed me on its smooth mahogany surface. Wrenching my knees open, he stepped between them, his hands fisting the yards of skirt fabric in his frenzied effort to touch the skin of my inner thighs and higher.
Giving in to the power of his embrace, my fingers dug into his hair as I pulled him closer, wanting to feel the rough scrape of his stubbled jaw against my lips, needing to feel the hard press of him between my thighs. Craving his touch like an addict who needs a fix of the very poison they knew was slowly killing them.
My mouth opened on a plaintive keen as he ruthlessly pushed two fingers into my already aroused body.
"You're mine, my little bird. There is no escape," he roughly whispered against the curve of my ear before sinking his teeth into the soft lobe.
Unwanted reality crashed down on me. Damn me to hell for my sins, it was true I desperately longed to return to a time where I believed his lies, where I was a willing participant in his games. Where I allowed him to dominate my actions and very thoughts, but I couldn't. It was as if he had placed me, his prized possession, in a glass display case high on a pedestal, and the awful truth had shattered the case into a million pieces. There was no going back.
Once more, I struggled in his embrace. This time he shocked me by letting go and taking a few steps back. Running a hand over his tousled hair, he picked up his glass and spilled another two fingers of brandy into it before draining the contents. Swiping the back of his hand over his mouth, as if to erase the taste of our final kiss, his hands clenched into fists as he turned on his heel and approached me.
Crying out, I raised my arms protectively, as I turned my head to the side.
Richard stormed past me.
Confused, I gathered my skirts into my hands and scrambled off the top of the desk. Keeping my eyes on him, I slowly backed away toward the door. Frantically scanning the room, I snatched up an ornate, old-looking letter opener which was displayed on a nearby bookshelf.
Richard's mouth curved up in one corner. "A gun didn't stop me, my love. Do you really think a dull letter opener would prevent me from fucking you right here, right now, if I wanted to?"
I knew what I must look like in that moment. My tangled curls a wild mess around my shoulders and down my back. My dress half hanging off my body and dragging on the floor as I clutched a tarnished make-shift knife to my breast. My gaze, wide with fright, shifting from left to right as I tried to anticipate his next pounce.
I looked as crazy as I felt... as crazy as he had made me.
Richard reached for the brass, candlestick phone on his desk. Lifting the trumpet shaped receiver to his ear, he pressed down on the switch hook a few times before speaking into the mouth receiver. I knew that phone connected to the Butler's pantry in the servant's quarters.
Keeping his dark sapphire eyes trained on me, he said, "Good morning, Hutley. Please have the driver bring round the car. Ms. Larkin wishes to be taken to her home in London," instructed Richard calmly, as if he were ordering extra toast with his breakfast tray.
Just like that? He was going to let me go? It didn't seem possible, not after the lengths he went to entrap me.
Neither of us said a word, just stared into the void between us.
Then, we heard the crunch of gravel as the car pulled up to the entrance, which was just outside to the right of the study.
Glancing over my shoulder, I backed up to the door, reaching behind me for the knob as I tried to keep my wary gaze trained on Richard, somehow feeling this was a test, a trap that was going to snap closed on me the moment I crossed over the threshold.
Placing his hands in his pockets, as if trying to appear nonchalant and unthreatening, Richard slowly followed me out of the study and into the large entrance hall.
Keeping my eyes trained on Richard and one arm stretched behind me, I stumbled my way to the front double doors. Two footman appeared out of nowhere to swing the heavy wooden doors open. Neither expressed the slightest shock at seeing their master stalk a half-dressed woman brandishing a letter opener like a weapon out of the house, although after what they had witnessed and been paid to ignore these last few months, it was small wonder.
The driver held the back passenger side door open. Refusing to drop the letter opener, I climbed awkwardly into the spacious backseat. The car door slammed shut. Then the driver hustled around to the right side and climbed in. The engine roared to life as the car pulled out of the drive.
Twisting around, I looked through the back window to see puffs of dust and little bits of gravel kicked up by the tires scatter over Richard's polished knee-high riding boots.
The aristocratic Duke of Winterbourne stood unnaturally still as the car took me further and further away from him.
I was finally free.
Waiting till I could no longer see her pale, gamine face through the back window of the car, I crossed over to the bushes just below the study windows and retrieved my phone. Dusting off the bits of dirt and shattered glass, thankful the screen had not cracked, I brought up the contact I sought and pressed send.
Without preamble, I spoke the moment the phone was answered. "She's heading your way. I don't have to remind you what is at stake if you don't obey me." Without waiting for a reply, knowing my point was made, I hung up.
Time for a new game
We stopped in front of an old iron gate which secured a small, walled in private garden.
Looking around, I spied half a brick which was probably used to prop open the back door of a business across the way. Taking it in hand, it only took two strikes of the rock, to dislodge the small, ineffective padlock.
“Richard! This is breaking and entering!” exclaimed Elizabeth.
“I don’t give a f*ck.” Growling my answer, I shoved her against the brick wall just inside the garden.
The stone cut into my palms as I caged her in. Before she could say another word, my mouth descended.
Finally claiming her for my own.
Leaning my hips in, I pressed my c*ck against her stomach as my tongue pushed between her teeth. She tasted of honey and champagne.
I was bruising her lips. I knew soon I would taste blood as the pressure of my mouth cut against the sharp edge of her teeth but I didn’t care.
I wanted her to feel pain from my kiss.
Wanted her to feel everything, including the threat of my c*ck.
Her small hands dug into the lapels of my jacket. Whether it was to draw me closer or push me away, didn’t matter. I wasn’t going anywhere.
Seizing her wrists, I pulled them high over her head and secured them with only the grip of my left hand. She was so small and delicate, like a little bird.
One I would soon cage so only I could hear the beautiful song of her moans and pleas.
Turning her head to the side, her breath came in ragged gasps. “Richard, wait!”
I claimed her mouth once more.
F*ck. I would never get enough of this woman.
It had become essential to my sanity that I possess her, everything about her - mind, body and soul - from the first moment I saw her in the park two weeks ago.
She had ruined my careful plans by almost getting hit by that cab today but no matter. The time for making plans was over. From this point forward, there was nothing but action… and her delicious response.
Using her trapped position, pinned against the wall, I kicked her feet wider while swallowing her cry of alarm.
Wrenching her dress up over her *ss, I once more pressed my hips into her pliant body, knowing the stone wall would scrape and bruise her soft flesh. The thought of one day soon putting a mark on that same gorgeous *ss with my belt or hand sent another rush of blood to my c*ck till it swelled painfully tight and hard.
I needed to be inside her, but that would have to wait.
Placing the heel of my palm between her legs, I pressed hard.
“Do you like that?” I breathed against her open mouth. “You like the feel of my hand on your p*ssy?”
I forced one finger inside her wet heat. Christ, she was tight.
Elizabeth cried out.
Pulling my hand free, I reached inside my jacket pocket and pulled out her panties. Releasing her wrists, I placed them in her palm.
Elizabeth stared at me with desire clouding eyes.
“Put these in your mouth.”
“You heard me. I want you to shove your own panties into your mouth.”
With large, trusting eyes, she carefully raised her hand to her mouth and started to push the black lace fabric between her lips.
It wasn’t that I wouldn’t have enjoyed forcing her mouth open and pushing them deep inside her throat till she choked and pleaded with me with her eyes but this was how the game was played. She needed to be an active player in her own humiliation. Her own inevitable debauchery. Otherwise, it wasn’t really a game. It was just me using brute force. No, it was much more satisfying and challenging when you made them choose to be debased.
Her mouth now gaped obscenely, stuffed with her own arousal slick panties.
Returning my hand to her p*ssy, I shoved one thick finger in deep.
Elizabeth’s muffled cry burst free as she lurched up onto her toes to try to avoid the pleasure and pain of my sudden intrusion.
It was about to get far worse for her.
I put a second finger at her entrance and thrust in deep.
Her head began to swing from side to side.
My mouth slid along the column of her neck, tasting her rapid pulse. I moved to lick the small hollow where her neck met her collar bone just as I forced a third finger inside her tight, little body. My tongue lapped and sucked each delicious vibration from her scream.
With tears in her eyes, she started to plead with me, forgetting that the panties in her mouth distorted everything she tried to say. When she reached to remove them, I grabbed her wrist and once more pulled her arms up over her head.
“If you move your arms again, I’m going to bend you over that bench there and thrash you with my belt, do you understand?”
Tears fell from her eyes as she nodded.
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