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.”