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.