Tag Archives: her russian protector roxie rivera

August Update: Sergei & Kelly

31 Jul

I thought I’d do a quick update on the two upcoming books I have in the pipeline.

If you’ve clicked around on the Coming Soon page, you’ve probably noticed I changed/tweaked the covers for the Fighting Connollys series. I decided I wanted to maintain the same “feel” as the Russian Protector books.

Coming September 2013

Coming September 2013

In Kelly’s Corner (Fighting Connollys #1) will be out the last week of September. This book and Sergei’s book overlap in a few spots and it also includes a cameo by Hagen, the loan shark from Seduced by the Loan Shark. What can I say? Houston’s shady side is a small world. :)

Coming November 2013

Coming November 2013

Sergei (Her Russian Protector #5) will be out the first week of November. There’s a possibility (depending on the schedule of the new editing team I’m working with) it will be out in late October–but plan on seeing this big, sexy Russian in early November.

Also–I plan to offer ARCs (advanced reader copies) for both of these books. For those who don’t know, ARCs are early copies of books given out to reviewers and readers to spark interest. Right now, I offer them to my street team–but I plan to offer, like, 25-50 copies a week or two before the release of each book. Follow me on Facebook if you want a chance at snagging one of these ARCs.

Oh–and my street team is always open.  Just drop me a message through my contact form here on the website or message me through Facebook and I’ll happily send you the link for the private Facebook group. I’m about to send out the first street team packs (signed copy of Ivan paperback and swag) so now is a great time to join!

Big, Sexy Russians Hit the Romantic Suspense List!

30 Jun

I didn’t even realize all four books had hit Amazon’s Romantic Suspense bestseller list until a reader sent me a message–so thanks! :)

NIKOLAI is sitting at #26, IVAN at #59, YURI at #87 and DIMITRI at #94.

I can’t even begin to tell you how thrilled I am–and how good it feels to know you’re enjoying these books as much as I love writing them!

And on that note–I’m going to spend the next week massaging the writing schedule a bit so I can work in SERGEI (Her Russian Protector #5) to release in the fall. I’m looking at an October or November release but I’ll keep you updated as the details firm up some.

NIKOLAI (Her Russian Protector #4) Sneak Peek #4

21 Jun

And here’s the fourth and final sneak peek of NIKOLAI before it’s release on Monday. You can read the first three chapters here, here and here.

Don’t forget that I’m on a blog tour right now. I’m making lots of stops at some really great reader and review blogs–and there’s a giveaway. You can enter for a chance to win a complete signed set of the first four books in this series plus a tote bag and some swag . Runners up will get a signed copy of IVAN and swag.

Oh–and the other version of me (Lolita Lopez) has a new book out today. It’s CAUGHT BY MENACE, the second in my super sexy scifi/light BDSM GRABBED series from Ellora’s Cave.

Chapter Four

Throat tight and gut clenching, Nikolai fought the panic threatening his control. That picture—that fucking picture!

She’d painted the night she’d been shot. It was the broken window, the panes smeared with her blood, and the chest of the man who had pulled the trigger. She’d left all of the man except for his tattooed chest blurry. He supposed that her traumatized, eleven-year-old brain had only taken in that much of the shooter.

He glanced at Vivian, taking in the worry contorting her beautiful face. Did she know? Had she somehow finally managed to remember more? Or was this image the extent of her memories?

Voice gruff, he finally said, “You can’t show this one.”

His words seemed to shake her out of her stupor. “But I built the entire show around this central piece.”

“I don’t care. This one isn’t leaving the studio.” He glanced around for something, anything, to destroy it. “It can’t exist.”

She raced forward and placed her body between his and the painting. “Like fucking hell!”

The shock of hearing her curse rendered him momentarily speechless. “Do you have any idea what you’re risking with this one?” He searched for the right words. “What if someone recognizes those tattoos?”

“Good!” She shouted stridently. “I hope someone does recognize them. I hope someone comes forward and fingers the bastard who blasted me with a 9mm and sent me flying out of second-story window.”

Though he maintained his outward composure, inwardly he flinched at the anger and passion in her voice. What would she say if he broke down right now and told her the truth? The whole awful, sordid fucking truth?

She would hate him. She would despise him. She would run from him and leave his life forever.

And it would kill him. She was all that kept him tethered, all that kept him from going completely into the darkness of the underworld he inhabited. For her, he’d tried to walk a very fine line and had kept his crew out of the seedier, nastier forms of earning. Though running guns and shifting narcotics cargo weren’t things that would make her proud, they were a hell of a lot cleaner than the sex trafficking that some of the other syndicates in town ran.

Raking his fingers through his hair, he tried to make her understand. “Vee, so much has happened since that night. You can’t drag up history. You have to leave it alone.”

She clicked her teeth and stomped her foot like a child. “I’m so sick of hearing that from you. That’s your answer for everything—and I’m done with it.”

“Vee—”

“No! You’re not going to persuade me to do what you want. Not this time.” She swept her hands out in front of her. “I worked so hard to get this show together.”

His gut twisted as he realized what this was doing to her and how he was hurting her. “I know you did.”

“I’m not just talking about the actual painting either. From creating the concept to finding the subjects and then snagging a show in the best damn gallery in Houston—that’s hundreds of hours of work on top of school and my job.” She furiously jabbed the air between them. “You’re not going to ruin this for me. I’m doing this show—with all the paintings.”

He’d never in his life imagined there would be anything he would deny her but he’d been wrong. “No, you’re not.”

She gritted her teeth. “I’d like to see you try and stop me.”

“Don’t push me, Vee.” He let the harshness he used to keep his men in line infiltrate his voice. It was the first time he’d ever dared to use that tone with her—and he regretted it instantly. He’d never seen such fury etched into her beautiful face.

Without a second of warning, she jumped forward and slammed both hands against his chest. Thrown off-balance by her surprise attack, he stumbled backward and barely managed to avoid hitting the floor after running into a stool.

Breathing hard, she asked, “Now what?”

Nikolai straightened slowly. “You can hit me and kick and scream and throw a fit but you’re not putting that painting in the show. Just be glad I’m not putting a stop to the entire thing.”

She fumed now, her face red and her eyes glistening with unshed tears. “I hate you.”

He winced as her furiously spoken words slapped him right in the face. “I know.”

Her jaw dropped. “That’s it? I know. That’s all you have to say to me?”

He didn’t know what else to say. A painful silence stretched between them. Finally, she exhaled raggedly and wiped at her eyes. Without another word, she spun on her heel and stalked toward the door. Her high heels clacked against the hardwood planks, the harsh notes hitting him like nails driven through his heart.

With every step, she increased the distance between them. He wanted to chase after her, to grasp her by the shoulders and spin her around so he could claim her lips with the kiss he’d so long denied them both. He wanted to crush their mouths together and drink in her sweetness until they couldn’t breathe. He wanted to tell her that he was sorry, that he hated how complicated her life had become, that he wanted to give her anything and everything in the world, that he’d do anything to make her happy.

But the lie standing between them prevented him from moving.

Instead he stared at the painting that threatened to ruin everything. Why, after all these years, did she have to paint her recollection of that night?

The sound of Sergei’s bellowing voice pulled him from his troubled thoughts. In the next instant, he heard Vivian shouting at the enforcer. Growling with frustration, Nikolai wiped a hand down his face and rushed out of the studio. As he hurried down the stairs, Kostya’s irritated voice joined the fray. From the sounds of it, Vivian was refusing to get in Sergei’s SUV.

By the time he got outside, Vivian was halfway down the block. The cold drizzle fell even harder now, making it hard to see her in the cold mist. He shot Kostya a look of consternation. “What now?”

“She refuses to go home with you. She told us to set fire to the warehouse and burn everything in there because she’ll never paint again.”

He groaned at her melodrama. Playing the role of tortured artist seemed to come naturally to her. “Give me the fucking keys.”

Kostya slapped the set of keys to the black sedan against his palm. “Be careful, Boss. She already hit Sergei.”

The bear-sized man rubbed his arm and scowled. “I think she’s got a brick in that damn purse.”

Cursing, Nikolai slid into the black car and revved the engine. He could only imagine how ridiculous he looked racing down the block to catch up with her and beg her to get into the car. She stopped to take off her high heels and ran barefoot down the cold, wet sidewalk. Where the hell she thought she was going he had no idea.

“Vee!” He shouted her name through the rolled down window. “Stop being silly and get in the car.”

“Leave me alone!” She threw her high heel at the hood of the car and left a nasty gash in the paint that was going to piss Kostya off big-time.

“That’s not going to happen—and you know it.” His gaze jumped between her and the road. He was thankful this area was nearly totally owned by him and mostly empty. There wasn’t any traffic to get in the way. “What’s your plan, Vee? Are you going to walk all the way back to your apartment?”

“Maybe,” she spat back angrily. She fished around in her purse as she walked. “Or maybe I’ll just call Erin. She’ll send Ivan to come get me.”

“And then what? Huh? You’re going to drag Erin into this mess with your father?” He threw the car in park and jumped out of the driver’s seat. Desperate to get her in out of the cold, he begged, “Please, Vivian, get in the damn car. Let’s go home and talk about this.”

“There’s nothing to talk about, Nikolai. You think you can just bark orders at me, but this isn’t the restaurant and I’m not part of your family. You don’t get to order me around.”

He exhaled roughly. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

She titled her head to study him. “Are you really? Or are you just saying that because you want me to stop causing trouble and get into your car.”

“Both,” he admitted. His gaze fell to her bare feet. The street lights illuminated the bright turquoise polish on her toenails. “You’re going to get hypothermia and lose your toes.”

She rolled her eyes. “This isn’t Siberia.”

Pressing his hands together in front of him, he pleaded, “Please. Get in the car?”

She still held that other shoe in her hand. He wondered if she planned to hit him with it or if she’d had enough denting the hood of the car. “Fine. Whatever. Just take me home.”

He didn’t remind her that she was coming home with him. Later, when she was safely buckled in her seat and her ability to flee was impeded, he’d make sure she remembered that she’d agreed to stay with him. “Thank you.”

Without asking her permission, he scooped her up in his arms and hurried her to the passenger seat. She’d managed to stay mostly dry with her coat on but her legs and feet were soaked and chilled. He opened the glove box and found a pile of napkins from the fast food joints Kostya loved.

“I can do that.” She tried to stop him as he clasped her slender calf in his hand.

“I’ve got it.” Crouched down next to the open door, Nikolai made quick work of drying her cold feet and bare legs. It took every ounce of his self-control not to let his hands glide along her silky flesh any more than necessary.

When it was done, he balled up the soiled napkins and shoved them into the pocket of his jacket. He closed her door and walked back the dozen or so yards to retrieve her shoe from the middle of the road.

Glancing back at the warehouse, he spotted Kostya and Sergei watching him with some amusement. By morning, the story of what had happened tonight would be embellished so much it would bear no resemblance to the truth. In his experience, men were the very worst about spreading those kinds of tales.

When he dropped into the driver’s seat, he felt the warm blast of the heater. It felt nice against his chilled skin. “Thank you.”

“Whatever.” She kept her gaze fixed on the passenger window.

With a tired sigh, he eased away from the curb and down the road. The silence suffocated him but he didn’t know what to say to make it all better.

“I always thought you were different.”

He frowned. “Different how?”

“From everyone else,” she said quietly. “They all assume I’m some naïve, emotionally damaged baby who needs to be coddled, but I thought you saw me differently.”

“I know that what happened to you when you were little doesn’t define you. You’ve survived more than most people can even imagine, and I respect you all the more for it.”

“But you don’t trust me to make my own decisions.” She finally turned in her seat for a better look at him. “I knew exactly what I was doing when I started that series of paintings. I was careful. I made sure to destroy all of my notes. I only took pictures from the neck down. Everything that was told to me was told in confidence.”

“I don’t doubt that you were careful, Vee. Sometimes being careful isn’t enough.”

“I’m so sick of this life.” She rubbed her face. “I’m so sick of my whole existence being dictated by the stupid mistakes my parents made and these insane rules.” She made an irritated sound. “Maybe Bianca was right. Maybe I should leave Houston.”

Fear gripped him but he pushed down the selfish emotion. He’d only ever wanted the best for her. Though it made him feel like his guts were being ripped out, he said, “Maybe you should consider it.”

Her gaze snapped to his face. “Do you mean that? Do you really want me to leave?”

They were approaching an intersection now. “What I want isn’t important. It never has been.”

“That’s not true. I—”

“Shit!” At the last possible second, he noticed the bright headlights rushing toward them as they crossed the intersection. Thinking only of Vivian, he thrust out his arm to hold her back against the seat. The crushing impact of the SUV that slammed into the front edge of the car spun them around violently. Amid the splintering metal and bursting glass, he heard Vivian’s terrified scream. The sound chilled him to the very bone.

When the car finally lurched to a stop, he blinked and tried to clear his dazed mind. He put a hand to his aching temple and felt the blood trickling along his skin. Vivian’s low moan of pain drew his attention. He’d locked his elbow trying to hold her in place. Now it throbbed terribly. Bending his arm proved nearly impossible.

Vaguely, he was aware of other cars rushing onto the scene, their tires squealing as they stopped, but he was focused solely on Vivian. She grimaced with discomfort but looked wholly uninjured. His bleary gaze raked her body for any hint of blood but he found none.

Angel moy.” He reached for her hand. “Are you all right?”

“I think so,” she answered in a whisper. She blinked a few times and turned her gaze toward his faze. Her eyes widened with sudden panic. Her hand flew out and snatched the front of his shirt. As she jerked him toward her, she screamed, “Nikolai!”

A second later, something very hard hit the window behind his head. A hammer? A crow bar? He wasn’t sure.

Someone tried to open her car door but the impact of the SUV had crunched and crimped the metal. Heavy footfalls sounded on the roof and hood of the car. A sledge hammer wielded by a man in black slammed against the windshield. Glass shards exploded all around them as the sledgehammer broke through the safety glass.

He reached for Vivian and dragged her into his protective embrace. He wrapped his battered arms around her in a desperate attempt to keep the flying glass from cutting her face and neck. She flicked off her seatbelt and burrowed into the safety of his embrace, burying her face against chest and whimpering with fear.

As a crowd of men descended on the car, Nikolai heard gunshots in the distance. Kostya and Sergei? He hoped they would reach the car in time to help them fend off this blitz attack.

As the men outside the car started to rip the windshield free, he reached under his jacket and retrieved his loaded gun. “Cover your ears.”

Vivian hurried to comply with his order, placing her small hands against her ears. The moment the windshield was ripped free he fired at the first man who came into view. Staggering backward and clutching at his chest, the man fell onto the hood and tumbled onto the pavement. Another man took his place, and Nikolai fired again, carefully conserving his rounds until help arrived.

But it wasn’t enough.

The window behind him was ripped free. A series of blows to the back of his head stunned him. Four hands grasped his shoulders and arms. In the melee, the gun was knocked from his grasp. Vivian’s scream echoed in the night as he was torn through the window. Jagged edges of glass ripped through his clothing and into his skin.

He watched in horror as three men tried to grab Vivian. Somehow she’d managed to grab the pepper spray from her purse. Judging by the screams of pain and the sounds of coughing that erupted, he figured she’d gotten at least two of them.

Refusing to be taken down so easily, Nikolai twisted and kicked until he managed to free himself from the clutches of the men who had dragged him through the door. With one swift movement, he yanked out the knife he kept holstered in his boot and wielded it menacingly.

He’d been in enough prison brawls, armed only with hastily crafted shivs, to know how this fight against five men would end. He’d be lucky to survive it but he’d do whatever it took to buy enough time for Kostya and Sergei to reach Vivian and get her to safety.

Two of the men rushed him. Relying on instinct and adrenaline, Nikolai stabbed and ducked to evade them. He caught one in the hand, driving his blade through the man’s palm, and wrenching a guttural cry from the attacker’s throat. Ripping the blade free, he turned his attention to the other man. The injured one fell away but another quickly took his place, this one carrying a length of pipe.

Bracing for the painful impact, Nikolai refused to back down. In the background, he heard Vivian shouting and fighting off the men trying to pull her from the car. The pipe connected with his arm and shoulder just as he witnessed Vivian being hauled out through the gaping hole where the windshield had been. Her panicked shriek broke his concentration, giving his assailants the opening they needed.

The man brandishing the pipe cracked Nikolai along the side of his head. The blinding pain sent him to his knees. A boot caught him in the jaw and flipped him onto his stomach. Clawing at the pavement, he tried to force his battered body to move but the jarring impact of the pipe and boot rendered him worthless.

As blood dripped into his eyes and clouded his vision, he watched helplessly as two men dragged Vivian toward an idling SUV. She kicked and bit and shrieked but she couldn’t get free. Their gazes met across the impossible distance now between them. Rolling onto his side, he lifted his hand in a final desperate but futile attempt to reach her.

NIKOLAI!”

Her terrified scream was suddenly muffled as her kidnappers managed to get her into the SUV. The vehicle raced away from the scene, taking the woman he loved more than anything in the world.

An angry kick to his gut tore a pained groan from his throat. Another blow to his shoulder knocked him onto his back again. One of the assailants bent down and slammed the full-length of Nikolai’s own knife into his shoulder. He gasped, but the pain of the blade slicing through muscle was nothing compared to the soul-crushing agony he experienced at the knowledge he’d failed Vivian.

“Jesus, we weren’t supposed to kill him.” One of the masked men dragged away the man who had stabbed Nikolai. “Let’s go.”

The attackers and his people started to trade gunfire. The assailants piled into the remaining SUV, leaving behind the crashed vehicle but taking their injured comrades with them. Kostya and Sergei finally made it to his side.

Dropping to his knees, Kostya grabbed Nikolai around the waist and dragged him out of the roadway. Men were shouting all around him but he couldn’t understand anything they said. His battered brain couldn’t compute a single word after the nasty blows he’d taken.

Gripping Kostya’s hand, he growled, “They took her. They took my Vivian.”

“We’ll get her back.”

As Kostya shouted at Sergei to get a fucking ambulance, Nikolai fought to remain conscious. Blood seeped out of his body and soaked into his jacket and pooled around Kostya’s legs. Nikolai relished the excruciating pain accompanying each and every breath. It reminded him that he was still alive—and if he was alive, he could get her back. He had to get her back.

And the men who had taken his beautiful, precious Vivian would know true agony.

* * *

 

Ivan hated hospitals almost as much as he hated police stations. The lemony scent of the harsh cleansers used to keep them clean spurred those old and terrible memories of the many violent injuries he’d suffered in his life. He absent-mindedly rubbed his left side as he relived the searing heat of a razor-tipped shiv gashing at his gut.

This hospital in downtown Houston was much nicer than the awful prison infirmary hellholes he’d visited regularly but it still left him gritting his teeth. In the last few months, he’d spent far too much time in these places. First, it had been Erin’s sister and then Dimitri and then Yuri. Thankfully, they’d all been discharged—or escaped in Ruby’s case—within a day or two but Nikolai? He was in bad fucking shape.

But the lucky bastard had the hardest head in the whole damned world—and thank Christ for that! Nikolai had to be the only man in creation who could survive a beating with a pipe and not come out brain-damaged. He had a nasty concussion, battered ribs, bruised kidneys and a number of gashes that had required extensive suturing and stapling. He’d live—but he was going to have dozens of new scars to add to myriad others already dotting his heavily tattooed body.

But Nikolai would find little comfort in surviving the horrific attack.

Ivan’s gut twisted as he tried to imagine what Nikolai would feel when he woke up and remembered that Vivian was gone. Just the thought of hooded men stealing away his Erin made Ivan want to puke. He ran a hand across his chest as his heart ached from the tormenting images of Erin being snatched from him and taken away to some unknown place.

His gaze moved to Nikolai’s sleeping form. This late at night the hospital was very quiet except for the continual beeps of the machines monitoring Nikolai’s heartbeat and blood pressure. Even in sleep, his friend’s face was drawn and tight. Was he dreaming of the attack? Was he dreaming of her?

When Nikolai finally woke, there would be hell to pay. Kostya had managed to keep the men under control so far but Ivan doubted he could hold the bloodthirsty, infuriated captains and soldiers back longer. They wanted justice for the attack on Nikolai and Vivian’s kidnapping. Kostya was smart enough to know that lashing out indiscriminately was only going to cause more bloodshed and problems. The men were pacified for the moment but one wrong move would set them all off.

Though she wasn’t technically part of the family, the men who served under Nikolai all loved Vivian and considered her one of them. While the delicious food cooked by the chefs at Samovar reminded them of home, it was Vivian’s bright smile and sweet kindness that brought Nikolai’s men to the restaurant again and again.

Like Ivan, most of those men had assumed that eventually Nikolai would stop fucking around with the guardian bullshit and finally claim Vivian as his own. It was clear to anyone with even one working eye that Nikolai needed her. Ivan hadn’t really understood what drew Nikolai toward Vivian until he’d met Erin—and then everything made sense.

Sometimes the darkest of souls needed the balance of a good, pure woman. Erin had brought such sweetness and light to his life. Ivan could only imagine how desperately Nikolai craved what he now enjoyed every day and every night with Erin.

For the men in Nikolai’s large crew, the idea that someone had dared to take the woman their boss protected, the woman they expected to someday slide into the role of family matriarch, enraged them. It drove home the point that none of their wives or children or girlfriends was safe anymore. The rules had been broken in the most violent way—and now someone had to pay. If Nikolai didn’t wake soon and get things back under his control, the entire city could erupt in violence and mayhem.

“Hey,” Dimitri called softly from the doorway of Nikolai’s hospital room. “They’re about to kick us out until the morning.” Dimitri’s worried gaze fell on Nikolai. “Has he moved yet?

Ivan shook his head. “Did you talk to Yuri?”

Dimitri nodded. “The winter storm will keep them in Moscow for a few more days. He’s trying to keep Lena calm but she’s threatening to walk across Russia. He’s put up an obscene amount of money for information on the attack or Vivian’s return. Kostya has his men putting the word on the street.”

If anything could motivate the seedy underbelly of this town to speak, it was money. “Let’s hope it works.”

“It’s been almost twenty-four hours and there’s no ransom. If this doesn’t work, if someone doesn’t squeal, I don’t know how we’ll find her.” Dimitri hesitated. “If she’s even still alive.”

Ivan despaired at the thought of Vivian being dead. Erin loved her so much and considered her a sister. He didn’t know if she would ever recover from the horror of losing Vivian. “She’s alive. She has to be.”

Dimitri stared at Nikolai’s motionless body. “God help us all if she’s not.”

NIKOLAI (Her Russian Protector #4) Sneak Peek #3

17 Jun

Nikolai_Take2_Final_ARE

Another Monday means another chapter of NIKOLAI! You can read the first two chapters here and here, if you missed them or want to read them again. I’ll add one more chapter (Chapter Four) on Friday.

Also–I’m starting a two week blog tour today for YURI and NIKOLAI. I’ll have another post with all the stops and details but the first two stops are at Books, Books and More Books and Reading Between the Wines. These are the highlights:  the big giveaway is a signed set of all four print books in a tote bag with swag. Runners up will get a signed copy of IVAN and some nifty swag (temporary tattoos, postcards, etc.)

Oh–and NIKOLAI has an official official release date of Monday, June 24. I’ll be uploading the book later this week (Friday-ish) which means it will probably be available sooner than it’s official release date (much like DIMITRI was) but I want to avoid another release day fiasco like the one that happened with YURI so the official day is a full 72 hours after I upload, just in case. :)

Chapter Three

“One more drink and then we’ll go,” Bianca promised as she dragged me toward the VIP bar in the exclusive upstairs enclave at Faze. With my connection to Yuri and Lena, I’d been granted access to the area the second I hit the front door, something my small group of single friends loved.

Since my closest friends had paired off, I’d started enjoying more of the social scene with unattached friends. It was fun to get together with Erin, Lena and Benny and their guys once a week for dinner, but I always felt like the odd one out. With Bianca, a friend from high school, it was easier to enjoy the Houston nightlife.

Somewhere along the way, Kelly Connolly, a part-time bouncer at Faze and a private security agent with Dimitri’s firm, had joined our small group. He’d known Bianca’s older brother back in high school so she’d brought him into the fold. Tonight, he’d convinced a couple of Marine buddies and Finn, one of his older brothers, to come out with us.

Glancing back at our group of friends, I found them heading down to the crushing throng of dancers on the main floor. Nadya, a waitress from Samovar, led the way, her hips wiggling as the trap beat smoothly transitioned to a popular hip hop mix. Two of her friends from college had joined our group at the front door of the club and they danced down after her.

Finn Connolly moved at a slightly slower pace. I was still surprised at how well he walked and danced with his prosthetic leg. I’d assumed his barely noticeable limp was from a war injury, but I hadn’t even realized he’d lost the bottom half of his right leg in combat until his jeans had ridden up a little during dinner and I’d spotted the metal rods hidden by the denim.

Like Kelly, Finn had served multiple tours of duty as a Marine. I was pretty sure the oldest brother, Jack, had done the same. Apparently it was a family tradition much like working at the gym the three brothers had recently inherited from their sick father. I’d heard through the grapevine that the old man was in deep debt because of his gambling addiction but I wasn’t nosy or brave enough to ask Kelly if it was true.

“This DJ is hot!” Bianca sipped her drink. “But she looks like she’s about twelve!”

I could just make out the young woman manning the DJ booth from our perch in the VIP section. She didn’t look quite twelve but she looked younger than me. “I think it’s because she’s so petite.”

“Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Bianca said with a laugh and gestured to her full-figured body.

A fierce fashionista, she owned her plus-sized curves and had been blogging about fashion for bigger girls since high school. She’d gone off to New York for three years of design school before being called home after her mother suffered a debilitating stroke. She now managed the family wedding boutique and had recently started selling her own wedding gown designs.

I envied her confidence. She made sexy look so damn easy. Tonight, she’d gone for a bandage-style dress that hugged her ample curves so perfectly. The shimmery gold color of the fabric highlighted her gorgeous dark skin beautifully. The dark berry stain on her lips and the dusting of gold shadow on her eyelids accentuated her good looks. She’d drawn the appreciative gaze of dozens of men tonight, and she’d done it so effortlessly.

One man in particular seemed unable to tear his gaze away from her. I caught Sergei watching her from the opposite end of the bar. He’d melded well with our group tonight but he’d made it clear that he wasn’t there to socialize. At the restaurant, he’d sat between Kelly and Finn and joined in the conversation, but once we hit Faze, he’d moved into the background as if to keep a better eye on me.

“What’s with tall, dark and Russian?” Bianca took a dainty sip of her drink. “What is he? Like seven feet tall?”

I giggled and stabbed at the ice cubes in my mojito with a straw. “He is really tall. Taller than Ivan and that’s saying something.”

“So what’s he do? I mean, you know, other than working for the boss.” She waggled her eyebrows.

“He owns part of a construction business.” She shot me a look of disbelief. “Really,” I said with a laugh. “Some of those guys have interests in legit businesses.”

“Like?”

“Car washes, car dealerships, salons, spas, strip clubs…”

She made a face. “Nasty.”

I rolled my eyes. “Do I have to bring up your birthday party? Those half-naked dancers were glorified strippers.”

“That’s different. I enjoyed those hunks of sexy man meat for one night. I don’t pay my mortgage off the back of some poor girl who has to shake her ass in front of strange men to scrape by for a living.”

I didn’t really see the difference but it wasn’t worth arguing about tonight.

“How long do you think you’ll have the big Russian shadow?”

“I really don’t know. It could be a long time.”

Her face a mask of concern, she touched my leg. “I know you told me that your cousin and Nikolai think they can keep you safe, but, baby girl, I’ve got friends in Manhattan. If you need to get out of town, you say the word, and I’ll find you a place to go.”

“It’s a tempting offer.” I pushed the crushed mint against the side of my glass with the straw. “But these people could get to me there just as easily as they can get to me here. Maybe even easier,” I added with a shiver. “The thing is I don’t really belong with the Russians—and the motorcycle gang and the cartel know it.”

Bianca frowned. “What does that mean? You’re half Russian. Nikolai has basically taken you under his wing.”

“It’s not the same thing as being part of the family. My grandparents weren’t part of that group. They kept their noses clean, you know? My mother burned every damn bridge she came across within the family by marrying my father and then pulling her identity fraud and credit card and check stealing schemes.”

I tried to figure out the best way to explain it to her. “If I was, like, a daughter of one of the guys in the family, the guys my dad has betrayed wouldn’t dare to come after me. They’d know that the Russians would come down on them like hellfire—but I’m not blood and that’s not the case.”

While she considered my explanation, a series of loud cries erupted from the dance floor. We both popped out of our seats and hurried to the railing so we could see what the fuss was. The DJ cut the music with a loud squeal. Shouting into her microphone, she urged the crowd to calm down and back away from the bar, but everyone was rushing forward for a better look.

A fight had broken out near the bar. Four or five men were beating the crap out of one another. Bouncers were trying to claw their way through the crush of bodies on the packed dance floor but it was proving difficult to move the crowd. Finally, a bartender in tight leather pants and a halter top jumped onto the bar and lifted a mop bucket filled with dirty water and bar towels. She hurled the contents onto the fighting men, stopping them cold.

By now, three bouncers had reached the brawlers. Big V, the massive bull of a head bouncer, grabbed two men by the scruff and dragged them toward the front doors. His bouncer cohorts quickly followed suit.

I spotted Kelly standing next to the bar and holding his hand up to a young woman in a tiny hot pink mini-dress who seemed to have been dancing up there. From the looks they exchanged, it was clear they knew one another. He looked infuriated and she looked embarrassed. Had she been the cause of the fight?

A janitor rushed out with a mop and the bartender hopped over the bar to help him gather up the wet towels and clear away the mess. Almost immediately, the DJ started a new track and the revelers returned to their dancing. It was actually a bit wild to watch how quickly everything turned to normal.

“Okay, ladies, it’s time to go.” Sergei’s low, rumbling voice carried over the music.

I turned around to see him holding our purses and coats in his big hands. He wore an expression that told me arguing wasn’t going to work. With a dramatic sigh, I grabbed my purse from his huge paw. “Fine.”

Clamping Bianca’s purse and coat under one arm, he shook out my coat and helped me into it. While I buttoned up, he helped Bianca slide her arms into her jacket. I noticed the way she gazed up at him and took a few quick steps away from Sergei. I couldn’t decide if she did it out of genuine discomfort or to nip any growing attraction in the bud. I knew her type and Sergei definitely didn’t fit that mold.

“Come on,” he said with a flick of his fingers. “I’ll drive you home.”

“I’ll get a cab,” Bianca replied.

“It’s cold and late. You’ll come with us,” Sergei all but ordered.

She glanced at me with a slightly bemused expression. “Are they always bossy like this?”

I smiled up at Sergei. “He’s pretty tame compared to some others.”

She shook her head and tugged her purse out of Sergei’s grasp. “Well—let’s go Hulk. Take me home.”

He looked down at her as if he wanted to say something. The way his lips twitched with the tiniest hint of a smile confirmed that it was probably something outrageously inappropriate. He was smart enough to know that Bianca wasn’t the kind of girl who would let him get away with it.

Ushering us forward, he used his wide shoulders and intimidating size to create safe passage through the packed dance floor. We caught up with our friends and exchanged quick hugs and air kisses before ducking out of Faze.

Out in the cold night, I shivered as a blast of chilly air swirled around my bare legs. The temperature seemed to have dropped twenty degrees while we were in the club. They’d been forecasting a winter storm to hit in a few days but it seemed to have arrived a bit early.

Safe inside Sergei’s SUV, we rolled out of the Faze parking lot and onto the busy streets. I leaned over and punched Bianca’s address into his GPS unit. It started to drizzle as we left the downtown area for the historic neighborhood where Bianca lived. The house she’d purchased a few months earlier was in the same area as Nikolai’s so the trip didn’t take us very far out of our way.

As Sergei navigated the narrower streets, his phone started to ring. He fished it out of his pocket but I swiped it from his hand with a frown. “You can’t talk and drive!”

He frowned at me and tried to grab the phone but I smacked at his hand. Bianca laughed in the backseat. “Children, do we need to pull over?”

Grinning, I answered the call. “Hello?”

“Vee?” Nikolai sounded surprised. “Why are you answering Sergei’s phone? Where the hell is he?”

“Calm down. He’s driving. We’re taking my friend home.”

“When you’re done dropping off your friend, tell him to bring you to the warehouse.”

His unnaturally harsh tone worried me. “What’s wrong?”

“Someone vandalized your studio.” His reluctance to tell me came through clearly. “I’m sorry. I should have had someone here.”

“It’s not your fault.” My heart ached and my stomach soured as I imagined what the miscreants had ruined in my art studio. My gaze jumped to the windshield. Bianca’s house had come into view. “I’ll see you in fifteen minutes or so.”

After we ended the call, I glanced at Sergei. “Someone vandalized my studio. Nikolai wants you to bring me there.”

His hands tightened around the steering wheel. “Yeah. Okay.”

“Um, what’s going on?” Bianca leaned forward and gestured to herself. “Doesn’t speak Russian, remember?”

It wasn’t until she commented that I realized I’d slipped into the other language. “Sorry.” I shot her an apologetic smile. “There was some vandalism at my studio.”

“Oh no! What about your paintings? Oh, I hope they’re all okay. Do you want me to come with you?”

“No, this is probably going to keep me up all night. You have brides coming for their last-minute fittings tomorrow.” I squeezed her hand. “But I really appreciate the offer.”

The SUV rolled to a stop outside her darkened house. Sergei pointed at me. “You sit here. I’ll be right back.”

Before Bianca could protest that she didn’t need to be walked to her front door, Sergei already had the door open and an umbrella waiting. She seemed flustered by his attentions but allowed him to walk her to the front door and see her safely inside.

After stowing the umbrella in the backseat, he slid behind the wheel. I wanted to tease him about Bianca but decided to let it go tonight. I didn’t want to get his hopes up when it came to her. There was one thing she swore she’d never do and that was date any guy in the underworld. After what had happened to her brother, I understood that rule.

By the time we reached the warehouse Nikolai had converted into studio space for me, there were already two guys out front trying to paint over the filthy words that had been spray painted on the façade. My lips parted with a shocked gasp as I realized what had been written there.

The vandals had tagged the wall with the word snitch in English and Spanish. There were numerous gang tats badly outlined too. Someone unfamiliar with Russian had scrawled mob whore in badly shaped Cyrillic letters. They’d translated awkwardly but the meaning was clear enough.

Sergei swore under his breath. I was still taking in the ugliness of it when my door was wrenched open. One look at Nikolai’s furious face and I knew I was in deep shit. He reached in, unbuckled my seatbelt, lifted me right out of my seat and onto the pavement. Firmly grasping my arm, he escorted me into the warehouse and up the stairs to my wide-open studio space. The door slammed behind us, the sound ricocheting like gunfire in the big room.

“What is your problem?” I asked when we were safely beyond the sight and hearing of his minions.

He didn’t let go of me but his grip loosened. I saw the immediate guilt flashing in his eyes. Though he hadn’t even come close to harming me, I sensed that he was angry with himself for going all caveman on me.

“When were you going to tell me?”

I tried to read his expression but couldn’t. He was definitely pissed off but there was more I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Was he disappointed in me? Was he feeling betrayed? “Tell you what?”

“About the paintings,” he growled and flung his arm toward the covered canvases on the opposite end of the room.

“Oh.” Panic gripped me. “Well—I wanted to surprise you.”

“Surprise me?” His eyebrows shot skyward.

“They’re my best work. They’re provocative and dark and—”

“Provocative?” He cut me off mid-sentence. Swearing a blue streak, he shook his head. “I thought I made myself explicitly clear when you came to me asking about my tattoos. What did I tell you, Vee?”

I remembered that awkward conversation from three years ago when my fascination with gang tattoos had first taken hold. Quietly, I answered, “You told me to leave it alone and not to go digging in other men’s histories because I wasn’t going to like the things I uncovered.”

“And what did you do?” He stormed to the far wall and started flicking aside the canvases mounted on their swinging display hooks so each one was momentarily visible. “You created an art show out of tattoos that are evidence of violent crimes!”

I heard his sharp intake of breath when he reached Kostya’s canvas. “Is this…?” he trailed off in disbelief. “I’ll wring his damn neck.”

“Will you calm down? I mean, seriously! They’re just paintings, Nikolai. They’re my interpretations of the stories of these men and women and their tattoos.”

“Calm down?” He gestured to the wall. “Did you not see the filth painted outside? You don’t think these interpretations of yours are going to piss off a lot of people? You think Besian is going to be thrilled when he sees the back of one of his captains hanging in a downtown art gallery?”

I gulped nervously as I considered what the Albanian mob boss might think about the story his captain had told me about that particular tattoo. “It’s just art.”

“It’s not just anything, Vee. Nothing in this world of mine is simple or black-and-white. The stupidest, silliest thing can get a man killed. Look at this mess with the loan shark and the Hermanos!” He drew his fingers across his neck in a quick cutting motion. “That was probably kicked off by something as stupid as an interest disagreement on an outstanding loan.”

Disappointed and exasperated with me, Nikolai muttered angrily and started flicking through the canvases scheduled to be picked up by the gallery in the morning. When he reached the one at the very back, the one I’d kept covered with a cloth, I raced forward to stop him. After the way he’d reacted to the others, I figured this one was going to push him over the edge. “No! Not that one!”

But it was too late.

He jerked free the cloth and froze rigid. Staggering backward, he put a hand to his chest. For a moment, I thought he was actually going to have a heart attack. “Kolya?”

NIKOLAI Sneak Peek #2

10 Jun

Here’s the second chapter from NIKOLAI (Her Russian Protector #4)! If you missed the first chapter last week, you can find it here.

 

Chapter Two

 

Though it took all the restraint he could muster, Nikolai managed to muscle down the urge to grip Detective Santos by the wrist and take him to his knees. Only Vivian’s presence kept him from showing her cousin how very much he disliked having a gun pointed in his face. He could appreciate Santos’ desire to keep Vivian safe but keeping the gun on him? That was the detective’s way of reminding Nikolai who stood on the right side of the law in this equation.

“Eric? Really? Lower the gun already.” Vivian came around the bar and into the living room. She unzipped her jacket as she walked and shrugged out of it. When she reached up to tug the fleece band from her head, the front of her shirt lifted up just high enough to give him a tantalizing glimpse of skin.

His gaze lingered longer than it should have but he couldn’t help himself. He tried not to be aware of her enticing shape in those slim-fitting tights or the way the criminally small shorts she wore barely covered the rounded curve of her ass—but it was impossible. She’d long ago ensnared him, rendering him completely helpless when it came to ignoring her nubile body.

Despite his best intentions to see Vivian as a little sister and nothing more, he’d failed spectacularly. Somewhere along the way, he’d fallen hopelessly in love with her.

Unlike Dimitri who swore that he’d fallen in love with his wife, Benny, the very first time she’d laughed, Nikolai couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment he’d fallen for Vivian. It had come upon him so slowly he hadn’t even recognized he was in danger of becoming impossibly entangled until it was too late.

But he couldn’t love her. He shouldn’t love her. Vivian personified sweet, innocent beauty but him? Oh, Nikolai personified the darkness and violence of the world. The stains of his sins would never wash off—and he refused to taint her with his transgressions.

“Do you guys want some coffee or tea?” She toed off her shoes. “Breakfast?”

Eric holstered his weapon. “I’m not staying that long.”

I am. “Tea, please.”

Vivian returned to the kitchen but stayed within earshot. Nikolai glanced at Santos’ busted up mouth. “What the hell happened to you?”

He shot an annoyed look toward the kitchen and self-consciously rubbed his jaw. “I think my cousin has been sneaking into those bare-knuckle fights down at the old meat-packing plant.”

Nikolai stiffened with surprise. “Vee hit you?”

“On accident,” she called out, her back turned to them as she filled a tea kettle.

Nikolai considered the detective’s busted mouth, swollen nose and scratched up cheek. “That doesn’t look very accidental.”

“I had my keys in my hand,” she explained as she returned to the living room. “He caught me by surprise and I just sort of reacted.”

“With a punch to the face?” He closed the distance between them and grasped her left hand. The slightest touch of her warm skin against his caused an electric shiver to zip along his arm and into his chest. Gently, he inspected her swollen knuckles. Already her skin darkened with a bruise. “Why didn’t you ice this?”

She bit her plump lower lip. “Well—Eric was bleeding.”

“And after he stopped bleeding?”

“You knocked on the door.”

Clutching her wrist, he tugged her into the kitchen. He spotted the ice pack on the counter and deduced it had been used by Santos. After trading out the blood-stained dishtowel for a clean one, he pressed the cold pack against her swollen knuckles. Though he generally tried not to touch her for very long, this morning he allowed himself to enjoy the simple pleasure of holding her hand and treating her injury.

They were close enough that he could smell the faint lavender of the shampoo she favored. Her body heat remained high from her run and amplified the feminine scent. Only the sight of Santos stepping into the kitchen stopped him from dipping his head and inhaling the floral hints. He started to reach out to push some of the sweat-dampened strands of her hair behind her ear but he flexed his fingers at his side instead.

“You shouldn’t be punching your attackers. You should make a hell of a lot of noise and run.” He’d tried to give her a concealed handgun course and a gun for her last birthday but she didn’t want a weapon. Instead, he’d finally convinced her to carry pepper spray. “Were you carrying the pepper spray I gave you?”

She refused to meet his questioning gaze. “It’s too heavy and too big for my pocket.”

“Vee,” he chastened softly. “If you insist on running in the dark, you have to carry some kind of protection.”

“Okay.” Frustration edged into her voice. Finally lifting her gaze, she asked, “You’re here about my dad, aren’t you?”

He confirmed her suspicion with a tight nod and then glanced at Santos. “You’ve heard that he flipped on the Calaveras?”

“Yeah.”

“It may be worse than that. I’ve heard rumblings that he may have gone so far as to finger the cartel for some killings inside the prison.”

Vivian’s sharp intake of breath pained him. As if she hadn’t survived enough in her young life, now her father had put her in an impossible position. Nikolai didn’t believe for one second that her rotten shit of a father cared one way or the other about Vivian’s life. He’d already used her as a drug mule and a partner in his burglary schemes when she was a child. To put her life in jeopardy now would be nothing to that man.

Santos swore and ran his fingers through his hair. “I tried to get a security detail on her or even have her taken into protective custody, but they shot me down. There’s no credible threat.”

“No credible threat? What the hell do the police want? A head in an ice chest?”

Vivian visibly jerked. Guilt speared his belly. He rubbed his thumb along the underside of her wrist. “I’m sorry.”

Her shoulders bounced. “You’re not saying anything that isn’t true.”

“Look,” Santos said, “I’ll agree that our system isn’t perfect but it’s the best we’ve got. I’m going to pack her a bag and get her out of here until this thing dies down.”

Nikolai’s gut clenched at the very idea of Vivian being out of his sight and beyond his reach. His grip tightened on her wrist as possessiveness overwhelmed him. “She’s not going anywhere unless it’s with me.”

The detective’s eyes narrowed as anger flashed across his face. “You don’t get to make decisions for my family. I’m a cop. I’ll protect her.”

“And what makes you think that the cartel or the club gives a shit about the badge you carry? Have you seen what goes on south of the border? The weight of the Houston PD means nothing to these men.”

“But the Russian mob does?” The detective’s jaw clenched. “How the hell am I supposed to trust a man who makes his living running guns and drugs and whatever the hell else you push out of the back room of that restaurant of yours to protect my baby cousin?”

Despite the fact that Samovar was completely and totally legit, Nikolai didn’t correct Santos about the restaurant. “Whether you trust me or not isn’t the question.” His gaze dropped to Vivian’s worried face. “She can make her own choice.”

Santos scoffed loudly. “Give me a break! You’ve got her wrapped around your dirty little finger so tightly she doesn’t know what she needs or what’s right anymore.”

“Excuse me?” Vivian turned angry eyes on her cousin. “Who the hell do you think you are? You’re my cousin—you’re basically all the blood family I have left—but I’m not going to stand here and let you talk about me as if I’m some stupid child.”

“I didn’t call you stupid or a child,” Santos retorted, “but sometimes you do very stupid things.” She gasped with outrage but her cousin talked right over her. “That car outside? You think I didn’t know about that? What the hell, Vivian? Why are you letting this guy buy you a car with his dirty money?”

As if on cue, the tea kettle began to whistle. Nikolai dropped Vivian’s hand and switched off the burner. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the keys to the Christmas gift he’d tried to give her yesterday morning, the gift she’d gently refused on principle. He tossed them onto the countertop where they landed with a clatter. “She didn’t accept the car—and it wasn’t bought with dirty money.”

The detective ignored the facts presented to him. “And your job at his restaurant? The tuition he pays? Your health insurance? The professional art studio he gave you?” He waved his hands. “Do you understand what that looks like to the outside world? Do you realize what everyone thinks about you? About what you are?”

The unspoken words hung in the air between them, the ugliness of it all suspended on the thick tension. Nikolai had a very good idea what Santos thought. He’d done everything he could to keep Vivian’s reputation spotless but he’d clearly fucked up somewhere. What were they saying about her? Were they calling her his mistress or his kept woman—or worse?

Vivian didn’t take the bait. “I know what I am, Eric. That’s enough for me. Everyone else? They’re not my problem.”

Bewildered by her calm reply, Santos stared at her. “Jesus, I never thought you were that naïve.”

“Enough.” Nikolai didn’t like to get involved in Vivian’s family issues but he had to draw the line at allowing her cousin to attack her with baseless accusations.

As if proving his point that Vivian was a kept woman under Nikolai’s thumb, Santos shot her a disapproving look. “So now he speaks for you?”

“You know he doesn’t. Stop being such a jerk. This isn’t like you, Eric.”

Her words seemed to hit home. With a ragged exhale, the detective shook his head. “It fucking kills me to say this, but you need to stick with him until this thing blows over. I’d do anything to protect you, Vivian, but I don’t have the power he does. I can’t save you from this.”

“Maybe no one can,” she replied sadly, her soft voice barely above a whisper.

An invisible band squeezed Nikolai’s chest at the thought of her being hurt.

“Maybe,” Santos reluctantly agreed, “but he’s your best chance.”

Vivian turned those worried blue eyes of hers on him and it was all he could do not to slide his arms around her petite frame and drag her into his embrace. He wanted to whisper that it would be all right, that he would keep her safe and out of harm’s way.

But he didn’t. He’d lied to her once—and only once—and the gut-gnawing pain of it had never left him. He’d sworn after that first lie there would never be another between them.

“I’ll do everything I can to protect you.”

Her expression softened. “I know you will.”

Whether he deserved her trust or not, she’d willingly placed her life in his hands—and he’d give his own before he betrayed that trust.

Santos’ phone started to ring. He plucked it from the pocket of his jacket and frowned before answering. “Santos here.” His eyes widened briefly. “When? Yeah. Okay. I’ll be there in ten.”

“What’s wrong?” Vivian asked as her cousin ended the call.

“Looks like the Hermanos and the Albanians are at one another’s throats again.” He pulled a knit cap emblazoned with the police department’s logo from a different pocket and slipped it onto his head. “They just found Afrim Barisha’s body stuffed in the trunk of a car in one of the park-and-ride lots. He had the Hermanos gang sign carved into his chest.”

Vivian recoiled. “That’s awful.”

She didn’t know the half of it. Nikolai had brokered a peace between the two outfits earlier in the summer, right after that mess with Erin’s sister had been settled. He kept his finger on the pulse of Houston’s underworld so he was fully aware of the beef between the Hermanos gang leader Diego Montoya and Afrim over the loan shark’s refusal to lower the interest on a debt incurred by one of Diego’s captains. Though Diego could be a hothead, the man wasn’t an idiot. It made no sense for the Hermanos to take out the Albanian’s highest earner.

As a detective in the special gang unit, Santos would know that. They shared a look but neither spoke aloud what they were thinking. This wasn’t a simple cut-and-dried case of gang-on-gang violence—and it wasn’t going to end with one man’s death.

Santos stepped closer and pecked Vivian’s cheek. “I’ll check in with you later.” He headed for the front door and Vivian followed him. When he reached it, he turned back to face her. “I’m sorry.”

She smiled and gave him a quick hug. “Apology accepted.”

Nikolai marveled at her ability to forgive and forget so quickly. After the way she’d been treated by her mother and father, he would have expected her to be so mistrusting and an expert at holding grudges but she seemed determined to never let the ugliness of her childhood define her. He envied her kindness. God only knew there was very little of that about him.

She shut and locked the door before slowly spinning to face him. Leaning back against the door, she stared at him. “Do you really think the people my dad has pissed off will try to hurt me?”

“Yes.” He didn’t hesitate to answer. “Whether it would actually affect your father or not isn’t the issue. Their motivation is fear. They’ll want to make sure that no one else in the organization gets any funny ideas about stepping out of line.”

She inhaled a slow, steadying breath. “What happens now?”

Nikolai shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over a nearby chair. “You shower and get dressed while I make breakfast. Pack a bag or two. You’ll need them.”

She blinked. “I have to leave the apartment?”

“It’s impossible for Sergei or Kostya to keep an eye on every entrance here. There are too many blind spots.” He slashed his hand through the air. “You’ll come stay with me so I know that you’re watched around-the-clock.”

Shock filtered across her face. “At your house?”

“Of course.”

Panic brightened her eyes. What scared her so much about being alone with him? “But—”

Because she could negotiate him better than anyone else on the damn planet, he put his foot down. “This isn’t up for debate, Vee. Take your shower and pack your bags.”

Her shoulders tipped back. Her fiery gaze warned him to watch his step. “Saying please would be nice.”

He eyed her carefully before inclining his head toward her. “Please don’t fight me on this.”

Her full lips slanted in a smile that seemed to be a mix of amusement and annoyance. “As if I’ve ever been able to fight you on anything.”

“You fought me on the car and won.” He tried not to let his disappointment in her rejection of his Christmas gift infiltrate his voice.

“One time in all the years we’ve been friends,” she reminded him. “And I didn’t say I didn’t like the car or appreciate the offer. I just said that it was too much.”

“Nothing is too much for you.”

Their gazes clashed as the words he’d meant to keep silent escaped his mouth. To her credit, she didn’t push the subject. Instead, she shoved off the door and strode by him toward her bedroom. At her door, she paused and glanced back at him. “There are some of Benny’s pastries in the refrigerator.”

While she showered and dressed, he prepared a simple breakfast and steeped tea in two different mugs. As he scrambled eggs, he attempted to ignore the yearning within him. This quiet domestic scene reminded him of all the things he’d denied himself with Vivian. They continually danced around their mutual attraction, both of them pretending the easy smiles and playful teasing they shared amounted to little more than a platonic friendship.

He told himself she was too young, too innocent and too good for him, but the fact remained that from the first moment he’d really opened his eyes and viewed her not as the child he’d assumed guardianship toward but as a woman, there had been no one else for him. He couldn’t look at another woman without comparing her to Vivian. With that dark hair and those pale blue eyes, she’d enthralled him—irrevocably and completely.

When he heard the bathroom door open, it took every ounce of his self-control not to glance down the hallway in a desperate attempt to catch a glimpse of her in a towel or a robe. His mind wandered along a rather lascivious path.

What if he walked down that hall right now and knocked on her bedroom door? Would she tell him to go away or would she invite him inside? The very idea of her wrapped in a fluffy towel and nothing else sent heat rolling through his belly.

He’d slide his fingers through her wet hair and cup the back of her head—and then he’d kiss her. And she would let him. She would welcome the sensual touch of his mouth against hers. She would welcome the erotic tangle of their tongues until—

“Do you need any help?”

Guilt seized him. He had no business fantasizing about her, not now when her whole damn world seemed to be crashing in on her. Right now she was vulnerable and needed to be protected—not seduced or corrupted.

He glanced at her, taking in the sight of her damp hair and low slung jeans. The tiny peek of skin between her cotton tee and the top of her jeans did little to cool his raging lust. “No. Your tea is ready.”

She slid next to him and picked up the two mugs. After placing them on the table, she grabbed milk from the refrigerator. She’d served his tea enough times at the restaurant to know exactly how he liked it. By the time he’d plated the eggs, she’d already grabbed silverware and the pastries.

When they took their seats, he waited patiently while she said her quick, silent prayer of thanks. Though she’d only been introduced to her Russian Orthodox faith when she moved into her grandparents’ home, Vivian took her beliefs very seriously and seemed intent upon living her life accordingly. Unlike some hardcore believers, Vivian never pushed him on the subject. For that he was eternally grateful.

Finished with her prayer, she smiled at him. “Thank you for breakfast.”

“It’s only eggs.”

She shrugged and picked up her fork. “It’s nice to share a meal with someone again. I’d gotten so used to having Lena here every morning. It’s still very strange to eat without the news blaring in the background or her cell phone ringing off the hook.”

He eyed the box on the other end of the table. She’d labeled it with Lena’s name. “Have you spoken to her since she and Yuri jetted off to Moscow after Dimitri’s wedding?”

“Last night,” Vivian said. “Apparently Yuri went totally overboard with Christmas gifts. She still hadn’t opened all the boxes when we’d talked.”

“I’m not surprised. He’s absolutely infatuated with her.”

“And that’s a bad thing?” Confusion colored her voice.

“It’s a weakness.”

She sat back and stared at him. “How can you say something like that, Kolya?”

The sound of his nickname falling from her lips did crazy things to him. The familiarity of it made him ache for all the things he couldn’t have. “I know it’s not a popular sentiment but it’s true. Love is a weakness that’s easily exploited.”

She dropped her fork and it noisily bounced on her plate. “That is such bullshit—and you know it.”

His brow arched at her surprisingly angry display. “That infatuation—that love—that Yuri felt for Lena nearly got her killed when his past came knocking at his front door.” He didn’t mention that it was only his contacts back in Russia and light traffic that enabled him to save the two lovers before they’d been killed. “It was the same thing for Benny and Dimitri and Ivan and Erin.”

“And us?” She dared him to deny that he cared for her. “We care about each other as friends do. There’s friendly love between us. Does that me weak? Does it make you weak?”

Friendly love? No, what he felt for her was so much more profound.

He ignored her furious gaze and tucked back into his breakfast. “You should be careful asking questions like that. I doubt very much that you’ll like the answer.”

When he refused to meet her intense stare, Vivian shoved back her chair and started to leave the table. He pinned her in place with one look. Gesturing to her plate, he ordered, “Sit and eat.”

She glared at him. “Don’t tell me what to do.”

“Then don’t hurt yourself by trying to punish me. I’m not the one who will spend the rest of the morning hungry if you storm off.”

She gritted her teeth but flopped back down in her seat. Snatching up one of the fruit-filled pastries, she took an obnoxiously large bite. “Happy now, Warden?”

Rather than reprimanding her for chewing with her mouth open, he shrugged. “I’m not unhappy.”

She growled and reached for her tea. After swallowing, she said, “You’re impossible, you know that? Like straight-up impossible!”

He bit his tongue. It wouldn’t do either of them any good if he told her how maddening she was and how badly he wanted to leap across the table and claim that wicked little mouth of hers to kiss her into submission.

Certain they needed to change the subject, he asked, “Are you painting today?”

“Yes.”

“Is everything ready for the upcoming show?”

“The gallery is sending over a truck tomorrow for the last few pieces. I’ll do a final walk-through in a few days but I doubt anything will need to be changed. The layout Gustavo showed me was amazing.”

He loved hearing the excitement in her voice whenever she talked about her art. Of all the things he’d ever done for her, renovating that warehouse into studio space had been the one that meant the most to both of them.

“Would you mind if Kostya stays at the studio?”

“Do I have a choice?”

His lips settled into a grim line. “This doesn’t have to be difficult, Vee. You have to adjust to a new normal.”

“For how long?”

“As long as it takes,” he said, unwilling to give her a timeline that might have to be continually changed. “After your shift at the restaurant, I’ll take you home.”

She shook her head and sipped her tea. “I’m not working tonight.”

He frowned. “You’re on the schedule.”

“I traded last night with Sveta. I’m going out tonight.”

His gut clenched as her words registered. “To a club?”

“After we have dinner,” she confirmed. “Faze has a new DJ that I’ve heard awesome things about and I’m slated to work New Year’s Eve so this is the closest I’ll get to dancing in the new year.”

“You’re going out in a group?” He phrased his question carefully and desperately hoped she’d say yes. He’d seen that bodyguard that worked for Dimitri sniffing around the last few weeks. The former Marine looked like he wanted to do more than just guard Vivian’s body.

“Just some single friends,” she said. “You know—me, Bianca, Nadya, Kelly, one of his brothers and some guys they know.”

“And Sergei,” he decided. “He actually likes the club scene so you’ll take him with you tonight.”

“Fine.” She shot him a mischievous smile. “Do I have a curfew?”

He grunted and reached for his tea. “You’re a grown woman. I trust you to know when to pack it in for the night—but just remember that Sergei has to work tomorrow.”

“Doing what exactly?”

He caught and held her gaze. Right after she’d started working at Samovar, Vivian had dared to ask him if he really was the Russian mob boss of Houston. He’d told her the absolute truth, a truth that he’d never confirmed to any other outsider. Though everyone knew what he was, it wasn’t something he publicly owned.

“I think this falls under the heading of questions you might not like the answers to, Vee.”

She rolled her eyes and rose from her chair. “Like I don’t already know?”

Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. He wasn’t about to tell her more than she needed to know. “I’ll get the dishes. You finish packing.”

“Yes, sir,” she returned rather saucily.

He watched her leave the kitchen, his gaze glued to the sultry swing of her hips. She didn’t even realize the effect she had on men. If she had, Nikolai had no doubt she would have found a way to use it to her advantage. Instead she flitted through life without ever truly understanding what one of her sweet smiles did to a man.

As he gathered up their dishes, Nikolai wondered what was more dangerous to him. Was it the very real possibility of trouble with the Calaveras motorcycle gang and the Guzman Cartel or Vivian living in his home and sleeping two doors down from him?

He’d put his money on Vivian.

Going on Tour with Ivan & Dimitri!

30 Apr

 

I’m on a blog tour with Ivan and Dimitri for the next two weeks. There are lots of stops at some really fabulous reader and reviewer blogs. I’m doing interviews and guest posts with snippets from both books and some teasers about the upcoming books (YURI and NIKOLAI) and the possibility of more stories in this universe.

There’s also a giveaway–$25 gift card for the grand prize and four sets of IVAN and DIMITRI in digital format! You can catch me at the following stops:

HER RUSSIAN PROTECTOR:  IVAN and DIMITRI
Blog Tour Schedule
4/29 – 5/12
4/29 – Nina’s Literary Escape
4/30 – Riverina Romantics
5/01 – Flirting with Romance
5/02 – Book Monster Reviews
5/04 – Froggarita’s Bookcase
5/05 – Mad Hatter Reads
5/06 – United by Books
5/08 – Book Lovin’ Mamas
5/09 – My Reading Obsession
5/10 – Books, Books and More Books
5/11 –  Offbeat Vagabond
5/12 – Romance Junkies

Hope to see you there! :)

IVAN Hit Amazon Erotica Bestseller List @ #69!

14 Apr

Ha! This was too funny not to share! :) Ivan hit Amazon’s erotica bestseller list over the weekend. It actually debuted in the mid-50s but I didn’t catch a screencap until 69 because, well, that’s too hilarious a position not to grab it. Many thanks to all the readers who made this funny screencap possible! :)

IVAN (Her Russian Protector #1) on Amazon Erotica Bestseller List

IVAN (Her Russian Protector #1) on Amazon Erotica Bestseller List

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