Nikolai II will be available Friday, August 1.
In a perfect world, there would have been no delay in this book's release but real life isn't perfect. It's messy and complicated and stressful. My sincerest apologies for the delay.
We are finally (!) back home and getting settled into our usual routines.
Nikolai II will be available Friday, August 1.
In a perfect world, there would have been no delay in this book's release but real life isn't perfect. It's messy and complicated and stressful. My sincerest apologies for the delay.
We are in the middle of a family emergency which means I'm out of my office. Normally this wouldn't be an issue because--yay for the internet and access from any computer anywhere! But I made a huge (read: dumb) mistake and forgot to put all of the NIKOLAI II files into Dropbox.
This is the not so fun side of going the indie route. It's all on me when I do something completely boneheaded like run out the door with just my iPhone and purse in hand. I don't have access to pre-orders at Amazon or else I would have tossed this bad boy up weeks ago. The good side of indie, of course, is that I get to tell stories like the ones I've written for the Russians and my debt collectors. Stories that I couldn't sell to the publishers of my Lo books because they didn't believe there was a market for deliciously Alpha, intensely complicated mobsters and their lady loves.
I shared this sneak peek of NIKOLAI II with my street team a few days ago so I was able to get my paws on this PDF. It's the entire first chapter of the book---and it's a sexy one. So, um, NSFW.
I hope (fingers crossed) to be back home and in the office Monday night or Tuesday morning. It should be a one day delay at most until NIKOLAI II is available. Huge apologies. I'm holding out my knuckles for virtual ruler smacks on this one.
I'll be out of pocket until then. I will get to all the comments here and on FB as soon as possible. June has just been a really weird month for us with kiddo getting sick and the Viking (who is diabetic) sustaining a pretty gnarly foot injury. Frankly, I'm ready for July to start so we can have a clean slate and a healthy (!) do-over.
Anywho. Here is Chapter One. Nikolai gets inventive with Vee and finds some interesting ways to use a paint brush and a peach. Ahem.
First! Thanks so much for all the kind thoughts while we were all so sick. Oh my gosh. I don't think I've ever had a tummy bug like that one. It was dreadful. Poor kiddo lost like two pounds! :(
We're all better now and hoping the rest of the summer is happy and healthy. I was so very sad that I couldn't make the Meet & Greet in Austin (hosted by the wonderfully fabulous ladies behind Beautiful Trouble Publishing.) Next year!
Okay. Housekeeping stuff. I had just under 100 entries for the I <3 Sergei buttons so instead of picking 75 or so winners I'm just going to send an email to everyone who entered. I feel like Oprah LOL. You all get buttons! :) You'll have a choice from the four I have: I *Smooch* Sergei, From Russia With Love, Milaya Moya or Angel Moy.
The winners for the Loving Day Blop are: Misty, Tara L and Cheri W. I'll send out emails tomorrow to get your mailing addresses.
Now the part you all really want! This is the full prologue for NIKOLAI II. There will be more sneak peeks in the next few days--but the readers on the street team get first looks at those.
NIKOLAI II (Her Russian Protector #6)
Claimed and cherished by Houston's most ruthless mob boss, artist Vivian Kalasnikov embraces her new position as Nikolai's wife and the lonely, dangerous role as queen of Houston's underworld. But Nikolai is keeping secrets from her, and the whispers of a coming street war leave her terrified for the man she so passionately loves—and the tiny life growing inside her.
Nikolai finally has everything he's ever wanted—power, wealth and a family with Vivian, the beautiful sun who lights up his dark life. But as his young wife prepares for her debut on the international art stage, he finds himself drawn into a bloody conflict that threatens the quiet life he's painstakingly built. He can feel the promise of his future happiness slipping through his fingers like grains of sand.
One wrong move, and he'll lose Vivian and his child forever. One wrong move, and he won't see another sunrise.
The sins of their fathers have come back to haunt Vivian and Nikolai. To protect his beloved wife and his heir, he'll do absolutely anything. The brutal gangster who violently conquered the streets of Moscow and Houston is about to be unleashed—and Houston's underworld will never be the same again.
Click the PDF button for the prologue. This one is way too long to share here.
I was so excited to be asked to be part of the LOVING DAY BLOG HOP hosted by the Swirl Awards.
Writing multicultural fiction was a natural fit for me. My family is a blend of two very different cultures. My mother hails from a tiny corner of the USA where you can cross a couple of bridges and drive in a circle to travel through three different states--Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. My father is a first generation American. His parents immigrated from Mexico to the itty bitty dusty West Texas town where I was born and raised.
Growing up, I learned to appreciate both cultures and celebrate the differences. It wasn't always easy. Not everyone in the world is as accepting of such things, but I just shrugged off the negativity and focused on what mattered--my family. We're one big, loud crazy ball of happiness and love.
When the idea for the Her Russian Protector series came to me, it was Vivian and Nikolai who appeared first. Their friends quickly followed--Erin, Ivan, Dimitri, Benny, Yuri, Lena, Kostya, Sergei, Bianca, Danny, Boy, Ten, Kir, Artyom, etc. Russians, Latinas, Caucasians, African Americans, interracial--it never occurred to me that I should confine this cast of characters to one ethnic group or race. I wanted to write a real story about the real world, not one that's easily shelved or categorized by bookstore standards.
That last bit right there is one of the reasons why I am so very happy to be an indie author. I don't have to worry about what slot my book will fit on a bookstore shelf. Considering I write multicultural fiction, it would probably be that tiny shelf along the bottom in the dustiest, rarely visited corner of the romance section. Because I'm indie, I can write whatever I like, tag it with appropriate keywords and help the readers who *want* these types of books find them. Readers like me who want to read romances featuring interracial or multicultural couples.
Because love is love, y'all.
As part of the Loving Day Blog Hop, I'm giving away three (3) signed sets of print copies for SERGEI, SERGEI II and In Jack's Arms.
***You can enter my giveaway by simply leaving a comment (with your email address in the email address field of the comment box field, please) here on this post. I'll choose 3 winners at random and contact you.***
Enter the Blog Hop $25 Gift Card Giveaway using the Rafflecopter box below.
Go back to Loving Day Hop Master List
Finish the Loving Day Hop by visiting Romance Novels in Color.
Here's a quick free read for Sergei, Bianca and the twins! :)
You can scroll down to read or tap the PDF button. Hope y'all enjoy this one. It was a fun little piece to write.
Sneak peeks of NIKOLAI II start late next week...
What's In a Name?
"Sergei, we have to pick names. Today," Bianca added urgently. "The nurses are giving me funny looks, and the twins are going to start thinking their names are Girl and Boy!"
Smiling down at his freshly bathed daughter, Sergei used the gentlest touch possible to carefully slip her arms into the frightfully pink outfit. His fingers trembled slightly as he worked, and he was glad he had his back to Bianca so she wouldn't see how nervous all of this made him. Despite assurances from the nurses and doctors that his daughter was a big baby for a twin, she looked so small. He held his hand up against her body and marveled at the way he dwarfed her minute form.
"What should we call you? Hmm?" He addressed her in the same tender way he often spoke to Bianca. It was a tone of voice he reserved for the ones he loved.
"Well don't even think about suggesting Mouse again," Bianca warned. "Her ears are not that big."
Sergei traced one of her little ears. They were bigger than her brother's and did, in fact, remind him of a sweet little mouse. Bianca, however, didn't find that funny in least.
"She'll grow into them," he decided. "Won't you, myshka?"
He laughed softly, the sound drawing his baby girl's attention. After nursing and a bath, she hovered on the edge of sleep again. Her dark eyes tried to focus on his face. When she gripped his finger with her tiny hand, he swallowed hard and tried to breathe. With one little touch, she completely owned him.
So lost in her sweet face, he didn't realize she had kicked her legs out of the onesie until one of them whacked his arm. Two days old, and she was already an escape artist who could rival a cuffed and blindfolded Kostya! Shaking his head with amusement, he grasped her small legs and slowly worked them back inside the cozy outfit.
His thick fingers fumbled over the miniscule snaps. "Do all of their clothes have these?"
"Have what, baby?"
"These ridiculous little snaps," he replied, fighting to get them to latch. "My big hands aren’t good at this sort of thing."
"Sweetheart, you seem to forget that I'm very well acquainted with all the wonderful things those big hands of yours can do. A couple of tiny snaps shouldn't be a problem for you."
Her saucy reply brought a smile to his face. He glanced back at his wife and grinned as she lovingly stroked their son's head while he nursed. Propped up in the hospital bed, she used one of those oddly shaped pillows to support the baby who greedily drank the nourishing milk from her breast. When she shifted in bed, he caught her slight wince of pain and wondered when it was going to get better for her.
Nothing about their labor or delivery experience had gone the way she had envisioned. Nursing wasn't working as well either, but she was trying so hard. Guilt gnawed at his stomach. His part in this parenthood business had been so easy compared to hers. For him, it had been nothing but pleasure and happiness. Bianca was the one who had gone through months and months of exhausting work carrying their twins. She had endured the pain of labor and now had to recover from surgery neither of them had expected.
Bianca had done it all without complaint—and he was utterly fucking amazed by her. Just when he thought she couldn't possibly make him more proud to be her husband, she proved that she was even stronger and more brilliant than he had ever imagined.
As if sensing his gaze, she glanced up at him. In all the time they had been together, these two days and three nights in the hospital were the longest stretch she had gone without makeup or styling her hair or wearing one of those sexy, classy outfits that sent heat rolling through his belly. Somehow seeing Bianca with her hair pulled back into a messily brushed ponytail and her face bare only enhanced her beauty. No woman had ever looked as wonderful as she did in that moment. His heart swelled in his chest, thumping against his ribcage, and he wondered what the hell he had done to be this lucky.
They shared a quiet, knowing smile before turning their gazes back to their children. He finally managed to get his daughter dressed. Remembering the way his mother-in-law had taught him, he swaddled her in one of the blush pink receiving blankets Yuri and Lena had given them before carefully, gently, lifting her into his arms. He cradled her protectively and nuzzled the top of her head, brushing his lips against the soft tuft of dark hair crowning her head. He inhaled the sweet scent of his myshka before pressing a loving kiss to her cheek.
He settled into the rocking chair next to the bed and enjoyed the fatherly moment. Even after she fell asleep, he continued to rock her. He couldn’t stop staring at her beautiful little face. There was so much of Bianca in her, but he could see a little of himself there too.
"What are you thinking about?" Bianca wondered, her voice barely louder than a whisper. She rubbed her thumb along their son's jaw, coaxing him to continue nursing in the hopes it would encourage her milk supply to increase.
"I'm thinking that I never thought I could ever love anyone as much as I love you," he answered honestly. "But now I see I was wrong. It's a different kind of love," he added, "but it's strong."
"Unconditional," she said. "It's unconditional love. It's complete and whole and protective love."
He nodded. "Yes."
"I liked Aleksandr. From your list of names," she explained. "It's a good name for a boy."
Secretly, he was pleased she liked that name. It was the one he had wanted most for his first-born son. "We'll have to spell it the American way so it's easier for him in school."
"All right." She hesitated. "What about his middle name? Are we going to do it your way?"
He huffed with amusement at the memory of that conversation. A few weeks ago, he had tried to explain the Russian naming conventions and had only succeeded in confusing the hell out of her. "No, I don't think Sergeyevich and Sergeyovna would be very good for middle names. Not in Texas, at least," he added with a grin.
"No," she agreed sadly. "But we should make sure they know what their names would have been like if they had been born in your country."
"They'll know," he assured her. They had already decided the children would be raised bilingual and immersed in both cultures. That wouldn't be difficult to accomplish with Dimitri and Nikolai's children so close in age to the twins. Vivian had jokingly suggested painting Moscow murals on the walls of the playroom she had decorated at the home she shared with the boss for their future playdates.
Hoping Bianca wouldn't cry, he cleared his throat and offered the first name he had been considering for their son. "Bradshaw, Bianca. His first name should be Bradshaw and his middle name can be Alexander."
She lifted her surprised gaze to his face. "Bradshaw? But—"
"Your father and brother are gone. You're the last Bradshaw. It's right for our son to carry on your family's name."
She bit her plump lower lip to squelch the wobbling that he could easily see. "Thank you, Sergei." Looking down at their son, she murmured his name with an amused smile, "Bradshaw Alexander Sahkarov. That's quite a mouthful."
He snorted with laughter. "Sounds pretentious, yes?"
"No, it's perfect. It's a strong name for the strong man he'll be someday. But—maybe we should give him a nickname? Alex?"
Sergei shook his head. "Sasha."
"Sasha," she happily repeated. "I like that."
"Good. That's done. Now we get to name you, myshka." He grazed his fingertips across their daughter's wispy hair. "Your top choice for her was Isabella. My top choice was Irina. Can we compromise? Isabella Irina?"
Bianca grinned. "I like that." Her loving gaze fell on their daughter. "Bella."
"Bella," he agreed and tucked her in a little tighter to his chest.
"Sasha and Bella," Bianca murmured sweetly.
Feeling happier and more content than he ever had in his life, Sergei snuggled his sweet Bella and rocked slowly. His gaze drifted from her cherubic sleeping face to Bianca and Sasha. His wife had closed her dress and cuddled their son while he dozed in a warm, milk-induced coma.
Pride and love overwhelmed him. After all the heartache and loss they had known, these innocent new lives brimming with possibility filled him with such hope for their future.
Our family. Overjoyed, he hugged Bella and kissed her cheek. My family.
And there was no line he wouldn't cross to keep them all safe…
What's In A Name?
© 2014 Roxie Rivera
Night Works Books
Hey y'all. I'm tackling some quick lines on the to-do list today. First--book signings!
You can meet me in San Antonio during RWA from July 23-26. I will be signing at the indie signing (full lineup of authors here) on Thursday, July 24 from 3-4:30 in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott Rivercenter.
In the fall, I will be at the Houston Book Rave (see flyer above) for a one-day event on November 15, 2014. I'll have more details on that one as I get closer.
Because I'm only doing nearby signings this year, I'm considering offering a virtual signing event. This is when you buy a book, request an autograph and I sign and mail it to you. It would take place later this summer/very early fall.
I've been working on a super secret project for a couple of weeks. I've had a t-shirt designed for Ivan's gym! It's a special 2014 championship tee for the fighters at Markovic MMA.
I'll have the final art to share soon! I will be giving away some of these shirts, but I'll also have them for sale. I need a rough estimate of the number and sizes of shirts to order so...
I shared a pic of these buttons yesterday. I'll be giving these away at book signings and will make them available for purchase soon. There are actually 4 designs: I *smooch* Sergei, From Russia With Love, Angel Moy and Milaya Moya. I'll probably do an I *smooch* Ivan next.
I've decided to giveaway 30 of these buttons! :)
COLLATERAL (Debt Collection #1) is out today! If you purchased the limited-time Alphas After Dark boxed set, you've read all about the beginning to Ben and Aston's love story. If you missed that boxed set, you can grab a copy of this book now. :)
Book One in the Debt Collection series
Mechanic and mob enforcer Ben Beciraj can't believe his eyes when Houston socialite Aston McNeil storms into his chop shop and demands the return of the car he's just repossessed as collateral on her stepbrother's defaulted loan. When the fiery blonde heiress offers him anything to get it back, he counters with a deal he never expects her to accept—one week at his beck and call for the keys to her late father's classic car.
But Ben's plans to have a little fun with a girl way out of his league are shot to hell after one taste of sweet, beguiling Aston. When her stepbrother's shady dealings are revealed, Ben will do anything to protect her from the seedy underworld he inhabits—even if it means crossing the only family he's ever known.
I'm working on a FAQ to post later this week. I'll answers questions like:
Will Ivan and Erin have a full-length novel?
Will Ten have a book?
Will Devil have a book?
Is Bianca ever going to dance for Sergei?
One last thing: I'm finishing up a Sergei and Bianca short story. It's a sweet look at the new family. :)
The Beyond Desire Collection hit #8 on the New York Times and #81 on the USA Today list this week! SEALs of Summer also earned another slot on the USA Today this week at #125! :)
I hope everyone who has picked up a copy of my recent boxed sets has enjoyed all the stories in them. They're fantastic deals and a great way to find new authors and series.
SERGEI, Volume 2 was a Top 100 Release on Amazon and is currently the #1 Multicultural romance at Amazon and B&N! It's also in the Top Ten at ARe and a Top Ten romantic suspense at Kobo. That was the best news to wake up to here at the Romantic Times convention!
If you receive my newsletter, you already know this but just in case:
DIMITRI is available as an audiobook. You can grab a copy at Amazon, Audible and iTunes.
Finn's book is available on iBooks.
All right. Now I'm wading into the website comments and Facebook posts and messages that have piled up while I've been here at RT! Wish me luck LOL.
Got busy packing for the Romantic Times convention and forgot to update with links last night!
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00KAS8B7G
Amazon AU: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B00KAS8B7G
Amazon CA: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B00KAS8B7G
B&N: Coming Soon
I will be in NOLA all week at the RT Booklovers Convention. Come find me because I have tons of nifty swig to giveaway--including some really awesome temp tattoos. Also I have a new sparkly silver pen. :)
Oh--and I'll be going through all the emails, FB messages, website comments, etc this week. They've kind of stacked up so it may take me a few days, but you'll get a response.
First--Happy Mother's Day to all the mamas out there.
Second--the Sergei sequel will be available at Amazon, B&N, ARe and Smashwords by tomorrow evening. I'll share links here on my website and on Facebook as they go live
Third--here's our first glimpse at Ten, Vivi's new bodyguard and resident scowler. :)
"No, you're putting emphasis on the wrong syllable." Vivian leaned forward and drew lines under the word she had spelled out phonetically for me. "Zuh-dras-voo-tye. Zadrastvutje. Try again."
Sitting in the library of the grand historic home she shared with her husband, I tried to concentrate on the Russian lesson, but the imposing, intimidating man hovering near the doorway interrupted my concentration. Ten leaned against the door frame and watched us in the most unnerving way. He didn't speak or smile. He simply stared.
For some reason I couldn't fathom, Nikolai had chosen this terrifying beast to replace Sergei as his wife's bodyguard. Blond with the faintest reddish tint to his hair, Ten was shorter than Sergei but still very tall. His shoulders weren't nearly as broad either, but he was uncommonly muscular with thick arms and legs. The mean hands curled into loose fists had probably done some serious damage over the years.
He had more tattoos than I had ever seen in my life. Not even Ivan had as many as this man. Most of the ones on his neck and arms looked like prison ink with their rough, blurred edges and uneven coloring, but there was one tattoo—a bold, brightly hued tiger that stretched from the underside of his left wrist up above the crook of his elbow—that looked professionally done. I didn't even want to think about what those daggers with bloody tips or that creepy spider just visible inside the open collar of his shirt meant.
Vivi seemed to notice my discomfort. "Ten, you don't have to babysit me. When we're here at the house, you should make yourself comfortable."
"The boss said I'm supposed to keep both eyes on you."
Her lips pressed together, and I sensed that there was some friction between husband and wife over this issue. Gently and with more patience than I ever could have mustered, she explained, "You'll soon learn that I'm the boss in this house. Right now, I want to be alone with my friend. You might like the media room?"
Ten still didn't move. In a rough and rasping voice, he meanly replied, "I don't take my orders from women."
My lips parted in shock at the outrageous way he spoke to her. Is he insane? I shivered to think what Nikolai would do when he found out this man had spoken to his wife in that tone.
Coolly and calmly, Vivian rose from her chair and crossed the library. Ten's jaw twitched as she drew near. His eyes were so dark they seemed nearly black and fathomless. She didn't show an ounce of fear as she grasped one of the belt loops on his jeans and tugged him toward the door. He fought her at first, but she pulled harder and he finally relented. When he was out in the hall, she pivoted on her heel, stepped back inside the library and shut the door in his face. As if to prove her point, she flipped the lock.
She took her seat and picked up her pen. Pointing at the Russian greeting, she said, "Let's try again. You've only got a few days until you meet Sergei's mother."
"Vivi! Forget about the lesson." I hooked my thumb toward the door. "That guy was a jerk!"
She reached for her cup of lukewarm peach-flavored tea and sipped at it. "This isn't easy for him. I never knew him before he went inside, but I've heard the stories. He was part of the inner circle and hugely respected. He's the sort of street soldier every other soldier wanted to be. He sacrificed himself to save the family—and now he's been rewarded with a babysitting job." She swirled her spoon in the cup. "I'm sure he feels slighted by the downgrade in his status."
"How in the world is protecting the one thing in the world Nikolai considers most precious a downgrade?"
"I'm sure Ten doesn't see it that way." She glanced at the door. "He's only been out of prison for two days. He needs some time to adjust to living on the outside again." She sighed wistfully. "He's no Sergei or Danny but he'll keep me safe. I enjoyed having someone to talk to but I don't need that sort of friendship from my bodyguard."
I doubted that very much. In fact, I suspected she very much needed the friendship Sergei and Danny had provided. "Why isn't Danny with you anymore?"
"He got a promotion." She wasn't going to give any further details, and I didn't push. I had gotten a glimpse into the shadowy world her husband inhabited and that was quite enough for me.
"So Ten, huh? What sort of nickname is that?"
"It's actually a bastardization of this word." She reached for the pen and neatly printed four Cyrillic letters—ТеНЬ. "It's pronounced tyen. It sounds like ten, and there's this rumor that he once iced ten men with his bare hands and a piece of pipe. Whether that's true or not...?" She shrugged her delicate shoulders. "It makes for a good story, I guess."
Somehow I didn't doubt that vicious looking man had done far worse than what was rumored. I tapped the word she had written. "What does it mean?"
"Yeah." She sat back and smiled. "It's funny because I used to joke with Sergei that he was my shadow. Now I have the Shadow following me around everywhere."
She said it like a joke, but I could hear the underlying frustration in her voice. "I'm sorry, Vivi."
She traced the letters neatly printed on the notebook page between us. "I knew what I was signing up for when I fell in love with Kolya. I definitely knew the score when we got married. Lena warned me I had to take him as he was, and I did."
"But sometimes it's hard," she admitted quietly. "Not the loving him part," she clarified, "but the rest of it? That part isn't easy."
Certain she wasn't finished venting, I held my tongue and waited for her to speak again.
"Lena has been running interference as my PR rep for the upcoming show, and it's gotten dicey a few times. Journalists who cover the art scene want to dig around in our lives, and I can tell it's making Kolya uncomfortable. He's on edge already with all that mess in—" She stopped suddenly. "He's on edge because of work, and now he's got to worry about a journalist getting a little too close. He won't say that, of course. He acts like he's totally thrilled for me, but I can tell he's having second thoughts."
My eyes widened. "About?"
She didn't answer immediately. Her throat bobbed, and she blinked rapidly. "All of it. The art show. The business…compromises he's had to make. Me."
"Bullshit." I refused to believe that last part. "That's not possible. That man adores you. He loves you, Vivian. He's ice cold with everyone but you. Beyond the obvious, he doesn't strike me as the sort of man who makes big life decisions without thinking them through very carefully. He wanted you as his wife. He chose you knowing full well what that entailed."
She rubbed her face between her elegantly-boned hands. Her cuticles were stained with bright pigments. "I feel like we're drifting, and I don't know how to close the gap."
Suddenly all the good news I had wanted to share with her turned sour in my belly. My heart ached for Vivi, and I didn't dare add to her misery by announcing that I was pregnant when she herself couldn't even reveal the news of her own impending bundle of joy. It struck me then how very lucky I was that Sergei was out of the mob. It had cost us both so much—in money and danger and more—but it was worth it.
Grasping her hand, I gave it a squeeze. "Make this London getaway into a vacation about the two of you. After your show, maybe you two can disappear for a few days. Even if you hole up in some hotel suite, it would be a good way for you to reconnect. You can pretend that none of this," I gestured around us, "exists. It will be just the two of you."
She nodded slowly. "I've been thinking the same thing. We never had a honeymoon. When we got married, it was too dangerous to go anywhere and now…" She sighed. "Well."
I wished more than anything that I was brave enough to ask her what was happening in the underworld that had everyone so nervous and on edge, but I was too afraid. I didn't want to know things that I shouldn't. I really, really didn't want to put myself or the baby growing inside me at risk.
"Anyway," she said with a long exhale. "Let's get back to this." She started jotting down new words on the notepad. "Sergei's brother speaks English so you'll be able to talk with him easily. His mother probably knows a little, but if you want to make a good impression, you should at least memorize these."
Over the next hour, she schooled me in the various phrases I might find useful. She had such patience with me, but I was absolutely terrible. For a girl fluent in French and Spanish, I couldn't get a handle on Sergei's language. Doubts started to creep in as I tried again and again to get it right. I had flashbacks to that awful run-in with Sergei's ex-girlfriend in the restroom at Samovar. All the nasty things she had snarled my way taunted me. Though Lidia and I had made peace, those seeds of doubt started to sprout.
Voices in the hallway interrupted our lesson. A moment later, someone tried to open the library door. Knuckles rapped loudly against the wood. "Vee!"
The irritation in Nikolai's voice surprised me. Rolling her eyes, Vivi exhaled a noisy breath and unfolded her legs from the tucked up position she had in her chair. She crossed the library, unlocked and opened the door. I kept my gaze fixed on the notepad in front of me while the couple argued behind me. The hissed whispers of Russian were foreign to my ears, but I didn't need to speak their language to understand that all was not well within the walls of this house.
Thinking of the many, many years the pair had been bound together as friends and something more before their marriage, I couldn't help but wonder about the relationship I had with Sergei. Our foundation was thinner and smaller. Were we going to start fighting like this? Did we have what it took to make a go of something real? Tossing a baby into a brand new relationship wasn't going to help matters any.
Twirling the pen between my fingers, I silently vowed to work hard at our relationship. It wasn't going to be easy. There were probably going to be days where I wanted to smack him with a broom or make him sleep downstairs, but I wasn't exactly sweet as pie myself. Compromise. We'll have to learn to compromise.
"Bianca, it's good to see you."
Twisting in my seat, I smiled at Nikolai. He wore a soft expression, but I could see the stress tightening his handsome features. Vivian had a gentle hand on his chest, and he covered it with his own. Their gazes met briefly, his apologetic and warm with his love for her, and I sensed the storm between them would soon pass.
"It's nice to see you, too." Certain the couple needed some time, I gathered up the notepad and my purse. I made a show of glancing at my watch. "I need to run. Sergei will be home soon. I promised to handle dinner tonight."
"What time are you two heading to the airport on Sunday?"
"I think Sergei said eight?" I tucked the notepad into my purse along with the capped pen. "What about you two?"
"Eight," Nikolai answered. "You're staying at the same hotel as Erin and Ivan?"
"And Sergei's mother and brother are joining us on Tuesday evening?"
I nodded. "They'll be with us until Sunday morning when they fly back to Russia."
"I haven't had a chance to talk with Sergei about the immigration situation. It's going well?"
"He had a meeting with his new lawyer earlier this week. It seems promising so far." While Sergei had permanent resident status, his mother and brother had been trying unsuccessfully to join him in Houston. After an unscrupulous lawyer had cheated dozens of immigration hopefuls out of their hard-earned money, he had been forced to start the process all over again for his family. Now we were working with an attorney recommended by Nikolai and Yuri Novakovsky, the billionaire tycoon who seemed to have a Rolodex stuffed to the brim with useful contacts.
"I’m glad to hear that. It will be good for the entire family to be here together."
"Yes, it will." Sergei and I were happy, but I understood how much he missed his mother and brother. They were all he had left of his family, and they needed to be here with him. With us.
"Ten?" Nikolai slid his arm around Vivian's shoulders and guided her to one side of the doorway. The intimidating ex-con stepped into view but said nothing. He simply waited for his instruction. "Walk Bianca out to her car."
"Oh, I don't need an escort," I said with a light laugh. The thought of being alone with Ten in the dark made my knees knock together. "I'm a big girl."
"It's no trouble." Nikolai's gaze was kind, but I understood this wasn't up for debate. "I insist."
Thinking of the last time I had left his house after dark and run into Detective Eric Santos, I wondered if there wasn't some truly serious reason he didn't want me traipsing around outside alone. My concern for Vivian skyrocketed. What the hell is going on out there? More than anything, I was so damned happy Sergei was out of this life. We didn't have to look over our shoulders anymore. We were free.
Vivian walked me to the front door, and we exchanged quick hugs while Ten waited on the front porch. Walking next to him in the darkness, I was taken aback by how silently he moved. I began to form a better picture of why they called him the Shadow.
While Sergei put others at ease with that boyish grin of his, Ten seemed to have a permanent scowl twisting his mouth. Where Sergei hated for others to fear him simply because of his size, Ten relished it. He wanted me to be afraid of him. He wanted me to scurry along like some terrified little girl—but I refused to be cowed.
"So how is life on the outside treating you?"
Ten actually snorted. It wasn't a sound of derision though. It was amusement. "Yeah," he said finally. "It's okay. Besian's dancing girls have been fun."
I glanced over at him and caught the tail end of a smirk on his face. He probably expected me to get huffy at him talking about strippers, but I didn't take the bait. "Yes, I hear that Sugar's and Wet are some of the better establishments in the city, if that's your preference for entertainment."
"My preference is for something in a different class, but I'll make do." There was no mistaking the heated gaze that settled on my breasts and then my hips. The summery dress I had chosen that morning had a vintage flare to it with a sweetheart neckline and a flirty red skirt with tiny white polka dots. It was one of Sergei's favorites, and he had spent a few minutes nuzzling into my cleavage before running out the door. Judging by Ten's lingering leer, he was having the same idea.
Snapping my fingers, I pointed to my face. "My eyes are up here. This," I gestured to by bosom, "belongs to someone else. You'd better remember that the next time you see me."
"I was inside for six years. You can't blame a man for looking when the view is that nice."
"Well, thank you for the compliment, but—"
"Yeah," he cut me off. "You're his." As we drew near my car, he added, "You chose well. Sergei will take care of you. He'll keep you safe from those lightning bolt shitheads."
Ten's words sent a quiver of panic through me. "That's done. Everything with Adam Blake is over." Naming my brother's killer no longer affected me in the way it once had.
"It's never over, girl. Darren Blake is gone. Adam Blake is wasting away in a prison infirmary, but it's not over. There are others. There will always be others." He looked down at me as if I might be the stupidest woman he had ever met. "Don't tell me you thought the two of you were going to ride off into the fucking sunset like a pair of lovers from some fairytale."
"No," I insisted angrily, but obviously I had thought that. "Of course, I didn't think that."
"Good," he shot back. "Because it doesn't work like that. Sergei bled for this family. He made others bleed for this family. That doesn't wash off, understand?"
No, not really. But I lied nonetheless. "Yes."
Shaking his head, he reached for my door handle but didn't open it. Putting his massive hand on the roof of my car, Ten pinned me in place with a look that was equal parts pitying and frustrated. "The boss and his wife? They like you too much to upset you, but I don't have that problem. So I'm going to be straight with you. All that studying you're doing to impress your svekrov'? It won't work."
I recognized the word as the one used for a mother-in-law. Swallowing nervously, I asked, "Why?"
"Why?" He repeated with a harsh chortle. I jerked back when he reached for my hand, but he held tight and forced my hand into the shaft of light illuminating us from the streetlamps. "This is why."
At first I didn't understand, but then his callused thumb rubbed a circle on my skin. It was a painful and ugly thought that I refused to accept. "You don't even know Sergei or his family."
"I don't have to know them to know how this is going to play out once you meet them." His thumb moved side to side over the back of my hand. "You're beautiful. You're smart. You have a career and a successful business. You think your stock is pretty high, right? But you're wrong. You're not the sort of woman his mother wants for her nevestka."
"You're an asshole." I yanked free from him and shoved his hand off my car.
Ten put his hand against the door and kept me from opening it. That terrifying tiger stretched across his arm snarled at me. "Yes, I am, but I'm honest. I wouldn't lie to you, not about something like this."
I studied his face. Scary as he was, I could see he was earnest. "Why?"
His gaze unsettled me. "I know a good person when I see them. I don't come across them often, but I can tell you're one of them. You love your man, and he loves you enough to leave all of this," he twirled his finger in the air, "behind. There's only one woman in the world who can take that from you."
My stomach dropped. "His mother."
Ten nodded. "That's a bond that you will never break. So you had better make your war plan now, girl. You put on that armor, and you make sure she knows that you faced off with Nikolai Fucking Kalasnikov to save her son. You did that. You gave her back the son she had lost. Make her remember who she owes her happiness to—and then you win."
"It won't be that easy."
"No, it won't." He lifted his hand and reached for my door handle. "But something tells me you're not easily beaten." He held the door open for me. "Good luck, Bianca."
"Thank you." Reeling from our bizarre conversation, I slipped into the driver's seat and dropped my purse on the passenger side. Ten stood on the sidewalk until I disappeared around the corner. I tried to make sense of the mysterious, intimidating man. He had nothing to gain from helping me yet he had done it anyway. I took that as a good sign as far as Vivian's safety went. Ten was far from nice, but honesty, loyalty and honor more than made up for that.
When I reached the house, I pulled through the gate at the back of my property and into the space next to Sergei's SUV. With my purse in one hand, I bumped my car door closed and waited for the lights to blink and the horn to blip before I headed up the sidewalk to the back entrance. The door leading into the house opened with a squeak, and Sergei appeared, his huge frame silhouetted by the light from the mudroom.
"Hey." I smiled at him as I drew near and let my needy gaze roam his bare chest and the khaki cargo shorts that sat dangerously low on his hips.
Sergei swooped down and kissed me when I was close enough. Just as I had expected, his lips traveled down my neck to the swell of cleavage displayed by the neckline of my dress. He nuzzled my breasts and placed noisy kisses on my throbbing flesh. "I missed you."
"You missed me or the girls?" I playfully asked.
"Both," he murmured before pressing his lips to my cheek. "I grabbed Chinese for dinner. I hope that's okay."
"It was my turn to cook," I reminded him as I pushed by him and into the house.
I knew he hadn't forgotten. No doubt he had convinced himself I would be too tired to make us dinner. He seemed to think that being pregnant meant I should be sitting with my feet up as many hours in the day as possible.
"How is Vivi?" I hesitated answering him a moment too long. "Bianca? What's wrong with Vivian?"
I dropped my purse on the table and stepped out of my heels. "I think Vivian and Nikolai are having problems."
"Marital problems," I clarified. "They argued while I was there."
"Lots of couples argue."
"True, but she said that she feels like they're drifting apart. I could tell she wanted to talk, but she didn't want to share too much with me because of…well…you know."
"Yes," he said sadly.
"And now she's got this freaking terrifying bodyguard named Ten," I continued. "He's not like you. He was really rude to her, and then he walked me out to my car—"
"Wait." Sergei held up one of his massive hands. "You were alone with Ten?"
Sergei's jaw clenched. He closed the distance between us and started to look me over as if he expected to find bruises on my body. "Did he hurt you?"
"Hurt me?" I reared back with surprise. "He was a jerk, but he wasn't mean. He treated me with respect." I decided to leave out the part about Ten ogling me. With a nervous gulp, I added, "He gave me some advice on dealing with your mother."
"He what?" Sergei's nostrils flared. He cursed in Russian and shook his head. "Whatever he told you? Forget it. That man knows nothing about my family or us. He's not the sort of man you should be spending time with alone."
"Why?" I couldn't wrap my head around Sergei's reaction to Ten. "Nikolai trusts him to guard Vivian."
"Because the boss knows Ten is an animal who will kill without a moment's hesitation," Sergei snapped. Blowing out a noisy breath, he placed his hands on my shoulders and slid them toward my neck. Cupping my face, he held my gaze and entreated me to listen carefully. "You know what I am, Bianca. You know what I've done for the family, but I never, never, took pleasure in it."
"I know that," I whispered. "I know you're not like that."
His thumbs glided along my cheeks. "Ten is a loyal man. He has honor, but he also has a taste for blood. He did things…" Sergei couldn't even bring himself to talk about them. "I don't want you spending time with him."
"All right." I bit my lower lip. "But when I'm with Vivi?"
"When you're with her, it's fine. He'll keep the two of you out of trouble, but I don't want you walking around alone with him. Six years is a long fucking time for a man to go without his favorite thing." Sergei looked me up and down. "And you are precisely what he likes."
My eyes widened at that. "What? Big girls? Black girls?"
"Both," he said. "You are exactly the kind of girl he used to chase."
"Oh." Suddenly the way Ten had held my hand and traced his thumb over my skin felt less than innocent. Perhaps he had been motivated to warn me about the possibility of Sergei's mother disliking me for other reasons. Was he interested in me? That was all I needed! An ex-con with the hots for me!
Glancing up at Sergei, I spotted the briefest glimmer of vulnerability on his face. "Are you seriously worried that I would choose someone like that over you?"
"But he's got a reputation for taking things that don't belong to him."
Huffing, I thumped his chest. "I'm not a possession."
"You're mine," he reminded me in that alpha way he somehow made so endearing. "You belong to me just as I belong to you."
Ten's warning about Sergei's mother echoed in my head. "And what if other people think we shouldn't belong to each other?"
"Fuck those other people," he stated passionately. "No one is going to keep me from you."
"Not even your mother?" I asked in a small voice.
His eyes narrowed. "Is that what Ten told you? That my mother doesn't want us together?"
"He told me that she might not like me."
Sergei's cheek twitched and his lips settled into a grim line. "Even if that were true, I wouldn't stop loving you. I wouldn't walk away from you or the baby. I'm a grown man, and I've chosen you. I would like to have my family's support, but I don't need it." One of his hands cupped the back of my neck while the other settled on my belly. "I have everything I need right here."
His reassurances settled my nerves. Whatever happened in London, we wouldn't let it break us apart. We had made it through so much in such a short span of time. We could make it through his mother's disapproval if it came to that.
Smiling down at me, he asked, "How did your lesson go?"
I pouted. "I'm terrible, Sergei. You would think after all those years of French and Spanish, I would be able to pick up a new language easily, but it's not happening."
"It's a different type of language. You could probably learn Portuguese or Italian without too much trouble, but Russian? It's more complicated."
"It's the sounds. My tongue refuses to do the right thing."
"Does it?" His sexy mouth curved in playful way. "I happen to know some very good tongue exercises you could try."
Now I was the one grinning. "Oh, really?"
"Mmmhmm," he rumbled and ran his finger along the top of my breast. "In fact, I could show you right now."
"Or," I let my hands fall to the waistband of his cargo shorts, "I could show you."