PAST DUE ARRIVES SEPTEMBER 7!
PAST DUE SNEAK PEEK!
Seated behind his desk at Peaches, the jewel in his strip club empire, Besian scrolled down through the month’s accounts. Maesha and her team of CPAs handled the payroll and taxes and accounting for his legitimate businesses, but he still liked to keep his fingers on the pulse of things. He liked to see what was coming in and what was going out on a daily basis.
He picked up his ceramic mug and sipped his coffee. The caffeine was the only thing keeping him going tonight. All day, he had been on his feet. He had started at Ben’s shop where he had given orders to shore up their defenses and clear out anything questionable for the inevitable shakedown. After that, there had been a tense meeting with Nikolai and some of the other underworld dons. He’d skipped lunch in favor of a handful of antacids and a bottle of Gatorade.
Then, he had met up with his bookies, sent out the collections crews and scheduled the next big poker night for his underground casino. He had managed a simple dinner in the silence of his apartment before starting the rounds of his clubs. There was always something had to be handled. Dancers fighting about stage time. Bouncers treating customers too roughly. Bartenders dipping into the take. Customers touching the girls who didn’t want to be touched or being fucking perverts to the ones who allowed it.
“It’s open,” he called out when someone knocked on the door.
“Boss?” Marcos, the club’s top bouncer, poked his head through the door. “Uh, you got a visitor.”
He frowned. “Who?”
“Ben’s old lady.”
“Aston?” He set aside his coffee cup and rose from his chair as she came into his office. Used to seeing her so beautifully polished and preppy, he was taken aback by the snarl of blonde hair wound into a messy bun atop her hair. Her wrinkled loungewear, the top pulled tight around her pregnant belly, and the fuzzy pink slippers deepened his concern. “What’s wrong? Is it Ben?”
Aston shook her head as she leaned back against the door. “It’s Marley.”
“Marley?” He tamped down the panic that threatened to overwhelm him. “What do you mean?”
“I can’t get a hold of her. I’ve been trying to call her and email and DM her for two days now.” She waved her phone wildly as she spoke. “I went by her mom’s place, and it’s locked up and dark. No car in the driveway. Boxes piled up on the porch. All the flowers and plants out front are dead. Something is wrong!”
“Marley’s mother has never been exactly reliable,” he reminded her. “Maybe she ran off to gamble after Marley left for her trip.”
“Okay, sure, but Marley is unreachable. That’s not like her! At all!” Aston insisted. “She calls or texts or emails me every day. She posts on Instagram or Facebook. At first, I was worried because she doesn’t know about Spider, but now, I’m worried that something happened to her over there.”
“Calm down,” Besian urged. “The baby,” he said, gesturing to her belly. “Take a seat. Please.”
Aston rolled her eyes and quickly crossed his office. After she plopped down, he took the seat next to her. “What does Ben say?”
“That I shouldn’t worry so much and that she’s probably somewhere without cell service or internet. Which, okay, maybe, but for two days?”
“Ben is probably right,” he tried to assuage her fears. “Sometimes cell service is spotty overseas.”
She rolled her eyes again. “I know that! I’ve traveled overseas every single year since I was, like, three!”
“Okay, okay,” Besian said, trying to calm her again. “Where is Marley now?”
Aston hesitated. “Albania.”
Taken aback, he asked, “What?”
“She. Is. In. Albania.” Aston spoke every word forcefully.
“Are you serious?” She looked at him as if he might be the stupidest man who ever walked on the planet. “Why else would she go there?”
Besian wasn’t sure if he should find that encouraging or upsetting. Before he could fully process the idea of Marley exploring his homeland, Aston scrolled through her phone and flashed the screen at him. “This is where she was three days ago.”
His eyes widened as he saw the background of Marley’s snapshot. He snatched the phone from Aston. “What the hell is she doing in Bjeshkët e Nemuna?”
“The Accursed Mountains,” he translated. “The Albanian Alps.”
“Hiking, obviously,” Aston replied saucily.
“She just had heart surgery!” His head pounded as he imagined Marley, still weak from surgery, climbing the rocky slopes.
“It was done in a cath lab! She’s not an invalid! She’s perfectly healthy!”
“We’ll agree to disagree on that,” he muttered. “Please tell me she’s hiking with a group?”
Aston hesitated again. “Not exactly.”
He gritted his teeth. “She’s hiking alone?”
On the verge of absolutely losing his shit, Besian handed back her phone. Images of Marley injured in the woods or crumpled at the bottom of a steep fall raced through his mind. His stomach churned. What if something worse than a fall had happened? What if she had been robbed? Assaulted? Kidnapped?
“What are you doing?” Aston asked as he hurriedly logged off and shut down his computer.
“I’m going to get her and bring her home.”
Aston seemed startled. “You’re going to Albania?”
“Why else did you come here?” He slipped back into his suit jacket and grabbed his keys, wallet and gun from the top drawer of his desk. “Isn’t this what you expected I would do?”
“No! I thought you would make a call or something! Not run off in the middle of the night to Albania!”
“This isn’t something that can be handled with a phone call.” He gestured for her to stand. “You go home. If Marley contacts you, tell her to stay where she is and wait for me.”
“And if she doesn’t?” Aston asked nervously.
“I’ll find her,” he swore and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “I won’t come back to Houston without her.”
Aston shocked him by hugging him without warning. He wasn’t the kind of man who liked intimate touch like this, and he awkwardly patted her back. “Thank you so much for taking this seriously.”
“You’re welcome.” He didn’t tell her that anything to do with Marley was serious to him. “Let me walk you out to your car.”
Surprisingly, she didn’t argue. Now that she had gotten what she wanted, Aston probably realized how upset Ben was going to be when he found out she had stormed her way into a strip club. He didn’t envy Ben trying to tame this wildcat he had chosen as his partner for life. Wealthy and spoiled by her late father, Aston wasn’t about to let any man curb her independence.
When they neared her vehicle, he was glad to see that she hadn’t driven something from her father’s obscenely expensive collection. Tonight, she was in the new Mercedes GLS she had recently purchased from one of Alexei Sarnov’s dealerships. He had questioned the couple’s decision to buy something that nice for a baby that was likely to destroy the entire second row with crumbs, milk and juice, but had kept his opinion to himself. Nothing good would come from arguing with Aston.
“Who is that?” Aston grabbed his sleeve, as if scared, and he reached over to pat her hand, gently assuring her they were safe.
“Kostya.” He eyed the Russian cleaner-cum-underboss who gazed menacingly in their direction.
“Should I know him?”
“No, you should not.” He walked her to the SUV, made sure she was safely inside and pulling out of the parking lot before he joined Kostya near his black Audi. “I take it you’re not here to check up on our club.”
“No.” Kostya scanned their surroundings with his hawkish glare. “I’m here for the same reason Ben’s baby mama was.”
He grimaced at how low-class that sounded. Ben needed to do the right thing and do it soon. He needed to marry Aston and give his baby the stability of the two-parent home he’d never had.
“Marley,” Kostya said, as if Besian couldn’t put two and two together.
“No shit?” he snapped back.
Kostya smirked. “So touchy about this girl.”
“Don’t start your shit tonight.”
“Fine.” Kostya glanced at him. “There’s a price on her head.”
Besian jolted with shock and then growled furiously, “Who the fuck put a price on her?”
“I don’t know yet,” Kostya admitted. “One of my contacts reached out to let me know he had gotten an inquiry about her and her mother. My contact says the interested party decided it wasn’t worth the lead in a bullet to greenlight the mother. Marley, on the other hand, was.”
There was only one hitman in the entire city who would take that contract. One of the anonymous brothers known as the Professionals. They were a nebulous bunch, nearly impossible to contact or hire unless you were someone with contacts like Kostya.
“How much?” Besian pushed the desperation out of his voice and remained as neutral as possible. “I’ll buy it off of him.”
Kostya shook his head. “I already asked. It's not possible.”
“Why not? Everyone has a price!”
“Not this guy,” Kostya replied. “And you know why.”
Besian wiped a hand down his face. Yes, he did know why. There were rules in the underworld, a code that dictated their actions. Spider had stepped outside those rules by allowing his club to be raided and his crew arrested. He had fled instead of facing the consequences. He had lost all the protections of the code, and now, Marley would pay the price.
“Do you know where she is?”
Besian glared at Kostya. “Like I would fucking tell you!”
“Really? We’ve been friends and business partners for years, and you think I would sell out your pretty little redhead?”
“Get fucked,” Besian snarled. “You and I both know exactly where your loyalties lie. You’re a Russian. I’m Albanian. Our families are allies now, but that can change in the blink of an eye.”
Kostya didn’t argue. Eventually, he grumbled, “I would at least give you a head start before I came after her.”
“Wow. You’re such a great friend.”
“Don’t be an asshole. I came here to warn you.”
“Thank you,” Besian replied sarcastically. “Really, you’re my hero.”
Kostya shot him the finger. “Get out of here. Go find her. Keep her safe.”
Besian started to walk away but turned back toward his longtime business partner. Earnestly, he said, “Thank you, Kostya.”
Kostya nodded and warned, “Be careful. Until we know who put the price on her, you’ve got to be on alert.”
Besian rolled his shoulders as he hurried to his car. He could practically feel a target on his back. Somewhere, across an ocean and up in the mountains of Albania, Marley was walking around completely unaware that her life was in danger.
As he drove back to his apartment to pack a bag, he couldn’t stop thinking of all the what-ifs. What if she was hurt? What if she was in a hospital? What if she had been robbed and had no money or way to communicate? What if she was lost in the mountains? What if the person who put a hit out on her had a reach long enough to touch her in Albania?
When he reached his apartment, he quickly booked a ticket to Paris and a connecting flight to Tirana. The flight time would be brutal, especially as tired and stressed as he was, but there was no way around it. His last-minute options were severely limited.
Maybe I’ll pass out from exhaustion and finally get some sleep.
He threw some clothing into a carry-on along with his toiletries and other necessities. While he unlocked his safe and removed his passport and some envelopes of cash, he contacted Ben and Jet about holding things together while he was gone. Before he left his apartment, he called Zec and left him a voicemail to let him know that he was on his way home.
“I need you to find Marley,” he said, stepping into the elevator. “She’s near Valbona or maybe Theth. Find her. Don’t approach her. Just keep an eye on her until I get there. She’s got a contract on her head. Don’t let anyone hurt her.”
He ended the call and slipped his phone into his pocket. As he tossed his bag into the passenger seat and slid behind the wheel, he grew more irritated with Marley. What the fuck was she thinking going off on her own like that? Hiking alone? In a strange country? Without anyone to help her? After she just had her heart fixed?
I was wrong.
Admitting that was easier than expected. Marley did need a man like him in her life. She needed someone to look after her, to guide her and protect her. She had such a good heart and saw the very best in everyone. She had no idea how much danger she was in right now, and he was furious with himself for not claiming her when he had the chance.
Determined not to make that mistake again, Besian decided it was time to make some changes in his life. He was going to find Marley and bring her home, but not just as his friend or even his girlfriend.
When he brought Marley home, she would be returning as his wife.