So here's the deal. Alexei and Kostya are still hanging around in edit-landia. Alexei will be ready to go very soon but Kostya is...well. It's a big, fat sexy book like the Nikolai sequel so it's complicated and labor intensive.
Alexei is available for pre-order now. It has a release date of January 6, 2015---->but the moment Alexei is edited and formatted and in my hot little hands next week, I will hit publish and make it available for immediate release.
I should have a pre-order link for Kostya by Wednesday. It will be the same situation. The date for the pre-order may say XYZ but the moment the book is ready for release, I'll make it available.
Alexei is #8 in the series but it's the start of a new story arc so there are no spoilers for Kostya's book. It's a stand-alone (much like Sergei was when I started the second story arc in the series after Nikolai's first book) so I feel totally comfortable releasing it into the wild. Plus y'all have waited so patiently that I really want to give you the next installment as quickly as possible.
I know some of you are seriously frustrated by the delays. I get it. I really do. Believe me. I would much rather be releasing books quickly and on my preferred schedule. But real life and autism and heart problems don't always play by the rules, you know?
This weekend I was having a serious writer meltdown and a friend managed to talk me down by telling me to think about all I had accomplished since February 2013. I was really surprised to count up every project I had completed, published and/or sold. I had no idea!
In the last 22 months, I have written and/or published:
A Very Russian Christmas
In Kelly's Corner
In Jack's Arms
In Finn's Heart
Caught By Menace
Saved by Venom
Red Hot Dragon
Wicked Dark Dragon
Emma Serial (Parts 1-5)
That is 21 books in 22 months! It's 1.5 million words. It's 68,000 words per month or 2267 words a day.
During those 22 months, the Viking went to school full-time and worked full-time as a medic (so 24 hour shifts 3x/week.) Kiddo was diagnosed with autism and started intensive therapy. She had a heart failure scare. We lost a dog. We had family drama that would make a telanovela look tame. One of my publishers decided to go off the rails, and I had to walk away from a world I loved so very much.
But I kept writing. And, sure, the last two books were delayed. And it sucked. I hated doing it. HATED it. It made me feel like a big, fat stinking failure to disappoint everyone who wanted these books and wanted them now. But I can't change any of that. I can only publish books when they're ready--and I want them to be as perfect as possible for every reader who buys or borrows a copy.
Before I took the plunge as Roxie and went indie, no one would buy these Houston underworld stories I wanted to tell. I kept hearing: There's no market for Latina romance. There's no market for I/R romance.
The readers who love these characters as much (and sometimes more judging by the fantastic fan art y'all send me! LOL) have proven that there is a huge and voracious market for stories that are a little dark and a little genre-bending.
And as long as y'all enjoy reading them, I'll keep on writing them! :)
You can pre-order ALEXEI from Amazon here. New pre-order links to follow soon!
Shay Sandoval has big dreams and works hard to achieve them. But her older sister likes that fast, easy money and finds herself in a hot mess of trouble when she helps her boyfriend scam Houston’s underworld. Terrified for her sister and herself, Shay turns to the only man powerful enough to save them—former prize fighter and Russian mob enforcer Alexei Sarnov.
Just as ruthless in business as he was on the streets, Alexei has built a new life as a respected, wealthy businessman. When he learns Shay’s troubled sister has invoked the wrath of Houston’s criminal elite, Alexei rushes to intercept Shay before the city’s worst men can get their hands on her.
But now that she’s under his protection—and under his hands—Alexei realizes that he wants and needs more than he’s ever dared to hope for in his harsh life. He wants Shay in his home and in his bed—but not as merely his mistress.
Earning Shay’s love and trust just might be the hardest deal he’s ever sealed…
EXCERPT AFTER THE JUMP!
Alexei Sarnov blew out a noisy breath of frustration and flopped back in his desk chair. He wiped his hands down his face and rubbed at his tired eyes. His irritated gaze landed on the computer screens on his desk. His stomach swirled like a pit of black despair as he took in the evidence of what he was beginning to fear might be an attempt at full-blown theft of his clients’ financial information.
All that money he had spent hiring Kostya’s little hacker friend to set up his computer system seemed to finally be paying off for him. He hadn’t been sure that investing in that blue-haired tattooed pixie was a good idea but now he thanked his lucky fucking stars he had taken Kostya’s advice. The former spy could be overly paranoid at times, but he had been right about this.
But who would be stupid enough to try to steal from me?
That question perplexed him the most. Although he had left Nikolai Kalasnikov’s mafia family and created a new, clean life for himself, Alexei still had a reputation as a brutal street enforcer and a businessman willing to cut his rivals off at the knees. When he discovered the identities of the people who had tried to compromise his clients and ruin his business? He was going to make them hurt.
For now, though, he was reassured that no client information had been stolen from the finance department. And thank God for that! He had built a solid name for himself among Houston’s elite and moneyed crowd as the go-to guy for high-end luxury vehicles. If people lost their trust in him, he would lose everything. Thinking of all the hard work he had put into growing his business empire, he experienced a wave of nausea.
He refused to lose anything. He had fought and clawed his way off the streets of Solntsevo and into the Prokhorov crime family. He had proven his loyalty and his worth and earned a spot on Nikolai’s hand-picked crew. Later, he had used his fists and cunning to buy his way into a better life here in Houston. From one dealership, he had grown to a string of them around the city as well as a trucking company, a couple of automotive parts stores and a small fleet of tow trucks and tire service shops. He had built something real and successful. He would fight to the last breath to protect that.
Still seething with fury that some stupid bastard had dared to steal from him, Alexei ignored the soft knock at his closed office door. More than an hour after closing, there were only a handful of employees remaining and he had given them explicit instructions to leave him alone. When the knock grew louder and more insistent, he shoved out of his chair and stormed across his office with forceful strides. He jerked open the door and shouted, “What?”
He instantly regretted his snarled outburst when he spotted Shay Sandoval standing in the hallway. The discovery that he had just yelled at the sweet, soft-spoken beauty hit him like a punch to the gut. Those dark eyes of hers, the ones that tormented his dreams, were now wide with fear. Her luscious pout had lost the curve of its usual smile.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. Seemingly shocked by his angry greeting, she shrank back and quickly retreated from his doorway. She gulped as if suddenly nervous and tightly gripped the small plastic tote packed with cleaning supplies and a microfiber duster. “I’m really sorry.”
Her gaze dropped to the gang tattoos visible on his forearms and hands. Not expecting to be bothered for the rest of the night, he had rolled up his sleeves. The permanent inky evidence of his history in the Russian mafia was now on full display, and he was painfully aware of her reaction to them. Remembering what he knew of the men who had knocked her around when she was a little girl, he felt instantly shamed at scaring her.
“Blyad,” he muttered under his breath and took a careful step forward. Thankfully, she didn’t flinch when he touched her shoulder. It was the first time he had dared to touch her so intimately. A quicksilver spark of need burned his fingertips, and he had to fight down the urge to slide his hand toward the sleek curve of her neck where he could stroke her silky brown skin. “I’m sorry, Shay. I didn’t realize it was you.”
“It’s fine.” Her voice was quiet and tense. “I shouldn’t have bothered you while you were working.”
“It’s not fine, and you are not bothering me. I enjoy your company. Always,” he said, the dark intensity of his voice drawing her attention. A curious expression played upon her gorgeous face. For the briefest of moments, he considered finally being honest with her and telling her the truth about the feelings that had been tormenting him since last Christmas.
How would she react if he told her that he purposely stayed late on Wednesday evenings just because he wanted an excuse to talk to her? What would she say if he told her that his heart was thumping against his ribcage right now because he was getting to see her a second time in the same week? Because he was close enough that he could breathe in the tantalizing scent of that barely-there hint of beach and sunshine from the perfume she wore?
Clearing his throat and abandoning that line of thought, he asked, “Why is your crew here again?”
“Your manager called and asked for us to come back because of all the mud and rainwater that got tracked onto your showroom floor. Apparently y’all had a busy day,” she said with a timid smile. “She wanted everything to be bright and shiny for the weekend.”
Happy to talk about something positive, he nodded. “Fridays are always good for business, but today was one of our best Fridays ever. I have a good feeling about this weekend.” Despite the knowledge that his office was perfectly clean and tidy, he still moved aside and waved toward his desk. “Come in, please.”
She tried to slip by him, but he purposely angled his body to force her to brush against his chest. It was a provocative move but he couldn’t stop himself. As soon as they made contact, he noticed the flush that deepened the color of her face and neck. She never wore makeup when working so he could easily see the blush spreading. His entire body thrummed as he imagined having Shay in his bed, naked and writhing under his greedy hands, and watching that sweep of pink spread from the very tips of her toes to the top of her head.
Shay whacked his arm with the duster. “Behave or else I’ll send Manny up here to tackle your office.”
There it was. That sweet, flirty smile that he sometimes managed to draw from her. It was the smile that brightened his whole day. Playing her game, he drew a little cross over his heart. “I swear I’ll be on my best behavior.”
She laughed. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”
He didn’t follow her into the office. Tempted to overstep the line of friendship that existed between them, he remained near the door because he truly didn’t trust himself to behave. On edge with the discovery of the attempted theft from his business, it would be too easy to give in to the walking temptation that began to dust and polish his furniture. He respected Shay all the more for the way she never allowed their friendship to get in the way of her job. She had a work ethic that he wished he could bottle up and force feed to the new employees who tried to make the cut on the showroom floor.
“Looks like you’ve been busy.” She eyed the mess of paperwork on his desk before glancing at him with obvious concern. “You shouldn’t work so late, Alexei.” Her gaze drifted to the gym bag in the corner of his office. “Were you training this morning, too?”
“It was just a workout.”
“At what time?”
“So you were up at five?” When he nodded, she said his name in a censorious tone. “Alexei! You’re going to run yourself ragged!” She looked at his trash can and surely noticed the containers from his uneaten lunch. “Have you eaten today?”
“I had breakfast.”
She shot him a look of consternation. “Do you remember two months ago when you got onto me about my schedule? About how I needed to drop one of my jobs and take better care of myself?”
He remembered it clearly. He had discovered her damn near dead on her feet with her stomach growling so loudly he could hear it all the way down the hall. He had forced her into his office, closed the door and ordered her to sit on the couch. He had leaned against his desk and watched her eat an apple and Cliff Bar from the snack basket in the employee lounge.
It was the night he had nearly broken the rule he had created for his friendship with Shay. He had sworn to himself that he wouldn’t get involved with her but that night? Christ, that night he had wanted to smash that wall he had built between them, sweep her up in his arms and smuggle her away to some place private where he could keep her safe and protected and pampered.
But Shay was proud and independent. If he offered her the same sort of arrangement he had given the other women in his past? She would smack the shit out of him. Even now, he could feel the phantom sting of her small hand slapping his cheek. He couldn’t decide if such a hit would anger or arouse him.
“I thought you stopped working Fridays and weekends.” He needed to steer his thoughts and the conversation into safer waters.
“I did but my sister needed me to cover her shift.” She rose on tiptoes to drag the edge of the duster along the top of a bookshelf. The undershirt she wore prevented him from getting a peek at that smooth plane of stomach he hadn’t glimpsed since the weather turned colder. He wanted to rip that damned shirt to shreds. “But it turned out that Shannon got fired yesterday so she wasn’t on the schedule. Juan offered me a couple of hours of overtime to come here and take this job so—”
“Wait.” He held up a hand and tried to follow what she had just said. “Your sister was fired? For what?”
She shrugged. “I have no idea.”
He had a few of his own. From what he had seen of Shannon’s attitude during her weekly stops at his dealership, he could only imagine the long list of complaints CleanRite had on file for her.
But something else she had said had piqued his interest. “If she was fired yesterday, why did she ask you to work for her today?”
Shay didn’t answer immediately. Instead, she seemed very interested in a corner of his desk. She wiped and swirled a microfiber cloth over the already polished wood. “I think she wanted me out of the house tonight.”
There were only a few reasons he could think of for such a thing. None of them were very good. “Why?” Again she hesitated. “Shay?”
She stopped cleaning and lifted worried eyes toward him. “Some guys came by the house looking for her as I was leaving.”
“Guys? What guys?” His protective instinct raged to life. He shot off the door frame he had been leaning against and crossed the office with purposeful strides. His mind raced as he tried to figure out who might have come after Shay. Knowing what he did of the underworld’s recent and very violent power shifts, he worried it might have been Nikolai’s men. “Who was it, Shay?”
“Those crazy skinheads,” she said, her dark eyes flashing with fear. “There were three of them in a truck. They had tattoos all over them. Ugly ones, if you know what I mean.”
He did. Her body language confirmed his worst suspicions. “Did they threaten you?”
Reluctantly, she nodded. “If Spider and his crew hadn’t rolled up, I’m not sure what would have happened.”
Alexei bit his tongue rather than unleash the stream of expletives that burned his mouth. He had always feared that Shannon and her drug dealing boyfriend would put Shay in danger. “What did they want?”
“I don’t know. We didn’t get that far before Spider tossed them off his property.”
He made a mental note to send the motorcycle club vice president a bottle of Dalmore from his private collection. He and Spider had done business over the years and had run in the same underworld circle back in the day. He was a complicated man but a mostly good one. Right now, Spider was the best chance Shay had at staying safe when at home. Alexei wasn’t above bribing the man to keep a close eye on her.
The sound of his name coming from that sweet mouth of hers was nearly his undoing. “Yes?”
“They wanted me to go with them. They said their boss, a man called Mueller, wanted to have a chat with me.” She wrung the microfiber cloth between her hands now. “What do I do if they find me again?”
Chat my fucking ass, he thought crossly. Mueller played the role of upstanding citizen and successful real estate developer but Alexei knew exactly what sort of man he was.
That massacre out in eastern Montgomery County a few weeks earlier had been reported as meth dealer on meth cooker violence, but Alexei and everyone with connections to the murky undercurrent of crime running through Houston knew the truth. Mueller and his men had ambushed that meth den with shotguns blazing.
There were whispers that Mueller and his men had let some young black kid go but he didn’t believe that. Not unless there was big money involved or some sort of favor that had been traded for the kid’s safe return.
If they got their hands on Shay? Jesus Christ. He couldn’t bear to even think about what those hateful thugs would do to such a beautiful Latina girl. The image of her supple skin marked by bruises or worse made him want to hurt someone. His tattooed fingers curled into fists at his sides. He would beat those men bloody if they put one fucking hand on Shay.
“Do you have your phone on you?”
Her brow furrowed at his question. “Yes.”
“Give it to me. Now.”
She slipped her hand into the front pocket of her smock and retrieved her iPhone. The device was encased in a buttery yellow leather case. He could see the fine stitching and embossed initials and knew that it was one of her creations. Why hadn't she made the jump to expand her business? Her products screamed luxury and would fly off the shelves but something was holding her back. When this mess with her sister was tidied up, he intended to figure out what that was.
Her thumb danced over the screen, unlocking it with her chosen code, and then she handed it to him. Their fingers touched, and he let them linger there. It didn’t escape his notice that she didn’t pull her hand back either.
Taking the phone from her, he punched in his phone number and saved it as a new contact. “If you see those men again, you call me.” He stared down at her and made sure she was looking right into his eyes when he said, “If you have any trouble with anyone, you call me. If someone tries to hassle you, I want you to use my name.”
“Alexei,” she hurriedly interjected, “I don’t want to drag you into this. It’s not your problem.”
“I’m making it my problem.”
“This isn’t up for discussion.” Why is she fighting me on this? “Shay, you’re a very smart girl. You know what sort of men your sister hangs out with and you know what people in that world are capable of doing. I’m your best chance at staying safe.”
She wrapped her slim fingers around his thick wrist and a jolt of something powerful traveled up his arm and into his chest. Her anxious expression surprised him. “I don’t want you to get hurt. Not for me,” she added quietly.
He couldn’t remember the last time someone had been worried about him. Maybe Ivan when his friend had cornered that final bare knuckle fight? The realization that Shay was more concerned about his welfare than her own made him want to take care of her even more. She was the sort of person who would put everyone else first without stopping to think about her own needs.
“I’m not afraid to get hurt.” Not for you, he silently amended.
“I don’t want you to feel as if I’m taking advantage of our friendship.”
He damn near laughed upon hearing her voice that fear. If anyone was trying to take advantage of their friendship…
“It’s not a concern. We’re fine.” He pressed the phone into her hand and curled her fingers around it. “If I find out that you didn’t call me when you needed me, I’m going to be very upset, Shay.”
It was said with a teasing smile but she seemed to understand that he was serious. If she let her pride get in the way of her safety, he would introduce her to a side of himself she might not like. The side of himself that would think nothing of heating up that perfect little ass of hers to teach her a lesson.
“Shay?” Manny ducked his head into the office and startled Shay. She tried to pull back but he held tight to her hand and the phone, keeping her right there. They were doing nothing wrong, and he didn’t want her to feel as if she had anything to hide.
“Yes?” She avoided his intense gaze and focused solely on her coworker. He could feel her fragile fingers flexing beneath his as she tried to free her hand from his, but he was stronger and she soon abandoned her attempt to escape.
“We need some help down on the floor when you’re done in here.”
“I’m finished. I’ll be right down.”
Manny glanced at their entwined hands but didn’t say anything. Whatever he was thinking he kept to himself and retreated from the office.
Alexei held fast to Shay’s hand even after Manny disappeared. She stared at their clenched hands and slowly rotated hers until she was able to touch one of the tattoos decorating the first joint of his finger. Her touch burned his skin as she traced the solid black rectangle. Without lifting her eyes, she asked, “What does this one mean?”
It had been a long time since he felt shame over his criminal history. Being touched by Shay only reminded him of how dark and stained his soul was compared to hers. Even after the world had tried to beat her down, she remained kind and gentle and good.
Hating the idea of her thinking less of him, he considered making something up but then she glanced up at him with that curious, sincere expression. He refused to lie to her. “It means I served my full sentence. I did my time without early release.”
"Oh." She didn't seem too scandalized. Her attention turned to the kleimo tattooed on the next finger. She outlined the scarab there. "And what about this beetle?”
“It’s a talisman. For thieves,” he explained, all the while wondering what she was thinking.
“And these?” She touched the five dots marking the web of space between his thumb and pointer finger.
“It means I served time in prison.” Before she could ask, he said, “The white cross on the field of black? It means I served time in solitary.”
“That must have been hard.” She slid her finger to the small black birds flying along the curved space below his thumb. “These are pretty.”
He let loose a sharp breath. “Don’t let Vanya hear you say that. We both had these done when we met in a juvenile labor camp. They say the birds are supposed to remind you of freedom.” He considered the small black shapes. “After a few months, they mock you.”
Her finger returned to the solid back rectangle. “How many years?”
His throat tightened as memories he had set fire to and buried and encapsulated in the far corners of his mind tried to burst free. “Six.”
She slackened with shock. Her dark eyes searched his face. “How old were you—?”
“When I went inside?” he finished her question. “Fourteen when I was sent to the juvenile camp and seventeen when they shipped me to a men’s prison to finish out my sentence.”
“You were just a kid!”
He laughed harshly. “I stopped being a kid around seven or eight. I was a grown man when I made the choices I did—and I paid for them.”
“It was a long time ago.” He shut her down carefully but forcefully. Her kindness and horror on his behalf threatened to turn him inside out. He didn’t deserve her goodness. He had been a miserable, mean little bastard as a kid. He had deserved all six years of that sentence and probably more.
“I need to go.” She carefully extricated her hand. “Manny and the rest of the team have more stops to make tonight after they drop me off.”
“Where are you going after work?” He was riding right up against the wall he had built between them now and searching for any weakness or opening that might let him through.
She eyed him with uncertainty. “I’m headed home. I have a couple of handbags that need to be finished by Sunday.”
“Drive straight home,” he instructed. “Don’t make any stops, Shay. Just go home and get inside as quickly as possible.” The million ways her drive home could go wrong flashed before his eyes. “Is there someone you can stay with tonight?”
“Well… I mean, I guess I could see if Kylee wouldn’t mind if I crash at her apartment.”
Two young women alone in an apartment were just as vulnerable. He didn’t like that option at all. “Let me drive you.”
“What? No.” She waved the duster side to side. “That’s way over the top, Alexei. I’ll be fine. I’m going to get in my car, drive home and go inside. It will be fine.”
“I appreciate the offer, Alexei, but I don’t need a babysitter. I’m a grown woman. I can handle this.”
He didn’t want to fight with her so he simply nodded. “All right. Be safe, Shay.”
“I will.” She smiled at him. “Thank you, Alexei. For everything.”
He understood she meant his offer of help and his phone number. He waited until she was out of sight to turn back toward his desk. He picked up his cell phone and scrolled through his contacts until he found Boychenko’s number. It was time to collect on a favor.
While he waited for the young enforcer to answer, he moved to the wall of glass that allowed him to overlook the showroom and sales desks. He watched Shay trading out the mats along the entrance doors. Down on her hands and knees, she used tight circular motions to wipe away the smudges left behind. The sight of her working like that bothered him. It was honest work, and he respected her for that, but she deserved a fucking break from hard labor.
I could take care of her. I could take her to the apartment and give her everything she wants and needs.
But not everything, he silently admitted. He couldn’t give her a commitment. He couldn’t give her love and marriage and all the things a woman like Shay wanted and needed. He wasn’t that kind of man. He liked to keep his relationships neatly compartmentalized. He enjoyed the mistress arrangements that had served him well over the last few years.
She’s better than that, he conceded. She’s too good for that.
“Roman? It’s Alexei. You remember that favor you owe me?”
Boychenko laughed. “A guy gets one discount on a new car…”
“Discount?” Now it was Alexei’s turn to laugh. “I practically let you walk off the lot with that new A7.”
“Fair enough. What do you need?”
He watched Shay trailing her crew out of the dealership. When she reached the doorway, she paused and looked over her shoulder and up at his office. Their gazes met across the distance. She lifted her hand and waved at him. He wasn’t the waving type but for her? He made an exception tonight. Her lips curved with amusement and then she was gliding out the door and into the cold, dark night.
“I need you to get over to the CleanRite headquarters. I’ll text you the address. You’re going to follow someone for me. I want you to sit on her house until I can get there.”
“I know where that is. We do business down there.” Boychenko paused. “Anything I should know?”
“She’s in trouble but it’s not her fault. It’s a family matter.”
“Uh-huh.” Boychenko didn’t seem very enthusiastic about this favor but he would do as asked. “Our family?”
Boychenko sighed. “I’m not going to ask questions, okay? But you need to get this shit cleared from the top. The boss won’t be happy if I step in dog shit and drag it back to his front door.
“I’ll take care of it. As soon as I get the answers I need, I’ll find you.” He ended the call, shut down his desktop, locked the files on his desk in his safe and left his office with his gym bag draped over his shoulder. He stopped just long enough to give the last manager on shift his orders for the night.
Once in his SUV, he quickly triaged his priorities. Shay had him all twisted up inside. The discovery that she was in serious trouble had him more on edge than the discovery that someone had tried to hack into his financial department and steal client information. He could deal with the people who had tried to steal from him. No one could hide from him, not in this city and not with his connections, but Shay could be badly hurt by the men who were after her sister. The old rules that used to govern the underworld were no longer respected. He didn’t trust Mueller and his racist crew as far as he could throw them.
There were two places he could go for information. Kostya was still laying low after all that bullshit that went down in Mexico. No, right now, there was only one man in Houston who had the answers he needed.
Alexei lifted up in his seat and retrieved his wallet from his back pocket. He checked to see how many twenties and fifties he had for tips. Besian Beciraj, the Albanian mob boss, was a friend, but the bastard was stingy as hell with his information unless his dancing girls were getting their cut. Tonight, he would have to make it rain to pry the answers he wanted from Besian.
Backing out of his reserved spot, Alexei caught sight of the dark tattoos covering his forearms and hands. For the first time in a long time, the calling card of his criminal history was going to be useful.