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."