There’s just no pleasure in delivering a good beat-down anymore.
As bookie for the Chicago bratva, it’s part of the job, but my heart isn’t into it. Not with this kid.
I bury my fist in Zane’s soft belly and watch as he doubles over, wheezing. We’re in his dorm room at Northwestern. I told his roommate to take a hike unless he wanted me to beat his face in too.
“I’m sorry. I’ll get your money. I promise,” he gasps.
“Nah. We’re past your promises,” I tell him. “This time, I’m here to collect.” It’s not like he hasn’t been warned. The truth is, I probably have gone way too easy on him because I like Zane.
He’s smart. Was a decent addition to my poker table before he got into blow and started acting like a douche.
Oleg, our bratva cell’s enforcer, hauls him back to his feet and holds him up for me to punch again. I tip my head at Adrian, one of our soldiers, to have him deliver the blow.
I don’t get off on violence. Not the way Pavel, the most sadistic in our bratva cell, does. But he moved to Los Angeles to be with his actress girlfriend, who gets off on his sadistic ways. And Oleg, our huge, silent enforcer, is also in love, which has softened him.
The guy was probably always a teddy bear under the huge fearsome exterior, but he pulls punches more often now. Case in point—he’s doing the holding up instead of the punching. Considering one aptly delivered blow from Oleg’s giant fists could end a guy, it doesn’t make sense.
“I’ve given you slack while you get the money together, but you missed last week’s payment. Didn’t answer my texts. So here is what’s going to happen.”
Adrian punches his jaw then delivers a left uppercut to the ribs. Our new cleaner shows promise. Adrian’s new to this country and has known great hardship. He still rides the sharp edge of violence. The rest of us have grown softer living large in America.
“You’re going to give me the keys to your Mustang and sign over the title.”
Zane gapes at me, eyes bugging out. Blood runs from both his nostrils and his lip. “You can’t…I…” I raise my brows, and he finishes with a simple “fuck.”
Adrian hits him again.
“I’m not completely heartless. I’ll deduct the full resale value from what you owe the bratva. It’s a 2018?”
Adrian hits him before he can answer, and Zane drops to his knees. “No more,” he wheezes.
“Get me the title.”
“Here are the keys.” He shoves his hand in his pocket and pulls them out. “The title is at my sister’s place. I’ll bring it to you Friday.”
I take the keys. “Nah. We’ll go get it now—together. I wouldn’t mind meeting Big Sister. What’s her name again? Chelle?”
Zane’s eyes go wild, not missing my intended implication. “Leave my sister out of this. I’ll get you the title right now. Just give me a lift over there.”
“Let’s go.” I spread my hands.
Oleg hauls Zane to his feet, but he stumbles on his way to the door, like he can’t remember how to walk. We flank him as we head down the hall, taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
I’d scoped the location of the Mustang when we arrived, so I go straight to it now and get behind the wheel. Adrian shoves Zane toward the back seat and takes the front passenger side.
Oleg leaves to drive the SUV we came in.
Zane lunges between the seats and points to the glove box. “There are napkins in there,” he grunts. “Unless you want me to bleed all over your new car.”
“Someone else’s new car,” I say mildly, lifting my chin at the glove box to let Adrian know it’s okay to get them. “You think I want to drive your old set of wheels?”
Adrian’s lip curls when he hands the napkins back, and Zane flinches at the hardness he catches in our soldier’s face.
I drive to Zane’s sister’s place without directions. I’ve already done my homework. My brother Dima, our bratva cell’s hacker, researches all our players. When Zane got in the hole with us, Dima went deeper. I have everything I need on Zane to wring him dry.
I know he and his sister had an upper middle-class upbringing. Their father was a stock broker who shot himself three years ago. They inherited little because it turned out the guy had a gambling problem. I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in Zane’s case.
The one thing the dad hadn’t touched was his kid’s college fund, so Zane was still riding his privilege there. The sister is five years older and works for the top publicity firm in town.
I pull up in front of a brownstone building in a transitional neighborhood of Chicago. It is one of those up-and-coming hipster areas where old buildings are being gentrified, but there are still good deals to be found.
Zane gets out and punches a code in at the door, then leads us up three flights of stairs. “You have the key,” he mumbles at me. I hand him his keyring, and he finds the right one and pushes it in the lock.
The apartment is small but nice. Worn oak flooring, walls painted white except for the random accent in muted teal and plum. There are tastefully framed black and white art photos. Everything is relatively neat. I stop and pick up a framed picture of what looks like Zane’s high school graduation. He’s in his cap and gown, a young woman tucked under one arm.
“Is this Chelle?” The woman is much smaller than him, but they share the same facial features—the shape of their nose and mouth, their coloring.
“Leave her out of this,” Zane snarls.
I don’t comment. I have no intention of harming his sister, but I’m not above making him think I will. I learned the art of intimidation from Ravil, our pakhan. I know it’s more what you don’t say, what you merely imply, than what you really do. Let their imaginations run wild. Let them wonder how much we are actually capable of. The truth is, while we may operate on the wrong side of the law for many of our business operations, there’s still a code we live by. Harming innocent women isn’t something we do.
I bring the photo closer to my face to inspect it. Chelle is actually quite lovely. She’s petite—I doubt she’s much taller than five feet and everything about her is diminutive. Her dark brown hair cascades in long waves over her shoulders, and there’s a smattering of freckles across her nose. I can’t tell if it’s just the way the light hits her eyes in the photo, but her irises appear less hazel than Zane’s and more golden.
Zane’s gone to a filing cabinet in the small nook of the living room that she appears to use as an office and is rooting through it. “I mean it. Chelle has nothing to do with this.”
I’m glad Zane isn’t a complete douche. His desire to protect his sister from his foibles scores a few points with me.
“Did you find the title?”
Zane is tearing file folders out, rooting through them, and tossing them on the floor. Eventually, he stands. “Here it is.”
He limps over and thrusts the title under my nose.
“Sign it,” I instruct him.
“It will have to be notarized.”
I smirk. “I’ll take care of that.”
“Can you just keep it and give it back to me when I pay you off?”
“No. I need cash. Consider yourself lucky that I’m willing to handle this transaction for you. Me giving you full value is a fucking gift, so show some appreciation and get me the rest of my money.”
“I will, I will.” Zane picks up a pen and signs it over to me. I hold my palm out for the keys, and he unwinds the car key from the ring. “I’m sorry, man. I will get the rest of it.”
I pocket the key and drop a hand on his shoulder. “You are very smart. I know you can figure this shit out. I’ll expect another payment by next Friday, and if I don’t hear from you, we won’t be so kind as we were today.” I make a point of glancing back at the photo of his sister. “I wouldn’t mind involving Chelle in the next transaction. She looks like a hot one.”
Zane makes a choking sound, but we’re already making our exit.
He can find his own ride back to the dorms.
“I need you to work on the media buys for these two new clients,” my boss, Janette, tells me, dropping two file folders on my desk at six o’clock.
There goes tonight’s spin class.
Despite my position as a glorified secretary, I’m grateful to be her assistant. As the founder and head of Image First Publicity, she’s a bad-ass publicist, turning her minority-owned business into a multiple seven-figure enterprise within three years.
That’s why I’m here long past five, when my day is supposed to end. I don’t leave until she does because I’m trying to prove I’m worthy of an assistant publicist position with my own accounts.
I love the job. I find publicity both fascinating and glamorous. I definitely have aspirations of running my own firm someday. But to do that, I have to work from the ground up, which means when Janette snaps, I run. Because this business is highly competitive and there are at least a dozen people at the firm who would kill for my job. So for the moment, I’m resigned to having no social life.
Which is fine since my last three Bumble dates were a total flop. I’m not missing much.
Except for sex.
I definitely miss sex.
A little physical pleasure now and then would be nice.
The problem is, I’m not the kind of person who can separate sex from a relationship. I don’t know how to date just for sex. I try to picture the guys I date in the vision of what I want my future life to be. It’s all very serious, and no one measures up, and I’m left using my fingers and vibrator instead of lowering my standards to have my needs met and then kicking the guy out the door in the morning.
“I will get them all arranged,” I promise Janette, who has stopped to lean her hip against my desk.
It’s a good sign. It means she’s winding down. When she pauses to actually make conversation I know she’ll be leaving soon.
“I have potential clients coming in from Madison next week. I need to wine and dine them—show them what’s special about Chicago. Any ideas on where to take them?”
“You could always do one of the skyrise restaurants overlooking the city.”
Janette wrinkles her nose. “Too stuffy. They’re young. It’s Skate 3—three Youtube skateboard stars who have monetized their popularity with an online store that’s grossing three hundred grand a month. So I need something more lively and hip. What’s new around Chicago for nightlife?”
I nibble the inside of my lip. “Let me think about it, and I’ll make you a list of possible options.”
Janette rewards me with a smile and a quick tap of her manicured fingers on my desk. “That would be great. I knew you’d have some ideas. You’re young and out on the scene more than I am.”
I don’t disabuse her of the notion that I actually have a social life. I mean, I would like to have a social life. I partied a little in college with my roommate Shanna. But after my dad’s suicide, I pretty much packed that side of me up and shoved her in a box.
These days my social life consists of going to happy hour on Wednesdays when Shanna works the bar and seeing my younger brother, Zane, once a week for dinner, except he’s flaked the last couple of weeks. I’m afraid he may be partying too much. His grades last semester were definitely down.
The thought of him ending up like my dad keeps me up at night.
I start straightening my desk, hoping I’ve read the signs right, and it’s okay to leave for the day.
Janette stands. “All right, I’m heading out. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I shut down my computer and follow her out of the building, already starting to assemble the list of possible places she could take the clients in my head. By the time I’ve ridden the train home, I have a half-dozen ideas. I text them to myself as I walk the couple blocks to the place I rent.
When I push open the door of my apartment, I catch sight of my brother’s long body crashed out on my couch. Relief at seeing him is quickly replaced by concern.
“Zane? What’s up? Are you sick?”
It’s not completely unusual for him to be here. He comes by sometimes to do his laundry, but something feels off about him being here on a Friday night.
I catch sight of his face in the fading light and shriek. It’s been beaten. It’s swollen, almost unrecognizable.
“Oh my God! What happened to you?”
“Zane?” I rush to his side, my heart thundering. “Oh my God. Should I call an ambulance? Who did this?”
The sense of dread coursing through my veins tells me I already suspect what happened. He’s into something bad. Dammit. I feared something like this was coming but kept trying to talk myself out of the worry.
“I ran into a couple guys’ fists.” Zane attempts to sit up, gasping at the effort.
“What. Happened?” I demand. I want the whole story. Whatever it is he’s been hiding from me for the past few months.
My brother is all I have in the world, and he’s my responsibility. I may only be five years older, but after our dad’s death, I became my brother’s guardian and the trustee of his college fund. I’m supposed to be taking care of him, and I’ve obviously screwed up, royally.
Tears burn my eyes. “Zane, tell me what’s going on,” I beg.
He winces as he draws a breath. “I owe some guys money,” he admits.
“What guys? Drug dealers?”
It’s a tiny relief. He’s been so off lately that I’ve suspected he’s been using drugs recreationally.
“They’re Russian mafiya. I got behind on my gambling debts.”
Goddammit. I knew it! I freaking knew it.
I stand up and start pacing. “How much do you owe them?”
“Probably around forty grand now. They took the Mustang today and said they’d wipe the full value off what I owe.”
“I seriously doubt that.” Loan sharks give notoriously bad terms. They aren’t going to give him full value for his car. “Who are these guys?” I repeat, even though he already told me.
“Okay, so the forty grand is before or after the value of your car gets knocked off?”
I pace some more. “How did this happen?”
“I’ve been playing poker with them for a while. I used to win big. But… my luck turned,” he says, as if that explains or excuses being forty grand in debt to the Russian mob.
“Your luck turned,” I repeat in disbelief. “When did your luck turn? How long have you been accumulating this debt? I mean, is it one night’s worth, or—”
“A few months. They stopped letting me in a month ago because I was under water. I’ve been working on a plan but—”
I cock my head. “And that plan is?”
Zane doesn’t meet my eye. He gives a half-hearted shrug.
“So you don’t really have a plan?”
“And how long did they give you to pay off this debt?”
He shrugs again. “They didn’t say. I guess today was a hurry-up warning.”
“A hurry-up warning.”
I go to the kitchen and wrap an ice pack in a towel and bring it to him. “I can’t believe this.”
He takes the ice pack but doesn’t put it on his swollen face. “I know.”
“I mean, after dad—” My voice cracks.
I can’t help it, the tears start falling. I snatch the ice pack from his hands and hold it to his bruised cheekbone, but he jerks away. “Zane, I can’t take this. It’s too much, okay? I couldn’t deal if something happened to you too.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to me,” he tries to placate me. “These guys aren’t that bad. I’m going to figure out how to get them the rest of their money, and I won’t play again. Okay?”
I sniff. “How?”
“I don’t know. Is there any way we could use the trust?”
“No,” I snap. I knew he’d ask me for that. “It’s for education expenses only. Do you know how lucky you are Dad left that intact when he died?”
“Okay, okay. Just checking.” He tries to get to his feet and falls to his knees instead.
“Fuck, Zane!” I lurch forward and catch his arm. “Come on. I’m taking you to the hospital.”
I BARGAINED WITH THE BRATVA—
MY BROTHER’S LIFE FOR MY OWN.
They offered me a deal: thirty nights for my brother’s life.
Thirty nights…with him. Nikolai Novikov.
The charming but dangerous loan shark.
He’s deceptively smooth. Sinfully handsome.
But it’s only an illusion.
I vow to give him nothing more than I promised,
Yet he sees right through me.
When it comes to my heart, all bets are off…
And winner takes all.
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