SHE BETRAYED MY FAMILY—I WILL MAKE HER PAY.
The sweet strawberry blonde in our building isn’t as innocent as we thought.
She brought a Fed into our circle. Got my twin brother shot.
Now she will pay. I’m putting her in charge of nursing him back to health.
If he dies, she dies. That’s what I told her, anyway.
Of course, I wouldn’t actually harm her.
Our beautiful neighbor is already under my skin.
But that won’t stop me from punishing her
then touching her in all the ways I vowed I wouldn’t.
She’s ruined my peace. Become a distraction I can’t afford.
I want to keep her under my control…
I need to keep her out of my heart.
St. Petersburg 2011
I slam the brakes on the Lada too hard, sending the car I share with my twin brother into a full spin on the icy highway. For one glorious moment, I think I’ve done it.
I’ve ended things. I won’t have to sell my soul to the bratva to repay the loan I took for her treatment.
I’m going to join her. I promised there’d be no one else for me. I swore it there in the hospital, the night before she took her last breath. When she took off the ring I gave her and put it on my pinkie finger.
You are always mine, and I am always yours. Even in death.
Wait for me. I’ll be there soon.
Right before I went home and beat my bedroom wall until it crumbled.
Nikolai’s frantic yells fill my ears as our car smashes into a guardrail, crushing my side of the car in. Metal screams, glass shatters. We teeter on the side of a bridge over a frozen river. This is it. Time to die. The pain will end now.
I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife, but I do know I don’t want to live without her.
Nikolai unbuckles his seat belt and throws his door open, yanking me by the shirt to haul me out on his side.
“Nyet.” I don’t move. The moment he gets out, the car will fall to the river below. I don’t know if the ice will break beneath the weight. Maybe the impact alone will kill me. I can only hope.
Nikolai keeps hold of my shirt with one hand. With the other, he punches me in the face.
Pain explodes in my nose and behind my eyes. My vision goes black, blood pours into my mouth.
Nikolai uses my disorientation to yank me from behind the wheel. “Get the hell out,” he growls in Russian.
My vision still hasn’t returned. My legs scramble—fuck. I think they’re helping me climb out.
I throw out a hand to grab for the door handle. The steering wheel. Something to keep me in the car when it slides off the bridge, but my twin is too fast. He throws his weight backward and falls down to the ground outside his door, pulling me on top of him.
Metal groans. The car teeters and then slides away from us. For a moment, it feels as if the bridge itself is falling, as the world swoops around me. And then it crashes to the river below.
Nikolai punches me in the face again. And again. “You don’t get to die today, asshole.” Another punch. “And you don’t get to fucking bring me with you.”
I groan, choking on blood.
I didn’t mean to kill Nikolai. I am a bastard for not even separating myself from him.
I hadn’t planned on dying tonight—not consciously, anyway. But I should have given his presence in the car more thought before I executed that non-plan.
That’s the thing with twins. Nikolai feels like an extension of myself. The silent presence who shared my pain through the months of Alyona’s chemo and radiation. Who did my homework for me and swapped classes to pretend to be me and take my tests when I stopped caring about school.
He was the guy who found out about the bratva loan when it seemed like a new expensive treatment option might help.
We don’t talk about it. We don’t need to. He’s been with me through the whole fucking thing. From falling in love with the most beautiful girl in the city to putting her in the ground.
I groan and curl up on my side in the snow, turning it crimson with the blood from my nose and the split in my lip.
I don’t move.
Over the howling wind, I fail to notice the arrival of another car. A door being thrown open.
“Get in,” an authoritative voice commands.
Nikolai tries to haul me up. I don’t move.
“Get them in the car.”
Two pairs of gleaming black boots stomp around me, and I’m hauled to my feet and shoved in the back of a limo.
That was the night we first met Igor Antonov.
The night the bratva found us and took their due, not in the form of a beat-down or threats, but full ownership of our lives. Because Igor recognized the value of young men with a deathwish. His army was made up of them.
So our mother did lose both her sons that night. She believed we were lost to the icy river, not to the brotherhood that required we disavow all ties to her.
There you are, beautiful.
Hacking and cyberstalking isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life. Sitting behind my screen in the penthouse I share with my bratva brothers, I rule the cyberworld. Right now, I’m watching the live security cam feed on our building to glimpse the slender female figure enter the front door and walk to the elevator.
I sprout a semi just seeing her unassuming yet somehow sensual walk and the absent smile that tugs at her lips, like she’s thinking of something that makes her happy.
“Who are you spying on?” Nikolai asks from the couch.
Fucker. My twin knows exactly who I’m stalking, and his awareness is becoming more and more of a thorn in my side.
“Ooh, is it a woman?” our roommate, Sasha, calls from the kitchen, then sprints through the living room to look over my shoulder.
Case in point.
I click away before she can see anything, sending both her and Nikolai a glare.
Wrong move. My out-of-character response showed my hand. I should’ve played it casual.
Sasha gasps theatrically—always the thespian. ”It is a woman! Who? Let me see.” She tries to snatch at my mouse.
“It’s your mother,” I say then instantly regret it because Sasha’s broad smile wobbles and falls. Her greedy mother was involved in a scheme to steal Sasha’s inheritance and isn’t well-liked around here.
“No. Bad joke. Sorry.”
“What the fuck?” Maxim snaps from the kitchen. He doesn’t appreciate anyone offending his new bride, which is understandable.
“Sorry.” I hold the mouse in the air, out of her reach, but she’s still trying to grab it. “Tell your wife not to touch my equipment.”
“That came out wrong. Just move away.” I make a shooing motion.
Sasha folds her arms over her chest. “You have to show us now. There’s no way I’m backing off until we see.”
Knowing there’s nothing to see by now—my quarry will be safely in the elevator by now, I set the mouse down. “Fine. This is what I was watching.” I click back on the feed, which shows the screen of the front lobby of our building, Maykl sitting behind the desk, less doorman than our heavily armed sentry.
Cyberstalking is my entertainment, my window to the world, my identity. With a keyboard and screen, I’m god. I consider my view of all data a right I earned by knowing how to access it.
Everyone’s business is my business because it’s all there for me to see. I can find every scrap of data about them. I can reshuffle it, rearrange it to change their lives with a few strokes of my keys. I can get them in trouble with the IRS, I can wipe their police records clean. I can change their credit score, steal their identity.
“Kuznets wants your help with a hacking project,” my boss, Ravil, mentions as he passes through the living room. “I gave him your number. He’s going to have Sergei Litvin call you from Moscow.”
I hoped Ravil’s interruption would distract Sasha, but she’s still after me. “So it’s someone in the building?” she demands. “Who?”
“Who indeed?” Nikolai murmurs, a sardonic edge to his voice.
This time, I’m smart and ignore him.
Sasha whirls to pin Nikolai with her gaze. “Is it a woman?” She gives an Oscar-worthy gasp. “Is it Natasha?”
“Is it?” Nikolai asks blandly, shifting his gaze to me.
“Why would I stalk Natasha?” I scoff but even saying her name out loud does something to me.
Because I’m always stalking the very lovely Natasha Zolotova, the sexy-as-hell, jail-bait daughter of one of the residents in our building who gives me a hard-on simply by existing. She’s not actually jail-bait. She’s twenty-three—about the same age as Sasha. But she has this fresh-faced sweetness that makes her seem like she could be eighteen. She’s the proverbial girl next door. She brings cheer to the entire building.
Of course, I already know everything there is to know about her. I keep tabs on everyone in the building as part of my job for Ravil, the bratva boss who provides my twin brother and I a very comfortable life within the confines of the brotherhood.
But stalking Natasha is a daily activity for me, along with washing my face and brushing my teeth. Out of respect, I don’t read her emails or listen to her calls. I just like to check her Instagram photos. Watch the video feed from our building’s security cameras showing her coming in and out. I like to know what she’s wearing. Her mood. That she’s safe. I like to know how often she works—not enough to move out of her mother’s apartment or be able to support herself, as far as I can tell.
Today she’s in a melon-colored halter top over yoga pants, a fact I will verify in person in a few moments. I watch as she enters the apartment she shares with her mom, then comes back out, rolling her massage table to the elevator.
I close my laptop and stand.
“You have somewhere to be?” Nikolai asks.
I am seriously going to kill the guy. I flip him the bird as I walk out of the penthouse suite, around the elevator to where I have a single bedroom that opens to the hallway, hotel room style.
My dick gets hard knowing Natasha will be getting off that elevator and knocking at my door in just a minute, her beautiful face doing crazy things to my resolve. I step inside my room and lean my forehead against the door.
The elevator dings. I try to get my thoughts out of the gutter.
I hate that she’s a mobile massage therapist—she brings her table to other people’s houses. It’s dangerous as hell. She told me she doesn’t see anyone she doesn’t know personally or who hasn’t been personally recommended, and she also told me she doesn’t see men, but I know that’s bullshit, since she’s given me two massages and will be up here shortly to give me another.
I made her promise if anyone ever messed with her she’d tell me. I may not be huge and able to snap necks with one hand like Oleg, our enforcer, but I’d damn well be lethal if anyone hurt that girl.
Not that she’s mine to protect. As much as I enjoy stalking Natasha, that’s all I will do.
Booking the massages—that was a mistake. A huge one.
It was Nikolai’s fault. My asshole twin must’ve noted my, er, dedication to keeping tabs on her, so he threatened to book a massage, himself, if I wouldn’t. And there was no way I’d let Nikolai be naked in the same room as Natasha.
No fucking way.
So now I have to suffer through me being naked in the same room as Natasha and having those sweet hands touch me everywhere—well, almost everywhere—and not have my dick in my fist. Gospodi, I’m harder than marble the entire hour, and it’s the worst kind of torture. Especially when she flirts with me.
I’m not usually the guy women are attracted to. Nikolai gets them with his charm and general air of danger. Pavel, Ravil, Oleg, and Maxim—the other guys in our bratva cell—they all have women throwing panties their way—or at least they did before they claimed their current partners.
I’m the computer geek. The hacker.
I’m not charming because I don’t even try. I’m the guy behind the curtain, manipulating the scenes from a computer screen.
But for some reason, Natasha seems to like me. Maybe she can sense my attraction to her—women are intuitive that way. She looks up at me with big sea green eyes like I’m someone worth having, and it shreds me from the inside.
Because I’m not.
I’m definitely not worth having.
And more than that, I’m not available.
I use a keycard in the gleaming elevator to get to the top floor of the Kremlin, the high rise on Lake Michigan that houses most of the Russians who live in Chicago, including myself. Like every time I come to the top floor, my pulse quickens. Before the doors open, I put on fresh lip gloss and fluff my hair. Today I’m on a mission.
I shouldn’t have access to the penthouse floor, but Dima gave me this card when he booked his first massage with me. I thought it meant something at the time. The tattooed bratva member had been so attentive every time I’d been in his suite, working for his boss.
But then he rescheduled. And rescheduled again.
And then the two times I gave him a massage, he acted stiff and stand-offish. So yeah, my hopes for something happening between me and the hot bad boy on the top floor have gradually dwindled to nothing.
I roll my massage table out of the elevator and stand in front of his door now, lifting my hand to knock. He opens it before my knuckles hit the wood. “Amerikanets.”
He calls me American. It seems like a friendly-enough moniker, but I’m not sure. It could be a dig. I think it’s a joke because I’ve fully integrated into American society. I worked hard to expunge the Russian accent from my speech. No one who met me would know I didn’t move here until I was nine.
“Hi.” Butterflies flap their wings in my tummy at the sight of him. He’s tall, lanky and blond. His black-framed glasses and friendly face make him look more GQ than street thug.
But he is a street thug, as my mother just reminded me by phone before I came up here. None of these men are safe, and they are definitely not for me, according to her rules.
Dima wears a worn Matrix t-shirt and a faded pair of jeans. His hair is rumpled, like he’s been shoving his fingers through it. He’s not beefy, but he has lowkey muscles, despite being a computer geek. IT Specialist is the official title, but I’d bet my last penny on him being a hacker. One of Russia’s finest, no doubt. The guy is always at a computer, and he seems hella smart.
“Hey.” He scowls at the massage table like it’s an unruly dog. Snatching it out of my grasp, he carries it in.
“It has wheels, you know.” I follow him in. I try to banter, to put him at ease the way he used to do for me when I came up to massage his boss’s wife during her pregnancy, but when I’m in his room, when we’re alone, I never see that easy-going smile or joking banter of his. Instead, he almost seems defensive. Like he’s mad at me over something.
He doesn’t respond.
“Or did you just want to show off your superior strength?” When he doesn’t answer, just starts unzipping the bag like he’s the therapist and I’m the client, I add, “I’m already well-acquainted with your muscles, you know.”
Yes, I’m shameless with my flirting. It’s because he never does anything about it! I could have sworn this guy liked me. I thought he was asking me to massage him as an opening to… more.
And no, I’m not that kind of massage therapist. I don’t do happy endings. But I could have sworn Dima was interested. Anytime I was in the main penthouse suite, his gaze would follow me. Sometimes there was a light touch—his hand at my lower back, like we were on a date.
And then the most glaring evidence: his hard-ons during the two massages I’ve given him. The tension he never releases. It’s like the guy suffers through my sessions instead of relaxing and enjoying them.
But he never asks me out or flirts back. I even tried asking him out, very casually. I asked if he was going to see his roommate’s band play at Rue’s Lounge. He said no, then showed up, didn’t speak to me, and glared at everyone who talked to me. And when I say everyone, I don’t even mean guys hitting on me. I was sitting with his suitemates—the members of his bratva cell and one of their wives.
After that, I stopped waiting. Stopped expecting him to do anything about it. And I should stop flirting because I started seeing a guy a few weeks ago. A hot half-Russian guy who just started as a personal trainer at my gym.
I pull out the sheets and cover the table, turn on my massage music, and get out the oil. “I’ll just wait behind the door while you get undressed and lie facedown on the table,” I say in my best quiet spa voice. I swear I feel Dima’s gaze on my ass as I walk into the bathroom—the only place to go to give him privacy in his hotel-room-like bedroom setup. I wait until the rustling sounds go quiet and then knock before I come out.
I pull the sheet down to expose his back. All of the bratva members have tattoos. Some are the same, some are different. I’ve memorized every one of Dima’s, which I find the most fascinating. Most of the bratva guys’ tattoos are crude, probably made in prison with a penknife and ink from a broken pen. Dima sports colorful art down both his arms. Across his right shoulder blade and down his right biceps are a series of ones and zeros. Computer code. That’s why I’m banking on him being a hacker. The bratva’s tattoos depict their crimes. Their stints in prison. Their initiations to the brotherhood. Who they served. How long they’ve served. At least that’s what I’ve surmised. I know better than to ask.
I focus on his right shoulder to start with—it’s always the tightest, not that he ever complains. This probably sounds weird, but I relish touching Dima. He may not enjoy my massages, but I sure as hell enjoy giving them. I like the feel of his muscles under my palms. The scent of his aftershave, his stoic silence.
Today, like the other times I’ve massaged him, his hips go cockeyed the moment I touch him, a boner tilting his pelvis. It can’t be comfortable. If I were the bolder, fearless version of myself, I would lean down and with a purr in his ear, ask if he wanted me to work out that particular part of his anatomy.
But that’s not me. I’m not a sex-kitten. I’m just friendly, helpful Natasha, here to serve with a smile.
I work out the muscles of his deltoid and biceps then down his forearm to his fingers. Holding his hand makes the flutters start in my tummy again. Like the hands are a more intimate body part than all the other places I’m touching. Dima wears a slender gold band with a diamond chip on his pinkie finger. I’m guessing it means something to him because it doesn’t go with the rest of him. He’s not flashy, not the jewelry wearing type. I work down each finger individually. He has three X’s tattooed on his knuckles. All the guys on the top floor have them. I’m guessing they represent kills.
“So, I hear your brother runs a Friday night poker game.” I don’t know why my heart starts pounding so hard. It’s a little awkward, but all I have to do is get an invite to the game. This is my mission.
Alex, my new guy, really wants to go. He got super interested when he heard I lived in the Kremlin. I guess he’d heard about the game.
Dima stiffens even more than he was. When he doesn’t answer, I plow forward.
“May I come?”
“No,” he says immediately. His voice is thick and gruff.
“No?” I laugh to cover my embarrassment. I’d pretty much promised Alex I could get us in. “Why not?”
“Natasha, those games are for serious betters. Not you.”
“Maybe I want to seriously bet.” Now I’m just annoyed. What is with this guy anyway? My mission morphs from being for Alex to proving I’m not a total loser.
“No.” His voice sounds even harder.
“Well, can I come and just watch?” Call me persistent. I adjust the sheet. “Roll over, please.”
Dima rolls over.
“Please?” I say in my sweetest voice. I don’t know why I can’t take no for an answer. I personally have no interest in the game, and it’s not like I’m trying to impress Alex. I actually don’t think we have a future. He feels more brotherly than boyfriend. I think I’m just hurt that Dima told me no, and that, combined with his refusal to act on his obvious interest in me, makes me rather desperate for a win.
“Natasha…” He scrubs a hand over his face. “I can’t believe you’re asking me.”
I pump some oil into my hands and rub his shoulder from the top. “Are there, like, strippers there or something?”
Dima snorts. “No strippers.”
“Can I just come and check it out? Just once? Please?”
Dima groans and closes his eyes. A moment later, he peeks and catches me watching his face. “Ugn. Fine. Yes, you can come. I’ll text you the address.”
“Yay! Thank you. I’ll be good, I promise.” Now I’m flirting again.
Dima cracks one eye, and the sheet tents between his legs.
My heart trips over itself like I’m running down a hill.
Now is when I should tell him I’m bringing Alex. I should definitely tell him now.
Gah. Why don’t I want to tell him?
And then I realize the ridiculous truth. The whole reason I agreed to ask Dima if we could go to this game was not to please Alex. It was to show up with Alex and make Dima jealous. Maybe spur him into taking action with me.
I ignore the little prickle at the back of my neck that tells me this is totally going to backfire.