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The staff take a wide birth around me when they spot my stalk through the back entrance of the Dungeon. I’ve been a grouch the past couple of weeks. My empire is running seamlessly, profits are rolling in, and the reporter who had no choice but to delete every photograph he had of Isabelle has been making a killing out of the almost daily dates he’s chaperoned the past two weeks, yet my mood is woeful.
It’s been on a downward spiral ever since my first ‘date’ got the jump on me. Since I was paying more attention to ensuring the paparazzi caught my date’s face, when I leaned in to farewell her with a cheek kiss, she angled her head in enough time for our lips to lock.
It was a half a second embrace, but the shutter speed of the paparazzi’s new camera Colt Enterprises purchased captures images so quickly, it appears as if it went on much longer than it did.
The circulation of our liplock stretched further than the towns bordering Ravenshoe. Even members of a criminal entity on the other side of the country caught wind of it. To begin with, the attention did exactly as hoped, it shifted the focus off Isabelle, but within days, it dawned on us that the two groups we were focused on had missed the fuss.
Hunter is still picking up rumbles for the Petrettis, but the man who flew into Ravenshoe on Col’s coattails after announcing Isabelle’s birthright is either lying low, or one of the Petretti members got to him before I could. He hasn’t been seen since the day he arrived.
To some people, that’s good news. I can’t declare the same. It has me on edge, and the frustration it stacks onto the weeks of scheming and underhanded tactics currently occupying most of my security teams’ time is almost on par with knowing how good Isabelle tastes and being denied a second helping.
You have no clue how hard it has been for me not to sneak into her apartment the past two weeks. Hugo lives in her building, so I could downplay my visit as if I am updating a member of my team, but with Isabelle spending as much time at the office as me, the opportunity has never truly risen.
It’s for the best, but still, I’m not a man known for his patience. If I want something, I don’t stop until I get it. I want Isabelle even more than I wanted my empire to succeed.
“Hey, boss,” Tina greets, her voice far too sugary for how many disgruntled patrons are waiting to be served by her. “Last month’s books are on your desk, and I’ll have the projected sales for the following month to you shortly.”
Hopeful a curt reply will tell her I’m not up for her antics tonight, I nod. She was the first woman in a long time who could keep up with me in and out of the bedroom, but bedding her didn’t give me one-tenth of the satisfaction I felt when Isabelle screamed my name in the private jet.
Tina doesn’t get the hint. “Do you still want me to come with you this evening?” When I spin around to face her, she acts like she can’t see the confusion on my face. “I have a great knack for picking out the sucker in a group.”
“The proposal of an all-night dining precinct at the upcoming cruise terminal,” I mutter when it finally dawns on me what she is referencing. When she cocks her hip before fanning her tiny hands across them, I add, “Be ready to leave in ten.”
She squeals like I gifted her an invitation to my bed before barking orders at the bar staff already run off their feet. I would go without her if the billion-dollar developer looking to invest funds in the southern half of the country wasn’t a friend of hers. He wants Texas, but Tina is trying to convince him Ravenshoe would be a better venture. She got him here, so now I need to sell him on the idea.
The hairs on my nape prickle for an entirely different reason than Tina’s screeching voice when I detect a presence in my office a second before pushing open the door. Henry Gottle, Sr., the mob boss of New York City, has a bad habit of pop-in, unannounced visits, but the heightening of my intuition isn’t announcing that my intruder is him. This man has an aura just as dark as Henry’s, but unlike almost all the men in the industry, it also exposes not all his secrets are bad.
After breathing out the annoyance wanting me to go in with fists at the ready, I push open my door and enter like I’m unaware of the dark figure sitting behind my desk with his feet on paperwork that will net my empire millions of dollars every year.
While pacing to the coat rack in the corner of the darkened space, I mutter, “This building has a non-smoking policy, so if you wish to finish your cigarette, I suggest you go outside.”
With a chuckle that reveals his insanity to go against me on my home turf, he stubs out his cigarette into my desk before slouching back in my big leather chair. “You should be grateful for the cover. Smoke hides the scent of fear.”
“A smell you’ll never experience coming from me.” I pivot around to face the intruder, my fists naturally balling when the quickest flash of a pair of icy blue eyes resurfaces memories of my past. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Nikolai?”
The pair peering at me belong to a Petretti, but they’re too youthful to belong to Roberto, too hopeful to mistake them as Dimitri’s, and since no one has seen CJ Petretti since the day we fought, that only leaves one remaining Petretti sibling.
Nikolai Popov, a mafia prince for a realm he doesn’t belong to.
“When you want information, who better to pry it out the conniving narc than the man wanting answers?”
“I’m not a narc. If I were, do you think I’d have them scrutinizing my every move?” My tone gets him on edge, much less the nudge of my head to the arched window in my office. With the lights still off, the blue van I lost on the drive here pulls down the alley Isabelle stopped running through two weeks ago.
As he scrubs at the bristles on his chin, Nikolai strays his eyes back to mine. “Perhaps if you weren’t fiddling in businesses unbecoming of your entity, you wouldn’t have the Feds’ eye.”
“That’s rich coming from you. How many barriers did you have to leap over before arriving here today?”
With my eyes adjusting to the dark, I watch a murderous gleam flare through his eyes as his hand moves toward the back of his jeans. “None that have the Bureau’s murky prints on all over them.”
“No, because the one barrier you’ve yet to man up to is the monster you call your father,” I snap out before I can stop myself, my qualm faulted by long, unpleasurable nights.
Nikolai moves quickly, but not fast enough for me not to recognize his game plan. His family lineage is his sore point, so I use it to my advantage when he digs the tip of his knife in my meaty skin under my left ear.
“He sells his flesh and blood… so how’d you escape his wrath for so long?” When pain flashes through his eyes long before conceitedness, I change tactics. “Because while everyone is staring at the light, the shadows do the best work.”
He’s not so deep into the darkness, his soul bleeds black. He is in the murky gray undertones I often reference when I say not everything is black and white. There’s a whole heap of gray no one pays any attention to. It proves he isn’t here to protect himself. He wants to hide behind the monster everyone thinks he is while protecting those he cares about.
“I don’t want Callie for anything sinister.”
He laughs in my face. “Says every man with evil intentions.”
I act as if he never spoke. “I want to free her from that life as I’m sure you’ve dreamed about doing for yourself more times than you can count.”
“I was born for this life. It is embedded in my blood.” The scent he’s referencing fills the air when he digs the tip of his knife deeper into the throb in my throat. “I am Nikolai, prince of the Russian mafia.” After slanting his head so the light in the alleyway bounces in the murky blue undertones in his narrowed gaze, he warns, “And I’ll slit the throat of any man who dares to say different.”
There is it. The reason for his visit is finally exposed. He’s worried about Callie and where she’ll end up once a new auction date is confirmed, but since he knows it could never be as bad as the hell he was raised in, he’s not here for her.
He is here for himself.
“You’ve been prying into matters that don’t concern you,” he whispers in my ear, his voice without a quiver. “I’ve sentenced men to death for lesser crimes, so why should your fate be any different?”
I twist my head to face him, uncaring it causes my clenched jaw to rub against the butt of his knife. “Because I’m not a man planning to take his secrets to the grave.” He looks set to kill me. The feeling is mutual, but the disdain on his face weakens when I mutter, “But since your secrets aren’t mine to share, that won’t affect you, will it?”
His grin is as evil as the blood tainting his intentions. “I don’t trust anyone.”
I put him on the back foot when I say, “Neither do I, but there will come a point in your life where you’ll have to give up more than your distrust of yourself to protect someone you care about.” I bounce my eyes between his while muttering. “And when that day comes, you’ll look back on this moment and realize I was right.”
He laughs a mocking chuckle. “Spoken like a man not on the verge of peeing his pants.”
“You don’t scare me, Nikolai,” I reply without the slightest bit of fear in my voice. “You’re too afraid of yourself to scare someone else.”
His growl of denial belongs to a monster, but the intimidated boy I see in his eyes doesn’t want to play on that team anymore. “Disrespecting me only ends one way!”
“Then stop letting him do that. Take fucking charge! Grab ahold of the reins and don’t let them go until you’re no longer the prince of the Russian mafia. You’re the fucking king!” I don’t disarm him before moving toward him with flaring nostrils and balled fists so we stand chest to chest. I keep our eyes locked and loaded so he knows every single word ripping from my throat is the straight-up truth. “You survived this long, so what the fuck are you worried about? There ain’t nothing he can do to you that he hasn’t already done, so show him exactly what he raised before you end up buried in an unmarked grave along with the rest of your siblings.”
My grief has me switching targets partway through my defusing. I went from Vladimir to Col the instant Ophelia’s way to early demise popped into my head because if I had fought back then, perhaps I wouldn’t be fighting so hard now.
“Now get the fuck out of my office before I show you out with my fists.”
Nikolai’s grin is as evil as the remorse bubbling in my veins. It exposes why I rarely play into the idea that these men can be saved. They’re too far gone, and the remembrance intensifies my wish to show him I’m not a man to be messed with. He’s in my turf, in my fucking office, yet he thinks he can intimidate me.
I am Isaac fucking Holt, and Ravenshoe is my town, but before I can announce that to Nikolai, a third person joins our conversation. “Nikolai…” An African American man with a sprinkling of gray hair at the temples of his afro steps out of the shadows of the bathroom. Unlike Nikolai, he’s dressed for the occasion in a fierce black suit and eyes that accentuate his importance in Nikolai’s life. “This is not why we came here. This goes against everything you are striving to achieve.” Nikolai’s jaw ticks in sync with mine when he adds, “You came here for answers. He gave you them. Now it is time to leave.”
Over their belief that Nikolai is running the show around, I blindside him with a structured swing to his jaw before attempting to disarm him. I say attempt because even with blood gushing from his nose, Nikolai rears back up in an instant.
As his knife veers for my chest, I direct my punches at his rib and spleen. Usually, two cracks will take a man of his size down, but the only thing that takes Nikolai down is the man who moves way too fast for his age.
The African American gent places himself between us so quickly, Nikolai’s knife skims across the expensive material of his suit a mere second before it pierces through the wall half an inch from my head.
His interruption enrages Nikolai so much, if the family emblem the Petretti mark their property with wasn’t gleaming in this red-with-anger face, he looks set to gut him where he stands.
The Petretti family crest saved the stranger’s life while thrusting Nikolai headfirst into a torrential downfall that will take him years to escape.
“Tell him to stay away from me! I am not his son.”
The man standing between us holds up his hand in silent pleading for me to remain quiet. It is the appeal of a desperate man, but since it also belongs to a man who seems to know right from wrong, I adhere to his request.
Don’t worry. I am as shocked as you.
With silence reigning supreme, the tension depriving the air of oxygen soon reaches boiling point.
Nikolai is the first to succumb to the choking conditions. With his fists balled and his eyes locked on a replica of the imprint his ‘father’ wants him to believe his biological father left on the cheek of a child, he mutters, “You can’t sell your soul to Satan when the devil has already claimed it.” He drifts his eyes to mine. They’re full of anarchy. “You should remember that before you let him sink his hooks into you. Once you’re in, there’s no way out that doesn’t include a body bag.”
With that, he exits my office without so much of a backward glance.
When the man who shadows his every move attempts to pry his knife from the wall, I snap out, “Leave it.” I shift on my feet to face him. “He came here to deliver a message, so the least I can do is make sure it’s given to the right person.”
“Very well.” With his chin touching his shirt and his eyes thankful, he bows his head in thanks before hotfooting it in the direction Nikolai just went.
Not even twenty seconds later, Tina’s small frame fills the doorframe. “Hey…” She flicks on the light before moseying into my office like she owns the place. When she fans her hands across her tiny hip, then arches a brow, I raise my hand to the portion of skin she’s gawking at. Blood coats my fingertips, but there isn’t enough to lessen Tina’s ability to flirt. “There are plenty of fun things we can do in the dark, but shaving isn’t one of them.”
After huffing as if she is witty, I wipe away the blood on my neck, then gather the jacket I placed onto the coat rack while pretending I wasn’t being eyed with as much reverence. While acting ignorant to the adrenaline thickening my blood, I gesture for Tina to lead the way to the back parking lot.
An unexpected incident lowers my hesitation to continue with business as if nothing has happened when I head for my Porsche. The van I highlighted earlier won’t be shadowing me tonight. Its tires have been slashed, and from the width of the blade used, and the perfection of its slashes, I reach a quick conclusion as to whom my savior is.
A prince wants a crown, but instead of trudging through the slop at the bottom of the rung, he’s finally shooting for the stars.
I’d wish Nikolai well if I didn’t believe it would cause even more mayhem for Henry Gottle, Sr.
Lucky he loves anarchism.