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“Compelling Dark Romance,” New York Times Bestselling Author, Anna Zaires

Bought. Conditioned. Sold to the enemy—who will change my life forever.

When I was a child, Maksim-Markov purchased me on the black market for my skills.
For the following 10 years, he conditioned me with brutality to work for him, worship him, and protect him.
And I did all that and more.

Now, he’s my master.
If he demands pleasure, I give it to him.
If he’s out for blood, I deliver it warm and ready on my hands.
No questions asked, I do whatever he says.
I am the perfect pet—until he bargains me in aid of clearing a debt.

 
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The new man in my life is a cartel leader.
Dark.
Dangerous.
Decadent.
He owns my body and my soul for three months.

For whatever reason, he’s determined to break me.
He wants me to choose him over Maksim.
Maybe I will?
Maybe I won’t?

Or maybe secrets will be revealed, and I’ll just kill everyone who’s ever dared to tamper with my life.

BLAIRE is a full-length Contemporary Dark Romance about a fierce redhead who falls in love with her master’s enemy and pays the price for it.

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Copyright 2016 (c)
WARNING: BLAIRE is not suitable for readers under 18. Contains psychological impairment, dubious content and scenes of severe violence.

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

I walk through Maksim's strip club like a ghost, under streaming red lights that flash in tune with the pounding music. The air smells potent with sweaty bodies and cheap perfume, a mixture of men and women. 

Just how my master likes it.

Everything I see moves through my mind's eye in slow motion, my brain carefully and collectively scanning for danger. There isn't much out of the ordinary going on tonight. A few regulars line the stage in the center of the club, all unaware of my presence. 

I know why.  

They're too focused on the strippers, beautiful European girls leisurely peeling off their clothes. I'm wearing the usual: black sports trousers, trainers, and a thin black leather jacket over a long-sleeved sweater. Not exactly arousing attire but this is how I like it, being under the radar.

The strippers are the only people who do notice my presence. As I pass the stage, they each scowl with obvious loathing. I understand their loathing. I'm the only girl in Maksim's inner circle, and this lot—the strippers—hate it. They wonder why. They've always wondered why.

No danger here. 

“Is Cэp Maksim back there?” I ask a member of security in Russian, gesturing at the door he's standing in front of like The Great Wall of Man.

“Yes,” he says in Russian, pale eyes empty of emotion. “He's been waiting for you.” 

I nod, aware I'm an hour late. I'm never usually late as I know poor punctuality results in a good bloody hiding. But my phone was on silent by accident, so I didn't hear Maksim’s text message. 

The security guy pushes open the heavy door and stands aside. I saunter down the red hall, turn left, and knock on Maksim's office door three times. The knocks echo, carrying over the music booming through the walls. 

“Come in, My Little Pet,” Maksim says through the intercom system in his thick Russian drawl, making me shiver with awareness. 

His voice brings my entire body to attention. 

Pushing with both palms, I force the door to creak open and go inside. 

Maksim isn't alone. 

I don't react—I never react to surprises. I briefly look to see who is accompanying my master, and though it's quite dark in here, I'm very aware of the powerful blue eyes watching me from the leather couch by the left wall; eyes that seem to be all over my body at once. 

Sharp little hairs race down my arms and legs. 

I haven't seen him before. 

The notion that he's a stranger puts me on guard because Maksim rarely allows strange faces in his circle—let alone in his office. 

I stop before the wide desk and fold my hands behind my back, feeling sheathed in darkness. Maksim only has the desk lamp on and that isn't exactly bright. It just about illuminates his diamond-shaped, iron face. 

“You are late, My. Little. Pet,” he says each word with significant and singular meaning, speaking in Russian.

My blood runs cold when he's like this, mulling over something other than business. Today, it seems it's my timekeeping. 

I keep focus, my gaze level and on him slouching back in his chair. He's a striking man with steady, expressionless golden eyes, and shoulder-length dark brown hair that smells like brut from the candles he burns. I remember the scent well. 

I remember the feeling of his hair on my face when he cuddles me after a beating. 

“My phone was accidentally on silent,” I say, and my voice is low, as per usual. “I’m sorry, Cэp Maksim.” I offer him a little head-bow of respect.

Leaning forward and resting his elbows on the desk, he entwines his fingers together, holding my gaze with soul consuming eyes. “No more keeping your phone on silent, Blaire.”

I flinch subconsciously, stepping back. He only calls me by my given name when I've done something wrong, and that usually means trouble for me is brewing. 

Maksim cocks a brow at me. “You got that?” 

I nod, taking his warning seriously. I might be in his inner circle, but it takes just one bullet to remove me.

“What have you been doing for the past few days?” he asks in Russian, his tone husky and utterly terrifying.

“Nothing much,” I whisper in our language, squeezing my hands together on the low of my back. “I've been training, of course, went to the salon yesterday, and I went out to a club last night.”

“Yes”—he tips his head—“my men saw you driving through the countryside. Did you have fun?”

I shake my head, being honest. “I was just getting out of the apartment, Cэp Maksim.”

“Of course, My Little Pet. Of course. Though, next time you want to visit a club, you come here.” He taps his desk with one finger. “You do not have to travel to strange places to have fun.” 

This is a shame. I like visiting strange places when I’m alone, since everything in my life is a consistent bloodbath with the people and the work I execute. Sometimes, I just like a change of scenery. 

I guess, at his command, I don't like visiting strange places anymore. 

“Okay.” I lift my lips in a forced, wary smile. “As you wish.”

Maksim acknowledges my obedience with a returned smile. Then he gestures to the right, to the man sitting on the couch, and I know the conversation about my last two days is over. 

“My Little Pet,” he's speaking in English now, “meet my old friend, Mr. Decena.”

Old friend? 

It takes a lot of effort not to frown. 

I've been with Maksim for ten years, and I've never seen or heard of a Mr. Decena. 

I look at Maksim's friend with my face blank of sentiment. Above him, a long tube light attached to the wall flickers on, buzzing with electricity, illuminating a tall, muscular frame. 

“No matter what happens here tonight,” Maksim says in sly Russian, “you are ordered not to challenge him.”

The back of my neck pricks. 

Maksim never orders me to stand down. 

Though nervous, I obey without question, nodding to show I understand his command. I then study Mr. Decena, surprised by how relaxed he is in his pose, sitting there in the middle of the couch with one arm draped over the back, long legs stretched out in front of him. 

This is bizarre. No one is ever that relaxed in Maksim's company. 

I reckon Mr. Decena is in his late twenties. He looks young, wearing fitted jeans, tanned boots, and a black round-neck t-shirt that boasts solid muscles. He's nothing at all like my master who favors suits, but Maksim has a tall, athletic body for them.They are wearing similar watches on their left wrists with thick silver straps, but that's where their similarities end.

“Mr. Decena would like to ask you some questions,” Maksim says.

I nod in response, still studying the relaxed pawn. Unruly, ink black hair curls around his neck and face, abating a strong, square, clean-shaven jawline, and a blade of a nose. His black eyebrows are thick and long, framing prevailing blue eyes that stand against his naturally tan skin. He's a good looking man, and judging by that lazy, narcissistic expression on his face, he’s aware of it. He fancies himself.

He stares me up and down with slow meditation, taking in all my features from head to toe, and I'm suddenly so uncomfortable that my stomach knots. 

I can't really explain why, but he makes me feel naked to the bone. 

I shift on my feet, trying to iron out my anxiety. That’s when a smirk lifts the side of Mr. Decena's lips; a mischievous smirk full of promise. 

“What do I call you, Señorita?” he asks, his voice deep yet calm. He's American but there's a sprinkle of Latin in his accent. “My Little Pet, or Blaire?”

Maksim nods to tell me I can answer. 

“Blaire,” I say. 

There's a split second of silence before Mr. Decena tells me, “All right, you can call me Charlie.”

Maksim's eyebrows shoot up, but he doesn't say anything. 

Another period of silence follows, then Charlie rasps out my name, drumming his fingers against the back of the couch. “Blaire, as in, field of battle?”

I scrunch up my face, unable to stop myself. What's he talking about?

Maksim chuckles under his breath like he's confirming something.

“You never mentioned how bonita she is,” Charlie says softly, causing me to straighten out my features. “Nor did you mention that lovely, whispery voice.” 

“Ohhh, my friend”—Maksim smiles cunningly at me, his golden eyes crinkling in the corners—“don't take it personally. I do not boast of her to anyone.” 

“Why not? She's a nice looking girl.” Charlie’s voice lowers as he says in Spanish, “Siempre me he preguntado acerca de los pelirrojos.” I’ve always wondered about redheads.

I swallow, hoping I'm not visibly sweating under the pressure of these two. 

“I wouldn't want you excited to see her,” Maksim says, “for she is mine and mine alone.”

“Hmm.” Charlie hums, staring right at me with brazen audacity. I get the feeling he isn't a pawn in Maksim's game. He's too confident.“She sounds kinda Russian,”he says after a while, still tapping his fingers against the couch.“Where's she from?”

“She's not Russian,” Maksim says, and I see that he shakes his head at Charlie. 

Charlie nods once, understanding the gesture. “How old are you, Blaire?” 

I look at Maksim. He nods. 

“Eighteen.”

Raising his eyebrows, Charlie seems stunned. I'm not sure why. 

“What do you do, exactly?” he asks. “I've heard various stories.”

Maksim gives me the go ahead, so I say, “I deal in technology.”

“She's also on my security detail,” Maksim adds. 

“This small girl is part of your security?”Charlie stops tapping the back of the couch, his eyes taut with confusion. A crease forms between his eyebrows, and it makes him look evil. 

“She is.” Maksim smiles up at me again, knowingly proud. “She is a beauty in battle. Trained to defend me on instinct unless I say otherwise.” 

That’s true. I am trained to defend him however I can. Though, I wouldn't just say I'm trained. I'd say I'm more conditioned. My brain works to please and protect my master without me actually having to think. I used to find it disturbing. Now, I'm used to it.  

Charlie doesn't believe Maksim—it's written all over his face—but that's good. This is Maksim's trick with me. I have always been the element of surprise for his enemies. 

“And your parents?” Charlie says, still frowning at me.

I don't show my confusion to that question. I just look at him.

“Erm, Charlie—” 

“I'm not talking to you, am I?” Charlie cuts Maksim off dead. 

My heart drops like a boulder. 

“Don't you understand me, girl?” Charlie says. “Where are your parents? I won't repeat myself again.”

 

I don’t know how to respond, so I keep my mouth shut. But Maksim thumps the desk, snapping, “Answer him, Blaire.” 

I cringe as he uses my name, muttering, “I only have Cэp Maksim.” 

Silence.

Charlie's glancing between us, an air of frustration on his face.“Where are her parents?” he demands to know, leveling his attention on Maksim. “Dead? Did they sell her to you? Where are they?”

My eyes flitter between them, and I'm beyond confused. I don't get why he's being so ascetic all of a sudden, or why he'd want to know if I have parents. What does that matter?

Maksim manages to give Charlie another curt head-shake, which Charlie also understands. 

The next questions are sharp and snappy, like the tension that's now in the room.Charlie states my address in London, and asks, “Is that where you live?”

I nod.

“Alone?”

I nod again, keeping it brief.

“Is the apartment yours?” He raises his eyebrows at me, making his blue eyes seem wider. 

I nod a third time. 

“And you drove here tonight on your own?” He gestures at the office door with a large, steady hand. “You have your own car?”

What kind of a question is that? What's it to him if I live alone or if I own my own car?

“Yes, the car is hers,” Maksim answers for me, though he doesn't gain Charlie's attention. He is still looking at me. 

“I have her on the payroll,” Maksim explains. “She's not a prisoner like the rest.”

“Is that right?” Charlie sounds like he's stuck in thought, while his eyes flicker all over my deadpan face.

 

“So, you trust her completely?” he breaks eye contact with me to focus on Maksim. “Because if you have any doubts...I can't risk having sloppy workers on the job.” 

Maksim doesn't hesitate. He says a powerful, “With my life,” then it's quiet again. 

Why do I feel like I'm being interviewed for something? 

“Okay,” says Charlie eventually, nodding to himself. He then summons my attention by rasping out my name. “Maksim tells me you can hack into any computer system, no hay problema?”

Bingo. He is interviewing me.

“You can answer him,” Maksim says. So I nod, my hands still firmly folded behind my back. 

“How can you do that?” asks Charlie.

“My friend,” Maksim butts-in, clearing his throat, “the details are better left unsaid. Just know that My Little Pet is masterful at—” 

“I'll decide what details are better left unsaid,” Charlie says. Sitting forward, he puts his elbows on his knees and narrows his blue eyes at Maksim. “I'll consider pardoning things that might make this girl feel uncomfortable, but you'll tell me the finer details.” His square jaw ticks, though when he stares up at me, that anger in his face vanishes. “How can you do that, Blaire?”

“I spent three years in a room with books, codes, and computers,” I say without thinking, and bizarrely without Maksim's permission. “I taught myself the things I know.” 

Charlie gives Maksim a baffled look, wrinkling his nose. “She actually thinks she became a hacker in three years?” 

No one answers him, and he runs a hand through his thick black hair, ruffling the strands at the back of his neck. “C'mon, don't try to take the piss outa me.”

Maksim's face tightens with what almost looks like...fear? No. Can't be. He shakes his head at Charlie again. 

“All right.” Charlie lifts a hand, understanding Maksim's expression. 

Is he hiding something from me? Why won't he just tell Charlie that he bought me from a man in Russia, or insist it's none of his business?

Digging into his jeans back pocket, Charlie pulls out a piece of paper and proffers it to me between scissored fingers. I glance at Maksim. He signals for me to take the paper, so I reach for it. I briefly touch Charlie's fingers in the process and a warm, tingly sensation spreads through my body, causing me to snatch back my hand—and without the paper. Our eyes meet in a moment of dead quietness, with his glowing like he knows what I just felt.

Everything around me becomes nonexistent. Even Maksim fades into the background. And I just look at this man who's invading our personal space with pure perplexity. He doesn't look away or blink, just stares right through my fucking soul. 

A pool of anxiety coils inside me, making my toes curl in my trainers.

I have a dark feeling he's going to turn the world as I know it upside down. 

“It's the latest in technology for a certain CCTV system,” he says softly, insisting I take the paper from him. “Here you go.”

To break whatever the fuck thisis, I pinch the paper out of his fingers and scan the notes written down, mentally willing my heart rate to calm. 

It's the details for London's closed-circuit television system. 

“Can you shut that down for fifteen minutes?” Charlie asks, his voice still unexplainably soft.

I've entered this system a few times before, as Maksim likes to know that he can control a city if trouble breaks out. 

“Can you shut it down, My Little Pet?” Maksim says. 

“I can shut this down for four, maybe five minutes before I get locked out.” I lean over to give Charlie back the piece of paper, avoiding his touch—and his eyes. I have the contents of the note now stored in my memory. 

Charlie shakes his head, screwing up the paper in a large hand before tossing it across the office. “I need fifteen minutes.” He exercises his eyes on Maksim, who seems a little uncomfortable, pulling open the top buttons of his shirt. “You said the redhead could get me fifteen minutes. I. Need. My. Fifteen. Minutes.”

His tone makes my hackles come up hard, and my protective instincts kick in. I step closer to Maksim's desk, zoning into myself. 

I have to protect Maksim. 

I have to ensure nothing happens to him. 

Maksim is all that matters.

And above all, no one talks to my master with such contempt. No one. 

I center my attention on the enemy. He’s glaring at Maksim with his nostrils flaring, unbothered by my change in persona. 

“Can you do it, My Little Pet?” Maksim says in a rush of words, visibly nervous with deep swallows. “Can you get the fifteen minutes?” 

“I'll need a few weeks,” I whisper. I actually need more than a few weeks, but I'll tell Maksim that over the phone. At least this way, if he gets mad at me, I have time to mentally prepare. 

Mad Maksim doesn't bode well for my ass. 

Charlie nods. Then Maksim tells me two weeks is fine, that there is no room for error. “Don't run over schedule, My Little Pet. You know what will happen if you do.”

“I won't,” I say, as I do know what will happen all too well. 

Just as quickly as it bloomed, the tension in the room vanishes, though I stay by Maksim’s desk to ensure his safety. 

Charlie pulls another piece of paper from his jeans back pocket. “For Maksim. Please, give it to him.”

Maksim gives me the okay, so I take it from Charlie and put it on the desk. 

“That's a Dark Web link. Don't lose it.” Charlie gestures out. “To contact me, the password is Guzmán Decena.” He follows with saying out each letter of the password like we're fucking dyslexic or something.

 

“Keep me updated regarding Blaire and the job, comprender? You can e-mail me any time, and I'll get back to you within the hour.” 

Regarding Blaire andthe job? Why would he need to be updated about me? 

“Of course, my friend.” Maksim touches his chest in a deceivingly composed approach. “Of course.” 

I feel Charlie is looking at me again, and my anxiety spikes when he asks,“Will Blaire be attending Rumo's poker game next weekend?” 

A few seconds of edgy silence pass through us. Then Maksim says, “She will be.” He smiles at me with an agenda, excitement gleaming in his eyes. “I might even put on a little show for you.” 

Charlie doesn't understand, so Maksim explains that he sometimes has me fight for entertainment. “Like I said a moment ago, she's a beauty in battle.”

Chills run down my spine because I know what's going to happen. I know who he'll make me fight. 

“You will come to the poker game, won't you, Charlie? You will come watch her fight?”

“Ohhh, I wouldn't miss it.” 

My stomach twists. 

“Good. Very good, my friend.” 

While I stand here staring ahead impassively as not to draw attention to the fact that I'm sweating bullets, they start chatting about what's been going on in London over the past six years, which isn't much short of sex, crime, and murder. Charlie doesn't sound impressed as Maksim blathers on about his power in Western Europe. Seeming to have heard enough, he cuts Maksim off mid-sentence to say he needs to go. “Time’s getting on.”

That’s when Maksim focuses on me. “Do you have any questions before you go, My Little Pet? Is there anything you need?”

“No,” I whisper, devoid of emotion.

“I guess we're all done here then.” He reaches over to shake hands with Charlie, making his chair creak under his weight. “It's good to see you again, my friend.”

Nodding once, Charlie stands and fixes the hem of his t-shirt over his jeans. He's really tall. I'd say at least six foot two, and he's bigger than I thought with broad shoulders, a narrow waist, and hard muscles stretching under dark, olive skin. He looks like a Spanish soldier. 

“If you’re heading back to London, Blaire”—my name rolls off his tongue like satin—“I'll get a lift with you.” 

What? 

My heart does this weird doubling over thing. I whip my eyes from Charlie to Maksim, who strangely nods. 

“You will have to forgive my little pet's attitude, as I am sure you will learn she has.” Maksim chuckles under his breath. “She's as arrogant as a redhead comes.”

Charlie laughs, too, clearly amused. “I can handle one small girl, no matter how arrogant she might be. Don't worry about that.”

My stomach is sinking, thinking this is a test. It has to be. Maksim would never leave me alone with another man.

Ignorant to my apprehension, Maksim tells me that I must be polite to Charlie, that I'm not allowed to fight him. It isn't a request. It's an order. “You can speak to him, also, just not about me.” 

“Of course,” I say, head-bowing to my master, hiding the fact that my anxiety is going through the roof.

CHAPTER TWO

 

After bidding Maksim goodnight, I lead the way out of the club with Charlie Decena hot on my heels. 

The place is still booming with music and perverts littering the naked strippers in pound bills, chanting, “Take it off! Take it off!”I'm surprised Charlie doesn't want to stay and have a nice European girl for himself, given they’re likely free for him. Any normal man would stay. 

At the exit, I nod to bid the doorman goodbye and steal out into the cold night, beneath a cloaking black sky sparkling in stars. My silver Porsche is by a flickering streetlight at the end of the parking lot. I open it using the key in my pocket, making it flash three times with a low, deep beep. 

“This is a nice car for such a young girl,” Charlie says, walking past me to open the driver's door. He rests his forearm there and looks down on me, head slightly cocked. “Did Maksim buy it for you or did you buy it for yourself?”

Maksim?I grunt under my breath. That’s so fucking disrespectful. It's Maksim-Markov to him, and those considered friends or work acquaintances.

“Do you want to drive or something?” I ask, arching my neck back to squint up at him. 

Charlie tips his head to the other side, with his eyes glancing back and forth between mine. “Why'd you ask that?” 

I gesture at my car. “You’re holding my door open.”

He laughs, flashing even, white teeth. “Tis' called manners, Señorita.” 

My face twists with perplexity. Holding my door open is considered manners?

“In you get.” He nods at my car, amusement glittering in his eyes. 

I stare him out, baffled to say the least. He looks a bit different up close, more...I don't know. Beautiful? No.Handsome. He's too masculine to be beautiful. His lips are perfect, the lower fuller than the top, his cheekbones are sharp and high, and his eyes are deep set, a lagoon blue in this light.  

For a second, I forget why I was staring at him. 

“Do you want me to drive?” He nods at my car again without breaking eye contact. “I can if you want. I know where you live.” 

I scoff at the audacity of him, sink into the plush leather, and yank my door shut. He's laughing as he walks around to the passenger side, but I don't get what he finds so funny. 

Pressing the power button, I fire-up the engine, revving to warm it up. Charlie settles in the passenger seat, sliding it back to give his long legs some room. I immediately notice he smells sweet and musky, a weird scent for a man but bizarrely appealing. Bizarrely nice. 

A quick glance, and he catches me staring. My heart almost jumps out of my chest, but I save face by telling him, “Put on your seatbelt and then we can go.”

He pulls it across his chest and plugs it in, as I shift in gear to reverse out of the parking lot, heading down a bumpy country lane. He is blatantly watching me, though he doesn't speak for a while. So I flick on the radio to drown out our silence, and check the rear-view mirror, clocking twin SUVs on our shadow with blinding headlights. They look suspicious with heavily tinted windows, both going at the same speed. Maintaining my eyes on them, I drive carefully as not to draw attention. But as I turn off to hit the clear highway, they follow us. 

I press on the throttle to speed out of Dartford, keeping one hand near my gun in my inside jacket pocket; my other on the wheel. 

“What's wrong, Blaire?” 

“I think we're being followed,” I say, reaching one-hundred miles per hour, dodging what cars are on the road. “Have you got a gun?”

“Have I got a gun?” Charlie laughs, and when I look at him, he smiles. “Relajarse,” he says relax, “it's just my men. No need for guns.”

 

“What?” I drop a gear to slow the pace. “If you have men with cars, why did you ask me for a lift?”

He doesn't answer my question, which I don't like. He diverts with, “How long have you known Maksim?” 

Maksim-Markov to you!It really bothers me that he addresses my master like this. 

“That's none of your business,” I say, and my voice comes out surprisingly calm. 

“Well, I'm making it my business. How long?”

Huffing, I try not to react to his cool, dominant approach, though it's hard. I want to punch his lights out because he's so fucking conceited. 

“I cannot comment without his permission,” I say in a flat tone.

Charlie laughs at me again,though in a more mocking fashion. “You know, in all the years I've known your boss, you're the first of his girls I've seen off a leash.” Reaching over, he grabs my seat headrest, forcing intimacy.

I shift over in my seat, a little uncomfortable. I can feel the warmth of his large body at my side.

“Maksim must really trust you,” he whispers, checking me out with obvious lust. 

I don't say anything in response. Of course Maksim trusts me. I'm his most trusted devotee. 

In our silence, I glance at Charlie a few times because I sense he's still staring at me with stark concentration. I wish he'd stop. I'm already on guard, and he's making the whole ordeal ten times worse with that penetrating gaze. 

As a distraction, I turn up the radio.

“What are you allowed to say, hmm?” He breaks our silence, turning the radio down, but I shrug, steering off the highway for London. “Okay. How fast does your car go?” 

Silence.

“You can answer me that, surely?” He sounds like he's being sarcastic. “Maksim said you can speak to me.”

“Naught to sixty in five and a half seconds,” I give in, just to shut him up.

“And the color, did you pick it? Did you upgrade to all the extras?”

I scowl harder than before, aware of what he’s doing. Though his questions might seem ordinary, they're not. He's trying to get me talking by luring me into a false sense of security. 

“You can glare all you like, Señorita,” he teases, insisting he’ll keep asking things until I answer. “I’m a persistent man, as I’m sure you’re realizing.”

“What is with you, Decena? Why are you asking me these stupid, mundane questions?” My heart stutters with panic. Maksim said to be polite. “Sorry. I...I didn't mean to—”

“S'all right.” Charlie shrugs with one shoulder, still holding my headrest. “You can ask me a question if you want.” He pauses, then leans a little closer and whispers down my spine, “I won't tell Maksim. Puede ser nuestro secreto.” Can be our secret.

I look at him for as long as I can, wondering why he’s speaking to me in Spanish. But then I have to center my attention on the road, on the cars.“Why are you asking me these questions?” I reiterate without wavering this time. “What's with the whole Spanish Inquisition? What’s your game?” 

“The Spanish Inquisition, huh?” A wide grin spreads across his face. “I'm curious about you, Blaire,” he says. “Even more so now.” 

I pull a funny face, puzzled, and he elaborates, “You don't wear a leash. You live outside of Maksim's house. You can apparently put up a good fight. You're educated.” The list of compliments is endless. 

I don't ask why he's curious. I don't want to give him the satisfaction of my own curiosity. 

“It seems Maksim wasn't lying when he told me you've got a bad attitude,” Charlie says, chuckling to himself. His voice is so deep when he laughs like that, almost mesmerizing. 

Almost.

“I'm not gonna get anything outa you yet, am I?”

Yet?What makes him think he'll ever get anything out of me?

“No,” I say. “You're not.” 

He doesn't ask much more now, just wants to know if I like living on my own, that kind of thing. I shake, nod, and shrug a few times, but I don't actually answer his questions. 

“Where would you like me to drop you off?” I say when we’re driving past my apartment building, curb crawling The River Thames. 

“Since we’re by your place”—he unbuckles his seatbelt—“here will do.”

I pull over with a sharp stop, making us both jolt forward, desperate to get him out of my fucking car. 

Buthe doesn't seem to be in a rush to leave. 

Smirking, he rests back and gives my body the once over, his eyes hooded and full of zest. “Maybe I'll stop by your apartment over the next two weeks to say hi.”  

“I wouldn't bother. I won't answer the door to you.”

He flicks up his eyebrows. “Sure you won't.” 

I snort, thinking he’s such an asshole. Then shifting in first gear with one foot on the break, I toe the throttle a few times as a hint. 

He finally gets out of the car, but he doesn’t shut the door. Much to my frustration, he lingers, leaning down to look at me once more. Silky black strands fall around his diamond blue eyes, enhancing the intense, thoughtful expression on his face. It’s weird, like he’s weighing me up for whatever reason. 

“I thought you said you had to leave?” I say, speaking softer than I intended. “Time’s getting on, isn't it?” 

“I've always got time for a pretty girl.” He winks, and I glance away in a fluster, hating that my stomach ties up in knots.  

In fact, I hate him. I hate the way he talks to me, and the way he looks at me, as if he's mentally taking off my clothes. It's so personal. 

“I'll see you very soon, Blaire,” he rasps a promise. Then clicks the door shut, and his large, muscular body disappears into the city, sauntering at a relaxed pace as if he has all the time in the world to get to his destination.

 

———

 

When I can gather my wits after enduring Charlie Decena, I steer into the underground parking lot of my apartment building. 

My phone buzzes in my jacket pocket, so I pull it out and find James is calling. 

He’s a friend of mine. I’ve known him since before I can remember. He plays a role much like mine with Maksim—security and devotee—but he doesn't reap luxury like a personal car and an apartment. He drives a supplied security SUV, as all the other men do, and lives in Maksim's attic because Maksim doesn't trust him like he does me. That's never affected my opinion of James, though. He is one of the good guys. I've lost count of how many times he's taken a beating trying to protect me from our master. How many times he's let Maksim fuck him in an effort to ensure he doesn't fuck me. 

“Have you spoken to Maksim?” I step out of my car and lock it with the key, making the beeps echo through the eerie car park.

“He just rang me about some guy called Charlie,” James says, his Russian accent soft and husky. “He wants me to beef up security.”

“Beef up security?” My eyebrows snap together. “Did he say why?”

“No. It was a brief call, and I wasn’t about to start asking questions. Who is this Charlie?”

“I have no idea.” I relax against my car, poking my chin with the key in a musing fashion. “Maksim is nervous around him though. I’ve never seen him so...I don’t know. Charlie kept cutting him off from talking, and Maksim just let him.”

“What?” 

“Yeah, I was nervous, too. That man makes me feel...” I lose my voice, as there are no words to describe how Charlie made me feel. 

“You,were nervous?” James’ voice goes up a notch. “But, you don't get nervous about anything.”

“If you ever meet Charlie, you'll understand. The way he looked at me in front of Maksim...the way he spoke to me...” I get chills just thinking about it. “He said, and I quote, ‘I’ve always wondered about redheads’, like he was fantasizing or something.”

“Seriously? And Maksim did nothing?”

To answer, I go right into detail about how much authority Charlie had over our master. How he insisted I drop him off even while he had drivers at hand. “Before that though, he interviewed me for a job by asking the oddest questions.” 

“What questions?”

“He wanted to know if I lived alone, and if I drove my own car. It was ages before he asked about my skills.”

“He's up to no good, that’s why,” James says, with his feet thudding against the floorboards in the background. His attic living quarters is empty of things, other than his bed and a wardrobe. It heightens the slightest of sounds. 

“I think so,” I say. “I get that impression.”

“Shit,” he curses. “Keep your wits about you, Blaire. If Maksim is getting involved with people he's nervous about, it doesn't bode well for us.”

“I know it doesn’t.” I nod at the empty parking lot. “I know.”

Whenever Maksim gets in trouble with his dodgy dealings, one of us—his arsenals—takes the fall. It's always been this way.

“What job do they have you on exactly? Are you whacking someone? Do you need my help with anything?” 

“No. It’s nothing like that.” I tell him about the job in great detail, since Maksim lets us discuss things with each other. While James isn't much of a hacker, he's a good fighter. Almost as good as me. That’s why he offered himself up to help. 

“You could only get like, four or five minutes the last time, couldn't you?” he says, referring to my access to London's CCTV system. 

“Ah-huh. But I wasn't about to tell Maksim that face to face.” I sound almost defeated, because I am. It’s going to be mentally taxing trying to grasp more time. 

“No, I understand.” James sighs in sympathy. “Just try and get his fifteen minutes. Try. If you can't, before you confess to Maksim that you've failed, call me and I'll come over to your place, okay? Don't tell him anything while you're on your own.”

My heart bleeds for this guy. There's nothing he wouldn't endure if it means he can spare me from pain.

“Thanks, James,” I say blank of emotion, but I'd never deliberately put him in the line of fire. “I have to go.” I shove my keys in my jacket pocket and head for the private elevator that leads up to my apartment. “I'll speak to you soon.”

CHAPTER THREE

 

For the next week, in my London apartment that overlooks a gray River Thames, I test myself to the limit. 

I eat plain foods to prevent feeling lethargic, and scarcely sleep for five hours a night because my mind is on overdrive. I give up on the hypnopaedia—learning while asleep via a recorder—because I can’t handle the overload of studying. In my personal gym upstairs, I execute my usual combat routine for four hours a day, which steals time away from work, but I must train physically. Maksim would kill me if I let myself slip. It could cost him his life. 

I work on attaining the fifteen minutes in the dark computer room at the back of my apartment. It’s hidden behind fake paneled walls, set up with ten computer screens hanging on the back wall in two rows. They offer the only source of light in here. They glow over my freckly face as I sit at the floating desk, where all my equipment is: keyboards, black boxes, and other useful gadgets that help me safely link to The Dark Web.

I work like a dog morning and night, occasionally nodding off in the wide office chair.

By day four, I manage to gain access to London's CCTV for a maximum of eleven minutes. I can control the traffic lights, certain security gates, and the city cameras. But, I cannot get a hold of more than eleven minutes. The system locks me out. 

Sweaty, hungry for real food, and frazzled to the max, I rub my forehead. Then I bash at the keyboard keys to put glitches in London's CCTV system, working through another night. 

Now, I have one week and one day left to train, and to add to my worry, work commitments over the weekend set me back. I don't have any other choice but to accept what is though, as I'm on Maksim's security detail and his life comes before mine. 

Friday night, James and I watch his back while he parties ruthlessly at a mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens. The mansion belongs to some Asian Prince who is largely in the public eye, but the public knows nothing of his taste for young girls and sex shows. They know only what the media allows them to know.

By ten o'clock, the party becomes hard to stomach—like most of the parties Maksim attends—because the Prince has a willing little Albanian brunette on all fours in the middle of his glorious ballroom. She's getting whipped, before being fucked by a man in a black leather mask. Their flesh slaps together so hard I can feel it. A collection of suits line the walls, waiting for their turn. Some of the onlookers masturbate, while the rest get their cocks sucked by their sex-slaves who are firmly on leashes, until it's their turn to fuck the Albanian girl. 

James and I remain behind Maksim with our eyes ahead, clasping guns over our laps. 

Maksim is in seventh heaven, especially when the Prince offers him a cock-sucker. The sound of the tiny blonde choking against his cock turns my stomach inside out, as he refuses to let her breathe by blocking her air passage. And to make matters worse, the godforsaken fuck show goes on until early hours of the morning, the ornate ballroom whispering with soft piano music. The music isn't loud enough to drown out her cries of pain though, nor the men's moans of satisfaction as they each have a go on her; deep moans that remind me of Maksim when he makes me please him.

Internally, I'm beyond uncomfortable. On the outside, I must look as cold as ice.

The show gets even harder to stomach when Maksim takes over. He belts the Albanian girl to the point where her back splits and bleeds, before drilling her from behind. In a moment of raw intoxication, he presses her face into the floor and looks me right in the eyes. It's like everything and everyone in the room evaporates, the earth closing in on me. I go stiff, my chest so tight that I can just about breathe. I don’t know whether to look away or not. He’s never done this before. 

Hedoesn't look away. He smiles at me with wickedness, and takes the girl slowly, holding her hips like he's caressing her. He hums with delight, his eyes hazy and full of lust.

I stare ahead, blinking above him, trying to avoid the devil’s eye. Then, he fucks her with everything he has, making her squeal, skin smacking against skin.

I sense it when James glances down at me, then he steps a little closer and puts us arm to arm. “Don't worry,” he whispers, “I won't let him do that to you.”

Though I appreciate his promise, it's empty. If Maksim wanted to do that to me, no one could stop him. 

“Everyone, stay where you are!” an American-Latino guy shouts over the party, drawing my attention. 

“If you move before we state otherwise, we’ll shoot!” another Latino yells. “Girls, get your fucking clothes on.”

On alert, I glance about to assess the level of danger, as does James. A group of combat suited men are storming the ballroom with guns, and once they've got every man lined up against one wall and looking down their barrels, Charlie marches in. 

“Stop!” he yells at Maksim, his blue eyes blazing with anger. He’s holding a blanket in one hand, a large silver gun in his other.

My heart drops. I watch in dismay as the naked sex-slaves scatter like rats to get dressed, tripping over their dresses. One guy orders them to line up against the back wall opposite the men, and starts handing out bottles of water from the duffle bag he’s holding. 

Maksim staggers off the Albanian girl he's fucking, tucks himself in and fastens his trousers. His cheeks are tinted red with lust, golden eyes scorching in the same debauched emotion.

“What is going on?” the Asian Prince asks in terrible English, wandering around in a drug infused state of confusion. 

My eyes flitter to Charlie, as he quietly consults with the combats. His large, muscular body is clad in jeans over black boots and a black long-sleeved sweater—rather casual attire considering his men look ready for war. 

“That's Charlie Decena,” I whisper to James, and he loads his gun. 

I pull back the hammer on my gun, too, and step forward for Maksim. James catches my elbow, making me stumble to a stop.

“What are you doing?” I hiss, tugging to get free. “Let me go.”

“Stay here. He's got over twenty men.”

I gawk up at James in panic, then at Maksim—who is now face to face with Charlie in the middle of the room—and then I gawk back up at James. “We can't just leave Maksim.”

“We don't want to start something if we can avoid it,” James says, his eyes trained on the situation. “I've heard a rumor Charlie Decena doesn't enjoy things like this, so he's probably just putting a stop to the show.”

“How'd you know that?” I ask, drawing in my eyebrows. 

“What's the problem though, my friend?” Maksim says, gaining my attention. “You’ve attended many parties like this before.”

There's a moment of dangerous silence, as Charlie towers over Maksim, tapering dominant blue eyes. “This, is myproblem.” He drops the blanket he's holding over the Albanian girl Maksim just fucked. 

She's panting for dear life, understandably bested after being whipped and screwed by at least ten men, so of course I'm stunned when she says, “Why are you stopping the show?” She's gazing up at Charlie through scraps of chocolate brown hair. “Who are you?”

James and I look at each other, and then ahead at Charlie. He passes the gun he’s holding to his right-hand man, and crouches to the girl, elbows on his knees. “You're Arjana, is that right?” he says, stroking her hair back out of her face. 

She nods, an air of vulnerability coming over her. “How do you know my name?” she says, descending into her shoulders. She's veiled in sweat and looks weak with trembling limbs. 

He whispers something to her, his face soft and welcoming, and then wraps up her tiny naked frame in the blanket.

What the fuck is going on? 

“Blaire,” James says quietly, “does he have dealings with the Albanians?”

“I-I don't know,” I stutter, trying to filter what's happening.

Charlie tucks one arm under the Albanian girl’s knees, the other behind her shoulders, and lifts her into his strong arms. She huddles against him, seeming glad that he's here. “Any more of this bullshit,” he warns, and leisurely pivots around, using the girl as a demonstration, “and we're all gonna have a problem—especially you, falso Prince.” He continues to scrutinize everyone, then his attention lands on me. His pale eyes widen, and for the second time tonight, I don't know where to look.

“Charlie,” Maksim says, ruffling his damp hair, “the girl is old enough, and she's a willing participant. Tell him, Arjana.” He points out to her. 

“Willing participant?” Charlie walks up to my master with the girl, hunched at the neck. “I just told you, she's stolen property. You of all people should know better than to fuck with the Albanians.” 

“She is payment for a debt owed to me,” the Prince says, lifting his chin in an attempt to look proud. 

“Debt or no debt”—Charlie stalks over to the Prince, who cowers in his kameez—“we can all find ways to please ourselves without beating and gangbanging an eighteen year old girl.” There's something eerie in the way Charlie is looking at the Prince. “Fuck her in a more private setting next time, or find an older participant—as you so nicely put it,” he says to Maksim, and he stalks back over to him while holding that girl like she barely outweighs a bag of sugar. “I mean, I'm all for a bit of sadism but this is bullshit.” 

“It is just some fun,” the Prince says, lifting his shoulders in a shrug.

“Fun?” Charlie raises his eyebrows, and turns to his coward audience. “Maybe I should get all your wives here and have my men belt them and gangbang them for so long that their flesh shakes. How would you all like that?” 

The ballroom is in quiet shock, and I'm just about to pass out with it when Charlie tells Maksim, “Send Blaire home, now. She doesn't need to see this.”

The Prince arches an eyebrow, flabbergasted by Charlie’s audacity. Maksim is stunned and humiliated, stuttering to defend himself but nothing worthy comes out. 

“You'll have her on all fours next”—Charlie continues belittling my master, shaking his head at me in disgust—“getting fucked by this brainless lot.” 

I feel a surge of rage go through James, and he steps forward for Charlie. The five men who are Charlie’s armor lift their guns in our direction, so I grab the back of James' sweater to stop him, my heart drumming in my ears.

Charlie isn't bothered by James' attempt, and why would he be? He's got an arsenal. He shakes his head at me again, pity burning in his eyes. “Since when did men start having young girls protect them, huh?” Before anyone can answer him, he turns away with the girl in his arms and leaves just as quickly as he came. His men follow out the double doors like a pack of wolves, and they shut us in.

No one is sure what to do—we're all just glancing at each other—but then Maksim rushes after Charlie, telling the Asian Prince, “I need to make sure there's no tension after this. That was Charlie Decena.”

The Prince’s face turns white. 

“What the hell was that all about?” James says under his breath, his eyes glued to the exit doors. “And why doesn't he address Maksim properly?”

“I have no idea,” I say, dismayed by Charlie's bizarre act of kindness to save that girl.

Voices break through the silence, discussing Charlie and what he's just done. Some know who he is. Others don't. I try to listen in—I want to know who he is—but Maksim returns. He marches up to me, his expression tight with nerves. “Go home now,” he orders in Russian. “I'll call you if I need you.” 

What?

“Do not stop to talk to anyone,” he says in a charge of Russian words. He can't seem to relax, looking back and forth between the exit doors and me. “Just get in your car and leave.”

I'm paralyzed with confusion. 

James nudges me onward.

Maksim grips my arm so tight I can feel his fingers digging into my flesh even through my combat sweater. “Get a move on.”  

I don't question him, even while I know this is out of character—he's never ordered me to leave before. Putting my head down, I walk through the murmuring ballroom, sort of thankful that I no longer have to endure the party.

What Charlie saw is nothing. It'll get darker as the night goes on.  

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Saturday, and it's work as usual. 

I pick up Maksim from his house and drive him to his friend Rumo’s country manor. They play cards there once a month, but they always play on different days and times. Men like my master don't have routines. They say routines make them easy targets for their adversaries. 

Maksim is on the phone throughout the drive, arranging a place for a few trafficked girls, so I don't have to endure a conversation with him. I'm glad. After coming eye to eye with him last night while he was fucking with that girl, I'll admit, I am a little nervous. There was something in the way he stared at me, in the way he touched that girl while staring at me. 

Maksim hangs up the call as we pull up on Rumo’s paved driveway. It’s illuminated with floodlights.

They're so bright that I have to squint. The redbrick house before us is a fortress with black iron bars covering the sash windows and a red laser security system surrounding the dwelling. Two SUVs pull up around us, the rest of Maksim's security detail. No one can get to him without a war. 

In the cold, I help him out of my car by opening his door. I bow my head, clasping a heavy gun in one hand. 

“You look lovely this evening, My Little Pet,” he says in Russian, grinning at me with a cunning gleam in his eyes. “I haven't had a chance to tell you.”

He looks good, too, in a sharp gray suit against a white shirt under a knee length black coat, his long brown hair curtaining his hard face. He smells nice, like something spicy. It makes my nose tickle as the night breezes against my face. 

I don't thank him for his compliment, nor do I smile. I just bow a second time.

“Have you heard anything from Charlie Decena?” he asks, tipping his head. “After last night, I mean.”

I nearly frown, peering up at him with innocent eyes. “No, Cэp Maksim.”  

He studies me for a moment, scanning my expression. “So, he hasn't been to your apartment?” His golden eyes widen for an answer. “I know he fancies you.”

“What? No, no! Of course he hasn't been to my apartment. I would have told you. You know I wouldn't—”

“Okay.” Lifting a hand, he cuts me off. “That is good, I guess.” He scratches his stubbly chin, and I cringe at the sound of his bristly beard grating against his nails. “But he's up to something. I just know it. I don't get why he's come to me for help on a job.” He goes on and on about his confusion over Charlie's agenda, saying what he did at the Prince's party wasn't him. “Decena wouldn't do something so thoughtful.” 

It isn't just me who thinks he'sup to no good. That makes me anxious, and the fact that Maksim is questioning me over my loyalty makes me even more anxious. He should know I'd never keep anything from him.

I'm sweating in my uniform. 

“What did you talk about when you gave him a lift to London?” Maksim asks. “Did he want to know anything about me?” 

No hesitation, I spill my guts about the useless questions Charlie directed at me. “He waffled on about my car and how fast it goes, the color.” I tell him everything, making sure I leave nothing to chance.

James appears from one of the SUVs, and I almost gasp out with relief. Maksim will focus on him for a moment. 

“Ahhh,” Maksim breathes out with a broad smile, turning his attention to James. “He's here.” 

Wearing a black combat outfit just like I am, James walks up to us with steady composure and bows, touching his chest. 

“Hello, My Pet,” Maksim husks. He calls us both his pets. However, I'm his little pet. 

“Evening, Cэp Maksim,” James says, his Russian spiced accent deep and level.

“How are you this evening?” says our master, his eyes flaring with something that a man shouldn't express to another man. 

James answers as courteous as ever with, “I'm great, thank you.” 

We never return Maksim's gestures. We're not allowed to. He doesn't like having to explain his moods—not that he needs to. I can sense his moods a mile away. Tonight, he's thriving. 

“Good. Good!” Maksim claps, grinning from ear to ear. “Well, let us get on with this evening. My best vodka is inside waiting for me.”

I internally shake my head. He drinks far too much. 

Our master turns for the house, and James gently catches my hand. He gives me a squeeze, causing me to peer up at him. He flashes his most affectionate smile, mouthing, “Are you okay?” 

Nodding, I smile back. Then we enter the house without an invitation. James walks on Maksim's left, while I walk on his right, both with a gun in hand. Maksim hides his away in his knee length coat. Though we're amongst friends, we're not at the same time. In this game, no one ever has a true friend. 

The entrance hall boasts gleaming black and white marble floors, oak double doors on each wall, and a huge white piano tucked away under the arch of the staircase on the right.

“Maksim-Markov,” Rumo greets from the furthest doorway that leads into the snooker room. “You made it.”

Smiling like the devil himself, Maksim heads for Rumo while extending a hand. “I am much looking forward to this evening's events, my friend.”

“Ohhh, you should be. You should be!” Rumo clasps Maksim’s hand. “I bought a new poker table, as you requested. The chairs are a lot more comfortable and the table is softer.”

Maksim nods a few times, chanting that he's glad. “When we can afford luxury, why skimp on the finer details like a poker table?” 

Entering the snooker room, they babble on about some Albanian business.James and I follow them in.

 

The brass lights hanging from the ceiling are dazzling, reflecting on the dark paneled walls in burnt orange tones. Behind the mammoth snooker table that commands the space, there is a poker table which can seat six. They always play poker in this room. I've never seen any other part of the house. 

Carl and Umberto await patiently, already sitting at the soft green table. Umberto greets Maksim from a distance with cool esteem. Carl simply nods. 

Mucky cigar smoke clouds the air in streams of grays and browns. It stinks. I hate the smell of cigars. I don't get the fascination with smoking. 

James and I stay within touching distance of Maksim when he sits at the head of the poker table, draping his coat over the back of his chair. 

“I hear you have Charlie on side, Maksim-Markov?” Carl says in awful Spanish tinted English, flicking the head of his cigar in a crystal ashtray. 

“That's right, my friend.”

“Even after what happened?” Umberto asks.

Maksim nods, scissoring a Cuban cigar between his fingers. “Yes. He forgives me.” 

Forgives him? For what?

James and I glance at each other.

“Just. Like. That?” Umberto pulls his thin gray eyebrows together. “You don't think that's odd?”

Maksim laughs under his breath, biting off the end of his cigar. “Charlie isn't the kind of man to beat around the bush, is he, Carl?”

Carl doesn't respond to that sarcastic directed question. He doesn't even address Maksim. 

“Besides,” Maksim continues, “it is always good to have such a powerful man as a friend. Wouldn't you all agree?”

They go into a full blown tête-à-tête over Charlie and what he's about, loyalty mostly. I come to understand that nothing else really matters to him. I also come to understand that Maksim double crossed him on some job a few years back. 

I gulp at this point. 

Rumo leans forward, staring at my master. “Just don't cross him again, Maksim-Markov. You know what he is capable of. You know he gears himself up with at least twenty armed men wherever he goes. And I can't get involved. I don't want to die.”

“I know, my friend.” Maksim squeezes Rumo's shoulder. “I understand.” He then grabs his crotch under the table. “Anyhow, why would I double-cross him again? I like my balls attached to my body.” 

They all laugh out loud—well, everyone but Carl laughs. This is strange. I've noticed before that Carl isn't Maksim's biggest fan, as has James, but his dislike for Maksim is coming off him in waves tonight. 

A tiny blonde girl wearing a red underwear set and shiny red stockings enters the room. She fills the men's glasses on the table. Umberto says he will fuck her after the game, emphasizing that he's going to whip her. She flinches when he smacks her ass with an open palm, and I drop my eyes to the floor. I will admit, I do feel a pang of pity for her. But, it's not my job to save girls like her, as much as I wish I could. As much as I know I could. I'd slaughter this lot in minutes with my own two hands if I was allowed.  

James gently touches my hand and I straighten, coming across deadpan. 

“Five card draw?” Rumo says after the girl leaves, and everyone agrees. 

So, they play cards, chatting lightly about girls they've abused and the wives they wish they could abuse. James and I keep quiet for the next two hours, antipathy radiating through us. We don't agree with whattheydo to girls. We have sneakily spoken about what we've seen and heard, but neither of us really knows what to make of it. We don't share their fancy for abuse, but we know nothing else, since we were so young when we came to Maksim. Once, James actually asked if he was wired wrong because he cannot bear to see girls getting mistreated, even if they do consent at times. He doesn't understand why Maksim enjoys being brutal. I couldn't give James an even answer. I don't know if he's wired right or wrong. I know what I feel. In my opinion, what they do is immoral. But this sentiment only came over me when Maksim granted me freedom. Since then, I've lived in the world amongst the normal and with television and books. James has only ever lived under our master. He's never tasted what normal might be, or felt the satisfaction of freedom that comes with living alone. 

“Charlie spoiled our fun,” Maksim says, and the mere mention of that man’s name pulls me from my thoughts. “And he was mad as hell. I swear, if anyone questioned his actions, he would have shot us all.”

He must be talking about the Prince's party last night. 

“I heard about what happened.” Umberto lifts a glass to have a sip of vodka. “The gossip has spread like wildfire. Glad I wasn't there. I know how excited Decena can get when angry.”

Carl comes to life, telling stories about Charlie in his younger years. “If anyone so much as attempted to pull a gun on him, they'd be dead. He doesn’t fuck about.”

I grip my gun a little tighter, anxious because Charlie said he was coming to this poker game. Hopefully, he's changed his mind. 

 

“Do not worry, my friends.” Maksim lifts a hand, grinning from ear to ear. “I straightened things out. He wanted me to send Blaire home last night, so I did.” 

My stomach rolls with shock. James gawps down at me. 

“And luckily,” Maksim adds, “that girl we were fucking was old enough and willing to let us abuse her.”

“Yeah, luckily,” Charlie says from the open doorway, gaining everyone's attention.

My eyes flicker to him, and an overwhelming tightness forms in my chest. He's leaning against the doorframe on one shoulder, arms crossed over a strapping chest. He looks cool in his pose, wearing a black shirt tucked into dark blue jeans, the collar unbuttoned to show a hard, dusty chest. The sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, revealing tan muscular forearms covered in black hair and thick veins. He's got that silver watch on his left wrist, a minute statement of money.

Our eyes align for a split second, as he flashes me a cunning smile, showing even white teeth. I'm the one to look away, unable to endure his presence. 

“Hola, Charlie.” Carl pivots to him from the table. “Where have you been? We expected you hours ago.”

Uncrossing his arms, Charlie saunters in and around the snooker table, his motions oddly graceful. As he passes James and I from behind, I hold my breath, and my toes curl in my trainers. I'm expecting him to do something like touch me in secrecy.

He doesn't, but the fact remains. He puts me on edge. Even more so knowing Maksim has betrayed him somehow. 

“Tis' good to see you, Carl.” Charlie smiles coolly at Carl and only Carl. “Work kept me late. I'm sure I’ve not missed much.”

I check him out from the corner of my eye. His hair is tied back, enhancing his gorgeousness—if that's even possible. It's so black and shiny, and looks finger touching soft. I've never thought about touching a man before. Maybe I haven't because all the men I've been around are either on Maksim's payroll or at the end of my barrel.

Charlie shows no interest in anyone but Carl, though the other men fuss over him like he's some kind of god, offering up their chairs and their drinks.

“The end chairs are the most comfortable,” Rumo says, giving Maksim a funny look, curtly nodding to the right, as if to say, get up and move.

Charlie doesn't react to them with smugness. He doesn't really indulge their fussing at all. He simply shakes everyone's hand while asking Carl, “How's the wife?” 

I'm itching to know who the fuck he is, especially after he saved that girl last night. He's like the light and the dark, the good and the bad. It's so confusing because no one in this game is both. 

“She's doing great,” Carl says, cradling his whisky glass on the table. “We’re on our third child. Her name is Gabrielle.” He kisses his own fingers with passion, emphasizing his daughter. “She's the most lindo little thing.”

“I'm sure she is perfect. Your wife is bonita,” Charlie says, though not in a smutty manner. He sounds like he genuinely thinks highly of Carl and his wife. “Tell her I said congratulations,” he adds, then takes Maksim's seat by grabbing the back with authority, forcing Maksim to move over one. James and I follow him to the right, staying behind him. 

“A drink?” Rumo says to Charlie, appearing a little nervous, tugging open his silver tie.

Charlie nods, slowly taking to his chair. Then, his eyes flitter between James and me, causing my stomach to roll with anxiety. I don't meet his gaze. I stare past him, endeavoring to come across collected in my pose.

“Someone’s got a thing for redheads,” he teases, referring to James and I, flicking up his eyebrows at Maksim. “They've gotta be related.” Turning his head, he says to James, “What's your name, boy?” 

 

Maksim waves out a hand, and James states his name. His voice comes out cold and detached.

“You're obviously part of Maksim's security alongside Blaire?”

James nods. “Yes, sir.”

“Sir?” Charlie looks amused and pleased with James' word choice. “Well, it's been a while since I was called sir. You should have seen this boy last night”—he winks at Carl from across the table in a sly manner—“actually tried to stand up to me and all my men.”

My heart sinks with unease, but James looks confident in his domain.

“Though I can't blame him,” Charlie says. “He clearly thought I was mocking this one.” He gestures at me and smiles. It makes him look so handsome and young, which is odd given how sovereign he is.

“Yes,” Maksim drawls. “I used to have a hard time training Blaire because he didn't like my process. He is too fond of her.”

“Aren't we all?” Charlie eyes Carl in an artful fashion, who seems entertained with his daring. 

Maksim doesn't respond to that. He ushers me forward by clicking his fingers, telling me to get Charlie a drink. “You still like brandy, don't you, my friend?”

“Yeah,” Charlie says, and I hate that I can feel his steady blue eyes on me. “Especially if she’s making it.”

On autopilot, I walk over to the bar in the corner of the room, put down my gun, and fix him a drink. 

“Have you opened your new club, yet?” Charlie asks. I assume he's addressing Rumo, given his club opened last week. 

“Of course,” Rumo says, and he blathers on about his new adventure—the whores, as he calls them. “They're filthy as fuck, and for you all, my close friends, they're free.” 

Men...I roll my eyes. They're so easily distracted with tits and ass.

“I think I'll pass,” Charlie says. “Don't like whores. I prefer my women clean and exclusive with a bad attitude.”

Carl chuckles. 

I grab the brandy from the side and take it to Charlie. He's surveying me as I walk to him. My stomach won't stop rolling with anxiety, but I try to save face by being as impassive as I can. 

“Hello, Señorita Blaire,” he says when I stop in front of him. His Latin infused voice makes every hair on my body prick. “It's nice to see you again. Did you enjoy an early night last night?” He smiles at me with bold seduction, his blue eyes glancing back and forth between mine.

He's so fucking handsome it makes me sick.

I nod at him by a way of forced respect.

“I’ve gotta say, you're even prettier in the light. Isn't she pretty, Carl?” 

Carl agrees, sparking a lighter for his cigar. “Even when she was younger, she was a bonita girl.”

Charlie smirks at Maksim with mocking enthusiasm, then he smirks at me. “You really have to fix the lighting in your office. What's the point of owning something so lovely when you can't fully appreciate it?”

I gesture impatiently with the glass, urging Charlie to take it. He does, and he runs his thumb over mine, causing me to jerk away from him as that familiar tingly feeling spreads through my body. A black switch goes off in my head—the switch that says, KILL!The switch that flickers on when someone touches me.

I don't attack him. I don't know why. 

I manage to keep my cool, and step back behind Maksim, training my eyes on the wall behind Charlie. 

James gives me a weird side-glance, which I see from the corner of my eye.

“How's work coming along?” Charlie asks me. Pressing his feet into the ground, he slides his chair around to face me. 

A few uncomfortable looks are thrown around, but Charlie doesn't care. He simply sits back and drapes his hands over the arms of the chair, holding the glass in one. 

“You can answer our friend, My Little Pet,” Maksim says, centered on the cards in his hand. 

“Things are coming along fine,” I say, squeezing the gun over my lap in both hands, fighting for composure.

“Just fine?” he asks. 

I step around so I can see Maksim's face, and also to get out of Charlie's line of vision. 

Maksim nods at me.

“Things are running like clockwork,” I lie. Now is not the time to confess that I'm not only failing to attain fifteen minutes, but behind schedule. 

“Good.” A devious grin reaches Charlie's eyes. He looks me up and down, leisurely and with intent. “Hmm, I like what you're wearing.”

Oh, of course he does. My combat outfit is tight and black, covering every inch of my small frame but my face. 

I think my cheeks heat up, but I don't show any other reaction—well, not deliberately. 

James is wearing the same, but I doubt Charlie will compliment him. 

“Can you breathe in those trousers?” he teases. 

I shoot him a wolfish glare, and he winks at me. I press my teeth together. Why does this bastard have to provoke me? 

Rumo and Umberto lewdly compliment my clothes too, saying what dirty things they'd like to do to me, if they were allowed. 

“That was a private joke,” Charlie says, and the room submerges in silence. 

I peer over at James. He's staring at me, baffled beyond belief.

“So, Maksim...” Charlie says after having a sip of his brandy, “about your offer to see Blaire in action.”

 

James and I look at each other—this is about the only communication we achieve in Maksim's company.

 

“In action?” Umberto's eyes light up. “Are we to enjoy a...fuck, show?” He hesitates to say the words, I assume because he's remembering what happened last night. 

“No.” Maksim says in a deep note, lifting a hand. “No one is fucking my little pet.”

“No, they're not,” Charlie says.

Maksim blinks at him. James and I blink at each other. Charlie's presence is so intense, like walking on fire. 

“So, what show?” Umberto asks, seemingly at a loss with a stupid expression on his wrinkly face.

“Maksim was telling me Blaire is a good fighter,” Charlie elaborates, speaking with his hands. “He offered to show me just how skilled a fighter she is.”

I detest how he addresses my master as just, Maksim, rather than Maksim-Markov, especially in front of his friends. 

“Ohhh, I see.” Umberto emphasizes that he's never seen a girl battle with such raw fighting skills. “She's like a fucking cheetah because she's so quick. You never said she was fighting tonight, Maksim-Markov?” 

“I was waiting on Charlie,” he says. “It is a surprise.” 

My heart drums in my ears. I'm not often nervous, but I don't often have time to get my head around having a fight. I usually do,rather than think. 

“Why don't we retire to the ballroom?” Rumo says, rubbing his hands together. “There is plenty of space for her to fight. We should bet?” Everyone concurs, then Rumo adds, “I've never seen Blaire fight before, but Carl has told me she's good.” 

“That's because she is,” Carl says, though he doesn't sound as animated as the others. 

Nonetheless, Rumo grins. “Well then, let us get a move on.”

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