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Priceless: A Dark Bratva Romance (Ruthless Doms)
An extended prequel, subject to final edits before publication.
I look at the sea of faces in the cramped, humid high-school auditorium.
Cheerful. Youthful. Full of hope and promise and pride.
But I see past every one of them.
I'm not here to observe the masses getting their rolled-up diplomas and marching off to college, holding flowers from grandparents and parents and boyfriends, posting goddamned selfies all over social media. I've ignored every word the politicians and speakers said, more intent on the conversation around me than anything. I see every eye that looks at her. Everybody within arm's reach.
I know each exit in this school, and every few minutes run my thumb along the cold metal I have tucked into my pants and the knife in my boot.
Ever vigilant. Ever watchful. Because this is my job.
I don't give a shit about anyone else in this place.
The rest are faceless, nameless, my focus on the one girl who stands out from the crowd because of her sheer, vibrant beauty. The belle of the goddamned ball. She's reckless and impulsive and brilliant.
My charge. My ward. The girl I've been commissioned to protect for four years.
The longest fucking years of my life.
Seventeen years old, just two days away from her eighteenth birthday. On the cusp of legal adulthood.
And the daughter of my father's best friend.
Off limits, in every fucking sense of the word.
I've been Marissa's bodyguard since she was thirteen years old. I've stayed in the background, attempting to give her the freedom a burgeoning teen needs, but honest to fucking God, screw that. I failed on that end. I could count every hair on her head. I could tell you the name, date of birth, location, and history of every single damn person she’s interacted with, and every boyfriend knew exactly who I was. I got to know them, too, and each has a folder on file with detailed background checks. Slightly over the top for teen-aged kids, and the files were admittedly slim, but I have no regrets.
She was just a child when we met, innocent to the ways of The Bratva. Ignorant of the work her father did.
And now, as she prepares to go off to college, it's my job to keep protecting her.
I've kept myself aloof. Detached.
She's a child.
But as I watch her walk across that stage, her brilliant smile lighting up the whole fucking Northern Hemisphere, my heart squeezes, and I swallow hard. Jesus, I'm proud of that girl. And I'd give fucking anything to keep that smile on her face.
I look away and school my features. I shouldn't have allowed my admiration to show even for a second. If anyone... anyone suspected how I feel about her...
My phone buzzes, and I ignore it at first, watching as Marissa walks down the stage on death-defying heels she should never have been allowed to wear. I swallow hard as her father embraces her and hands her flowers. She scans the auditorium, as if looking for someone, when her eyes meet mine.
I give her a small nod before I turn away and answer the phone.
"What is it?"
Laina, my younger sister, is on the line.
"Do not take your eyes off of her, Nicolai."
I'm instantly on guard. I swivel around to look back at Marissa, my pulse racing when I see her father at first, but I don't see her. She was here a second ago.
"What the fuck are you talking about?" I hiss into the phone as I push my way through the crowd to get to her.
"I overheard something I shouldn't have," Liana says, her voice shaking.
"Tell me." My voice comes out in a choked whisper.
Where the fuck is she?
I knock a lady's bag off her shoulder in my haste to get to her. "Hey!" she says, but I plow on, ignoring the angry crowd I shove out of my way, making my way toward the front of the auditorium.
"I can't speak freely right now," she says. "I'll call you as soon as I can, but listen to me, do not let her out of your sight."
And then I see Marissa. Bending down to pick something up, then laughing as she adjusts the ridiculous square graduation cap on her head.
I exhale a breath I didn't know I held.
"You fucking tell me what's going on, Laina."
"I'll call you right back."
The phone goes dead. Cursing, I shove it in my pocket, keep my head down, and take my place beside Miron, her father. He shoots me a curious look.
I turn my focused gaze on Marissa. She's walking hand in hand with her motherfucking boyfriend now, and I clench my fist. I hate when he touches her and have had to endure night after night watching her sneak away to be with him. I give her a semblance of privacy. His background's clean, but Jesus what I wouldn't give to break his pretty boy nose for coming near her.
He has the fucking balls to shoot me an audacious glare. I glare back, narrowing my eyes on him. He knows I'm watching his every fucking move. The prick swallows hard and visibly pales.
My phone rings again. I answer on the first ring.
"Listen to me." It's Laina. "I had to go where no one would hear me. I'm alone but I don't want anyone to overhear. Do you see Miron?"
"Yes," I say, my eyes reluctantly moving from Marissa to Miron.
"I went on a walk just now and overheard a talk between two of his men." Her voice is hushed, shaking. We deal with high stakes in the Bratva, and I know intuitively anything that would send Laina into a panic matters. "He made a deal, Nicolai."
The blood rushes in my ears so hard and fast it's hard to hear her. I know the kinds of deals she could be talking about.
"He's sold her," she says, her voice breaking. "He's put her up for auction. One week."
"Who did?" I want utter clarity.
"Miron," she breathes into the phone. My hands clench into fists of rage so tightly my knuckles turn white. I could kill him, right here, I could beat his motherfucking body to within an inch of his life before I slit his fucking throat.
This can't be. Our brotherhood does not deal with human trafficking rings. There are no auctions with us.
What can she possibly be talking about?
"How do you know this?" I demand. This is no small task she's given me, no small accusation she makes.
"I heard it with my own ears," she says on a shaky whisper. "You have to take her. There's no other way."
Take her? What the fuck is she talking about?
"No," I whisper into the phone. "I can't do that. I'll come home and we—"
"Everything okay, Nicolai?" Miron stands a few feet away, his dark black eyes suddenly looking more menacing than I remember.
Is it my imagination? Or is he really guilty?
Laina would not lie.
"Fine," I tell him. It takes effort to keep my voice steady. "Are we off to the party?"
He's rented a large hall. Food will be catered and he's even hired a live band.
"Yes," he says, and then he reaches for Marissa. He strokes his hand along her hair with a wistful expression and kisses the top of her head. A fatherly gesture, but in light of what Laina's told me, his gesture makes my skin crawl.
"Nicolai," Laina pleads into the phone. "You have to believe me. She's being taken. Groomed. And put up for auction."
"Where?" I ask, rage boiling inside me at the very thought of anyone touching Marissa.
"I don't know," she whispers. "I have to go. Get her out of there."
The phone goes dead.
I run my hand through my hair and look wildly around the auditorium.
If Laina is wrong, my father will lose his mind, and I'll be punished as a Bratva traitor, facing painful, brutal torture and death.
If she's right...
I curse under my breath and follow them to the party.
Nicolai always looks angry and brooding, but I swear, he looks angrier than I've ever seen him look. And it makes me want to cry.
I try not to look at him if I can avoid it, since I'm terrified he'll see me gawking at him one of these days. That one day, he'll know the way I feel about him. And today will not be that day.
But even when I'm actively not looking at him... even as I look past him and focus on my boyfriend, my friends, hell, even my father, I feel him. His brooding, powerful presence. Stern blue eyes on me. Those full lips and taut, tattooed, muscles, the way his—
I'm a wreck. I can't think about him now.
But how can I not?
I swallow back tears as I accept the praise of everyone but the one man I would do anything to please.
I worked hard at achieving high honors. I was proud walking across that stage, earning my ribbons and diploma with the rest of my class. And I'll miss the friends I met here, as I go off to college.
So it hurts when he does nothing but glare at me when I get my diploma. It isn't fair.
I did nothing to deserve his hate. If I could control this, I never would have had him work for my father at all. For over four years, I've endured his endless hovering and thin-lipped silence, his complete lack of humor and smothering overprotection. His stern lectures about how to behave and keeping myself safe. He'd wrap me in fucking bubble wrap if he could.
Because I'm nothing but a child to him.
I'm ready to move on, move away from his ridiculous, patronizing ways. Ready to branch out and become who I'm meant to be.
"Marissa!" Chelsea runs to me when we go outside to the school lawn and throws her arms around me, her blonde hair billowing in the wind. "We did it!" She brings her mouth to my ear and whispers. "Meet me at my house tonight? My parents are out of town. Epic party."
"Maybe I will," I reply. If I can get away from my bodyguard, that is.
"Maybe you will what?" Nicolai is standing right there. Of course he is. I feel heat creep up my neck to my cheeks.
"Nothing," I toss over my shoulder, sliding into the car when he opens the door for me, but he gives me that probing look only he can give me.
"Marissa," he warns, and hell, the way he says my name, that warning tone of his, makes my body react of its own accord. I close my eyes as a rush of heat flares across my chest, my heartbeat accelerates, and my breathing becomes ragged. From his voice. I can't understand why I react this way when he goes all stern and dominant on me. Why it excites me but incites fear, too, like standing at the very edge of a cliff.
"Nicolai," I singsong back, my voice a little wobbly. I won't look at him. I know those ice-blue eyes too well. Just looking at him will betray too much.
My inner thoughts. My plans. My feelings toward him.
"Answer me," he says, and then he does the very thing he shouldn't. He touches me, grasping my elbow.
My skin's on fire, my pulse racing so hard and fast I can't fight the heady feeling he gives me. God, he smells so good, all masculine and powerful. Though he's barely touching me, it’s like his fingers brand my skin. Every cell in my body snaps to life with vivid, visceral awareness.
I sigh, and though it kills me, shrug him off. "Nowhere, Nicolai. I'm going to my party. Okay?"
He climbs in the car, looks both ways, then shuts the door, because that's what he does. The constant vigilance can be a bit stifling.
When he takes his seat, he sits as far away from me as possible, in the corner of the small interior.
"Buckle your belt," he mutters.
"Fuck you," I mutter under my breath, not even thinking about what I'm saying.
That gets his attention.
The sharp tone does nothing to quench the raging fire being in his near proximity causes. To save me from dying of mortification, I take out my phone and pretend I didn't just curse at Nicolai. I have literally dozens of missed texts and notifications, mostly from the graduation, and I'm going through each one when my phone vanishes from my fingers.
Nicolai's molten gaze makes my heart stutter to a stop.
"Care to repeat what you just said?" he asks. A muscle ticks in his jaw.
"Actually, no," I quip, reaching in vain for my phone. "Give me that!"
He raises a dark brow at me, and I swallow hard.
He's like the polar opposite of my boyfriend. Eric's long hair is sort of rockstar-ish, whereas Nicolai's head is shaved. Eric wears loose, comfortable clothing—he's an artist—and Nicolai's dark, fitted clothing hugs his thick, powerful body like a glove, his muscles defined and intimidating. Eric quotes poetry and talks about anything and everything, and Nicolai says as little as humanly possible in his thick Russian accent.
Eric is a boy... and Nicolai is a man.
Oh hell, is he a man.
"I don't care if you think you're all grown up now that you have a diploma," he says in a clipped tone, his nostrils flaring, betraying his temper. "I won't allow you to speak to me that way."
My body is an electric wire, humming with need and want and shame and something deeper... darker... something I can't put my finger on.
"Really," I sputter. "And what are you going to do about it? Ground me?" Like a petulant child I cross my arms on my chest. "You can't—discipline me."
At most, he reports what I've done to my father, which is infinitely worse, so I shouldn't be poking the bear. And even as I'm challenging him, I'm ashamed of the way I'm behaving. I pride myself on being more mature than the silly girls in my class, and yet...
"Isn't that the truth," he says softly. "If I were you, I'd consider myself lucky that's the case."
I blink, and my pulse races impossibly faster.
There's nothing sexual about this encounter at all, and yet—why does excitement race through me like this? Why do I feel like I'm spiraling out of control, into the unknown?
"Then give me my phone, please," I say in a whisper.
"Apologize, Marissa," he orders, holding my gaze.
"I'm sorry." I acquiesce without a second thought, and it's not just because I want my phone. I don't like making him angry. And I don't like the way his stern correction is making me feel like I'm losing all control. I need to end this confrontation, and now.
He hands me my phone back, then takes his out, punching out a text so angrily I swear he'll break the damn screen. Something's under his skin, and I have no idea what. It can't just be me, is it?
Or maybe it is. My heart sinks.
"Nicolai, I'm really sorry," I say a second time. This time, I feel truly repentant. I don't like making him angry at me.
He looks up from his phone.
"What was that?"
"I'm really sorry," I say. "I shouldn't have been so rude to you."
A corner of his lips quirks up, making my heart stutter in my chest. The man never smiles.
"You shouldn't have, but I forgive you. All is well."
Warmth floods my chest from his forgiveness and reassurance that everything is okay, bright and beaming like the midday sun. Then he's back at his phone, concentrating on something. I pretend I'm on my phone, but I can't help but watch as his gaze goes from casual to dark, and his jaw tightens. He curses under his breath.
"Nicolai?" I ask curiously. "What is it?"
But the car cruises to a stop at the hall where my party is being held. Nicolai gets out of the car first, then extends his hand to me. I look at him for a moment in bewilderment. It's unusual for him to touch me like this.
"Let's go," he says. "You earned this party. You'll enjoy it."
"Will I?" I ask, with a little snort of laughter.
But he doesn't respond. He's already on guard, taking in every detail as I step out into the bright sun. Eric is waiting for us, and when I get out of the car he pulls me to him in a quick hug.
"There she is," he says, handing me a brightly-wrapped package. "Congrats, babe."
"Thank you," I tell him, squirming under Nicolai's stern glare. I feel him watching as Eric slides his arm around my lower back and pulls me closer to him, then leans in for a brief kiss. Guiding me to the door, we enter, and cheers erupt. I forget Nicolai for a little while. All my friends are here. Every one of them, as well as my family. I join them, allowing myself to be swept away by their enthusiasm.
And when I look up, Nicolai is gone. I know he isn't truly gone, though. He never takes his eyes off of me.
We party late into the night. Eric gives me a spiked ginger ale, which I pass off as a regular soda, and by the time they're closing the doors to the rental hall, I'm feeling a little tipsy.
Eric leads me to an empty hallway, and pulls me to him. "Come back to my place tonight?" he asks.
"I..." my voice trails off. It's hard ditching Nicolai, and after that display in the car earlier, I'm not sure I'm game for pushing him. "I'm tired, Eric."
"Are you serious?" he asks. "C'mon, Marissa. Just for one night. Ditch that oaf that follows you around like a puppy dog and head out with me. Just for tonight."
"He is not an oaf," I say tightly. "And I don't think so."
Eric turns on me, his playful attitude growing quickly cold and demanding. His grip on my arm tightens to painful. "One night," he says.
My pulse quickens at his angry temper. I've never seen him drunk before. Is he a mean drunk?
"I-I don't think so," I tell him.
"That necklace I got you wasn't good enough?"
I try to pull away but he grabs my wrist.
"She said no. Do you need me to say it for her?" The deep voice makes both me and Eric freeze.
Nicolai stands a few feet away, and he looks angry enough to kill. I look from him to Eric, and can tell they're on the verge of an epic pissing match.
"Yeah, no," Eric says, rolling his eyes at Nicolai. "All good there, chief."
"Marissa, come with me," Nicolai says, quirking a finger at me.
This time, I go willingly, though at the look on Nicolai's face, I'm not sure he's the safer choice than Eric. When I'm within arm's reach of Nicolai, he shocks me by grabbing my arm and yanking me close to him.
"Nicolai!" I say in shock. "What are you—"
His mouth comes to my ear. "You listen to me. You go back in that room and say good-bye. Tell them all you're going to a friend's house tonight and you'll be there a few days."
"What?" I whisper. He wants me to lie? My heart hammers in my chest. I don't know why he's demanding this, what his endgame is—
The blue fire in his eyes tells me he's deadly serious. I shake my head in confusion, but he grips my arm tightly. "Go."
"You're scaring me, Nicolai," I whisper, shaking my head. This isn't the man who's protected me for nearly five years, but someone deadly. Dangerous. Terrifying.
I know he's a prominent member of The Bratva, but I've chosen to remain deliberately ignorant of all things Bratva.
And then he's caging me in, one arm above my head and one at my throat. I can't breathe, my lungs frozen as shock and terror sweep through me.
"You ought to be scared," he whispers in my ear. What?
"Go in there. Tell them you're going to your friend's house. Then you come right back here to me."
Releasing me, he takes a step back and points toward the other room. I quickly weigh my options.
I could tell him no and straight out defy him. Report him to my father, or the police even. This is probably what I should do. I could run from him.
Or I could do what he says.
Could I have been blind to who he really was, after all these years? I thought he was my protector, and now...
Tears well in my eyes, but I do what he says, making my way toward the bar where my father is having a final drink, saying good-bye to his friends. I paste on a fake smile.
"I'm spending the night at Emily's," I tell him. "She's invited me to go to her beach house for a few days. Okay?"
My father polishes his drink off, his eyes blood-shot and unfocused.
Oh, Nicolai knows.
"Yeah," I say, a lump rising in my throat. My voice is high-pitched and a little squeaky. "He knows."
"Be good," he says, leaning in to kiss my cheek.
Maybe the implied threat in Nicolai's tone is only in my head. For years and years, he's been the one constant in my life, and even though he drives me crazy, he's done nothing but take care of me.
While I grew from childhood into adulthood, with all the awkward phases in between. And now, what is his purpose with me?
I take out my phone and shoot Laina a quick text, too. She felt badly she couldn't be at my graduation today. I want to confide in her. She's like a sister to me, and she knows Nicolai well, since he's her brother.
Heading to Emily's. See you soon?
But she doesn't respond.
Nicolai stands like he always does. Brooding and stern, his arms crossed, watching me. Wordlessly, he unfolds his arms and points to the floor beside him.
I inhale sharply. A silent command to come.
Feeling like I'm making a decision that will affect the direction of my entire life, I walk to him on shaky legs. He doesn't even wait for me to reach him, but takes me by the hand and leads me to an exit at the far end of the hall. A running car awaits.
I begin to panic.
"Nicolai..." I whisper, shaking my head. "I can't..."
"Don't make this harder than it needs to be," he says out of the side of his mouth. "I swear to God, Marissa. Come with me. Walk quietly."
He quickens his pace. I fall into step beside him, swallowing the lump in my throat. I'm scared. So fucking scared. Then we're out the door and he's opening the passenger door. Something tells me if I set foot in that car, nothing will ever be the same again. That going with him now will change the course of my life forever.
"No," I tell him. I shake my head. "You're scaring me. Nicolai, no." I turn away from him, but don't get far. In one swift motion, he grabs me by the back of the neck like an errant puppy and hauls me over to the car. I try to twist out of his grip, but he's too fast. Why, of all nights, does the parking lot have to be vacant? I try to move away, but he effortlessly lifts me in his arms, carrying me like I'm a baby. I should scream, but panic freezes my voice, and I can't make a sound.
The door opens and I hear a car approach us. I crane my head to look, but he pulls me to his chest. I can't breathe or speak.
"Too much to drink," he says to someone over his shoulder with a laugh. "Silly girl."
The other person laughs in response, and then he's bending down and buckling me in. I try to squirm and get out of his grip, but he quickly overpowers me and shuts the door. The second he's gone, I fumble with the locks, trying to unfasten it. This isn't right, something is so wrong, and I don't know what to do, but he's fastened the lock in such a way I can't open the door.
It's late out, and the parking lot is cloaked in darkness. For one wild minute, I wonder if he's done something to the lighting so he can take me away unseen. I look to him then out the window again. I could call someone. Laina? I could text someone, even. But I still don't really know what he's planning on doing.
He sits in the driver's seat, then drives out of the parking lot.
"What the hell are you doing?" I demand. I'm doing my best to keep full-fledged panic from taking over. I still trust this man.
His jaw clenches and he grips the steering wheel so tightly, his knuckles turn white. He says nothing in response.
"Nicolai, I feel like there's something I should know," I say, my voice shaking a little. "I don't get why you would do this." Tears fill my eyes, and I hastily swipe them away. "Please."
A moment of silent passes, and I try one last time. "What are you doing?" I whisper.
His features are granite, immovable.
"Be quiet, Marissa," he orders.
I don't even bother hiding my tears. I cry freely, as my heart shatters into pieces.
I thought I loved this man. I thought he couldn't stand me. And now, not only do I know this to be true, but he isn't the man I thought him to be.
Laina gave me the information I needed, but it wasn't until I got Rafael on the phone—
my friend, who went by the name of Maksym in another time and place—did I fully understand the severity of the threat against Marissa.
If I tell her why she needs to leave, she will never believe me. And I don't trust her not to run to her boyfriend or friends, or to say something to her father. Against every fucking instinct I had, I decided to take her.
"Where to, brother?" I asked Raf. I needed an out. I even considered taking her back to our compound in Russia, but Raf cautioned me against that.
"They'll look there," he says. "They might expect you to go home. Go to Boston."
"In Boston, we have Bratva connections. They're neutral."
Neutral... loyal to neither us nor our enemies. Neutrality is far from safe. On a dime, with enough incentive, they could turn.
"And if you go to Boston, you can grab a flight out of Logan easily to damn near anywhere if you need to."
"Fuck. They'll find out," I protested.
"Soon," he said. "But not until you've ended the threat against her safety."
I hate this. I fucking hate this.
So I'm taking her to Boston, to the compound Rafael is sending me to. It's a two-day journey at best, four-day at worst. I'll have to keep her hidden. Stay under the radar of the fucking Bratva of Atlanta, the most formidable group in the states.
But I'll do everything I can to keep this girl safe.
"Here I am, thinking you are the one who is supposed to protect me," Marissa prattles on. A part of me hates seeing her tear-stained eyes, ringed black from the smudged mascara lining them. A part of me longs to console her. To tell her the truth. But if I did, all could be lost.
"I said be quiet," I tell her. "I'm not telling you again."
"Are you threatening me?" she asks.
"No," I tell her calmly. "I'm warning you. You're in danger, Marissa. You will do exactly what I tell you."
"Or what? You'll hurt me?" She doesn't sound angry, though, but hurt, and hell if that doesn't kill me.
My thoughts immediately turn to really hurting her, of causing her pain, draping her over my knee and watching her skin redden beneath the heft of my palm... punishing her while she begs for mercy. I breathe in and let the breath out, schooling my features and ignoring the rampant desire that consumes me.
She's a fucking child.
It can't happen. It won't happen.
But she must do what I tell her.
No, I won't promise I won't hurt her.
I'll do whatever the hell I need to keep her safe.
"You wouldn't hurt me, Nicolai," she says, her voice tinged with the betrayal written in her eyes. It's more of a plea than a statement.
"I wouldn't test that theory if I were you."
She opens her mouth to say something, then closes it. Turning away from me, she looks out the window and watches the houses go by in silence. So quietly I almost miss it, she takes her phone out and sends a message.
I reach over, snatch it out of her hand, and tuck it into my pocket.
"Hey! Seriously, Nicolai, what the hell?"
I don't respond at first. She stomps her feet on the floorboards of the car and clenches her hands in fists of rage, growling like an angry kitten. Marissa isn't used to not getting what she wants.
She's swiping angrily at the tears that fall down her cheeks.
I want to kiss those tears away and pull her to me. Tuck her into my chest and promise her she'll be okay. At the same time, I'm tempted to turn her over my knee and teach her to behave.
But not now.
"I thought you were one of the good ones," she says. "I've always thought you were a good man."
I don't respond. Maybe if I ignore her completely, she'll give up on the damn chatter. I'm trying to fucking think.
"And now you've taken me from my home. You know this is illegal, don't you? You know you could go to jail for this, don't you?"
I fucking do know this, but I also know that she's pushing her boundaries to see how far she can go with me, just like she always does. Only this time this is no curfew or frat party she's sneaking into.
She'll learn to behave.
"I said be quiet. If you speak again until I tell you to, I'm going to pull this car over and gag you." I shake my head. "Khristos."
Her jaw drops so fast it's almost comical, but to her credit she doesn't speak. For a whole minute.
"Where are we going? Can you at least tell me that?"
She needs to learn that I mean what I say, and she needs to learn that now.
I look in the rearview mirror, confirming no one's followed us, then pull over onto the side of the road. Gravel crunches beneath the tires as I skid to a stop. Her body stills, her hands placed firmly on her lap, her gaze slowly coming to me. I look around the vacant interior of the car and find nothing suitable to gag her with. We left with fucking nothing but the clothes on my back, the weapons on my body and in my glove box, and my wallet. She's got nothing but the clothes she's wearing, and her phone, which is now mine.
She's wearing a skimpy little black dress, her hair hanging about her in billowy waves. I've got nothing that would work to gag her and wish I hadn't made the damn threat. I could use my belt, but gagging with a belt is clumsy and awkward.
Ask me how I know. Christ.
I'm wearing a button-down dress shirt and a t-shirt underneath. I quickly unbutton the shirt and toss it aside, then yank off my t-shirt. She watches me in wide-eyed fascination, flushing madly when she looks at my bare chest, crisscrossed with tattoos and scars. It's the first time she's looked at me like this that I've noticed, and my stomach tightens.
The air between us crackles, and I'm vividly aware of the way her breath is coming in ragged, labored gasps.
"Okay," she says, holding her hands up in the air as if in surrender. "I'll—I'll be quiet," she stammers, turning away from me. "Please. I'll do what you say but I—mmmphhh!"
I've twisted the t-shirt into a sort of rope and threaded it between her lips, tying it into a knot at the back of her head.
Her muffled anger fades to garbled pleading, which I stoutly ignore, then I sit back heavily down beside her and put my shirt back on. She watches every move before her hands fall into her lap helplessly as I pull back on the road, intent on getting to our first stop. I pick up my phone and dial Rafael.
"You got her?"
"Yeah," I tell him. "Anyone know yet?"
"No. Laina's confirming her story, so it’ll be a few days until everyone knows. Hopefully by then you'll find what you need to."
I have no idea what the fuck I'm doing with her. Where the fuck we're going. What the fuck I'll do when I get there, or how she's going to react.
We drive for several hours, until her head bobs to the side and she's dozing off, and it's almost normal, almost natural even, like we're a couple on a fucking road trip. But I know better, and my conscience doesn't relent for a second. What I want to do to her now that I have her alone, now that the brotherhood of Bratva brothers isn't hovering over me, should land me in jail for life.
But she looks so pretty and helpless, lying against the door, my t-shirt gagging her pretty mouth. It's undeniably erotic, having her under my control.
When my eyes burn from lack of sleep and I'm convinced no one's followed us, that we have this momentary freedom, I finally decide to stop at a hotel somewhere in the Carolinas.
"Marissa." I gently push her shoulder, and she wakes with a start, mumbling and flailing. She's frightened. She ought to be. Still, I need to settle her.
I lean over and gently restrain her, pushing her wild limbs down and kneeling on one knee beside her.
"Stop it," I order.
She looks at me then out the window and back again, tears filling her eyes. Her eyes flash with something I can't quite place, but soon the heated glare is unmistakable. She's pissed, and hell if that doesn't make my cock hard just looking at her.
She's gorgeous any day. She's stunning when she's angry.
Kneeling beside her, with my hands at the back of her head on the gag, I instruct her. "I will remove this gag if you promise to do exactly what I say. Do you understand me?"
She nods wildly.
I unknot my t-shirt and pull the gag free. She rubs her mouth and looks down, momentarily chastened while waiting for me to free her, though her eyes quickly flash at me again before she schools her features. I quickly unbutton my dress shirt and pull the slightly damp t-shirt back on, inhaling deeply but turning away from her so she doesn't know how the shirt, permeated with her scent and essence, affects me. I swallow hard, keeping my face stern and immovable.
"That was awful," she whispers. "I hate when you're mean."
Oh, no, we are not playing that game.
I lift her chin and bring her eyes to mine. "That wasn't awful. What you face if you disobey me? That will be awful. We're going into the hotel, and I insist you behave yourself. You speak to no one. You keep your eyes down. You do exactly what I tell you. Am I clear?"
Those gorgeous, luminous eyes look at me with hurt and anger and something deeper... something molten.
But she nods obediently, and I almost believe she's going to behave.
"Tell me you'll behave, Marissa."
"Fine," she says in a whisper, then yawns widely. The girl's exhausted.
"I mean it," I warn, and I fucking do.
"I know," she says, yawning again. "I'll be good."
I'm not convinced.
I chose the smallest, hole-in-the-wall hotel I could find, far less likely to be on the Bratva's map. The car I borrowed is unmarked, untraceable to my father or my brothers. My phone the same. Hers, however... I pull it out of my pocket and frown at it, then shove it back it. I'll have to dispose of it, but it's best if she doesn't know. She won't be too happy about that.
Walking into a place like this without bags won't draw any attention. This hotel was built for one-night stands. I open the door and gesture for her to go in ahead of me, earning me a heated glare.
"So now you're the gentleman," she says with an eye-roll.
"Watch the attitude, little girl." Christ, my palm itches to spank her feisty little ass.
She shoots me a mischievous grin.
Perhaps intimidation isn't the smartest tactic after all, given how she's misbehaved underneath my watchful eyes for years. I decide to try a different approach.
I've noted her wide-eyed gazes, the way she fidgets and when I pull closer to her. If my suspicions are right... and she is at all attracted to me in any way... I could try another angle.
I’m well versed in the fine art of domination.
I take her by the elbow and pull her to me in the small entryway before we enter the main lobby. Her skin is silk beneath my fingers, her fragrance exhilarant, but I take a deep breath and fix her with a warning look. Leaning in close, I brush her hair behind her ear, wanting to do so much more than that. To tangle my fingers in that mass of gorgeous waves and tug her head back before I capture her mouth with mine.
So fucking wrong.
I bring my mouth to her ear, caging her in the little space. "Unless you misbehave on purpose, Marissa? Is that what you want? Do you want me to punish you?"
The sound she emits is like a little mouse caught in a trap, a fetching squeak that almost makes me smile.
"Of course not," she protests, but the flush of her cheeks and widened eyes betray her.
"Are you sure about that?" I ask, hoping to embarrass her into silence. Gently, I run my fingers along the back of her neck, just enough to remind her how I control this. How I control her.
Just enough to ensure her compliance.
I shouldn't be doing this. Christ, I shouldn't be doing this, but the way her eyelids flutter and her cheeks color, I can't stop myself. What I wouldn't give to lay her down and make her moan until the sun sets and rises on a new day.
"Are you sure you don't want just that?" I keep my voice suggestive and salacious, allowing her time to think about the image I paint for her. "Me, overpowering you?"
She shakes her head but moves closer to me and swallows hard. She trembles, and it’s fucking beautiful.
I lean in and press my mouth so close to her ear I feel her warmth. "Laying you over my knees for the spanking you know you deserve?"
"Nooo," she says, but it's a moan this time, and though she's shaking her head, she's moved even closer to me.
"Then be a good girl," I breathe in her ear.
I want to eradicate the thought of every boy that ever touched her from her mind. Master her body, inside and out, leave my mark on her and show her the ways of a lover.
I release her, but grab her hand and walk to the desk. Guilt hounds me, but I shove it away. I have to keep her safe, even if that means pulling out all the fucking stops.
"Can I help you, sir?" A lanky young man with longish red hair and beady little eyes sits back at a chair at the counter, his feet stretched out in front of him like he's settling down to watch a game of Sunday night football. His mouth opens when he eyes Marissa, but a sharp look from me makes him sit up a little straighter and close his mouth.
"We need a room for tonight," I say, weaving my fingers through hers and tugging her close to me so that we look like a couple. But hell, she's thirteen years my junior and barely fucking legal.
He grins lewdly, and I want to wrap my hands around his scrawny neck. "Suite with one king?"
I huff out a breath I didn't know I was holding, pull out a wad of cash, and hold it in my fist.
"I need a double."
"No doubles," he chants, but his eyes are on the bills. "The suite has a pullout couch, though, a flat-screen TV, and includes the continental breakfast in the morning."
"Fine," I tell him.
He has me fill out the paperwork. I use a fake name and hand him cash.
He takes my money, then hands me a key. "Room 492," he says. "Enjoy your stay."
I thank him and pull her along with me, eager to get out of his sight. We should have some time before anyone's looking for her, but I don't want to push my luck. She trots beside me, thankfully quiet, until we get to the elevator.
"That guy was terrified," she says, her voice awed.
I look at her in surprise. It's the last thing I expected her to say. I'm used to others being scared in my presence and don't give it a second thought. Every one of the members of the Bratva, every one of my brothers, is physically intimidating, tattooed, stern. We command the largest, most formidable underworld army in America.
"Wish he wasn't the only one afraid," I mutter.
A beat of silence passes while we wait for the elevator. "He isn't," she says quietly.
Good. And she doesn't even fucking know what I'm capable of. I need her to do what I tell her, not to fuck around with her safety and mine.
Alright, mostly hers. I can take care of myself, but Marissa...
I'm not in the mood for small talk. "What did I tell you about being quiet?" I remind her. With a pout, she bows her head. Hell, I love the way she looks like this, all submissive and obedient.
My mind races with possibilities, where we need to go next and what needs to happen. I need a plan, and so far I don't even have food or clothes. I've got a destination, a car, and soon the hounds of fucking hell at my heels.
The elevator smells dank and musty. The carpet is threadbare, the overhead lighting dismal and yellow. She should have luxury and opulence, and I hate her being anywhere near this miserable hell hole. We’ll do what we have to, though. We ride the elevator up in silence. I hope to fucking hell the bedroom is clean.
She taps her foot on the floor, fiddles with her hair, then finally bites her lip when she catches me looking at her. I don't give her any reassurance. Nothing. My primary goal right now is keeping her safe.
We cruise to a stop on our floor, and when the doors open, I take her by the hand. Our room is only a few steps away but still, I check both ways, still leery of anyone following us. Still on guard for anything at all that would pose a threat to her. Always watchful.
Marissa stands in silence when I open the door. It takes three times before the damn door opens, stupid cheap locks, and when I finally get it unlocked, I drag her in the room with me.
"Oh, charming," she says when I flick the light on. I scowl at the "suite" before us. It's the size of a postage stamp, the "pullout sofa" no more than an arm chair that supposedly pulls out, a tiny table with two chairs beside the bed.
"Son of a bitch," I mutter. I'm fucking exhausted and ready for sleep, not knowing what awaits us next. I glance at Marissa. I don't even know if I can trust the girl. I toy with the idea of tying her up or restraining her in some way, but she needs her damn rest, too. I take the cushion off, only to find the bed portion of the sleeper chair is missing the actual mattress. It's otherwise passably clean.
"So... any chance this place has free toiletries? Cable?" she asks, going to the bathroom.
The nonchalance baffles me. Does she have no idea the danger we're in? Why would I take her the way I have without good cause?
I go look with her, but there's only a slim bar of soap and shampoo. I don't like that she's so carefree, like we're here for a little mid-week getaway, but what does she even fucking know? I haven't told her anything, because I don't trust her not to fuck up our escape.
"We can try the desk," I suggest, picking up the phone and dialing. I dump the contents of my pockets out onto the bedside table before I lift the receiver, and dial. The phone rings seven times before someone answers it. I pinch the bridge of my nose, my vision blurred from all the driving.
"Yeah?" It's the idiot at the front desk.
"Do you happen to have any toothbrushes?" I ask, already feeling my nerves rising at the sound of his voice.
"All out," he says.
I huff out an impatient breath, but keep my voice steady. "Thanks."
I turn to find Marissa hastily putting something behind her back, her wide eyes betraying her guilt.
What the hell?
"Come here," I tell her. I clench my fists, controlling my desire to grab her by the hair and haul her to me.
"What?" She wants me think she's innocent, but she's fucking not.
Tentatively, so slowly it barely looks like she's moving, she makes her way toward me, but I don't wait. I take a step toward her, watching as she captures her beautiful, full lips between her teeth. She lets out a little squeak when I grasp her upper arm and tug her toward me until she's flush up against my chest.
I ignore her intoxicating, feminine smell, crisp citrus mixed with delicate floral undertones, the scent that permeates my every waking hour and dreams. She's fucking around and still hasn't gotten the memo that I mean every damn word I say. She has no idea how much danger she's in. No fucking idea.
I take her wrists and draw them forward, prying her hands open to reveal her cell phone.
Anger boils up inside me so hard and fast I have to school my features so I don't terrify her, but fuck if I don't need to give her a taste of what she's up against.
This beautiful, headstrong, brilliant girl is on the cusp of losing every fucking drop of innocence she possesses. The thought of anyone touching her—hurting her…
"What did I tell you?" I grit out between clenched teeth, drawing her closer to me by both elbows, until her body is pressed up against mine, her breath coming in tiny, labored gasps.
But she's frozen, and I suspect she's lost her ability to speak, because she stares at me in silence and doesn't respond, her mouth slightly agape.
She's scared, but she's not fucking scared enough.
I want to haul her over my lap. To peel off every layer of clothing like I'm unwrapping a gift. To paint the curves of her ass with my palm until she's beet red and writhing on my knee, pleading with me to stop. But if I draw her over my lap, she'll feel how fucking hard I am. She'll know how much I want her.
I think of every damn time she's mouthed off to me, snuck around behind my back, told me to fuck off, the way she's spread her legs for that spineless bastard of a boyfriend, and I make a split second decision to break every goddamned rule. To cross that line between protector and something deeper... more intimate... more erotic.
I sweep my arm across the table and send papers and pens and menus fluttering to the floor, march her to the edge, spin her around, and push her belly over the edge.
"Hey!" she protests, pushing against me, but her efforts are laughably fruitless. With one hand, I overpower her, pressing the small of her back down so she's helpless to resist me. She knows what I've threatened. She knows what has to happen now.
"Don't!" she tries to order me. "I'm sorry!"
I ignore the way she pleads, while I gather the skirt of her dress and press her down with pressure on her lower back. I stifle a groan at the sight of the thin strip of fabric she calls panties. If I knew she wore a sheer thong under that dress—
I make myself focus on what needs to happen next. Marissa will learn to obey me.
Without another word, I slam my palm against the full, voluptuous curves of her ass. It feels so damn satisfying to spank her, I do it again.
At first, she whimpers in stunned silence, the only sound in the room the smack of flesh on flesh, but as I continue her punishment, she whimpers.
I don't stop. I can't stop. I've wanted to do this so long, the taste of dominating her makes me hunger for so much more. I'm a starving beast who's longed to taste this, to command and control and overpower.
"Stop!" she begs, her voice choked with tears. "Please, Nicolai. I'm sorry." She's crying in earnest now, and I don't want to let on that it affects me. I'm torn. I want to punish her further, until I've marked and claimed her, and her body bears witness to the lesson I've taught. And the beast in me wants to tear that thong off her and slide my fingers through her swollen folds, expertly working her to orgasm on my hand, on my cock, on my mouth. To make her first lesson indistinguishable between pleasure and pain.
I blink, my hand raised to strike again in mid-air.
I've taken this too far. I can't let myself even think of defiling her innocence.
I have one job, and I have to stay focused.
I remove my hold on her so quickly she nearly falls, the silky black fabric of her dress falls over her flaming red ass like the curtain at a play.
But I can't let her first punishment at my hands be in vain. I need to reinforce the lesson. or this has all been pointless. With considerable effort, I lift her shoulders off the table and turn her around to look at me. She casts her eyes down, but not before I notice they're brimming with tears. Marissa is disgraced.
It's about fucking time.
Still, I want to hold her. I want to console her. I want her to see how much better it is if she only obeys me.
I give myself just a taste, pulling her to my chest in a chaste hug. At first, she freezes, but when I wrap my arms around her and hug her to my chest, she melts into me like she's meant to be there.
Khristos. She fucking is.
At first I think she's holding her breath, but then I realize she's trying to stifle her tears, and my resolve to stay stern and corrective dissolves.
"Be a good girl, Marissa," I say gently, running my hand down the back of her head and holding her face to my chest. "Don't make me do that again."
Her arms are tucked into her, across her breasts, a sub-conscious move of self-protection, but as I run my fingers through her hair, inhaling her sweet scent, she melts into me. To my delight and horror, she lifts her arms to encircle my neck. And hell, they belong there, too, like she was created for this very moment, to fit in my arms just like this.
We can't do this. We shouldn't.
I can't help but hold her around her slim waist. My hands fit just so. Right there. Just like this. Because Marissa belongs to me.
"I just don't understand," she sobs. "Why, Nicolai?"
"Why what?" Does she want to know why I punished her? That's obvious enough.
"You're the one who's supposed to protect me."
I swallow hard. I am.
"You're in danger," I tell her, though I know before I say the words that she won't believe me.
She shakes her head into my chest. "But you kidnapped me. You won't let me call anyone. You gagged me and you just spanked me. Why?"
I harden my heart to her tear-filled supplications.
I could tell her everything I know. And all it would take would be one call to a friend, one text to her boyfriend, one little slip up and we could be found. She would be taken. Abused.
And gone from me forever.
"Trust me, Marissa. Please."
"How can you ask me to trust you if you won't trust me?"
It's a fair question. But before I can respond, I'm vividly aware of how close we are. How my shirt is damp with her tears, how her arms feel around my neck, and how her full breasts are pressed up to my chest.
I release her, but not before grasp her chin and bring her eyes to mine.
We have no time to deliberate. I will not reason with her. I will not beg.
"I will tell you everything when I can, but I expect you to obey me. Do you understand?"
Her eyes cloud briefly and she tries to shake her head, but her chin is still firmly in my grasp.
"Yeah," she whispers. "I—yes, sir."
In the deep south, she was taught to say yes, sir and no, ma'am. I know this. But she's never called me sir, and always treated me like her peer.
Something's shifted between us.
I release her chin and nod to the bathroom. I take a step back. Denying this intimacy. I have to shut down anything that could happen between us. I fucking have to.
"Get ready for bed," I say, my voice hard and commanding. Detached.
I ignore the look of betrayal she gives me before she does exactly what I say.
It doesn't affect me.
The Bratva’s Captive will release August 30th.