Once again, it’s been ages since I blogged, but I figured what better way to make my way back than to bring you a bit of a teaser from my upcoming novel, Crooks & Kings. This book features Christophe Lupei, better known as Fang, as well as mafiya princess, Mariya Kuznetsov.
When I say this pair was an absolute dream to write—I loved every minute of it. Even the parts that are going to make you cry. 🙂
So, without making you wait much longer, here they are.
Christophe Lupei knew what it felt like to be helpless.
The feeling threaded through his every thought when he’d been back at the orphanage and under the care of a tyrant. It swam in his veins like a dark promise he couldn’t ignore. But he’d fought those demons. Overcame them.
He hadn’t felt this kind of weakness again … until now.
How quickly he was snapped back to the past when his back was against the wall, and he had to fight his way out. No, he needed to find his way out because someone was relying on him.
Someone who meant the world to him.
As he stood there, the barrel of his rifle pointed at the man on his knees before him, he focused on one thing—one person.
Her name whispered over and over inside his head, maddening him, goading him to finish this at his own speed instead of waiting as was his protocol.
Christophe had never cared for politics and the dramas it involved. The politician begging for his life meant nothing to him, nor did he give a shit what the man could give him for sparing his life.
He had to die for Aidra to live.
Simple as that.
But this wasn’t his kill, or his call, to make.
He had to wait for the two men seated in plush wingback chairs to finish asking their questions.
They were brothers on opposite sides of the underworld. One was known only as The Kingmaker, a fixer of unparalleled abilities—he was capable of starting and ending wars, all for a price.
The other brother, however, was a former assassin, and the man who’d single-handedly cut through at least thirty men to free Christophe and so many others from a place he wished he could forget.
Nix, his name was.
And his handler.
Every second of the seven and a half minutes he stood there, he saw the conversation going on around him, but he didn’t hear a word.
He couldn’t focus.
He couldn’t think.
His finger slipping around the trigger of his rifle, Christophe considered pulling it, knowing the moment he did, the hot lead would tear its way through the man’s skull, and he’d be dead before he hit the ground.
“I’m a man of my word,” The Kingmaker said, drawing Christophe from his thoughts. “I won’t kill you this evening.”
The man, whatever the fuck his name was, didn’t have a chance to even sigh in relief before Nix aimed and fired.
Not even two minutes later, Nix’s phone rang.
Blood rushed in his ears, his heart thumping rapidly in his chest. Frozen in place, Christophe waited on bated breath until finally, Nix was ending the call and looking at him.
“3251 Adame Street. Go, and don’t hesitate to cut through anyone in your way.”
He didn’t have to be told twice, nor did his brothers who were right at his heels the second he bolted from the room.
Once he was on his motorcycle with the address plugged into GPS, he took off without looking back.
“Slow down,” Aidra would have said if she was with him, her arms squeezing tight around his middle, “or you’ll crash and kill us both.”
She’d always hated when he drove recklessly, and even now, as he raced to save her life, she would probably be more concerned about him wiping out than the fact he was going well over a hundred miles an hour trying to get to her.
But Christophe didn’t care.
He just wanted to make sure he could get there in time so she could yell at him about being reckless with his own life.
He needed to get to her.
A robotic voice droned in his ear, spouting directions for the warehouse he was heading toward. It would have been a twenty-minute drive, he was sure.
Christophe made it in seven.
Squeezing the brake hard, it sent his bike skidding across the pavement, but even as he laid it down with little care to its paint, he was taking off across the parking lot, running faster than he ever had in his life.
His brothers were close behind, their booted feet echoing off the ground as they dashed after him, but his gaze focused straight ahead, only thinking about what he would find on the other side of the locked door.
Pulling the gun from its holster at his waist, Christophe fired, rearing back to send his booted foot against the door.
A crash sounded then a curse followed as a man ran out a back door, just a blur at the edge of his vision, but he didn’t direct his attention to the runner.
Rather to the tank setup in the middle of the floor.
Her hands and ankles were bound, but her eyes were wide with panic as the water feeding into the tank was nearing the top of her head.
“I’m going to get you out!” he said—he promised.
If it was the last fucking thing he did.
Christophe scrambled forward, trying to find the opening, but the latch was impossible to open, no matter how he twisted and pulled—and finally, losing his patience, he shot the fucking thing.
The bullets only embedded themselves in the metal but nothing more.
Tăcut, who was only a foot away, tried to shoot at the glass, but besides a vague scuff where the bullet struck, the glass held.
They’d made a tank of reinforced glass.
If possible, the panic only grew in Aidra’s eyes, mirroring what he felt.
He needed to think.
He needed to think.
He needed to think.
Nothing was ever truly bulletproof. If you shot it enough, its integrity would start to fail, and eventually, it would break.
That was easy—there was enough ammunition between the two of them that by the time they were done, there would be nothing left but dust.
He could get her out.
He would get her out, but even as hope filled him, time wasn’t on his side. The water was already above her head.
Three minutes …
He had three minutes to get her out before she drowned.
Christophe fired until his gun clicked, until the center of the glass was opaque, and he could no longer see Aidra’s face, but he did see the rest of her—the way her legs had stopped flailing and her arms had gone limp.
The panic and acute pain filling his chest were nearly too much. Too real.
She wouldn’t die. She couldn’t.
Not like this.
Not when he was right there and could save her.
One minute, Tăcut was beside him, and the next, the man was gone, only to return seconds later with a sledgehammer from a nearby workbench, and with every bit of strength he possessed, he sent it flying against the glass.
Until finally, finally the glass front shattered and water gushed out, nearly taking them off their feet, but Christophe stood fast.
“Aidra!” he shouted, even as he pulled her from the tank, ignoring the feel of her clammy skin as he laid her flat, shoving the strands of her hair back from her face.
Stacking his hands on her chest, he pressed, trying to force the water from her lungs. Rearing up, he opened her mouth, blowing in air before he repeated it all again.
He didn’t stop, even as his arms cramped, even as he felt one of her ribs crack under the pressure.
But she never uttered a sound.
He knew, but he didn’t stop.
She didn’t deserve this—not Aidra. She was too kind, too giving, too sweet—too much of what was good about him to be taken from the world as violently as she was.
Gut-wrenching screams echoed all around him, the noise nearly splitting his head open, and the only thing he wanted at that moment was for it to fucking stop.
But as he cradled her in his arms, holding her tight against him, he realized the screams were coming from him.
He whispered words she couldn’t hear.
He would make this right.
He would avenge her until there was nothing left of him—at least what little was left now that she was gone.
Even as his mind seized on the bloodlust quickly churning to life inside him, Christophe remained where he kneeled, holding her close as he should have done before.
He should never have let her walk away.
His brothers stood silently around them, eyes on anything but the sight he must have made.
Of the lot of them, he knew how best to channel his pain, how to bury it deep until there was nothing left to feel—but he didn’t this time.
He let his grief consume him.
He needed to feel everything.
Christophe leaned forward, pressing his lips to her cold temple as he whispered a prayer, words he had never offered to another.
Don’t go, he wanted to say.
What would he do without her smile and laughter and joy?
How could he look Nix in the face, knowing he had failed the one task the man had asked of him—keeping her safe.
“She’s fragile,” Nix had said so long ago. “Whether she wants to admit it or not. Protect her—even if you have to protect her from herself.”
Their petty argument before she had stormed away from him played itself over in Christophe’s head, a reminder that he should have gone after her immediately instead of waiting.
He should have paid attention.
He should have driven faster, tried harder, broken through that fucking box before the fight in her waned.
Christophe should have done a lot of things.
“You know, you’re doing that wrong,” a thoughtful voice said from behind him.
Christophe hung from his ankles; a knife clutched in his hand as he tried unsuccessfully to cut himself free. A fine layer of sweat coated him, the muscles in his abdomen straining from holding the position for so long and trying to get himself free.
But the interruption broke his concentration, and he was forced to drop back down, blood rushing back down as he blinked a few times to clear his vision and make sense of who was standing behind him.
First came an impressive set of legs, tan and toned, with a figure-hugging skirt practically molded to her thighs. Even upside down, his eyes started a slow trek up her body, lingering on shapely hips, a tiny waist, and breasts that were barely contained in the sheer shirt she wore.
He had never believed in love at first sight before, but that must be what this was.
She—whoever this woman was—was beautiful, and despite the little notch between her brows as she regarded him, he could still see the hint of interest in her eyes.
For six weeks, he had been training here at the Lotus Society facility, yet he had never seen her before. She had the same polished accent as Nix, but it was definitely nicer to hear coming from her.
“Yeah?” he asked, deftly turning the knife between his fingers as he watched her. “You want to help me out then?”
A smile touched her lips, gone as quickly as it formed. “That’s not in my job description.”
“No? I don’t even know who you are.”
But he wanted to know—he wanted to know everything about her.
For a moment, he thought she looked unsure, but as she turned to walk away, heading down the hallway she’d come from, she called over her shoulder. “Aidra. I’m Nix’s assistant.”
The thought of her leaving before he got more out of her forced him into action.
For a half an hour, he’d been suspended from the ceiling, left with nothing more than a box cutter and luck to get himself down. He’d been content to take his time with the assignment … until he saw her.
Using every bit of strength he had left, he forced himself up, slicing as quickly as he could at the ropes binding his legs. Not even thirty seconds later, the rope snapped, sending him spiraling to the floor where he landed on his back, the air knocked from his lungs.
Even with pain radiating through his entire body, he didn’t care.
He merely got up, brushed his jeans off, and started in the direction Aidra had taken.
Jerking awake, Christophe tried to get his bearings, his gaze darting around the sweltering room.
Where was … right. The apartment—his home for the last five months, and the one place he’d remained to spend his days drinking himself into oblivion. But even as he sought refuge away from the never-ending thoughts of her when he was awake, Aidra still found her way in his dreams.
Yeah … four months didn’t mean shit.
It didn’t matter how often he found himself seeking the bottom of a bottle—whether it was a dark variety, a light, or a mixture of both—he still couldn’t escape his memories of her.
The woman he’d loved and lost.
Even with an abundance of alcohol swimming in his veins, he remembered the way she used to roll her eyes when she was flustered, or the way she would trace a heart over his chest when they were in bed together. She was there. A part of his very being.
No matter how hard he tried, nothing seemed to purge the misery he felt.
And now, he was dreaming about the first time they met.
It felt like a lifetime ago now that she’d stumbled her way into the training room he was in as he completed his first lesson.
Nix didn’t know that little detail, and if he did, he wouldn’t have been pleased.
Relationships, in general, were frowned upon in the Lotus Society—the secret organization of assassins both he and Nix once belonged to. They were complications, and one of the most important rules in the Society was that concentration on a job could never be lost—especially not because of matters of the heart.
Or his cock, as it were that day.
He’d only been thinking about one thing then, but as the years passed and they grew closer before she ultimately found her way into his bed, Aidra was more than just her looks. She had been everything to him.
And in a single night, he had lost her.
Nah, five months didn’t mean shit.
He still felt her death like a punch to his ribs, and despite what Nix had told him the last time they spoke, it didn’t seem as though time was fixing anything.
How often had he heard time healed all wounds? That time was what he needed to process and cope with the reality of losing the woman he loved?
He’d wanted to believe it too, needing to grasp onto anything that meant he wasn’t feeling like he was drowning as Aidra had.
Even now, as he squeezed his eyes shut and gripped the disheveled strands of his hair tight, he could still see her floating in that tank, eyes wide with panic as she fought to breathe. The man who’d put her in there had been smart, but not smart enough. He hadn’t gotten the fuck out of town before Christophe got to him.
He’d felt a certain thrill feeding the man’s remains to pigs—it had felt appropriate.
But even as revenge was sweet, Aidra was still gone, and he’d still felt like shit after.
No, time was a little bitch he wanted to shoot right in the fucking face.
Stumbling to his feet, Christophe wandered into the bathroom. Reaching across the tub to turn the dials, water sprung from the showerhead above him. It took no time at all to strip his clothes off and climb in, the cold water further waking him from his stupor.
Silence reigned as he stood in the shower, waiting for the water to warm. The nothingness clawed at his subconscious, inner demons waiting to be let out.
He hated silence.
He hated the way it wrapped around him and became a suffocating bubble he couldn’t to escape. It wasn’t often he liked being lost in his own head—he didn’t like what he found there.
Maybe tonight he would finally go out, find a bar somewhere, and drink himself into a coma. That would at least quell two of his needs—the first to stop thinking of Aidra and his failure, and the second to stop thinking about anything.
Once he was clean, Christophe stepped out of the shower. Barely drying off, he tugged on a shirt and a pair of dark jeans then laced up his boots.
Now, the only thing he needed was his wallet and keys. Resting on the nightstand next to both was his mask.
That mask …
Just as much a part of him as the tattoos that decorated his skin and the brand on his chest of the lotus flower.
Painted to resemble a melting skull, it identified him much more clearly than his face ever did. When it was time to do a job, and he put that mask on, he became a different person.
He became Fang, the moniker he had adopted long before he ever stepped foot inside the training facility—back when he’d been much younger with more to prove.
Without it, he was just the Romanian orphan desperate to wind back the hands of time.
Pulling the drawer of the nightstand open, he dropped the mask inside and slammed it shut.
Something for another day.
Grabbing everything he needed, he left his apartment, walking the short distance down to the bar at the corner.
As long he’d been in the neighborhood, he had never bothered to venture inside, preferring to drink alone where the sheer volume of alcohol he consumed wouldn’t be cause to judge him.
Tonight, he didn’t give a shit.
He would drink until he couldn’t remember his fucking name, and he didn’t give a shit what anyone else thought.
* * *
The first time she’d seen the guy with the tattoos, he’d been on a motorcycle, slowly removing his helmet before placing it on the handlebars and climbing off.
Mariya Kuznetsov had only thought then he was a little dangerous—really attractive—but nothing she wanted to get involved in. With the trouble she was already dealing with, she didn’t need to add anything to it.
She was content to just look, letting her curiosity run wild, but once she realized he lived in her building, just one floor above her own apartment, it was much harder to ignore him.
The apartment building only had five floors, with just as many apartments between them, but the apartments themselves were still tiny. Most of the residents had lived there for more than a decade, so when she moved into the building—coincidentally, only a month or so after he had so she’d been told—it wasn’t hard to learn more about him.
Though the more she’d learned was only the floor he lived on and his predilection for buying vodka.
Most thought he was part of the trouble in this neighborhood, as dangerous and violent as some of the men that walked these streets. Whispers of an Irish gang taking over this part of the city hadn’t escaped her, but Mariya was careful to keep her head down and not draw attention to herself.
They didn’t know crime was all she knew.
They didn’t know her last name held power, even in the streets of Brooklyn. Not as much as in Chicago where the Kuznetsov bratva reigned, but her family name reached well beyond the borders of her old city.
The men who ran this neighborhood weren’t nearly as terrifying as some of the men she knew.
And definitely not compared to a man like Feliks Sokovich.
She could handle teenagers on the corner, but what she was made to endure no one would have been able to handle that.
And he’d been her husband
The smell of the blood splattered on the front of her dress still hung in her nose despite the months that had passed since the last time she stepped foot in Chicago.
The gurgling coughs.
The grasping hands.
She needed to get him out of her head.
Feliks might have been hundreds of miles away, but he still found a way to invade her every thought.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she forced the memories away, tucking them into a box where she couldn’t reach them.
Brooklyn might have been a long way from Chicago, but everyone knew someone, and it was hard staying one step ahead of someone who had far more power now than he did before.
“Oy, you there tonight?” Davie asked, drawing her back to the present.
Some feet away, her boss stood with thick arms folded across his chest and a towel draped over his shoulder.
She hadn’t realized she was still just standing there staring at the entrance where her neighbor had come through, but now, he was long gone.
“Sorry, lost in thought.”
Davie gave her a look that told her he thought she was a little off. “Aye, I’m getting used to that.”
Davie was Irish through and through, complete with the temperament and the ability to drink anyone under the table. On her first night in the city, she had stumbled into his bar, and by the end of it, she’d stumbled back out after begging for a job. He’d agreed to take her on so long as her schedule was always open.
Without her family and without knowing a single person in the city, her answer had easily been yes.
She had never mentioned she had never waited a table in her life and knew absolutely nothing about mixing drinks, but after a few trials and errors—and after he’d lost his temper with her a few times and forced her to come in on her off day to practice—she got the hang of it.
But she liked him nonetheless, temperament and all.
Without Davie, she wasn’t sure where she would be. After leaving Chicago, she hadn’t brought much with her besides the basic necessity, and after dumping the car she’d stolen on her way to New York, she hadn’t been able to pick up anything more.
Bringing over two beers for a couple on the other end of the bar, Mariya was about to start wiping it down when a raised hand caught her attention at the edge of her vision.
Wiping her hands on the hand towel she kept in the half-apron she wore, she headed in his direction, easily maneuvering through the people standing and sitting around the mounted televisions.
It was stupid, she thought, the slight flutter in her stomach she felt as the distance between them grew smaller.
It was curiosity.
That was it.
After months with Feliks, she hadn’t thought she was capable of feeling anything other than disgust for a man, but she couldn’t ignore the burning curiosity inside her for the one person no one seemed to know.
“What can I get you?” she asked once she was close enough to be heard over the speakers.
He’d dropped his hand once she was halfway across the floor, and as he turned to read the menu in front of him, the dark mark on the side of his neck caught her attention. Now that she was close, the ‘X’ tattooed there stood out, the lines thick and dark.
“Vodka,” he said with a marked accent. “The strongest you have.”
Romanian, she thought but couldn’t be sure. “Do you have your license?”
One dark brow shot up as he regarded her, but he didn’t argue as he reached for his wallet and pulled it out for her to see.
As her gaze moved from his picture to his birthdate, she couldn’t help peeking at his name too.
“Do you want a sh—”
Now, it was her turn to arch a brow at him. Davie didn’t often sell by the bottle—too many drunk eejits thinking they could drive home, he’d said—but Christophe looked completely sober to her.
He just seemed sad.
Very, very sad.
Nodding, she headed back to the bar, grabbing a glass first and filling it with a few cubes of ice before she went up on the tips of her toes to grab one of the frosted bottles on the top shelf.
When she brought it back over, he offered her a nod of thanks.
Wordlessly, she left him.
“He’s nice to look at,” Aubrey Tamsin said once she was back behind the bar. “I’d definitely try to take him home.”
Unlike Mariya, Aubrey was born and raised in Brooklyn, and despite having kept to herself for weeks, Aubrey hadn’t thought twice about befriending her.
“Russians are fun,” she’d said with an adoring smile. “My last boyfriend was Russian, and let me tell you; he was a hell of a good time.”
Aubrey wasn’t the type to ask questions and dig into secrets one didn’t willingly offer. She merely took life a day at a time.
“Don’t you think so?” she pressed on, nudging her with her elbow.
Mariya shrugged, evading.
She would have to be blind not to see Christophe’s appeal. He must have been at least six-foot-four, and with dark hair that curled slightly, and a jawline that was more than a little impressive, he was gorgeous.
But Feliks had been gorgeous too even as a monster laid beneath the surface.
“Plenty of attractive people in this city, you know,” Mariya said with an absent smile, going back to filling her orders, even as Aubrey drifted behind her.
“Well, you’re no fun. How am I ever going to get you a man if you don’t cooperate?”
“I don’t want one.”
Not now. Not ever.
Never mind that she had suffered at Feliks’ hands, but she would never ask anyone to accept the life she came from, and whether she liked it or not, they would have to.
“It wouldn’t be forever, you know,” Aubrey tried another tactic. “Just let him rock your socks off and leave it at that.”
“Nyet. Not going to happen.”
“Hand to God, best sex I ever had was a one-night stand.”
Setting her two drinks in front of the men openly listening to their conversation, Mariya cut her eyes back to her friend. “I thought you said the best was your sixth boyfriend. What was his name?”
“Tim—but our one night was so special, it totally counts.”
How could she argue with that? “I’ll think about it.”
She wouldn’t, but that was the easiest way to get her off her back.
As the hours slipped by, Mariya found her gaze drifting over to Christophe. Each time, he was refilling his glass, but she didn’t think she’d actually seen him drink any of it. By the time they were on final call, however, the bottle was nearly empty, and he was slapping down a number of bills on the table before getting to his feet.
“Are you going to be all right there, dove?” Davie asked as Mariya stripped off her apron and finished wiping down the bar top.
“I live right down the street.” Something he already knew. “I’ll be fine.”
He was eyeing Christophe as he left. Gypsies, he’d said once, you can’t trust them. Maybe he was Romanian, after all.
“You still have that thing I gave you?”
By ‘thing,’ he meant the can of pepper spray he’d given all the girls who worked for him. “Yes, I have it.”
“Go on, then. I’ll close up here.”
It was a balmy night despite the hour; warm enough that she didn’t need the jacket she’d brought along with her. Just as she’d told Davie, it took her no time at all to reach her building as the rest of the street was mostly vacant.
Digging around in her bag, she hunted for her keys … at least until a shadow fell into her line of sight.
Jumping back with a silent scream, she darted her gaze to the shadow’s owner before she could think to pull the only weapon she had.
“Shit, sorry,” he said, holding his hands up in a non-threatening gesture, though it didn’t help much. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
Despite the apology, he didn’t sound as though he actually meant it. He spoke as though he knew those were the right words to say, rather than what he wanted to say.
He was drunk, or at least he should have been drunk by the sheer amount of alcohol he’d consumed, but he seemed remarkably steady on his feet as he brought a cigarette to his lips.
The smart thing to do would have been to walk on past him, leave him to his cigarette and mind her own business, but months of curiosity had her speaking to him. “Are you going to be okay?”
Christophe blinked, seeming surprised she had spoken to him at all. Besides the occasional hello and serving him tonight, she hadn’t really engaged him much at all despite them living so close.
But his answer was not what she expected.
Most people tended to lie, even when the truth was obvious. “Are you at least going to be able to make it up the stairs on your own?”
The last thing she wanted to see when she left her apartment in the morning was him passed out in a pool of his own vomit.
“You offering to walk me up?” he asked with a smile, as though amused by her question.
“No,” she responded, holding her head up a fraction. She wasn’t stupid. “But I’m sure Thomas is awake, and he’d be glad to.”
Thomas being the lifelong Army Ranger who lived across the hall from Mariya and did his best to minimize the crime in their building.
Flicking ash off the end of his cigarette, Christophe shook his head. “I think I have it under control.”
Seeing no point in arguing further, she left it at that. “Have a good night.”
She’d only managed to take a step before he asked, “Your name?”
“What’s your name?”
Funny that she had passed him so often yet never bothered to learn his name until tonight, or him learning hers.
But perhaps that was a good thing. It only meant she hadn’t been drawing attention to herself.
Undoubtedly, it would be smart to stick to that. After four months without so much as a peep from Feliks, maybe she was doing something right.
“What’s yours?” she asked instead even though she already knew.
“Fang.” His response came a moment later.
“Fang?” she asked, genuinely surprised.
A corner of his mouth tipped up wider, revealing a set of pearly white teeth, and under the glow of the street lamp, she thought she saw a glint of silver in his mouth.
“People actually call you that?”
“If they’re smart.”
“And if they’re not? What do they call you then?”
Bloodshot eyes fell on her, his expression … sad. “Christophe.”
It was obvious he didn’t like being called that. “Nice to meet you then, Fang.” Officially, at least. “I’m Mariya.”
That was all she would give him.
Leaving him to his cigarette, and more than ready to get off her feet, she started up the stairs again until his voice stopped her. “Careful walking alone. It’s not safe.”
It was the same warning Davie had given, but she didn’t feel a chill when he’d said it. “I’ve survived this long.”
Shaking his head, he tossed his cigarette down, grounding it out with the toe of his boot. “Yeah? So did she, but it didn’t mean shit in the end.”
If there wasn’t so much emotion in his voice, she might have taken offense to that, but she didn’t think that was what he was doing.
His words were a warning.
The fine hairs on the back of her neck stood up. Who the hell was he? “I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, though this time, she didn’t stick around to listen to him say anything else.
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