Becca: My dad’s best friend Ivan has always been the man of my dreams, so I jump at the chance to take up a placement at a Brooklyn clinic, while living with his mom. All I want is a shot at my happily ever after with the Russian New York Cop I’ve been idolizing since my teens. I know I can make him fall for me. Things aren’t quite the way I remember them, and it’s a different kind of world I end up tangled in. Ivan’s not who I thought he was, but does that matter when I’m already too far gone to care? How deep am I prepared to go for the older man of my dreams?
Ivan: I came to Brooklyn to work for the Bratva over a decade ago. Becoming a cop was part of the deal, but my loyalty has always been to Russia alone. Until Becca storms back into my life and upends everything. Keeping my best friend’s daughter out of trouble turns into a priority as soon as I see her again. With things heating up as the Ukranians vie for more control of Brighton Beach, and a new boss circling on the horizon, playing Good Cop is easier said than done. Becca’s the only woman who could ever steal my heart, but convincing her father to let me keep it is going to be another matter. Could she forgive me for solving my problems the Russian way, and can she ever see herself as a Bratva bride? Going head to head with her dad to make her mine might end up being one move too far. Will I risk losing it all to keep her, or is there another way?
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BROOKLYN BRATVA: A RUSSIAN MAFIA ROMANCE
AN OLDER MAN YOUNGER WOMAN ROMANCE
RUSSIAN UNDERWORLD, 1
A Man Who Knows What He Wants
Bratva Bear Shifters
Lairds & Ladies
A Man Who Knows What He Wants
Bratva Bear Shifters
Lairds & Ladies
Copyright © 2019 by Flora Ferrari.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The following story contains mature themes, strong language and sexual situations. It is intended for mature readers.
A MAN WHO KNOWS WHAT HE WANTS
Book 1: Baby Lust
Book 2: Veteran
Book 3: Built
Book 4: Bambino
Book 5: Rescued
Book 6: Leader
Book 7: Professor
Book 8: Burned
Book 9: Worldly
Book 10: Pistol
Book 11: Policed
Book 12: Driven
Book 13: Lucky 13
Book 14: Lumberjacked
Book 15: Protector
Book 16: Carpenter
Book 17: Italian Stallion
Book 18: Gardener
Book 19: Budapest Billionaire’s Virgin
Book 20: Billionaire’s Babysitter
Book 21: Cocky CFO
Book 22: Fireman’s Filthy 4th
Book 23: Mechanic
Book 24: SEAL’s Secret
Book 25: Police, Pooch, and Smooch
Book 26: Fireman’s Fake Fiancée
Book 27: Billionaire’s Virgin Ballerina
Book 28: Bitcoin Billionaire’s Babysitter
Book 29: Veterans Day Daddy
Book 30: Cowboy’s Christmas Carol
Book 31: Police Officer’s Princess
Book 32: Statham
Book 33: Bodyguard
Book 34: Greek God
Book 35: Billionaire Single Dad's Babysitter
Book 36: Mountain Man
Book 37: SEAL’s Justice
Book 38: Royal Romance
Book 39: Doctor Mountain Man’s Special Delivery
Book 40: Crocodile Dan D
Book 41: Mountain Man’s Secret Baby
Book 42: Doctor Bad Boy’s Secret Baby
Book 43: Cop’s Babysitter
Book 44: Nanny for the Cop Next Door
Book 45: Small Town SEAL’s Saving Grace
Book 46: Cop’s Fake Fiancée
Book 47: Billionaire’s Nanny
Book 48: Cowboy’s Babysitter
Book 49: Steamy
Book 50: Brother’s Best Friend
Book 51: Possessive Professor
Book 52: Firefighter’s Babysitter
Book 53: Soldier’s Secret Baby
Book 54: Ward’s Independence Day
Book 55: Doctor Next Door
Book 56: Possessive Policeman
Book 57: Coached by the MMA Fighter
Book 58: Boss’s Babysitter
Book 59: Virgin in New York
Book 60: Rock Star’s Baby
Book 61: Possessive Protector
Book 62: Possessive Australian
Book 63: Best Friend’s Brother
Book 64: Possessive Cowboy
Book 65: Summer Romanced
Book 66: Possessive Prince
Book 67: Lovers’s Enemy
Book 68: Cop’s Best Friend
Book 69: Possessive Firefighter
Book 70: Football Next Door
Book 71: Doctor December
Book 72: Possessive Canadian
Book 73: Blue Collar Billionaire
Book 74: Possessive K-9 Cop
Book 75: Possessive Brazilian
Book 76: Hockey Obsession
Book 77: Possessive Boston Irish American MMA Fighter
Book 78: Halloween Next Door
Book 79: Possessive Russian
Book 80: Baseball Mine
Book 81: Cop’s Caribbean Captive
Book 82: Instalove Island
Book 83: Dad’s Best Friend
Book 84: Thanksgiving with Dad’s Boss
Book 85: Possessive Italian Neighbor
Book 86: Possessive Portuguese
Book 87: Possessive Christmas Cop
Book 88: Russian’s Obsession
Book 89: Possessive Doctor’s Christmas
Book 90: Possessive Parisian Pilot
Book 91: U.K. Boxing Day
Book 92: Jealous Russian Stalker
Book 93: Italian Mountain Man
Book 94: Aggressive Russian
Book 95: Possessive Valentine
Book 96: Possessive Hunter
Book 97: Dad’s Russian Mafia Friend
Book 98: Russian Teacher
Book 99: Australian Obsession
Book 100: Russian Next Door
Book 101: Dad’s Irish Friend
Book 102: Nanny for the Russian Mafia
Book 103: Best Friend’s Dad
Book 104: Basketball Babymaker
Book 105: Possessive Veterinarian
Book 106: Brother’s Fireman Friend
Book 107: Brother’s Canadian Cowboy Friend
Book 108: Summer Vacation with Dad’s Best Friend
Book 109: Dad’s Italian Mafia Friend
Book 110: Dad’s Irish Mafia Friend
Book 111: Dad’s Football Friend
Book 112: Possessing His Dancing Queen
Book 113: Brother’s Cop Friend
Book 114: Halloween With Dad’s Best Friend
Book 115: Claimed By Her Boss
Book 116: Possessive Rider
Book 117: Dad’s Ex-Biker Buddy
Book 118: Possessive Undercover Cop
Book 119: Falling For Her Boss
Book 120: Claiming His Fashionista
BRATVA BEAR SHIFTERS
Book 1: Dad’s Russian Mafia Bear Best Friend
Book 2: Babysitter For Dad’s Russian Mafia Bear Friend
LAIRDS & LADIES
Book 1: Possessive Highlander
Book 1: Brooklyn Bratva
My dad's best friend Ivan has always been the man of my dreams, so I jump at the chance to take up a placement at a Brooklyn clinic, while living with his mom. All I want is a shot at my happily ever after with the Russian New York Cop I've been idolizing since my teens. I know I can make him fall for me.
Things aren't quite the way I remember them, and it's a different kind of world I end up tangled in. Ivan's not who I thought he was, but does that matter when I'm already too far gone to care? How deep am I prepared to go for the older man of my dreams?
I came to Brooklyn to work for the Bratva over a decade ago. Becoming a cop was part of the deal, but my loyalty has always been to Russia alone. Until Becca storms back into my life and upends everything.
Keeping my best friend's daughter out of trouble turns into a priority as soon as I see her again. With things heating up as the Ukranians vie for more control of Brighton Beach, and a new boss circling on the horizon, playing Good Cop is easier said than done.
Becca's the only woman who could ever steal my heart, but convincing her father to let me keep it is going to be another matter. Could she forgive me for solving my problems the Russian way, and can she ever see herself as a Bratva bride? Going head to head with her dad to make her mine might end up being one move too far. Will I risk losing it all to keep her, or is there another way?
*Brooklyn Bratva is an insta-everything standalone instalove romance with an HEA, no cheating, and no cliffhanger.
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The Uzbek across the table from me shook his head, lip snarling up in undisguised disgust as I counted off my cut from the stack of bills he'd set down, and handed him back a far thinner pile.
"This is all?"
Centering my stack of bills with a quick shuffle and tap, I placed it into an unmarked envelope I already had waiting and slipped it inside the jacket pocket of my suit. The opposite side to my shoulder holster.
"This is the way of the world, Ruslan," I told him. My accent had softened over the years, thanks to my language teacher who had remained my close friend. Ruslan's was still harsh. "You don't want to make worries for Moscow, believe me."
His lips pursed together like he'd swallowed a mouthful of sour lemons. He knew this was what he should expect. He smiled like it was painful for him to do so. I recognized the sentiment.
"As you say, Detective Kovalenko. We want Russia on our side."
The Russian speakers in Brooklyn weren't all Russian natives, although so few of them - of us - were born American citizens. Lately there had been an influx of people from The Stans. But they were happy to fall in with Moscow, when the brotherhood - the Bratva - flexed their muscles and made it clear how difficult, or easy, life could be.
Ruslan was one of them. New in and still on the fence. I watched him roll his money into a tightly wound cylinder and snap an elastic band around it before he tucked it into the inside pocket of his worn coat.
I saw myself in him a little. No doubt he would learn to blend in over time, the way I had to.
I took a sip of my coffee, savoring the bitter-sweet liquid in the tiny cup as I watched him walk out of the private back room I used in Mehmet’s and out into the bright, bustling cafe, rejoining Brighton Beach Avenue and the rest of the world beyond the shadows.
I'm Timoshenko's man, but over here that doesn't always give me the respect it should.
They think because he's old, he doesn't have the hold on the network that he used to. He's spread himself too thinly, they say. He can't possibly have control of so many syndicates so widely dispersed.
They think too small.
They don't understand that a man like him has a way of sniffing out opportunities at every turn, and making himself the most indispensible contact to have, in whatever region you choose to take your business.
They don't understand how much business he controls, or how many links and deals and trades he has with other much more inconsequential gangs across the globe.
They don't understand how he enforces any of it.
Ruslan was a case in point.
No doubt he would be going straight to Grigori Menshikov, the Ukraninan, with the ringing of the shop bell still in his ears. He'd already be thinking of ways to try and get a better deal as the door swung closed behind him. And by the end of the week, I would have to show him that a Russian never threatened anything that he did not intend to carry out, and did not abide by dishonest dealings no matter what language you spoke.
Ruslan's religion, his nationality didn't matter to me. Better Uzbek than American. The syndicate had been a melting pot of Jews and Muslims and Russian Orthodox since it had formed out of the frozen hell pits of the Gulags, and the latest iteration contained as many men who had forsaken God in all his guises as devout worshippers from all three major faiths.
Brighton Beach might not have been familiar with the Chechen Muslims, but the Russian Jews who'd dominated the area for so long were aging and dying off, steadily being replaced by men like Ruslan, who brought their mosques with them.
Men like Mehmet posed a different kind of challenge, because we didn't have the Russian tongue to bind us together. But I'd had no cause to make enemies of the Turks so far. And I liked their coffee better than the American filth.
If I could, I'd return to Moscow in a heartbeat, away from this constant stream of people who cheated each other with no sense of honor, or the consequences they bring down on themselves. But if I had to be in America, then it might as well be here.
There was no understanding when it came to the petty criminals I dealt with daily, only a sense of being out for themselves. No code to fall back on. The rats would cross and double cross until they had both sides gunning for them. It had rubbed off on some of the local racketeers too, and I was weary of it.
I'd come in the 90s, after the fall, along with a wave of other immigrants. Most came over illegally in that first wave, but I was from a later batch when it became clear that the old-style violence wasn't going to fly. If those in control in the motherland wanted to maintain their overseas endeavors, there had to be some subtlety.
Especially in an area speckled with other longstanding organizations with their own claim on each slice of the pie. The Italians needed careful handling, as did the Ukrainians who viewed themselves as the forefathers of our Little Odessa. And rightly so. But they didn't have the connections the Bratva could supply. We could guarantee better profits, products and sales.
Long live free market capitalism. It was the only thing to drive us and to let us take off.
Even though I could still walk down the street and hear nothing but Russian, there was a difference between a Ukrainian and a Muscovite and all the new incomers who were looking for their own place in the world.
I hadn't been around people who understood the distinction in a long time. But to me it was always clear.
There were no honest thieves left in this town. So, I had to be sheriff to them all.
The familiar grime of New York crept in mile by mile as the train got closer and closer to Grand Central Station. It shook me how unaccustomed I'd become to it after the past seven years living in sleepy suburbia and on campus.
There were so many people on the concourse. For a minute I was paralyzed, certain there was no way through for me with all my things. Anxiety tightened my chest as they bustled and shoved around each other, footfalls surging around me in a storm-cloud patter, cell phone conversations coming at me in loud snippets, coffees sloshing, and then I took a deep breath and hoisted my bulging bag higher on my shoulder and headed out onto the street.
The smell of the city hit me - pollution in the air, grime on the pavement from the overflowing dumpster around the side of the shops, the smell of food coagulating in the drizzle, steam hissing up from the vents.
You could take a girl out of the city, but you couldn't take the city out of the girl. I wasn't some small town kid who didn't know how to hold her own on the sidewalk. I'd spent the first fifteen years of my life in Brooklyn. I wasn't going to go to pieces because I'd hit Manhattan in the middle of rush hour.
It was a slog across the busy street to the Subway where I needed to pick up the B train.
The platform was heaving, but I squeezed myself on, ignoring the dirty looks I was getting because of the size of my bag.
There wasn't another way for me to get to Brighton Beach and I was just as entitled as any of them to be here. I flashed a smile at everyone and nobody at all at the same time.
"What are you gonna do? Gotta get home somehow."
Tuning out my fellow passengers, I plugged in my headphones and turned up the volume on my music player. I dropped my bag by my feet and pulled out a well worn copy of Eugene Onegin.
It was nearly twenty minutes before I got a seat. This time of year there weren't so many people heading down to the coast, which was fine by me.
Right from when I was a little girl I knew I wanted to marry a Russian man. I guess it was a silly childhood fixation, but I couldn't get the idea out of my head.
Dad taught English to the Russian speakers coming to live in Brighton Beach for the first fifteen years of my life, before we moved upstate to Albany. And my teenage fantasies were filled with a jumble of the Slavs who used to come to our house.
Some of them scared me. Others enthralled me.
One in particular. And he was my Dad's best friend.
Ivan Danilovich Kovalenko, NYPD Detective with the 60th Precinct was my idea of the perfect man and he always had been.
It wasn't just that he was tall and brooding - because, boy, did he brood - and it wasn't just that he was a cop. It was everything, from the rumble of his laugh to the rough, weatheredness of his hands that told me he knew what real work was.
He immigrated when I was ten, and Dad helped him get his English up to speed for the police academy entrance exams. I guess they hit it off, because he kept coming around every week, even when he was practically fluent. By the time I was eleven, I had an obsession the size of New Jersey.
I made Dad take me down to Brighton Beach all the time, and we brought home every dish we could from Brighton Bazaar. I begged him to let me take piroshki to school for lunch - patties filled with meat and vegetables - and I didn't care if I was the only kid in my class who didn't have a PB&J sandwich. It was Russian, so it was better. Ivan might even be eating the same thing as I was at exactly the same time, and to me back then, that was practically kissing. It was the closest I ever got to swapping bodily fluids with the man anyhow.
I saw how hard he worked. He had this drive in him that I'd never seen in anyone else before, like he wasn't going to let anything stand in his way of getting where he wanted to be. His was the face I saw when I read about any romantic hero in one of my books, but I knew he'd do the job far better than any of them ever did.
I might not have understood a word of what he said, but I loved the gravelly, grumble of his voice when he spoke Russian to my father. He didn't have to raise his voice for me to hear the authority in his tone. I used to stay up late, listening to them in the living room, talking and drinking, knowing that he'd never see me as anything other than the kid that I was, wishing that one day he'd look at me and know I was meant to be his.
I loved reading Eugene Onegin. I saw myself as Tatyana, the shy, passionate girl who fell for the suave gentleman from St. Petersburg, only to find herself ignored by him and spurned. One day, he'd realize his mistake and he would come to me. I ignored the fact that Ivan was nothing like a preening dandy, and I had never even tried to tell him how I felt, in a letter or otherwise - thank God, or I'd never have lived the humiliation down. Of course, I dreamed that we'd end up with the happy ending that the two characters in my book never got. I always hated Pushkin for that.
Sure, he could make his social commentary, but could he cut his characters a break once he was done? I always thought it was desperately tragic that they never got to be together.
I'd grown up a lot in the past seven years. This year I graduated college with a minor in Russian Literature and all I needed to apply for medical school. But for all that, I hadn't managed to shake my obsession.
I thought college would force me to move on, but I barely let anything distract me from my studies. And then I saw a placement come up helping out in a health clinic right in Brighton Beach a few days a week. And that stupid little voice in my head told me it had to be fate.
It would be perfect to give me the experience I needed for the next step in my education. Dad agreed.
Before I knew it, he'd sorted it out so I could stay with Ivan's mother, which was more than I could have hoped for. Not only would it be a great experience to act as her home help, picking up groceries and looking out for her overnight and on the weekends, but it gave me the excuse I needed to get close to Ivan again.
Obsessed or not, more than anything I needed to find out once and for all whether he'd ever see me as anything more than his best friend's kid.
Somewhere in those teenage years, he'd managed to ruin me for all other men, without ever laying a finger on me. God, I wished he'd so much as ruffled my hair. But it never happened. Why would it? He was a good man, and I was his friend's teenage daughter. I probably wouldn't have been so starry eyed over him now if he'd ever done what I'd wanted him to, but he had barely noticed me. I couldn't go on with this fantasy if that was all it was.
I wasn't a teenager anymore though. Twenty-two was an adult through and through and no one could argue with that. Not even him.
So now I needed to make him see I was all woman, or let my fantasy life with Ivan go. I'd wind up on my own with a hundred cats because no one else was quite right unless I did something. I'd barely even let a boy kiss me because some stupid part of me wanted Ivan to have my first everything.
How could the fumblings of a teenager compare with the way I knew Ivan could touch me? I didn't want some mistake of a first time. I wanted a man I trusted. A man who knew what he was doing. But the truth was, I didn't want him for just one night. My head was filled with images of how perfect our life could be together. I thought about what our children would look like, and wrote my name out over and over on blank pages in my class notes, practicing my signature with his surname.
If he didn't want me, I didn't have a plan for what came next. Maybe I'd be able to find another Russian closer to my age who made my heart pound the way Ivan did. But I doubted it.
The ones I'd met who were closer to my age were all designer suits, deep bronze tans and Gucci loafers, surrounded by women with inflated breasts, spray on jeans and flawless makeup. Oligarch's sons I guess. And that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted a real man who wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty. A man who'd worked to get where he was in life and who'd been through things that no one growing up in America could ever really understand. A man with eyes that switched from steely hardness to match his face, to a softer warmth when he thought no one was watching.
A man like Detective Kovalenko.
The timing was bad, given the teething problems with Ruslan's fledgling operation, but I promised Joe that I would let his daughter stay in the condo with my mother, so I would just have to work around her. A promise was a promise.
The job couldn't stop or Ruslan wouldn't be the only one who had to worry about Moscow. I'd find a way to keep her out of it.
Mama had been in poor health since before we'd come over. Too many sacrifices for her son in the cold winters back in Moscow when we had no hot water in our home and nowhere to move to even if we'd had the money to pay for a better place, along with the bribes needed to secure it.
It would bring me some peace of mind to know that there would be someone around to look out for her that she couldn't turn away. It was perfect. Becca needed a place to stay, so Mama could view it as a favor to her, rather than the live-in assistant she'd been rallying against, and her pride could stay intact. I was glad of that. But it meant I would have to be very careful about how I carried on business.
I'd arranged to meet her by the station. Now that the Uzbek had left, I'd come out from the back and taken a seat by the window, where I could see the crossroads the subway steps came down onto.
It wasn't only Russian places in the area now, and while that was causing a problem for one side of me, the other side of me was happy to enjoy the dark, bitter coffee and sticky squares of syrup-drenched pastries with nuts.
I remembered her as a kid with a sweet tooth. I was expecting to see the kid I'd waved goodbye to seven years earlier, but instead I watched the most beautiful woman I’d ever laid eyes on turn onto the street, her dark hair snarled into curls that were being whipped about by the wind that always zipped along the cross roads here, underneath the bridge for the train.
I had to do a double take. But there was something about the way she walked, the way she held herself that told me it was her, even from a distance. She had to be Becca. The strap of her oversized bag pulled down one of her slim shoulders. She had on high-waisted jeans, ankle boots and a plain white t-shirt, oversized sunglasses and a dark blue leather jacket.
Right now Becca looked tastier than any morsel on display in the glass topped counter, ambling down the street towards me with a sway in her hips that she couldn't have known was so provocative, and it floored me.
Why hadn't Joe told me she was all grown up? I should've realized. Of course she wasn't a kid anymore, but I hadn't expected this.
My cock twitched in my pants, like it knew the only place it belonged was buried deep inside her and I wanted to leap out of my seat and race to her side. I wasn't the only one staring. I wanted to pulverize the rest of them.
Like a crackle of electricity zapping through me, she made my whole body jolt to life. It felt like I'd been resuscitated, only I never realized I'd been dead. I must have been, because I couldn't remember the last time I'd looked at a woman and felt anything other than bored disinterest.
But I was salivating over her.
My eyes bored into her, through the glass of the window, and I tried to steady my breathing. The animal side of me wanted to stalk out there, pull her to me and make her mine, but I had to get a grip. She was my best friend's daughter. I was fifteen years older than her.
She tugged one of her headphones out of her ear, looking around as she slipped her cellphone out of her pocket, looking like she was checking directions, or maybe looking up my number.
I shook myself, downing the rest of my coffee ready to go out to meet her.
And that's when someone shoved her.
There was a flurry of motion as one of the two men with hoods pulled over their faces behind her grabbed her phone, and threw it over to his buddy, slamming her hard against the wall. I should have noticed them following her.
On any day, it was a long ride from Manhattan, but I knew she'd come a long way just to get here. I should have offered to pick her up. How could I have let her come all this way on her own? And now she was paying for it. I cursed myself for not picking her up.
A growl rumbled in my throat, and I was out of the door of the cafe in an instant, shoving it hard enough that the bell jingled madly. Mehmet let out a yell, but I was half way down the street before I realized he was waving my bill at me.
I wasted a moment to turn around, yelling back to him as I gestured towards Becca.
“Look after her!”
I barely broke a sweat as I powered down the street after the pair of muggers, zoned in on the back of their heads. A red mist descended and I could practically see a target in the middle of each hood. I didn't care that the street was busy, that this was broad daylight. I'd finish the pair of them for touching her.
Fists clenched, my knees pumped high as I sprinted down the street, dodging pedestrians.
"Police. Get out of the way!"
My hand was already closing around the butt of my service weapon - the Glock 17 I'd had to pay for an upgrade on a few years back. It was worth it. I could aim and fire without a second thought. The thug who'd dared to lay a hand on her was going to pay for what he'd done. He and his pal were going to wish they'd picked a different mark, and a different precinct.
"Police! Freeze you piece of shit!"
Predictably, neither of them did.
Well, they'd just brought down a world of trouble on themselves.
The cop in me already had their faces committed to memory, their builds cataloged and their sneakers noted. The best thing that could happen for them right now was for me to catch up with them, otherwise the mafia man in me was going to take over, and I'd hunt them down and really get my hands wet.
This was my precinct, and my job was to keep it clean. Above suspicion. So that business could keep running smoothly for my fellow countrymen. I always did what I said I would, and punks like this had learned that, for the most part.
That was the way it had been set up when I came into the country and that was the way it was now. These two didn't seem to have gotten the memo.
No one messed with Brighton Beach, and no one messed with the woman who was going to be mine.
And Becca was going to be mine.
Body and soul, until death do us part. That was something I knew to be true as soon as the thought went through my head. Mama would be pleased.
But first I had to annihilate any and all threats to her. Living in America was a sacrifice I'd made for the wellbeing of my family, but it was home now like it or not, and I wasn't letting anyone think they could treat her that way in my part of town.
I hardly had time to shout out when I was slammed into the nearest shop window. Pathetically, I tripped over my own feet, and by the time I realized the jerkoff who'd shoved me had taken my phone, he'd sprinted off down the street.
I didn't need a second longer to realize that the man who'd thundered past me, pouding down the sidewalk, face set into a snarl of fierce resolve, was Ivan. My avenger.
I grimaced as I peeled myself back up off the ground, dusting myself off, thankful that I had at least some of my dignity in tact. The palms of my hands were grazed and stinging and I'd caught the shop window hard enough that I was pretty sure my hip was going to turn purple, but I didn't feel any of it as I watched him power down the street after them. They hadn't taken my bag or my money, just my phone.
It'd be useless to them as soon as I reported the theft, but I already knew the first thing they'd do would be to turn it off and take out the SIM card. It would probably wind up in a whole other country where there was some wizard who could deregister it and unlock it without any of the in built security being triggered, and then it would probably end up on EBay.
I was so pissed with myself. I wasn't some clueless idiot. I should have had enough street smarts to notice I was being targeted. But I was locked in my fantasy world, daydreaming about Ivan.
It wasn't the phone that mattered, it was the pictures on it. Snapshots of times with friends and family that could never be replaced. And I knew I should have backed them all up somehow.
His long legs ate up the distance. I couldn't help but smile when I saw the sudden shift from cockiness to utter terror when the guy Ivan was tailing looked back to see the powerhouse of a man charging after him like John Connor in Terminator.
Ivan was unstoppable. I already knew that. My heart was beating as fast as if I was the one he was chasing.
Part of me wished he was.
Had he recognized me, or was this just the kind of man he was that he'd go after a mugger without a second thought?
It shouldn't have mattered to me, but some childish part of me wanted him to be doing this for me. As if then I'd know he cared about me, instead of this just being him doing his job.
I was so absorbed in watching him that I barely realized the man from the cafe he'd been in was trying to encourage me back to his shop. I waved him off with a smile.
"I'm fine. Thank you."
"Come, come. Sit and wait for your friend."
I didn't want to go anywhere with anyone I didn't know. Not after that. All I wanted to do was watch Ivan dispatch the asshole who'd ruined my first day back in the city. I was shaken at how quickly I'd been left on my ass. And how easily surprised I'd been.
All those street smarts I prided myself on couldn't have evaporated that quickly, could they? Maybe last time I was here, I was too young to be of interest. Now I guess I looked like someone who had the latest tech and was an easy target.
I hated that the first impression Ivan had of me was of a clueless chick who needed rescuing. But at least I got my chance to see him in action. If nothing else I'd at least be able to look back and say I got my hero moment.
He'd caught up with the slower of the pair, and someone let out a shriek as he drew his gun, but the mugger just carried on running.
Suddenly, Ivan leapt forwards, tackling the guy to the ground. The brute force of the move slammed him hard into the pavement and there was a moment of stillness before Ivan grabbed a fistful of the man's hood and slammed his head hard against the pavement. He yanked the unconscious man's arms behind him and had him cuffed in a matter of seconds.
To his feet again, he barely broke stride following the second man, and the mugger's idling pace turned to an out and out sprint. They were nearly out of view when Ivan seemed to get a second wind.
My whole body was tuned to him as I watched the impressive display. He might have been in a suit, but there was nothing to suggest he'd spent much time at all in the past seven years behind a desk. He was running down the sidewalk like an Olympic athlete or some kind of Titan.
Broad shoulders tapered to an almost impossible V at his waist and his thighs bulged inside the legs of his pants as he powered forward.
I held my breath as it looked like the accomplice might get away, but I shouldn't have had such little faith. He made another lunge, his muscled arms grappling the skinny guy to the floor and they both dropped in a tangle of limbs.
I couldn't make out what happened from the distance I was at, but by the time they were back on their feet, Ivan had the man's arm twisted behind him, and my phone in his hand.
"Listen, punk," I wrenched his head back and the man eyeballed me, not even bothering to struggle. He was breathing hard, just like I was, but he had fear in his eyes, where mine had only gotten more serious. "You don't pull this shit in my neighborhood. Who are you working for?"
Panting hard, he played like he couldn't get his words out, but I knew better than that. I pulled one arm up behind him, wrenching it hard and kneeling into his bicep until he screamed out like a panicked little bitch who'd never felt real pain. "You tell them they don't wanna piss me off. You got that? Take your cell phone racket outside my damn neighborhood. This is my town, and you got no permission to be here."
Only the beat officer who appeared on the scene once I'd secured the suspect stopped me from putting my fist clean through the asshole's head.
I tossed the guy at him, and he practically collapsed, legs shaking. I was surprised he didn't piss himself. Then again, maybe he didn't know better and only saw a cop when he looked at me.
"Book him," I snarled. "And his scum-sucking friend back there."
The pair of them had wasted enough of my time. I needed to meet the woman my best friend's daughter had grown into.
Re-holstering my gun, I prowled back to the cafe, rolling the tension out of my shoulders. The adrenaline was beginning to disperse now that I knew Becca was no longer in danger and all of her possessions were safe. I was still pumped though, and all I wanted to do was fuck her into the middle of next week but unfortunately that wasn't going to happen.
Mehmet was standing guard next to her, his beefy arms folded over the top of his ample belly and I nodded my thanks to him. Pulling out my wallet, I handed him a fifty to clear the bill and to reward him for his loyalty. All stick and no carrot didn't get anyone anywhere, and I knew that as well as my bosses did. His eyes widened, but he knew better than to question my decision and he stuffed the money into the pocket of his apron with a short nod.
I shouldered Becca's bag without another word and handed over phone her back, holding her deep brown eyes for a long moment.
"Hey," she said, after a long beat. Her smile was so bright and warm, like she'd been longing to see me for months.
"Hey yourself. You should be more careful."
The flush lit up her face, tinting her cheeks pink and reddening her ears. "I know. I can't believe I let that happen. I didn't even see them. They must have had me pegged back on the train. Thank you so much."
She clutched her phone against her breast and I had a moment of sheer insanity when I wanted to wrench it away from her again, because I was the only person or thing who should be allowed to get so close to her skin.
It took all the self control I had to stay standing as far apart from her as I did.
"You looked distracted. Like a tourist."
I couldn't shove her up against the wall and kiss her the way I wanted to. Not yet, when all she knew me as was her Dad's friend, when all she was expecting was a place to stay and someone to look out for her.
Somehow I had to play it cool. Treating her like the kid I could clearly see she wasn't was my only defense and my only tactic.
"Don't let it happen again. Your Dad would kill me."
I leaned closer, and pulled the remaining earbud out of her ear, letting the wires dangle. My nose wrinkled at the crooning excuse for music that came out of the tiny speakers.
"What is this your listening to?"
"It's blatnaya pesnya."
My snarl deepened, disgust curling my upper lip. She didn't need to be listening to overly romanticized music that glorified criminality the way only Russians knew it existed. "You like Russian music, we have geniuses. Composers, pianists. Not these crooners trying to pretend there's romance in leaving your family to fend for themselves while you're in prison."
Becca's lips thinned, and I wanted to kiss the pout off her face. She shoved the earbud back in.
"I like it. I like everything Russian."
I scoffed a laugh, my lips quirking into my first real smile in months. My eyes tracked slowly over her body, down along her curves and all the way along her legs before scooting back up, pausing at the perfectly round swell of her breasts. I had to tear my eyes away to look back at her face.
"You think you like gangsters? Men who've seen winters in a Siberian prison. You don't know who you're idolizing."
I heard her breathing hitch and she bit her lip like she was trying to draw my attention to her lips. She pulled the headphones out again and winding them up. "Were you ever in prison over there?"
I felt my eyes darken. "No." They'd needed a man with a clean record to take on the position I had now. Police officers couldn't be ex-cons. "You think every Russian is a gangster?" I snarled. "This is the problem with the West. You like everyone in neat little boxes that you already have the labels on."
Becca's eyes softened, cheeks still glowing with embarrassment. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean I thought you were involved with the mafia. I didn't - you're the most stand-up guy I know. Of course you haven't been to prison. That was a stupid thing to ask. It was just - the way you said it."
She was far too open, far too innocent. One harsh word and she gave up on her questions. Someone was going to take advantage of her one of these days. Hell, I already was, given she thought I was the whiter-than-white good guy my record as a cop made out. There hadn't been a time when that was all that I was, with nothing else to it.
But I was going to make sure that no one apart from me got the chance to corrupt her. Or to disabuse her of that notion.
"Look at you. All grown up." I shook my head, still disbelieving that seeing her again felt like looking at a totally different person, but the change in her was undeniable. At fifteen she'd been gawky and awkward. At twenty-two, she was confident and far too damn attractive for her father to be sending her off into the city all on her own.
My thoughts darkened, drifting to the college boys that no doubt had been harassing her for the duration of her studies. My teeth clenched hard enough for me to wonder whether anyone ever broke their own teeth. The chances were she had a boyfriend. Already I wanted to annihilate him.
"Come. Let's eat." For now she was mine to protect, and I wasn't going to desert my duty. Her father had trusted me to keep her safe, and I wasn't going to let him down. Instinctively, my hand nestled into the small of her back as I guided her down the street, keeping her body close. If I had my way, this was the furthest apart we were ever going to be again.
"Your journey went well apart from this, yes? Tell me about your father, and your studies."
I don't know what I'd been hoping for. That he'd take one look at me and realize that here I was, the perfect woman for him, and he just hadn't seen it until now.
The way he teased me over my taste in music and my Russian obsession made me feel foolish. And I'd already put my foot in my mouth, insulting him.
I might have thought I'd known him seven years ago, but really all I knew about him was that he was Dad's friend, that he was illegally attractive and calm and serious, and the sound of his voice rumbling from downstairs had been what initiated my first time touching myself.
And I'd felt so empty afterwards, because it wasn't him, and somehow I knew he wouldn't be impressed by me playing with myself like some kind of slut who was so obsessed with sex she didn't care how she got it. I didn't want that. I wanted him to make love to me and to show me how my body worked. How it was made to fit with his.
I was certain he was the only one who could make me whole.
But I had to get him on the same page first.
Walking next to him down the street felt simultaneously easy, and like the most insurmountable task. The warm weight of his hand settled in at the base of my spine raced a tingle right through me, confirming everything I'd always known. Just that touch, through the layers of my jacket and top made my nipples twinge and my clit throb. If I ever got to have his hands on my naked body, I was going to be utterly doomed.
I drew in an automatic breath, straightening my back, in some bodily attempt to press in even closer. I was on the short side at five foot four, the way he towered over me made me feel so small, and so protected. His body was a barrier between me and the rest of the world, and I knew nothing bad was ever going to get through it. His hand fit against the curve of my back so perfectly we could have been cosmically tailored together and I wanted to see what other parts of him had been so perfectly made to fit me.
But this was the middle of Brighton Beach Avenue and the bustle of it wasn't going to let up just because I was having a moment.
I blinked, pulling myself together enough to remember he'd asked me a question, and to figure out how to use my voice again.
"The train ride was fine. Took a bit longer than I remembered." Maybe because this time I was going towards the man of my dreams, and my impatience had reached a peak, whereas last time I was leaving him for what I thought would be forever and if the journey didn't end then somehow it couldn't be true yet.
I glanced up at him, looking over the strong profile I'd etched so deeply into my memory. He hadn't changed much. Maybe a few more lines around his eyes and on his forehead, a little hint of gray in his hair. If anything, he looked better than I remembered. I liked the hint of stubble on his jaw.
"You know Dad. He's living it up. Weekly Scrabble tournaments, teacher-parent mixers, racquetball. He's really living life in the fast lane." I laughed.
A little kick of triumph peaked in me when I saw Ivan crack a smile.
"Your father's a good man. He made a good life for you."
I felt my cheeks heat again, embarrassed that Ivan was the one defending the man who'd done so much for me, even if I wasn't being serious. I hated to think he'd see me as ungrateful. My irritations with Dad mostly came from the fact that he'd dragged me away from Brooklyn, away from the few memories I had of my mom, and away from everything that seemed exciting in the world. Mostly Ivan himself.
"I know. He really likes it there. He's doing great. The school really values him. And our house is pretty sweet. I mean, it's just him rattling around in it, but it's nice when I'm back for the holidays."
"You prefer to live in the city?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. Not Manhattan. I like Brooklyn, I guess. I mean it's pretty safe, crime's low thanks to the dedicated police officers." My smile glinted and I glanced up at him again.
Ivan scoffed, shaking his head at me.
"We do our best. Scum like that shouldn't be around here." His jaw rippled as he clenched it, and I could see how much the incident bothered him.
"Well, I feel very protected right now." My eyes lingered on his lips and I had to force myself to look away before I did something stupid like try and kiss him. I could only imagine how awful it would be when he pushed me away and I wasn't brave enough to risk that he wouldn't.
Ivan stopped walking and turned to face me. His hand slipped under my chin and he tilted my head higher so I couldn't hide from his eyes any longer. "I will always keep you safe."
He sounded so damn sincere, I forgot how to breathe. My heart was thundering so hard in my ears the sounds of the city dulled down to nothing. All I could do was nod mutely. For a minute, I thought Ivan was going to lean down and claim my mouth with his own.
And then my phone rang, and we sprang apart.
My head was spinning as I checked the display, hands shaking from the unexpected surge of adrenaline. Had that really happened? Was Ivan really just looking at me like he wanted to devour me?
I blinked, forcing myself to focus as I picked up the phone.
Of course it was my father. Right when the man of my dreams nearly kisses me, my Dad's sixth sense must have kicked in and he had to call me right this second.
"Becca! Are you there yet? Did you meet Ivan?"
Before I could answer, Ivan's hand tugged my cell right out of my grip. His eyes weren't so focused on mine any longer, no doubt because of Dad's excellent timing and I felt the loss. My heart squeezed painfully with the thought that even though he was attracted to me, Ivan's friendship with my father, his loyalty to him, might be too much of a barrier for this to ever happen between us. It was a reality I'd never considered in my fantasies.
I watched him turn away from me, striding a few paces away, one hand deep in his pocket.
"Hey Joe." I watched Ivan's smile pull in as my Dad said something to him on the other end of the line, but there was a sense of strain at the corners of his eyes. "You can relax. She's here. We're going to get something to eat. She'll call you back later. Stop being overprotective. She's with me now."
He met my eyes across the space he'd put between us, and I swallowed hard. Those words burned into me and I didn't hear another thing he said to my dad. That was all I wanted. To be with Ivan, under the protection of his strong, muscular arms. I didn't need anyone else if I was with him.
He hit the end call button.
And that was that.
I shook my head on a slow smile.
"Don't you think that was kinda rude?"
"He needs to loosen the apron strings."
I scoffed a laugh of my own, shaking my head at him again because I knew no one but him could get away with suggesting that to my Dad.
"To be fair, I did just get mugged."
"And I just saved you. No harm, no foul. You don't want to give the guy an aneurysm. He needs to let you stand on your own two feet."
Amen. I could have kissed him. Dad had been overprotective of me since forever, and all I wanted was a chance to figure out the next step in my life without him checking up on me every five seconds.
Ivan handed me my phone back. "Put that away before it gets you into any more trouble."
This time I had to pick up my pace to keep up with him as he stalked off down the street, towards the boardwalk. The weight of my bag, packed with everything I thought I'd need for the month, didn't even seem to register.
"What if I like trouble?"
"You said you'd keep me safe."
"And I will. But don't go making work for me, huh? Think about all the Russian grandmas in their fur coats with their tiny dogs that I can't help if I'm following you around all day beating up every guy who looks at you the wrong way."
For a moment he looked at me, totally deadpan, and then his smile curled in.
"Very funny. You wouldn't do that. Anyway, there wouldn't be that many."
"You're kidding me, Becca. Every man on the street had his tongue hanging out watching you."
I felt my face heat up again, uncomfortable that he'd noticed that and I hadn't. I didn't care about anyone else looking at me. I didn't want them to, I never had. The only man whose attention I wanted was Ivan’s
And I couldn't tell whether he was talking about himself too. My eyes met his again, risking the heady thud of my heartbeat rising all over again. My mouth was suddenly so dry I could barely swallow. "Not all of them."
Ivan's lips twitched and he huffed out a dry breath of a laugh. "Every single one."
There was anger in his voice, thrumming low and serious, but I didn't know who it was aimed at.
Together we strolled down the boardwalk, and I couldn't help noticing the number of people who watched us. I guess we made a slightly strange pair. Ivan, as tall as ever, broad chested and evidently strong, looking every inch the cop he was, and me walking next to him, so much shorter and smaller in every way.
With him carrying my bag I could kid myself that we were really together. Maybe that's what people saw when they looked at us. I hoped so.
Joe's phone call snapped me out of the spell Becca had put me under like a bucket of iced water. I couldn't stay hard with my best friend's voice in my ear, asking me how his baby girl was.
But she was doing a pretty good job of making me forget him.
His intrusion made me mad. Becca wasn't the kid he kept painting her as. That much was already clear to me. She'd been looking at me like she wanted to take my clothes off since I met her. And he was holding her back, making me hold myself back too. He was always telling me I should find someone and settle down. Well, I'd found exactly who I wanted and he wasn't going to like it one bit.
He'd be a hypocrite to get in the way. But I understood why he would. If Becca was my daughter, I'd want to protect her from every single man she ever came across. I'd give the guys her own age a hard time, but if she ever brought home someone as old as I was, I'd pitch him right out the door. There wouldn't be anyone good enough for Becca, and there wouldn't be for my daughters, when they came to exist. But I was different. I was made for her, and he had to see that.
More importantly, I had to make her see it, without scaring her away. No matter what I'd said about her needing to stand on her own two feet, it was clear to me that Becca was as innocent as they came. She smiled easily, without any of the guard that most people built up around them after a lifetime of things failing to pan out the way they'd hoped. Joe had cushioned her from any hardship, and I respected him for that.
It was the same thing I'd tried to do for my Mama. But I didn't think I had the right to control the way she lived her life. If I knew my friend as well as I thought I did, Joe had every last detail of Becca's next ten years planned out. And I was damn sure I didn't factor.
The place I'd found for Mama to live gave her every luxury she could want. I was glad that Becca was able to take advantage too. I had so many savings I couldn't declare without bringing suspicion down on myself. But the syndicate had ways of making sure it all appeared to add up if Mama was the beneficiary. On paper, it looked like her wealth, filtering through from her Russian bank account came from some inheritance fund, or divorce settlement. Never mind that no one had left her a single ruble, or that my father had died in prison before I was ten. It made a hell of a lot more sense than me taking a salary from overseas.
One day, when my duty was done, I'd have a nest egg to retire on and I could go wherever I wanted without the worry of looking over my shoulder every time I spent more than I should have been able to afford. But for now, I was living the life of an NYPD detective.
I'd been successful for so long because I knew how to keep a low profile. I always had. And that was one of the things they valued about me. But having a low profile never meant I was free to operate without rules.
The Oceana Complex was just off the boardwalk, right where it had always been. When I was a kid, the exclusive development had seemed so far out of reach. Everyone knew the garages were full of the kind of cars that cost the same as a house, and you could look down at the grounds between the buildings, watching the residents who came out, or the people who worked to keep the grounds pristine. The buildings all had views out over the ocean, and there was a huge pool, as well as a sauna and spa. It felt like somewhere I'd go on holiday when I won the lottery someday, not the kind of place I really expected people to live.
But Ivan's mother had a two bed condo in one of the red brick buildings that towered over the flat expanse of pale yellow sand, like some grand European hotel. I guess they must have been pretty rich back in Moscow. The idea seemed strange to me, given that I'd never seen Ivan flashing his money about, and as far as I knew, he still lived in the same crummy apartment building that my Dad and I used to live in, over by the 60th Precinct, towards Coney Island.
When he led me inside, I tried to keep my face neutral, and stopped myself from looking around at everything like I'd never seen an actual concierge desk in an apartment building before, and wasn't desperate to know whether I got to use the pool too.
"It's very safe here," was the only thing Ivan had to say about it.
We went up in one of the silent elevators, Ivan didn't make small talk. I didn't know what to say either.
His mother opened the door with a beaming smile, lipstick shell pink, foundation flawless, and her eyes perfectly lined.
"Vanya, show our guest in."
"Yes Mama." Ivan's lips twitched just enough for me to make out the hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as the tiny woman ordered him about with an imperial air. He'd been carrying my bag since retrieving my cell phone, and he'd already marched me on a rapid walking tour of the grounds and the building. I didn't know quite what else he was supposed to do, but he wasn't complaining.
"This will be your room," he said, opening the door to a neatly appointed double bed, with floral covers and matching curtains that made me certain this was his mom's house, not his. I'd half hoped he lived here too. But what man his age still lived with his mother unless he had to?
I guess getting me to help her out when she needed it meant he could carry on with his own private life. Of course he had his own place. Ivan had done well for himself in the police force and there was no reason why he wouldn't. I shouldn't have been so disappointed.
He probably had a girlfriend or a wife too. The thought of that sapped the smile right off my face and I slumped back against one of the closet doors, needing something to support my weight because my legs didn't feel like holding me up any longer.
"Oh! Is problem? You no like?"
I swallowed hard, pushing the wave of premature grief back. "Oh, no Mrs Kovalenko. It's a lovely room. Thank you so much for letting me stay."
"Da. Good. Is bathroom, there. And then kitchen through and through."
I nodded, feeling a bit like one of those nodding dogs people get for their cars.
Ivan set my bag down on the bed.
"Closet," he said, unnecessarily, crossing the room to open the door of it that I wasn't leaning against. His body arched over mine and I was acutely aware of his hand on the tiny door handle, his knuckles just inches away from skimming against my belly. My whole body tensed at his proximity, my nipples turning into hard little bullets, aimed directly at him through the thin cotton of my t-shirt.
My eyes locked onto his mouth and it was all I could do not to climb him like a tree right in front of his mother. Surely, he had to be able to tell how desperate for him I was.
I swallowed hard, forcing myself to look away and my fingers tugged at the suddenly strangling neck of my top. I could barely breathe.
He stepped back. "Drawers over there. I'll get you the WiFi password. Mama won't understand if you ask her for it."
"Okay, thanks." I cleared my throat and childishly, crossed my fingers behind my back. "Do you stay here sometimes?"
"No. I have some family matters I take care of in the study once or twice a week. That's all."
My heart sank as the idea I'd had of spending more time with him disintegrated. This whole plan was childish. I had no reason to follow him around it wasn't going to be subtle if I kept turning up at the precinct, or asking him to come and check on his mom. He'd only end up thinking I was out of my depth and look for a replacement.
"Vanya work too hard. Many, many hours. No time for poor Mama."
"I don't want to disturb your sleep, Mama, coming and going all hours of the night."
"Only you come eat my food and then you go away. Make live in apartment size of box." Mrs Kovalenko rolled her eyes. "Why? Is nice place here. Plenty room. Is beautiful view. Is pretty lady, now." Her smile glinted and she gestured to me.
I blushed. Ivan's eyes hardened with clear irritation.
"That's enough, Mama."
"Why enough? No. You no live here, you no say enough." She blew out a breath that verged on a raspberry in her son's direction and looped her arm into mine. "We live here," she told him, and she patted my hand. Her head tilted like she had a lifetime's practice at getting her own way. "Not you. You be quiet. In morning you take Becya work. Maybe, if lucky, I give you borscht."
For all that I would have preferred Ivan to have had a lightbulb moment about how we were meant to be together, I was grateful that his mother seemed to like me. I loved the woman already if she thought I was reason enough to keep her son around.
"Enough. You go."
Ivan rolled his eyes and I found myself laughing at the pair of them. Whatever happened with Ivan, the next few months were going to be fun.
Leaving Becca in the apartment shouldn't have been as difficult for me as it was. She was in no danger in the Oceana Complex, and there was no reason for her to do anything other than settle in, unpack and get to know my mother. But part of me was still humming with adrenaline from intervening with those muggers.
I wanted her where I could see her for the rest of the night. I wanted her under my direct protection.
But Mama wasn't going to let me.
There wasn't anyone else who could have stopped me. Leaving her alone went against every instinct I had. She was meant to be mine, but my claim on her was barely stated, let alone secure. As much as I'd been ready to smash those mugger's heads into the concrete, I'd held myself back when it came to her. I didn't want to scare her off with the strength of my feelings that had hit me like a lightning strike.
After all this time and with the situation between us - her father being my best friend - it had to be right. I knew I wasn't going to take no for an answer, but that didn't mean I'd force her into anything. When I made my move, she was already going to know that I was the only man for her.
I couldn't do that when I was so far away.
But I'd be around first thing in the morning, and my number was on speed dial.
Dismissed from my mother's house, I had no choice but to head back out and I knew exactly where I was going.
The way those guys had targeted Becca made me see red. Being arrested wasn't good enough. Whatever else my plans had been for the evening, they now involved one thing and one thing only. The jokers who thought they could set up guys to mug young women on my patch were going down.
The pair were still in holding at the precinct waiting to be formally booked for a court date and bailed. The duty sergeant I had in my pocket let me into the cells for a Benjamin. I led the first of the pair to an empty interview room, knowing I had the place to myself. We were out of hours now, just about.
Used to be, you could get away with an off the record conversation in an interview room more easily. But these days everything had to be by the book. Recorded on tape, witnessed, legal counsel present, if requested. The only way to avoid that was to not officially be there.
Luckily, it didn't take much for me to get that to happen. When I walked into the room, the guy who'd got away without me smashing his head into the pavement paled and scrambled back from his seat at the interview table, trying to put more distance between us.
"What the hell? You're the fucker who smashed Silo's head in. That was fucked, man. You're an animal."
"You better believe it." I turned the metal chair opposite the bare table around, and straddled it, folding my arms on top of the back, making sure he could see the bulge of my muscles. "Jerome, right?"
He gave an unwilling nod and the panicked look in his eyes betrayed how young he was.
"Here's what's going to happen. You're going to tell me who's paying you for the cell phones, and then you're going to tell me were you meet him."
"I'm not telling you pigs anything. You're batshit crazy. You know that?"
"Let me make this very clear to you Jerome. Do you see a camera? This isn't an official interview. I'm not here as a police officer right now."
"I guess not." His eyes shifted nervously towards the door, and then to the reflective mirror glass of the observation gallery. "What are you here as?"
I unholstered my gun and set it down on the table. The man's eyes locked onto it.
"You don't need to know that. This is an unofficial chat. You want to keep it unofficial, right? You look cooperative to me."
"Shit, man. I don't have to tell you anything. I don't know what the hell you're talking about. You're acting all tough, but you can't do anything to me in here. That's police brutality."
"Can't I'? Let's see. You said you had some information for me. That it could only be off the record. We came in here. You made a grab for my gun. In the struggle, you ended up getting shot. Not fatal, and I guess you won't miss your kneecap so much, but I hear it's right up there on the pain scale. I might get a slap on the wrist for not following procedure. But you'll get a permanent limp if my aim's good. Might lose the leg if your shin bone shatters. It's all in the angle."
His eyes widened even more. "No. No way. You're yanking my chain."
"Oh, Jerome. Don't make the mistake of thinking I won't do this. You've got until I get to five. I want a name."
"Fuck you, man. I'm no snitch."
I picked up the gun off the table and stepped around it, grabbing the man by the back of the collar and hauling him to his feet. The legs of his chair screeched across the floor and he hunched in on himself, his whole body tensing. That bravado he'd been trying for disappeared in an instant.
"Four and a half. I'm listening."
"I don't know who he is. Some Russian guy!"
"Four and three quarters. Try again. He's not Russian."
"I dunno. He sounds Russian to me! Big guy, dark hair."
"Him and half the city. I'm done talking. Five."
"Wait! The drop site's out by Coney Island. Under the boardwalk. There's some steps, right by the aquarium. We leave the phones in a paper bag, go around the block and when we come back there's the cash."
"That's more like it. How do you get in touch with him?"
"I dunno. He just turned up with this plan. Said if we did what he said, it'd be worth our while."
"I don't want your sob story. How do you get in touch to tell him to do a pick up?"
"He gave me a burner."
"Where is it?"
"My bedside drawer."
His eyes bulged and he was still watching me like I might still decide to shoot him anyway. The guy wasn't as stupid as he looked.
"Where's the key to your place?"
"You guys have it. Took it off me. Personal effects, evidence. I don't know!"
I re-holstered my Glock. "You did good Jerome. I can see you're a pawn here and you didn't realize that you were getting mixed up with things that don't belong in Brighton Beach.
"The Russians own this town, and no one goes around stealing phones, hurting the women in my neighborhood for fucking pocket money. Listen to me. You need to untangle yourself from the thugs you're involved with if you want a real future, otherwise your prospects are looking pretty short lived, Jerome. You want job security when you get out, you come to me. If you don't, you need to wise up, fast, because we won't be having this conversation again, next time I catch you."
This time of night Tatiana's was just starting up the evening trade. The lights were on inside the awning that extended out from the main building onto the boardwalk itself, and I could hear the music playing already.
The place had been on the boardwalk as long as anyone I knew could remember, and the crowd who frequented it knew exactly what to expect - as much food as they wanted along with as much to drink as they could stomach before the dance floor filled up. Tonight there was no scheduled performance of Russian dancing, and the crowd was more serious and older than it tended towards the weekend when the tourists streamed in for a flavor of Little Odessa.
As Russian as the menu was, it was the Ukranians I came to see.
The girl at the front got me a table without any of the sycophantic fuss that would have been made if this was in any other part of New York. I appreciated the straightforward service.
I'd eaten with Becca, but I could always eat more and I ordered an array of Zakuski - little dishes - along with a bottle of vodka. In Moscow, people drank vodka to get drunk and only to get drunk, or to prove how much they could handle. It was nothing more than easily acquired gut rot. But here, they mixed it into cocktails and infused it with fruits and tried to make out as if it was a speciality rather than the closest thing to pure ethanol that wouldn't kill you.
Tatiana's hadn't gone in that direction. The waitress plonked down a slim, tall bottle onto my table along with a sturdy tumbler and I cracked the top and poured myself out a hefty measure.
Across the other side of the restaurant, I could see Grigori's henchmen glaring at me. Coming here was stepping into one of their favoured haunts. Coming here was throwing my weight around. But it made sense. They couldn't start thinking that I was going to let them get away with hooking onto more of the business ventures we'd taken such pains to establish.
It might not have been bringing in millions, but the rackets that went on in my area were key to funding the larger projects our syndicate ran. From Brighton Beach it ran up all the way to the top of the pyramid. Without me to keep it flowing, and other men like me in other outposts just like this, the pyramid would be much smaller.
I raised my glass in a silent toast across the room, and the pair shook their heads.
I downed the ice cold liquid in one go and poured another glass.
The waitress set down an array of small plates, covering the table in front of me, and one of the women who'd been at the table with the Ukranians strolled, excessively slowly, across the room towards me.
Her breasts were pushed up towards her neck, and the neckline of her top was low enough that the lace of her bra was visible. The deep red fabric stretched taut across the artificially rounded swells of them and I could have filed my tax return in the valley of her cleavage. I had no doubt I'd feel the hardened silicone lumps of the implants if I squeezed them, but I had no desire to. She was indistinguishable to me from any other whore. Paid or not, that's what she was.
"You having a good night, Detective Kovalenko? I could make it better for you."
The thought disgusted me. Women like her hung around men they deemed powerful. Men like the ones in Menshikov's crew were small fry. Maybe she was trying to size up, or maybe she was doing them favors, aiming to cozy up to me and feed information back. I didn't care which it was. She wasn't getting anywhere with me.
She perched on the edge of the table, and her tongue traced over the bright red swell of her pouting lower lip. "You look so lonely, all on your own. A man like you should have all the company he wants."
She leaned in closer, the sides of her arms pushing her breasts closer together. I let her draw my eyes down for another look, and a frown pulled onto my face. Compared to Becca she was a harpy.
I could see the wrinkles beneath her makeup, the bags under her eyes, and her flawless face was too plasticated to come close to looking real. All she thought she had was her body, but the way she acted like she could manipulate me with it turned me off completely.
No doubt she worked hard for her image, but it did nothing for me. She didn't even have the intelligence to wear real perfume rather than the knock-off stuff Mehmet concocted in his brother's lock up, and the stale flowery scent hung in the air around her.
A day ago I wouldn't have been so disgusted, but Becca made me see how entrenched in grime I'd let myself become. This world I lived and worked in wasn't the one I wanted for myself.
"You're wasting your time sweetheart, Go back to your boyfriend. Tell him I'm not going to bite."
I picked my glass up again, and knocked back another shot. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her foot bounce in the air, but her frustration didn't come out in any other way. Her smile didn't crack. If anything it widened, and she gave an overly slow shrug.
"Whatever you say. When you change your mind, you call me." Without hesitation, she pulled a business card out of the back pocket of her skin-tight jeans and set it down on the table. Her high shine red nail pinned it down and she didn't pull away until I looked her in the eye. "Katja. I really think I could help you out."
I shook my head, unamused by her gall. When she finally stepped back from the table, it was with a turn of her head and a finger-wave. No doubt to maintain the charade that she'd made headway for the boyfriend she was going back to. A man who'd use the woman he was involved with as a honey trap was, to my mind, on the same level as something you scraped off the bottom of your shoe.
I gritted my teeth.
I might not have felt a shred of attraction for her, but any woman deserved better than that. I left the card exactly where it was and skewered a pickled herring with my fork as she looked back to me.
For tonight, the main purpose of being here was to maintain visibility, I'd rather have been at home. All I could think about was Becca, and how I wanted to plunder her body and take her.
But more than that, I could see her next to me, on the couch, both of us in the kitchen, side by side in bed. It didn't matter where as long as it wasn't some tacky-floored club thick with the stale smell of sloshed alcohol, dry ice and dust burnt onto the stage lights.
I was done with this. I wanted the wholesome life her dad had tried to carve for her. And I could provide it. But right now, there were too many bad apples I had to deal with first.
I'd have run those men down and killed them with my bare hands for doing far less than what they did to Becca. No one was going to drag her down. I barely had the restraint not to get my hands wet right in the middle of the street in broad daylight.
But I was going to find out who was pulling the strings. And I was going to end the little game they had going once and for all.
"Ask your boyfriend whether Grigori is running cell phones. There's someone starting something up."
"So, they need to pack up shop. Either they disappear on their own, or I make them go."
The woman scoffed. "You're not the boss around here, just because you have some Russian friends."
"Is that so?"
Her smile had returned, as though she thought she was getting somewhere with me after all. "Everyone has Russian friends, Ivan." She slunk back to the table and slid her hand up along my thigh. "Maybe because they get so cold and lonely. You need to do better than threats."
I caught her hand at the wrist, and my grip tightened until she flinched and pulled back.
"You tell them Grigori can play at being the big boss all he likes, but he runs what we approve of, and he doesn't poach business or clients. He knows this. It's been that way for years. There are going to be consequences if he's changing it up."
She narrowed her eyes as she rubbed at her wrist, nursing it like a wounded animal.
"I don't know anything about that. You tell them yourself if you're too important to talk to me."
Finally, she left me alone and I dug into my food.
She was wrong about me. I wasn't looking for just any woman to relieve my loneliness. I didn't need to escape from my own company. I could handle being alone and living my life this way. I'd rather take that than let someone like her get her talons into me and my life. But Becca was different. Becca reminded me of all the things I used to love.
I picked up the woman's card and ripped it in half, depositing it on the floor. I wasn't hers to have. I wasn't anyone's apart from Becca’s. Even though she didn't know yet how completely hers I was.
I poured another glass and focused my thoughts on her all over again, feeling my cock rouse as I conjured the memory of her smooth skin and her smile. She would never parade herself like that for anyone to leer at. It was clear she had more respect for herself, and I could see that would follow over into respect for me.
She'd been so pleased with the apartment, and Mama had taken to her in an instant. I wanted her in my life. I wanted her beside me, sharing these plates with me, or even slumped on the couch watching TV, knowing she was by my side where she was meant to be.
Above the dull thud of the music, the higher pitched buzz of my cell phone's vibration caught my attention. I frowned at the screen, watching it dance on the table top in front of me, flashing Joe's name at me. Becca's dad.
I scowled and shot back another mouthful of vodka. The alcohol barely touched me given I'd grown up drinking the stuff by the bottle, just like most of the men I knew. I would need to have more inside me than I did now to talk to him.
I didn't know what to say to him.
Congratulations! Your daughter grew up to be a real looker. I'm not going to be able to keep my hands off her and if you try and stop me, I'm going to flay you alive.
That wasn't going to go down well. Not when I was supposed to be his best friend.
As much as I knew I wanted her, the thought of having his daughter sounded like some kind of betrayal to him, given everything he'd done for me.
I didn't know her properly, and I wasn't pretending to. All I knew about who she really was came from the occasional proud fatherly moments Joe lapsed into. I knew she was smart and hardworking. A good kid. No - she wasn't a kid. She was a good person. A good woman.
But beyond that, there was a sense of familiarity and a sense of comfortableness that I felt around her. She set me at ease. Being with her, already I felt like I could be myself in a way that I wasn't able to be so much of the time.
And my attraction for Becca felt like the most natural thing in the world. How could it be wrong? He should take it as a compliment. He'd come around. I'd make him.
I hadn't ever pictured what it would be like to have a family here. To have a wife. Now I couldn't get the thought out of my head. Instinctively I knew Becca would be the kind of mother any kid would be glad to have. I wanted that for my flesh and blood. And I would protect my family with everything I had at my disposal, the way I always done. I'd make as many sacrifices as necessary.
I gulped another mouthful, relishing the burn of the vodka as it hit the back of my throat, and the screen of my cell phone finally went dark again.
Joe had given up. Tomorrow, I would talk to him. Or perhaps the day after that.
We were in the middle of one of Mrs. Kovalenko's TV shows when my phone started buzzing, and I got up to excuse myself from the subtitled Russian soap opera, going back to my bedroom to answer it.
"Goodnight Mrs. Kovalenko. I'll see you in the morning."
She barely looked up from the screen, absolutely transfixed. She'd dished out so much food for dinner, and I'd had to beg her to let me do the dishes. Staying here felt like it was going to be more her taking care of me than the other way around. "Sleep well Becca."
I smiled, watching her from the doorway for a minute before I picked up the call and turned away.
"Becca! Sorry for calling earlier. I just wanted to check you got there okay. How's the apartment? How was the trip? I thought you might still be out with Ivan."
I laughed at the barrage of questions.
"I know, Dad. You always want to check in with me. Yes, and good. And real nice actually. And… it was fine right up until I managed to get mugged. We've been watching this Russian soap opera. And I'm just going to bed now." I cringed, hoping to slide that bit past him by speaking quickly, knowing it was better I told him than Ivan did, but braced for his overblown reaction all the same.
"Mugged! What? What happened? Honey are you okay?"
"Yeah. No - I am. I'm fine, I promise. Ivan caught the guy and got my phone back. It was amazing. He turned into my personal superman or something." I was still glowing with the memory of how he'd chased them down for me. It felt surreal. Like something out of a movie. But Ivan really had risked himself by running after them just to get my phone back for me.
There was a pause. "Dad, don't freak out. Ivan said you would. Nothing bad happened. I'm fine, and you can't protect me forever. You should have seen the guys when he started chasing them down. I thought they were going to wet themselves!"
The tension in my Dad's voice dropped away on a laugh, clear relief bleeding into his voice now that he knew tragedy had been averted. "Why doesn't that surprise me? I wouldn't want to be a criminal in his precinct, would you? I'm glad he's there to look out for you."
"Yeah. Me too. I guess I don't look like a local anymore."
"Honey, there's a reason we left the city you know."
"Yeah, housing prices," I teased. "And that Head of Languages job that opened up."
It had been quite a shift, leaving all of my friends behind when I thought we'd be finishing High School together, but it wasn't like I had much choice. Dad had the opportunity he'd been waiting for forever in that job, and it meant he wouldn't have to cobble together full time hours, and supplement it all with private tutoring just to make enough for us to get by.
It was nice to be able to spend time with him in the evenings and on weekends, instead of always having to make myself scarce so as not to get in the way of yet another lesson. And I had to admit that our house was much better than the cramped apartment we used to live in. It was kind of nice being the cool kid from New York, rather than the Russian obsessed weirdo girl, for a change.
But Albany was a provincial town in the middle of nowhere compared to New York.
More than anything, I missed being so close to the sea, and I was planning on taking full advantage of the boardwalk while I was here. The pollution and the traffic noise were necessary evils that I'd just have to remember how to zone out again, like the sound of old Mrs. W's TV coming up through the floor at all hours.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Anyway. I'm glad you got there okay. How's Mrs K? Ivan's been pretty worried about her for a while now. It's not going to be too much for you to handle is it? If you think she needs a professional, Ivan's not going to argue. And we'll find you some other place to stay."
"Dad, breathe! You gotta let me answer the questions when you ask, you know that right?"
"What can I say? You're my baby girl. I worry about you being so far away from home."
"How do you think I survived college?"
"I have no idea. It's something I tried not to think about."
"I'm twenty-two. I can look after myself. I'm not a kid anymore, Dad. And Mrs. K seems fine. I guess Ivan's as much of a worrier as you are. Everything's under control."
"She says after she’s been mugged."
"Come on! I didn't have to tell you that, and now you're going to hold it against me? Don't make me want to keep things from you."
Dad let out a sigh and I could hear how tired he was down the line.
"Okay. Fair point. I just worry, Pumpkin."
"Oh, don't call me that..."
"I know you're gonna do just fine, Becca. Good luck tomorrow. You'll knock 'em dead. You're making me so proud. Your mama would be too."
I pressed my lips together hard. I never knew how to feel when he talked about her. It had been just me and him for most of my life. I never knew her, except for in photographs. And now I felt a sharp sting at the bridge of my nose and behind my eyes.
"Dad, stop already. You're gonna make me cry."
"Okay, okay. Just promise me, for the sake of my blood pressure, no more wandering around in a daydream, alright?"
"I'll try. Sleep well, okay? I'll call you in the week sometime."
"You better. Good night honey."
I wanted to ask more about Ivan, but there was no point. Dad had always been oblivious to my infatuation with his friend, getting excited about my fascination with other cultures instead and thinking it was his doing. I wasn't about to bring that idea crashing down when there was nothing more that I had other than a knotted mat of feelings and desires that were probably never going to be answered.
I sighed, thinking back to the way Ivan's hand had felt against my back as he'd guided me through the streets, and the way his eyes burned into mine. Maybe I was imagining it, but I didn't think so.
Regardless, there wasn't anything to actually talk to Dad about yet. What was I going to say? Ivan had spent more than half a second looking at my mouth, so now we were going to get married? I wasn't quite that delusional. But being here, feeling like maybe something between us was just about to happen made me realize that sooner or later, I was going to have to tell Dad. And I had no idea what he was going to say about it. If this wasn't totally in my head after all, then there was a strong possibility that Dad was going to end up hating Ivan forever.
The end of my official shift had never meant that my work day was done. I've always had other duties to take care of, but lately I'd been grudging the extended days. After so long I'd gotten used to balancing one world with the other, but knowing I could have been spending time getting to know Becca better made me start to resent it.
Separation used to help, but creeping into mama's place to use the office I kept in her apartment only reminded me that Becca was one thin wall away, asleep in the guest room. I could walk in there, if I wanted to. I could sit on the end of her bed and watch her sleep, or I could kiss her like she was a princess waiting to be woken from a curse.
I loosened my tie and stretched, half-covering a yawn as I booted up the desktop computer. I sat down, waiting for the home screen to come up and tried not to think about what Becca had worn to bed. I had a call I didn't want to take with a raging hard on and it was difficult enough to drag my thoughts away from her without adding to them.
Lost in thought, I jumped when the door to the office creaked open. Automatically, I whipped my head around, shrinking the window on the screen down with a quick click. My mother peered in from the hall. The pink roses on her quilted robe and slippers matched perfectly. Her curlers were in perfect rows and she was holding a baseball bat.
"Vanya," she hissed, dropping the bat as soon as she saw it was me, clutching at her heart. She used the pet name she had used for me since I was a kid, even though I'm six foot three now, and only three years off forty. Hardly her little boy any longer. "What you are doing here? It is middle of night."
"I know Mama. I didn't mean to wake you." I'd hoped I wouldn't. Used to be I could come and go in the small hours without her knowing a thing, but lately her medication hadn't been doing what it used to. She didn't have to tell me that she'd been sleeping badly. I could see the shadows in her face.
"Have you eaten?"
"Yes, Mama. Go back to bed. I have some work to do. I won't be long."
"You work too hard, my Vanya. Look, you go gray. How you make time to find wife if always working?"
I shook my head. "I don't need a wife to look after me, Mama." For the first time, my standard answer felt shaky. A wife would be someone else to look after. Someone else to bring into the dangers of the world I inhabited. I didn't want to do that. But the thought of Becca by my side swam into my head, worming in deep. She was the kind of woman who could hold her own. She wouldn't simper or crumple under the weight of it all. I hadn't felt as though I was missing something until I saw her again.
Mama wanted to see me settled down and to hold her grandchildren in her arms. And I wanted Becca's children to be mine. Maybe now was the right time after all.
The thought shook me.
It wasn't a new conversation. We'd gone over variations of it for years. No one I'd met in all my time in this country had come close to persuading me to change my mind about it and I didn't plan to hitch myself to a woman I had no respect for, even to make my mother a grandmother before her health caught up with her.
But all of my objections seemed hollow and false when I thought about Becca. Not having her, or letting someone else claim her instead of me was so unthinkable that the computer mouse creaked beneath my white-knuckled grip and I had to consciously release it.
Mama's hand settled on my shoulder and I picked up a hint of her rose-scented talc as she leaned in and pressed a kiss against my ear.
"You stay tonight. I make up couch."
"Hush. I go to bed right after. Good night, Vanya."
"Good night Mama." There was no arguing with her when she'd made up her mind. I guess that was something we had in common.
I waited a few minutes after she closed the door behind her, listening to her bustle about in the living room, pulling out extra blankets. When I heard her bedroom door click closed again, I logged into Skype and waited for the call to come through.
End to end encryption meant that neither of us had to worry about what was said. No one could trace the content of the call. I was best placed to understand how that impacted policing. From both sides. Skype was a very useful thing indeed.
The picture flickered in, showing the inside of an apartment that could be anywhere. But I knew it was Moscow. This little screen was the largest window I'd had to see the Motherland in fifteen years. And as always, there was Yakov Ivanovich Timoshenko's ugly, wrinkled face taking up most of the screen.
"Danilych." His smile twitched. He used my informal patronymic, a subtle reminder that he had no need to use my full name and he could act as though we were the best of friends. He was too powerful to argue with, and he liked the personal touch with his delegates abroad.
Seated on the couch behind him, I can see the man who's been calling a lot of the real shots on the ground, since Yakov had become too old to travel. Valentin Dmitryevich Rozkhov is the stern, cool man to keep an eye on.
If I was Yakov, I'd keep him just as close as that too. Right where I could see him.
I nodded a greeting to the pair of them, my smile stiff on my face. "Yakov Ivanovich."
"All is well, yes?"
I nodded again. But brevity was never a quality he favored. He wanted an update in full.
"There is progress with the Turks. We have come to an understanding. They are grateful for the assistance we can grant them in setting up their latest enterprise."
"Good. Good. And you have negotiated the usual rate."
"I have. We have set up distribution lines through the Uzbeks and the Kazaks. They are happy to do business with us, as usual."
Yakov nodded slowly and turned with some difficulty to look back at Valentin, shifting his whole body around, away from the screen. "You see, Danilych is still our Garbage Man." His laugh was thin and wheezing, and I schooled my face into a solidly neutral expression, not even a flicker of irritation coming into my eyes.
Yakov thinks he's a lot more clever than he is. He likes the klichka he's given me - English to go with my American assignment, but rooted in Russian. He likes the joke. Moscow police are called musor the same way cops over here are called pigs. Trash, garbage. He likes to remind me of my standing and my place.
But he's an old man. And he knew what I did for him. He wouldn't be able to maintain his influence in New York without me.
On the couch behind him, Valentin leaned closer to the screen, ignoring Yakov's continued cackling.
"What about the Ukranians? They are still causing trouble. You haven't shut this Griori Menshikov down."
I let out a slow breath. "They think they have a prior claim to the area. It's been Little Odessa for decades and Menshikov thinks he's got the backing to be the kingpin. He doesn't understand how it works any longer - that he is not holding the strings."
Valentin's face was a mirror of my own - just as blank and unreadable. In him I saw a man who was ruthless and efficient, and I knew he was biding his time before the syndicate officially came under his control.
"There is a nasty rumor going around that you've become soft, Ivan. Too much American beer, too many donuts."
My jaw rippled and I resisted the urge to look down at the gut he was suggesting I'd grown. There was nothing to see. Even across the screen, he couldn't mistake the way my shirt clung to my toned abs. The ripples were the muscles of my six pack and nothing else. He was blowing smoke.
"I manage the situation in the best way. You want me to get my hands wet, I can get my hands wet. Just say the word."
Valentin raised a hand. "Oh, you misunderstand, my friend. It is not a rumor we are foolish enough to believe. But perhaps it is an opportunity to be exploited. Da?" A spark of a smile glinted in the corner of his eye, and I saw the quality of true leadership in his eyes. Timoshenko was a relic, but Rozkhov could bring the brotherhood onto the next stage.
I allowed a smile of my own to pull at the corners of my mouth, but no more than that. "I pretend to be just another American every day of my life, and there is nothing but weakness in them. I can certainly make sure Menshikov holds that opinion."
"I knew this would be so. You are a good man." Valentin leaned back slowly, crossing his long legs one over the other. His suit looked more expensive than anything I'd ever owned and I had no doubt he'd bought it with the proceeds that came to him from all the funds like the one stored in the safe below the desk right in this office, dotted all around the world.
But I was just a man on the ground. The cut I'd negotiated was different.
"We have a man coming in. He will need hospitality so that he is able to continue with his work. You understand? You will allow him what he needs from our Brooklyn Collection."
I nodded. "Of course."
"Excellent. It is always a pleasure to speak with you Ivan. I hope that we continue to work together for many years to come."
Valentin looked directly into the camera for a long moment before the call ended, and I barely looked at Yakov again.
"I have no doubt we will."
I'd been around long enough to know what it looked like when someone was getting their ducks in a row. Sometime soon, Valentin Rozhkov was going to make his move and I'd just declared allegiance.
The place was quiet when I woke up and I had a moment of disorientation while I remembered where I was. In Brooklyn. So much closer to getting Ivan to notice me than I ever had before.
I lay in bed for a few minutes, making sure I couldn't hear Mrs. K bustling around in the kitchen, glad I'd set my alarm a whole hour earlier, even if actually getting out of bed wasn't all that appealing.
With a deep breath, I threw off the covers and changed my Minnie Mouse sleep shirt for my running gear - sports bra, three-quarter length leggings and a tank top, as well as a zip-front hoodie to keep me warm before I got there on my own. But I was planning on getting sweaty pretty quickly.
The whole day traveling, followed by all the food Mrs. K had been laying on, and a shift at the clinic stretching out ahead of me that I knew would mostly be standing around trying to pick up the ropes, was making me feel stuck and heavy.
It wasn't long before Ivan would be here to take me to work, like his mother had instructed and I needed to burn off some energy first.
It felt ridiculous that she'd demanded he turn up to chaperone me, even though I knew I could walk to the place in less than fifteen minutes. Still, I was glad she had. Any excuse to spend time with Ivan was a good thing.
I needed to move. Get the blood pumping. Make my body work. I'd feel better once I shook off this fatigue.
Pulling on my running shoes, I stepped into the bathroom, trying to make as little noise as possible flushing the toilet and splashing water on my face to wake me up.
I twisted my curls up into a high ponytail and double-checked I had the door key on me, as well as my headphones and music player and then I was out the front door quietly with barely a glance around the rest of the darkened apartment. I still felt very much like a guest, even in my bedroom.
When I got back, I'd unpack properly and start making myself at home.
I ran towards Coney Island, taking in the flat sea and the pale sky, picking up the pace as my feet hit the boards more fluidly with every step. The large expanse of open water and the sky above that mirrored it always made me feel like I was looking into infinity. I loved the hugeness of it. Loved that I could see all the way to the horizon.
At this time of the morning, the boardwalk was mostly empty. High above me, gulls were circling, and I wasn't the only jogger. One woman had about five dogs twined about her legs on string like leads and I laughed as I watched her try to negotiate them while she kept pace.
When I got close enough to the twining loops of the rollercoasters of Coney Island to see the entrance signs, I dropped down onto the beach and turned around to come back, pushing myself to run through the fine, shifting sand.
The best workout you could ever get was when the ground moved under every step you took, and I was dripping with sweat by the time I collapsed into the elevator back up to Mrs. K's apartment.
I'd long since pulled my hoodie off and it was tied tight around my waist. My white tank top was clinging to me, see-through in long, wide streaks along my back and between my breasts. My leggings were sticking to me uncomfortably and little grains of sand had glued themselves to my skin.
I was breathing hard and my face was bright red, but I didn't care. I felt alive, and once I'd had a shower I was going to feel amazing.
I opened the door of the apartment and came face to face with a very bare, very broad chest.
I screamed before my brain kicked in, and recognition hit me.
Ivan's hand closed over my mouth, stemming the sound and pushing the front door closed behind me.
I tugged at his hand, pulling it away from my face so I could rasp in another gasp of air.
"What the hell are you doing here? You scared me half to death!"
I had to be hallucinating. Or maybe I was still dreaming. In no universe did it make sense for Ivan to be standing there mostly naked. My eyes tracked down his chest to his lower half, and refused to move from the generous bulge at the crotch of his pants. Who wandered around like that? It had to be illegal. He should write himself up a ticket for indecent exposure.
"I slept on the couch."
"Oh." Suddenly I was incredibly thankful I was already beet red, because the thought of him being only inches away when I touched myself, thinking about his hands on me instead made me want to crawl into a hole and die. I'd dreamt about impaling myself on the monster cock he had hidden beneath his pants, and the way it twitched under my gaze made me even hotter. I could see I wouldn't be disappointed.
"You like eggs?"
Fertilized by you, my one track mind supplied and I closed my eyes, trying to shake that off. I wasn't mentally prepared for him to be standing in the kitchen in charge of a frying pan, making omelets.
"Yeah. That'd be great."
"Where's Mrs. K?" My voice came out like a pathetic squeak, desperately hopeful that she'd gone out early and left the pair of us alone.
"Still in bed. She's having a bad morning."
Immediately I felt guilt over wishing she wasn't here. "Oh no. Is there anything I can do?"
He stepped back, and my eyes lingered on his chest again, honing in on the perfect spray of hair that dusted over his pecs and trailed down through his belly button, across his flat stomach leading a tempting trail towards the bulge at his crotch. It was all I could do not to lick my lips.
He might have been in his late thirties, but he hadn't let his body soften. He was better built than most of the men my age. In comparison, they were only boys. I could see the outline of every muscle on him, and his rippling abs were making me salivate. I wanted to run my hands all over him and press my body up against his.
Ivan shook his head.
"Don't worry about it."
The pause he left dragged, but his eyes didn't leave my body, and I was acutely aware of just how sweaty I was with him standing there staring
"You went out wearing that?"
Bewildered, I glanced down at myself, taking in the spandex leggings and my tight tank top. I looked like most of the other joggers out there. "Yes?"
Ivan growled, his annoyance rumbling in his throat.
"What else was I supposed to wear?"
"Do you know how tight those leggings are?"
"They're leggings. They're meant to be this tight."
"What's wrong with jogging pants?"
I let out an exasperated sigh, but some part of me was amused. "Absolutely nothing, except they're bulky and hot, and the closest thing I have to jogging pants are yoga pants and if I went running in them I'd trip on the legs and probably break all my teeth.You realize you sound exactly like my dad?"
Ivan growled again, stepping into the kitchen and viciously scraped at the omelet in the pan with his spatula, thwacking it over and the other side started sizzling as soon as it hit the metal.
"Maybe because both of us know what men are like.."
"Seriously?" I jutted my hip, leaning against the counter top watching him stomp about like a kid who hadn't gotten his own way. Despite myself I was flattered that he seemed to care so much about who was looking at me. "Everyone dresses like this. Most people don't even bother with a top over their sports bra."
Ivan's eyes darkened. "Who do you want looking at you?"
I blinked at him, totally stunned by the power of his annoyance. "What? No one." I bit my lip. That wasn't strictly true, but I didn't have the guts to tell him the truth. No one apart from you.
"Go shower and get dressed properly."
I folded my arms across my chest, feeling my irritation rise at him ordering me about. "What, in case the sight of my cute little ass in these skin tight pants makes you lose all control and you try to fuck me in the middle of the breakfast table?"
His eyes flashed to mine, and I felt a wave of searing heat burn right through me.
I gasped in a breath, shocked at the intensity of his stare and the solid purpose in his tone, and I took a physical step back. He wanted to do things to me that I couldn't even imagine, and for the first time I didn't know whether I could handle it. The way he was looking at me terrified and thrilled me in equal measure and my clit tingled fiercely, flooded with arousal.
I swallowed hard, totally unsure of what to do. I felt like I'd just come face to face with a tiger, and as much as I liked cats, it wasn't the domestic kind I was used to and I didn't know what I was supposed to do to stop it from eating me.
"Go. Now," he repeated, and I nodded shortly, nearly tripping over my own feet as I headed back into the corridor.
There was no doubt now that he wanted me. And I wanted him, but the ferocity and physicality of his lust wasn't anything I had any experience with. This wasn't just a daydream any longer, and the prospect of losing my virginity to him felt terrifyingly close and real.
For all I'd told myself he'd be the perfect lover - considerate and gentle with me - this animal side made me second guess that. I didn't know whether I was ready to handle the full brute force of his passion.
Backing off instead of crossing the kitchen and kissing him the way I'd dreamed about for years made me feel like the child I'd been trying to convince him I wasn't. But I didn't know what else to do.
My heart was pounding as I closed the bathroom door behind me, and sank against it, glad for the barrier between us. For now.
I hadn't anticipated the strength of his desire. And it turned out I didn't have the first clue about what to do with it. Could I handle a man like him? He'd be used to women who knew exactly what they were doing. He'd be the first man I ever saw naked and I'd probably do something stupid or wrong, and he'd realize exactly how immature and inexperienced I was. I didn't want to be the cause of him changing his mind.
In the bathroom I contemplated leaving the door unlocked. But knowing my luck, Mrs. K would walk in, and that was the very last thing I wanted.
Frustrated, I turned the water in the shower to cold, to cool myself off. If he didn't have clothes on when I came back out there, it wouldn't matter. I'd try to climb him like a tree. It had to be illegal to look as good as he did, and it had to be a crime to flaunt it in front of me. After yesterday, he had to at least have a clue how into him I was.
I groaned, and dunked my head under the chilly stream of water, wincing at the needling cold, but suffering that was better than giving in to the itch to let my fingers sink between my folds and make use of the massage setting on the shower head.
The bathroom was pristine and I wondered whether Mrs. Kovalenko had any help keeping the place neat and tidy. From what I'd seen of the woman so far, she was something of a dynamo and it was a littl