He's my best friend's bodyguard
Ruthless protector of Chicago's most feared Bratva
And my professional stalker
Deep blue eyes with silver shards… watching me… always watching…
Valentin Constanov doesn't take no for an answer. So, when I tell him to stop following me, it might as well be a direct challenge.
It's his job to watch over the empire, after all. And I share a connection with his boss's wife—not that I want anything to do with the Russian mafia or their dark and twisted lifestyle.
I've got my own problems to worry about.
But the hot-tempered, ill-mannered, tattooed-covered Romeo isn't used to being rejected. That's why, when I find myself in some serious trouble, I don't expect to be saved.
If only he got the memo.
Turns out, I'm more than just a job to him. I'm an obsession. And he's going to make sure I understand that—even if it takes all of his patience and shatters every last bit of my innocence.
I’m being watched.
I can’t see who it is, but I can feel the unfriendly eyes. They whip my paranoia into a frenzy.
Paranoia. Shit. That’s the last thing I can give in to now.
Today is too important.
My entire life depends on how these next seventy-two hours go. Yet every instinct is telling me to turn and run.
Instead, I plant my feet in the ground and glare ahead. Stubborn as always.
This line needs to move. Now.
So why won’t it budge?
I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear as the noise in the Sweetwater Resort—a supposed oasis of serenity outside of Chicago—rises like a wave around me, threatening to overwhelm and crash me against the rocks of good sense.
Normally, I’m better at composing myself. But I’ve been in this line for way too long now, and I can’t shake the cold tendrils creeping over my shoulder.
Someone is watching me.
It’s stupid, I know. I’m here for a fashion conference. Of course, I’m probably being watched. Everyone is. That’s the point.
But not everyone here has had the year I’ve had. If they did, maybe they’d be on edge too.
“I refuse,” comes a snotty nasal voice, ripping through the fabric of noise, all the way from the front of the line, “to take that room. You’re the concierge, so do something.”
I can’t hear the concierge’s response, but the woman he’s dealing with is holding everyone up, a faceless voice of privilege.
Behind me, someone mutters something about spikes and bringing back good old-fashioned public mauling. Usually, I’d find it funny. But the discomfort from being in the open like this, feeling exposed—defenseless and vulnerable—combined with all the licks of paranoia I’ve been experiencing for weeks now, leach any humor from the situation.
Yelena, ~you’re not being followed. No one’s stalking you. You’ve already dealt with this. Let it go.~
As if in response, a shiver rattles through my bones. My gaze is ripped over my shoulder just in time to see a man in a wide-brimmed hat dip his head from across the other side of the lobby.
My breath hitches.
Was he watching me? It felt like he was watching me.
Flipping my portfolio in my hands, I hurriedly stuff it into one of my bags. The line still refuses to move. The nasal voice at the front grows with impatience, an increasing tone that screams Don’t You Know Who I Am? I try to concentrate on that.
Instead, my gaze drifts back to the man.
He’s still there. Chin dipped. Black hat hiding his eyes.
My heart beats fast. Hard. No matter how illogical it all is.
Then his head rises, just a little, and our eyes connect.
I don’t know him.
There’s no recognition, innate or obvious. Yet his gaze sears sickeningly through me, a hot, sharp knife.
I slam my eyes shut.
When I open them again, he’s gone.
A figment of imagination.
Except he’s not.
I know it. No matter how badly I try to convince myself otherwise.
A girl doesn’t grow up in the shadow of the Bratva and not recognize certain things. Like when she’s being watched.
Hell, a girl doesn’t go through what I just experienced in Milan without learning what it’s like to be picked out of a line as prey.
That’s what it feels like.
It would be easy to give into it all, slap a label on it like paranoia, and call it a day. Hell, that’s what I’ve been desperately trying to do.
It’s just easier said than done.
Everything in me is on high alert.
I shiver again, whipping to my right, and this time a different kind of heat flares in my stomach, like someone else is looking at me too. I don’t see them, just feel that slow beat of awareness, the kind of sensation that slides through skin and bone to nestle deep behind your senses.
Lifting a shaking hand, I push a strand of hair from my hot cheek.
Then, just like that, the mysterious gaze moves on. My senses settle, as if it was all just an extreme episode of paranoia, after all.
Desperate and Paranoid. Maybe that’s how I’ll rebrand my new fashion line.
Get it together, I tell myself.
I shift on my feet, and a familiar fullness fills my bladder.
Double shit. I nearly forgot about that.
Here I am, talking to myself, fighting off invisible enemies and stalkers, trapped and exposed in an unmoving line.
And on top of all that, I’m getting desperately close to peeing myself.
Just another distraction I can’t afford to have.
Right now, my career teeters on the brink, and after a snowball of setbacks, I need this conference to go well. It’s make-or-break time.
I can’t have the wrong people following me. I can’t even think that the wrong people might be following me. Because then I’ll start thinking about who exactly it could be. And there are too many culprits to consider. I could get lost in a deep, dark hole and never come out.
I suck in a breath.
My best friend’s gorgeous bodyguard. Her mafia boss husband’s second-in-command.
A Russian masterpiece.
I shake my head clear.
No. It’s not him. I’ve ignored his texts. Let his calls go to voicemail. And for all the expletives I can think of that describe that dangerous, beautiful, frustrating man, the one thing he is not is a dog looking for scraps.
He wouldn’t be caught dead following a woman. Any woman. A man like him is above that.
If I’m really being stalked, it isn’t by him.
So why do I kind of hope it is?
Because part of you still wants to be that silly, naïve little girl you were before Milan, I catch myself thinking. ~The girl you were back when he first stepped into your world.~
No. Stop thinking about Milan.
I’m not that silly girl anymore.
There was Yelena before Milan and Yelena now. I’m trying to rebuild without a sequined, couture lifestyle. I’m trying to pick up the pieces of my shattered dream. And I need to do it all on my own.
I don’t have time for boys or men. No matter how tempting they are.
There is only my career.
Only. My. Career.
Suddenly, another shiver passes through me. It’s followed by that same creepy awareness. I’m being watched again. But when I look back to my left, I don’t spot anyone looking my way. That full-brimmed black hat is nowhere to be seen.
In my head. It’s all in my head.
Goddamn. This is what I get for letting Valentin anywhere near me in the first place. He’s a criminal. A made man of the Russian mafia. Being even the least bit associated with him should make me paranoid. No matter how ruggedly gorgeous he is. The last time anyone in my family got close to the Bratva, they ended up dead.
Great. Now I’m sad and paranoid.
Oh, and I still need to fucking pee.
“Goddamn it,” I mutter, looking toward the front of the line. “That woman needs to shut up.”
“That woman is Gia Ramone,” says a soft female voice behind me. “The darling of Fabric.”
Somehow, I swallow a gasp. Fabric magazine is what Vogue is to an older generation. It’s the epitome of cutting-edge fashion, of the new houses and designers.
Gia Ramone is the it woman of the conference. The person to impress, a feat that’s almost impossible.
“Darling of Fabric and fashion, maybe. But right now? She’s being a beast.” I keep my voice low as I turn.
The girl who greets me is so beautiful I have to resist the urge to breathe a sigh of relief. Because of course people were staring. Not at me. At her.
She laughs, flipping glossy black hair over one shoulder. “Bold words.”
“You’re the one who wanted to bring back…what was it? Public mauling?”
She shrugs. “It slipped out. I hate waiting.”
“Me, too. Especially with a full bladder.”
The woman tilts her head and smiles. She must be in her early twenties, around my age, but unlike me, she’s next-level pretty. I bet I can guess why she’s here.
“The line’s not going anywhere, and with this conference, check-in will take a while.”
I sigh. “I’m here for that conference. Check-in and registration and…ugh!” I hold out a hand. “Yelena Laskin.”
“Kira Arendelle.” She shakes my hand then snatches it back to point an accusatory finger at me. “I have one of your dresses from when you had that store. Hell-of-a seamstress and designer. You’re with—”
“Was,” I quickly correct her. Their name is the last I want to hear. I see it enough as it is. “I’m doing my own thing now. Kinda street meets couture.” I eye her slender, elegant lines, already fitting her for clothes. With her face and body… “You must be a model.”
“How flattering,” she laughs. “But no. I’m a journalist with Chicago Daily. Here to cover the conference and hopefully write about the next big thing.”
A thrill spikes my blood, and for a moment I’m back to when nothing could touch me and the world seemed to be at my fingertips.
“Listen, I can hold your spot so you can go to the washroom. From what I’ve heard about Gia, she’s going to be up there for a while. And even if she leaves now, there’s bound to be a few more just like her in this line.”
Biting my lip, I hesitate. It’s a tempting offer, but my haze of paranoia isn’t lifting. It’s probably best to stay in a crowded area, just to be safe. I can go to the bathroom in my hotel room. After I’ve locked the door behind me.
“I don’t know…”
“Your call, but the offer’s there.” She shrugs, her gaze shifting about the room. Then her eyes come back to rest on me. “Have you—” Kira breathes out, smoothing her hands down the front of her elegant trousers as she taps a foot. “Okay, I really love your designs.”
I push out a laugh. I like her, she’s got a sweetness that reminds me of my best friend Nat.
I get a sinking feeling in my gut.
I wonder if Kira here has also recently married the head of the Russian mafia?
No. Don’t think about that. Don’t think about your best friend Natalya or the Bratva or her ruthless husband Andrei or their gorgeous head of security. Don’t get any more involved than you already accidentally are. Think of what’s important. The conference. Your designs. Making connections.
“You haven’t seen the new ones,” I say, trying to stay on subject with Kira.
“That can be easily arranged.” Kira swirls the end of an imaginary villain mustache, and I can’t help but laugh.
“I mean, they might be terrible.”
“Is that why you left—”
“Oh no, Miss Reporter, you’re not gonna catch me talking shit about my past employer.”
“Dang.” She snaps her fingers. “So close.” Her eyes twinkle and I’m struck again by how beautiful this girl is.
Being in the fashion industry puts me in contact with a lot of beautiful people. But there’s something different about her. Something more natural.
“If you’re looking for that kind of scoop, then you might get bored here,” I say, hefting my bag onto my shoulder properly. “Fashion events are usually only interesting to the top tier. For me, though,” I sigh. “It’s more a fight in the dirt to try and get noticed.”
“With your reputation?”
I flinch, I can’t help it. And she’s good enough to notice. I know she does. Those brown eyes narrow a little.
“Not here as anything from my past.” My fingers tighten on the strap of the bag, “I’m hoping Dark One Eight—my new label—can stand on its own.”
For a second, she doesn’t say a word, and Gia’s voice screeches in outrage, cutting through the noise. I can almost feel the shift of everyone in the room to her, and I’m sort of grateful. This way, if someone was watching, then…
They’d what? Stand out? Look the other way?
Either’s fine by me.
Kira’s cat-like eyes zero in on Gia and she leans toward me, dropping her voice. “That’s good,” she says. “But stay out of trouble. They say a lot of the houses, big and small, are funded by unsavory groups. Some of them even used to launder.”
I bite back a quip about how laundering is normal to get clothes clean but don’t because now I’m looking a little more closely at her.
What does Kira really know?
Probably not half as much as I do.
Still, I reply with a quiet, “I don’t know anything about that kind of stuff.”
“Hardly anyone does,” Kira half smiles. “And that’s why I took this job, actually. The rumors.”
“Criminals.” She almost shivers.
“You mean the general criminality that goes on everywhere?” I make myself ask. “Do the crime syndicates want new dresses for stylish B and E?”
She laughs, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “Just be careful,” Kira whispers, leaning in. “I’m not kidding. Like I said, it’s one of the reasons I’m here. There’s something rotten bubbling under the surface. I’m going to dig it up. Word is it could be the mob. Russian mob. Maybe here looking for more avenues. It would be a huge story.”
I flinch and paste on a smile. “I haven’t heard a thing about that.”
“Yes!” I’m sure my voice jumps an octave. “I just really need to pee.”
“Then go! I promise I won’t steal your stuff—or do you not trust me?”
She’s teasing, but I still feel bad. Maybe if I weren’t so paranoid already…
As if on cue, the line finally shuffles forward an inch. I shake my head. “I can hold it.”
“If you’re sure.”
I nod, trying to focus on anything but what Kira just said…or my bladder. But both tasks prove to be impossible. She mentioned the mob. Could that mean Valentin is here, after all?
No. That wasn’t him in the black hat.
“You okay? You’re all pale, Yelena.”
Kira’s soft voice pulls me back in and the noise of the lobby starts battering at my edges some more.
“Just thinking that devils wear lots of hats.”
“But can they sew?”
I give her a sharp look. She’s watching closely. Now that I know that she’s a reporter, it couldn’t be clearer.
“I mean,” she adds, “you worked for a big name, and no giant company’s clean.”
“I’m not mafia.”
She holds up her hands. “Not thinking that. Just…well, I’m trying to get my break out story and I figured if you know something, maybe we can talk? And I mean it about your designs. I really would love to see your new line.”
“If it gets up and running like I want.”
Without interference in the form of an impossibly good-looking man who both scares me and makes my pulse pound faster than it should.
Valentin, I remind myself again, is dangerous. Too dangerous.
Reason numero uno why I haven’t been responding to his texts or calls.
Just then, the phone in my hand buzzes.
I turn it so I see the screen and sure enough…
RED HOT DANGER
I instantly turn the screen back away. The sins of the father won’t be repeated by this daughter. No matter how brutally gorgeous the danger zone might be.
Looking up, I see that Kira has also been distracted by her phone. She types something down and I take a moment to glance around.
Despite my best intentions, all I can search for is a familiar face.
Valentin texts and calls on occasion, but this week the calls and texts have gone from that to a few a day.
I don’t necessarily blame him. His job is to protect, and in his eyes, I’m probably just a fragile little fawn wandering alone in a big, dark world; the best friend of his boss’s new wife. To keep everyone happy, I need to be accounted for.
But it’s more than that.
The way he looks at me. The way he acts.
The man won’t leave messages on my voicemail, and his texts comprise of Yelena. And ~Call Now~. Cary Grant charm isn’t exactly in his wheelhouse it seems.
Not that I want that charm.
But he is charming, I admit. In his own way. Sledgehammer-style.
“Ooh, boy, what’s his name and has he got a brother?” Kira grins, pointing at me and my phone.
“You have a look.”
“I don’t have a look.”
Damn, she really is observant.
I shift, feet starting to ache. “I’m thinking about a pain in my ass.”
She nods wisely, but before she can say anything else her phone rings. “Shit,” she mumbles. “I have to take this. Can you hold my spot?”
Kira hurries off, and I try and placate myself with the thought of having made a new friend. One who could possibly help boost my career in the right way.
A small article won’t have the same impact as the money and power someone like Valentin could throw behind me, but it’s safer.
Besides, I don’t want Valentin to know someone might still be following me. It’s why I haven’t brought it up to Natalya again.
He’s smart. He’ll work it out and know I’m desperate. He’s the kind of man who would take full advantage. I’ve been taken advantage of enough. I’m done with it.
Shoving my phone away as it starts to vibrate again, I look about for another familiar face. But I don’t see that black hat or feel those shaded eyes. Just an all-too-common slight sense of unease that comes with standing so exposed.
But even that paranoia is quickly succumbing to another sensation.
Goddamn, do I have to pee.
Kira’s made her way to the front door where it’s quieter, and I silently curse not taking her up on her offer as my bladder starts to press—when she gets back, I’ll do it. Or maybe I’ll just ask her to join me. She looks like she can take care of herself.
I watch with increasing impatience as Kira nods, paces, nods again and then abruptly strides back over and grabs her things.
“Thanks,” she says, frowning as she starts to look for something. She pulls out a card and thrusts it at me. The fun and sunny woman is gone. This one’s darker, cloudier, and there’s worry pulling at her mouth. I want to ask a million questions, but only one comes out as I take the card.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine.” I know that tone. It’s the one that says the person isn’t fine at all. “I just…”
“Hmm?” She shakes her head. “Did I give you—” Her gaze drops. “Do you have a card? Maybe we can connect later? Do an interview?”
Nodding, I give her one of mine. She shoves it into her bag.
“Great. I’m sorry, I have to go.”
She doesn’t wait for a response. Before I can process any of it, Kira turns and takes off.
I frown, trying to work out what happened. Maybe something personal. Work? I make a note to call her. Not just for the interview, but to check in and… Damn. I didn’t ask about the bathroom.
I suffer for what feels like an eternity. Then, I can’t suffer anymore.
With one last hard glance around the lobby, I look for clear and present signs of danger. There are none, even if my body is still on edge—or maybe that’s just my bladder.
Screw it. The line still isn’t moving.
Biting back my unease, I load up my luggage and awkwardly head to the bathrooms, wheeling my cases behind me.
There’s another long ass line at the closest one, and while that makes it safer, I’m beyond the ability to wait anymore.
Up ahead, I see another sign leading down to where the pool is. There are always bathrooms near pools. I take my chances.
But the further I wander from the lobby, the thicker the air gets. The chattery din disappears. It gets quiet.
Despite my best intentions to push it down, my paranoia returns in full force. I can’t shake it. Something is wrong. I’m being watched. Somehow, it’s no longer a question. It’s a certainty.
I need to get back to the lobby. I’ll piss myself if I have to.
Sucking in a breath, I do a clumsy 180.
Then, I freeze.
Because there’s only one way back to the lobby. And someone’s blocking it.
The man with the black hat.
He wasn’t in my imagination.
He’s following me.
And he’s gaining fast.