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Chapter One

“You’re getting married.” 

The words are a blow that would have sent me off my feet if I weren’t sitting. I fight for air to scream no. But Carlo isn’t done. 

“Milos Levin needs a wife. He heads the Russian mafia—Bratva here in Chicago. It’s time for him to get married, he wants kids, and he wants them soon. This is an honor I honest to fuck never thought you’d get. No one in la familia wants you. Milos is only interested in cementing our relationship so he’ll take whatever woman will get him what he wants. I didn’t even offer him Carina. With her, I’d have to pay him. He finds you acceptable enough you are getting me exactly what I want from him so don’t fuck this up.” 

Ice slides down my spine, Milos Levin—a man who has haunted my dreams and nightmares for the last four years. “Married? Milos Levin?” I’m shaking my head none of this makes sense.

“You’re fucking lucky he wants a bride from a family that matches his own. His family is old and powerful going back to his grandfather. Don’t even think of saying no. If you do, I’ll give him Carina. He doesn’t care who he gets, all women are the same in the dark, he said.” His laugh is as cruel as he is. 

“My kind of man. Milos is smart and the kind of ruthless necessary to maintain his spot on top after more than twenty years running his family’s business. Our relationship has made the Outfit a lot of money.” Gray eyes so like mine I hate looking in the mirror narrow on me. “I’m not going to let you fuck that up. You will marry him.” 

Carlo’s threat of Carina in my place hits exactly the way he intended. It’s moments like this when I loathe this man. I don’t give a shit if he is my father. He isn’t a father, has never been a father, he’s a sperm donor. The bastard knows how I feel about him. He also knows how to leash me and my hatred. My little sister. Carina is the one and only good thing in my life, and me for her. I promised her I would always protect her from Carlo—from this world.

The world of the Outfit we wish we could escape but knew we never could. It meant leaving our mother behind who despite twenty-five years and two children was only his girlfriend and maid in his home. She loved Carlo. Despite him taking other women to events where he met with the mayor, Senators, and alderman. We were trapped in it. Even more so now that became the Don, almost two years ago. Carlo loved the power that came with his new position. 

It pissed him off many in the family sought out the advice of Dominic Sabatini—his underboss. He tried to play off he preferred dumping problems on Dominic. The truth was Carlo resented what he saw was the lack of respect over Dominic Sabatini. Carlo would do whatever it took for him to raise his own profile and link himself to the powerful Levin family. 

It didn’t matter I wanted nothing to do with any of it, Carlo would use me any way he could. Carina, my stomach twists, is too soft. She would agree to please our mother who would do anything to make Carlo happy.

“He’s waiting out in the garden.” He rolls his eyes. “Wants to talk to you to ensure you are willing before we begin the negotiation for the marriage contract.” Gunmetal gray pins me down. “You will tell him you are willing. You will accept his offer. If you don’t, your mother and Carina will suffer for your stupidity.” 

The thought of Milos Levin sends a shiver through me. Closing my eyes, I fight to breathe deep because the shiver isn’t of fear—it’s of longing. Frustration seethes through me, I should be angry at Carlo, at Milos, instead excitement and something I never thought I would feel…euphoria bubbles up inside me. 

Milos Levin wants to marry me. He’s stunning, incredibly rich and powerful yet he’s wants to marry me. Fat, boring me…that mean little voice whispers ‘He’s only willing to marry you because you’re Carlo Toro’s daughter. You’re nothing more than a chip to be bartered. He’d marry Carina if he had to.’ But it isn’t Carina—it’s me. As long as I said yes, as if I had a choice. If Carlo found out I said no or indicated I didn’t want the marriage he’d make mine, my mother’s, and Carina’s life hell. 

What a liar, I close my eyes against the truth. I don’t want to say no. 

“Celia, move your ass. He’s waiting.” Carlo barks at me. 

Startled, I flee his office. 

I stand at the French doors to the garden behind Carlo’s home. Milos Levin is standing in front of a bench looking into the ostentatious koi pond. In Russian, Levin means lion, it fits him perfectly. Tightly coiled power radiates in waves so thick it moves the air around him. 

The sun loves him, caressing his honey skin the way I wish I could. Silver catches the rays among his black hair—more than the last time I saw him almost six months ago. 

Feeling my eyes on him, his head comes up. Through the glass our eyes meet. Eerie bright yellow eyes command me to him. Obeying, I open the doors and leave the safety of the house.

Milos Levin is six foot four and a wall of muscle, at first glance he’s formidable. Look a little longer him in his usual black on black—a silk suit cut to fit him, black dress shirt and black tie with his unique yellow eyes and downright scary. Intelligent people feared him, even if they weren’t aware he’s Bratva.

I’m tongue tied at how close he is after thinking I would never see him again. A barely there smile shimmers across his sexy, full lips. It causes a twisting in my chest so tight it aches for reminding me of the last time I saw it. 

He offers his hand. “Milos Levin, it is nice to finally meet you after hearing so much about you from Carlo.” 

Confusion at his words stills me. His eyes flick to the house and I understand. My hand goes into his, so big, so strong. The electricity that always surges through me at his touch is still there. After four years I’m reconciled it always will be. It no longer scares me—it makes me feel warm and safe. Two things I never thought I would feel when it comes to this man the first day I met him. 

I aim for what I think I might have said if the hand holding mine hadn’t already brought me to tears from spanking me and later made me scream his name as he gave me the first orgasm from a man. “Celia Parker, I’m sure half of what Carlo told you is complete bullshit.” 

An eyebrow goes up as he lets my hand go. He nods to the bench. I sit and he does too, a mere six inches from me. Close enough his body heat reaches me yet not as close as I want him to be. Twisting his upper body toward me, his strong arm runs along the back of the bench. His large hand is only inches away from my neck. “That is why I wanted to meet with you before I moved forward with the marriage contract. To ensure you are accepting of becoming my wife.” 

Closing my eyes, I fight for composure at the words—his wife. They were the last thing I thought I would hear from Milos Levin. Especially after how wrong everything went the last time I saw him.

“Celia? I will not move forward with this if it is not what you want. It is time for me to marry, to have children. However, if you do not—” 

“You’ll take Carina, because all women are the same in the dark.” The words are bitter on my tongue. 

His chuckle is gravel and smoke. “Your father liked that.” 

“You thought I would?” Anger gives me the strength to open my eyes. Despite the chuckle there is no sign of it or his thoughts on his harshly beautiful face—like always. “You want a breeding mare from good stock so I’m the one you’re willing to take to cement your relationship with the Outfit, with Carlo. And if I don’t accept, you’ll take my little sister. What about Anna Kovalenko? For the last five months she’s been warming your bed. Why aren’t you marrying her? Is her family not going to get you all the power you want?” 

His thumb runs along the back of my neck, I feel the touch throughout every cell in my body. Air is tight in my lungs. “Stop.” I hate the way it comes out of me in a moan.

“Stop?” Lowering his head to within inches of my ear his hot breath runs over my neck. I can’t contain the shiver that runs through me. “I’d hoped you had matured. It was one of the reasons I left you alone as long as I did. Saying stop when you want more and no when you mean yes is a childish game. Didn’t you learn anything from the last time we met?” 

His reference to that day pierces me deep leaving me blinking back tears—no he can’t see them. He doesn’t deserve them. I cried enough over that day. 

Yellow runs over me, there is no hiding anything from him. “Why would I want Carina when I could have a wife whose body reacts to me the way yours does? Your answer, do you agree to our marriage or not?” 

For a split second there is a glimmer of…is it fear, worry in his eyes. How could it be when he has to know I would never—could never tell him no? Hadn’t he just said what drove me craziest? A simple touch was enough to melt my bones, turning me weak and wanting for him. 

“Yes, fine.” I push the words out of tight lungs. 

He pulls back satisfaction clear in his eyes. “Tomorrow afternoon you will shop with a stylist. We will call it your trousseau. From today until our wedding day you’ll have two men as your security. Give your car to your sister or mother or whatever you want, you have no further need for it. You will be driven from here on out.” 

He doesn’t wait for me to respond before he stands. I’m sitting stunned when his hand goes around my arm, lifting me from the bench. My knees go weak, I sag into him. Like every time it happens, his body against mine leaves me gasping for more—for him pressed into every inch of me. A hiss escapes him. “Celia, your father is watching. Careful, kotyonok.”

The endearment sends a twisting deep inside me. His warning that Carlo is watching gives me the strength to stand on my own.

Milos opens the French doors for me. My mother is waiting, anxiety clear on her face. I nod. “Oh this is so wonderful, finally. Your father will be so happy. Mr. Levin, he’s waiting in his office. Is there anything I can bring you, coffee, tea or any other drink? Carlo has liquor in his office.” 

His hand at my back guides me forward, we all move deeper into the house until we’re in the foyer.

Shaking his head. “I need nothing, thank you. My only request is you assist Celia in the coming weeks in preparation for our wedding.” 

“Weeks?” My mother looks to me. 

“It is my wish we marry a month from now.” 

“No, it’s too soon.” Carlo appears. “There won’t be enough time to arrange a wedding deserving of my status and yours. No one will say it wasn’t worthy. I also don’t want any questions of her virginity. The sheets will be presented at the breakfast the next day. If you’re marrying her to knock her up I don’t want anyone counting days.” 

Humiliated, I want to disappear into the floor. I’m not aware I press into Milos—seeking his protection from Carlo until I feel his body go hard against mine.

The doorbell rings pulling me from him. My mother moves to open the door, her job as the maid of the house. Dominic Sabatini steps into the house with a nod at my mother. His sapphire blue eyes see everything in in one glance. 

“Everything good, Celia?” The question is gentle. His tone implies violence if my answer is no. 

Tension goes up in Milos beside me. Swallowing down all the things I want to say, I simply nod.

Milos’s strong hand is at the base of my spine rubbing a soothing circle. “As usual, your timing is impeccable Dom.” He looks to Peter, his guard who is always at his side. “See Ms. Parker home, remain with her and have a new car ready for me.” 

A harsh bark of laughter comes out of Carlo. “No one wants her, you’re wasting resources on her.” 

Milos stiffens against me. “If no one wants her then why are you pressing so hard for so much of my money and concessions?” His words are arctic cold. “Celia, go home.” 

As I leave, I give Dominic a grateful smile. He stops me with a large hand on my shoulder before pressing a kiss to my cheek. “If you need anything, call me.” The words are so low I barely hear them.

“Thank you.” I whisper, knowing I won’t. 

I follow Peter out without looking back.

“What did Sabatini say to you?” Peter asks as he holds the door open to my car. 

“None of your fucking business.” I reply as I get in.

He doesn’t like that. Too fucking bad. Frowning, he waits until I’m inside and my seatbelt fastened before he moves away. I’m grateful for the time it takes him to get into the large black luxury SUV behind me before turning on my own car and putting it into gear. The car Milos told me would no longer be mine, as much as I want to resent him telling me to get rid of it I don’t have the right—considering he’s the one who gave it to me. 

Four years ago I wished it was a Sabatini I encountered leaving Carlo’s house only for it to be Milos Levin. Only now all these years later, I’m truly grateful it wasn’t a Sabatini.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Four years ago

 

The door closes behind me with an ominous thud telling me what I already know—my mother is pissed. I refuse to feel guilty for calling Carlo a fucker, especially when he is. I mutter to myself as I walk away from his house. A gust of wind slams into me—fuck that’s cold. Everything I knew would happen had, this was a waste of time. I wish I was home in bed, it’s too cold to be up this early on a Saturday morning. 

Almost a hundred feet up from the long driveway of the house there’s a large black SUV idling. The rear windows are tinted completely black while the driver and passenger are smoky gray, so they won’t get a ticket. Whoever they are they’re mafia. If there was any doubt the tinted windows clinched it. That and they were carefully out of shot of the cameras, that they knew where the cameras are speaks volumes. 

All mafia Carlo does business with come to him—usually at his huge house. A house empty of anyone except him and sometimes my mother when he allowed her to stay the night. Carlo got off on power plays and showing off his home always made him feel powerful.

I check my watch, almost ten minutes to nine o’clock. They are waiting until they were right on time well aware Carlo hated when people were late. Disappointment hits me, that means it isn’t one of the Sabatini’s. The Sabatini’s are pretty much the only mafia men I like.

Either Dominic or Tony would have made the day better. They were so nice and neither one of them would allow me to walk home. It’s one of the ways I came to know them so well. If they saw me leaving Carlo’s they always drove me wherever I needed to go even if it meant it made them late or pissed Carlo off. Every time I see them, I’m jealous Dominic has Tony for a father. How different would my life be if my father actually gave a shit about his kids and the woman who bore them?

I stop as I pass the SUV. The sound is barely loud enough to be heard over the wind. It’s one of those luxury SUVs so expensive the engine barely makes a sound. The only way you can tell it’s on is from the steam of the hot air coming out of the tailpipe. I’m wrong—no, I’m not. Oh no. 

Frantically, I bang on the hood as I run to the driver’s door and knock on the window. “Turn the car off! There’s a kitten in the engine.” 

Men are in both the driver and passenger seats. The driver is bursting out of a plain black suit, white shirt, and black tie. Tattoos run up his neck, and all over the back of his hands down to his fingers. Any other day of the week I would be running fast and far away from him. Passenger guy is the same level as scary. He’s so big his head nearly brushes across the hood of the car. His dirty blonde hair and piercing blue eyes don’t miss a thing—definitely security. Definitely wearing a gun, probably two and has no problem ending a problem his boss has with a bullet to the head.

The passenger says something to the driver. The driver doesn’t even look at me, he’s going to ignore me. Fuck this. I don’t knock, I bang on the window so hard my hand hurts in the thick woolen mittens I’m wearing. “Turn off the car you fucking—

“Maylshka,” gravel and smoke hit me from above. “Is there a problem?” 

I turn to find a wall of black, black suit, black shirt, black tie, wrapped in an elegant, long black coat. I’m well aware at five foot six I’m not all that tall but I have to crane my neck to find yellow eyes glowing down at me. Yellow eyes? Gold and amber eyes I’ve seen but nowhere except the cats I love have I have ever seen yellow as bright as in this man’s eyes. 

Even with his spooky eyes, he’s gorgeous. Skin the color of warm honey is taut over hard lines and angles. A heavily lined forehead is above a stern brow. I’m guessing his nose has been broken and set at least twice—it doesn’t detract from him in the slightest. He has cheekbones so sharp I wouldn’t dare touch them for fear of being cut. His jaw and chin are the kind of square I thought only existed in the old comic books my sister collects. He has a thin beard and it takes a second before I realize it’s there among the dark bristles—scar tissue. I recognize a gun shot when I see one. He’s been shot in the face. Mafia, Russian mafia and I’m yelling at his men. 

From across the hood of the SUV another voice says something low in Russian. I focus on that guy. The passenger—him I can deal with. The man in front of me, the solid wall of black, nope can’t do it can’t cope. 

“Turn off the fucking car. There is a kitten in the engine you’re going to kill it dumbass!” I yell. 

The words aren’t even out of my mouth before the SUV is off and the hood is popped. Passenger guy is opening the hood. I try to look inside. “Kitty, here. Kitty.” I call out trying to see where the kitten is hiding. Another meow is my answer. 

A clamp comes around my arm, his hand is huge. I have a feeling he could break my arm easily even through my coat with just one hand. That isn’t what unnerves me though—it’s how even through my thick wool coat I’m hit with heat as I’m pulled back. 

“Nyet, you will not burn yourself.” Gravel-voice guy says. “Go sit inside. It’s too cold for you out here.” 

Once again I’m struck dumb as I look up at him. God, six foot four maybe even six foot five. I’ve stood in front of other men as tall and wide as him yet none of them have overwhelmed me the way he does. 

Another meow, this one is followed by an angry hiss. I swing around to find passenger guy clutching a tiny black kitten. I’m at his side, holding out my hands for the kitten. He drops it in my hands. So small. “Oh no, baby, you’re burned. Are you okay? Don’t worry. I’ll fix you up, I promise.” 

The vet clinic I work at is more than three miles away. I need to get moving. The clamp is back holding me in place.

“Where is your car?” Gravel-voice guy asks.

Opening my coat, I place the kitten inside and zip it back up. “I don’t have one. Which means I have to move my ass to get to the vet clinic. It’s almost a forty-five minute walk.” 

The clamp propels me toward the back door. It opens but I stop. “What are you doing?” 

“Trying to keep you from freezing to death. Get in.” It’s an order. 

I’m annoyed I like it when usually I loathe being told what to do by anyone. It causes me to take a step back. He mutters something in Russian that sounds bad then I’m up in his arms. Holy shit. He’s picked me up like I weigh nothing. I barely have time to enjoy it before he drops me on the back seat. 

The back of the SUV is huge but with a man inside, it doesn’t feel that way. A ghost of a smile is on his face. He has to be Gravel voice’s brother or some kind of relation because he looks like him, maybe a few years younger. While he isn’t quite as big as Gravel voice, he’s still larger than I’m used to in close quarters.

“Privet, malyshka, such a pretty little thing you are.” His voice is smoky and rich but now as gravely as the other guy. 

Gravel voice growls at him and says something in Russian that causes the man to smile wickedly, wink at me then get out.  

The car door on the other side stays open while the door on my side closes. Hey, what the hell? I go to open it only to find it locked. Their deep voices are low yet I clearly hear them speaking Russian. Gravel voice goes to his maybe brother’s side. With a nod, the maybe brother and the guy who retrieved the kitten walk toward Carlo’s house. I check my watch nine on the dot. 

He lowers himself into the SUV I would have had to climb up into if he hadn’t put me in. He closes the door with barely a sound. An eyebrow goes up as yellow eyes runs over me. “Where is the clinic, malyshka?”

I have no idea why I’m blushing. How is it so freaking hot in here? What does malyshka mean? A meow reminds me of what I’m doing in here with him. The address spills out of me in a rush. 

The driver grunts, I guess that means he heard it or knows where it is.

“Seatbelt. Safety, always.” He murmurs from low in his chest. 

I’m all thumbs as I stretch the belt across me. Dang it, I pull off my mittens to get a grip. I can’t find the, oh. His hands are on mine, taking the metal part for me. My stomach drops to the floor as electricity courses through me so strong it scares the hell out of me. 

The kitten meows again yanking me out of shock, I move the belt from across him. “It’s okay, baby. You’re going to be okay.” 

“Are you so ferocious for all animals or do you prefer cats?” A dark eyebrow is up as he studies me with…curiosity or is it intent? Why would it be intent?

He shifts ever so slightly and all at once he’s too close. It doesn’t matter there’s at least five feet between us and the back of the SUV is large, he’s larger. He reminds of a big cat, the energy around him is tense as though he’s waiting to strike.

“I like all animals but prefer cats. Dogs are desperate for affection—they’ll do anything to be reassured they are loved. Cats are more honest and real. If they don’t like you then you know. There’s no guessing with cats. Some people think a cat has to be all over them but sometimes they show you they like you by simply letting you be around them. Once you’ve earned their trust they are incredibly loyal.” Stop babbling, you weirdo. “Who are you?” The words fly out without any plan. 

A smile, with only half of his thick lips. I wonder if they are as soft as they look. “I am Milos Levin. And you are?”

He pronounces it Milosh and I have no idea why I’m blushing again. When he speaks Russian it’s fluid, yet when he speaks English there is barely a trace of an accent. Was English his first language? “Celia Parker. You’re also mafia. You left that part out.” 

His smile deepens. “Is it so obvious? For Russians, we are Bratva.”

“Obvious you’ve killed people, probably with your bare hands? Yes. Also Carlo loves to make mafia come to him. The people whose asses he wants to kiss, he goes to them or meets them at his restaurant.” 

Yellow glows down at me. “What do you know about mafia and people who kill with their bare hands, malyshka?”

“Carlo’s my sperm donor. He’s proud of what he is and loves to brag about all the shit he’s done to me and my little sister. We only exist for his ego and benefit. He’ll parade us around if he needed to look like a family man. The whole time we don’t live in his home, have his name, and if someone he wanted to impress asked if we were his he denied us.” Stop babbling, stop it right now. Only I can’t—his eyes on me unnerve me completely.

“With my mom half-Filipino we weren’t good enough to have his name. Because the mafia is filled with racist assholes. Never mind that most people have no idea we’re a quarter Filipino. Carlo did his best to wipe it out of our home—my mom wasn’t allowed to cook Filipino food or speak the language around us. One of his Capo’s daughters admitted her brother would have considered me. He didn’t think the half-Filipino mom was a big deal but his dad wouldn’t let him because of the way Carlo talked about me.” 

Like every time I dare to let myself speak of Carlo the bitterness threatens to consume me. “He told me today he’s not paying for me to go to college. Which means I can’t go at all.” Fuck, I wipe the tears that spill over. “He has the money. It’s not even his money I want, it’s my money. His mother left money for me and my sister for exactly this reason so we could go to school and live our lives without depending on him. He brags constantly about how much money he has. But he won’t pay for me to go to school to become a veterinarian because it would be a waste when I’m only good to get married and have kids. Yet he also tells me he can’t find anyone who wants to marry me so I’m useless to him. If I’m useless then let me go to school.” 

I check on the kitten, he’s just staring up at me unblinking. Huh, his eyes are yellow like Gravel voice—Milos. He’s calm for a kitten usually they meow on repeat until they get what they want and they are always hungry. 

“You are not able to attend university without your father’s help.” Is it a question?

Shaking my head, I sigh. “Sperm donor not father.” I correct him. “No, if it were for anything else maybe but veterinarian program is hard. I’m dyslexic so studying is torture. Which means I can’t have an actual job. The Pell grant and the few thousand in scholarships I got aren’t enough for me to go the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. And loans aren’t an option. It also isn’t his help, like I said his mother left us money. If I had access to it, I could go.”

“There is no other access to the money? Wouldn’t the money be held away independently?” 

Rolling my eyes, “Please, he’s now underboss of the Outfit. The second most powerful man in Chicago. Before that he loved flashing his power. He had the money under his control before my grandmother was in the ground. Apparently he used the money already on that stupid huge house. It’s pathetic when it’s really just about trying to one up Tony Sabatini. Something he knows deep down he can never do, bigger house or not. Tony Sabatini is not just a better capo than Carlo he’s a better man period. He’ll use and depend on Dominic while he resents Dominic is Tony’s son.” 

“You know Tony and Dominic Sabatini?” An eyebrow goes up. 

I’m blushing. “I’ve met them several times. They’re the only mafia men who are nice to me and my sister. Neither of them look through us the way most men do as if they’re afraid by giving a second of attention I’ll suddenly find myself in love with them or something.” 

I shrug. “Then there were the times I have to listen to Carlo rant when he’s drunk. You remind me of Tony Sabatini—it’s how I could tell you’ve killed before and have no problem with it…and probably will again. Carlo gets off on using Tony to clean up—” Shit. This is why I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut. 

If he notices he doesn’t say anything. The SUV has stopped. My door is opened by the silent driver. I undo my seat belt and slide out. 

Rounding the car I find Milos already at the front door holding it open for me. I stop. “I appreciate the ride but you don’t have to come in. Don’t you have the meeting with Carlo to get to?”

“Allow me to offer assistance where I am able. You will also need a ride home. My brother can handle the meeting.” His eyes are running over me heating me so thoroughly I barely feel the twenty-four degree weather. 

It was his brother. He’s here with me when he should be with Carlo—Carlo who takes offense at the smallest slight. I’m drawn forward to him as if he were physically pulling me. 

The moment I enter the clinic, “Celia, what are you doing here? You’re not supposed to work for another three hours—oh hello.” Darla is flushed as her eyes run over Milos. “Can I help you?”

I love Darla but she’s such a slut. And I mean it in the nicest way possible. It’s how she refers to herself. She’s man crazy, forever flirting with every man who comes into the clinic. 

“I am here for Celia and the kitten she saved from my vehicle.” He nods at me, stepping behind me, his hand is low on my back urging me forward. 

How the hell do I feel his touch when I’m wearing a shirt, a sweater, and a coat? I hold up the kitten. “Kitten, his fur is singed. He’s a little one too. Maybe four or five weeks. And he’s so quiet.”

She waves me back, her eyes on Milos. “Go on back, girly. Hank and Sue are in surgery with Elvis the Frenchie. They should be out in a half hour or so but Belinda is free.” 

“You work here?” The words rumble out of him. 

I’m not sure why he makes it sound like I was keeping a secret from him. I nod. “Since I was sixteen. Every day after school I’m here. It’s very loosely an internship for me to get experience.” 

I go into the first empty exam room wondering where Belinda is. Unzipping my coat I put the kitten into the bowl scale. Ah, he’s only a little over three ounces. Now that I get a good look at him he’s skinny, too skinny. 

The heat is getting to me, I begin taking my coat off. Milos is behind me, his large hands on my shoulders taking it from me. I can’t contain my shiver at his hands on me. Even though I’m blushing and hate it, my eyes are drawn up to his.  

“You are still in school? How old are you?” More smoke, way too much gravel the words come from his chest. It’s one of the differences that is always most striking between Italian men and American: American men’s voices come from their throat. Italian men—the ones in the mafia I encountered who grew up in old Italian families their words come from their chest making it deeper, fuller. 

I had no idea Russian men were the same. I’ve never met a Russian before, at least not that I remember definitely not a man like Milos. 

“Nineteen.” It’s a whisper. There is no visible response yet there is a shift in the air. He’s withdrawing from me. I don’t dare tell him I just turned nineteen two months ago a week before Christmas.

The kitten meows, reminding me why we’re here. It’s ridiculous. He isn’t—wasn’t interested in me. I’m too fat and now apparently too young. Men who are rich, powerful, and gorgeous like Milos Levin had a flock of women who were sexy rolling out of bed. Women were accessories to them, the same as the Patek Phillipe watch around his wrist I know for a fact costs more than two hundred thousand dollars.

Now I know why Carlo had talked about it, that it was stupid to spend so much on a watch when it was so plain, there weren’t even diamonds on it. Men who spent that much on watch weren’t interested in someone who is short and fat constantly battling to stay a size eighteen. I’m not pretty enough to be an accessory.

Carlo was ordering my mother to put me on a diet since I was nine years old. He was constantly moaning it was bad enough I was a girl—couldn’t I at least be pretty? No one other than my sister or nonna ever called me pretty. Once a boy called me okay, telling me he liked my long brown hair and gray eyes. How I was lucky my clear skin and complexion didn’t really need makeup. He admitted he was gay and was hoping I would be his pretend girlfriend. But no offense, he found someone skinnier than me. So Carlo was right…

Slamming down the thought of Carlo and his insults, I focus on the kitten. “Okay, let’s get a look at you sweetie. Oh good, the burn isn’t as bad as it could be. You are so lucky. Ah oops, you’re a girl.” 

I run my hands gently over the kitten watching her for any reaction of pain to my touch. A sigh of relief leaves me when she doesn’t meow in pain. Studying her, she’s pure black, not a spot of color on her. 

I snag a stethoscope to listen to her lungs. Considering how small she is and how cold it is she sounds good. Her eyes are slightly goopy with a slight crusting around one. Hm, she could have a virus. 

“She is healthy?”

I’m surprised he seems to genuinely care. “Yes, I think so. She might have a virus with her eyes being this way. However with her lungs sounding so good I’m hopeful it’s just the cold. I’ll need to watch her—or someone will.”

“You cannot keep her?” That eyebrow is up again. 

Shaking my head, I sigh. I open the mini-fridge to get a prepared bottle of kitten formula out. Offering it to the kitten I’m relieved when she begins sucking with gusto, the hungrier the better. “I wish. My little sister is allergic. I could keep her for a few weeks until she’s healthy and doesn’t need to eat every three to four hours but I’ll have to find her a home. It’s a part of the reason I work here and volunteer at the cat rescue: to get my cat fix.” 

“You will nurse her until she is old enough for me to take her home.” It’s not a question. 

“You want her?” I can’t believe it.

A half-smile tugs at the scar on his cheek. The scar should even out his looks. He’s far too gorgeous for it to be fair. Except it doesn’t diminish his beauty in the slightest. “She crawled into my vehicle. It is meant to be. Russians, we are a superstitious lot. You cannot avoid what is meant to be. I have dogs for security, they are not pets. Just last week my brother suggested it was time I adopt a cat to keep me warm at night. For the cat to come into my life so soon after the suggestion means she is meant to be mine.” 

 “I wouldn’t have thought you would need a cat to keep you warm at night. There must be a dozen women willing to keep you warm.” Oh god, I blush as I realize what I said. 

A grin that cannot be described as anything other than wicked flashes then is gone far too quickly. “The women I allow into my bed are not allowed to sleep through the night or stay when it’s over.”

I’m saved from making an idiot of myself by Belinda. “Hi, Darla said you needed me? Hi, I’m um hi. Belinda.” She offers her hand to Milos. “How can I be of assistance?” 

“Milos.” 

She’s still holding his hand. Jealousy surges inside me. Belinda is beautiful. Tall, blonde, with legs that went on for days, if she weren’t so nice I would hate her guts. Right now though I’m hating the way Milos is smiling down at her. 

“A kitten.” I say way too loud and sharply as I thrust the kitten still sucking on the bottle at Belinda. She’s a nurse, with more than ten years of experience who stands in for Hank—the veterinarian who owns and runs the clinic. “She was in the engine of Milos’s SUV. I gave her a once over but if you could…” 

“Of course.” She finally lets go of his hand, her cheeks and takes the kitten from me. “Hi, sweetie. How are you? Oh my goodness, hungry aren’t you?”

I step back from the table to give her room. I’m too close to Milos, the fucker who not surprisingly loves blondes and smiles wide at them and…his eyes meet mine. Yellow glows so hot it sucks all the air from my lungs. 

“Sit, malyshka, you appear heated.” It’s an order.

Normally I would argue anytime someone told me to do anything except my legs are wobbly. I nearly fall into the lone chair in the room. 

“Would you please x-ray the kitten to ensure there are no hidden issues?” Milos turns his attention to Belinda. 

“She seems fine, but I understand your concern.” Cuddling the kitten close, she leaves the room.

“She’s single. If you want her number, I’m sure she’ll give it to you.” I mumble as I stare at the closed door. 

He doesn’t say anything, yet I feel his eyes on me as heavy as a touch. I’m so freaking hot I want to take off my sweater. I don’t dare. The shirt on underneath is old and too tight. I’m only wearing it because it was the one of the few clean ones I had. I give in and look up. His smile is barely there. It isn’t mocking the way I’m used to seeing on a man’s face. 

“I have no desire to ask for her number. However, I will need yours…so that I can check up on the kitten while you have her. Then you will call me when she’s ready.” His large hand goes into his inner coat pocket. The phone is sleek, black, expensive like him. 

Shrugging, I dig into my jeans pocket to pull out my embarrassing old flip phone. I give him my number. Immediately, a text comes through. 

 

You will save my number as Milos. I am saving your number as kotyonok Russian for kitten. Not for the kitten but for the way you hiss and swipe then purr with pleasure when you have a kitten in your arms.

 

I blush again. God, Belinda didn’t blush. I swear I don’t usually blush this much. Except a few times around Dominic and Tony Sabatini they were so—wait. “You know Tony and Dominic?” 

A frown and both eyebrows go up. “Tony and Dominic were my entry into the partnership I formed with the Outfit. How well do you know them? Are you attracted to them?” The question is a warning. 

The approval of the Sabatini’s adds another layer to him. Tony and Dominic were extremely selective of who they did business with. If they didn’t respect the person, it didn’t matter how much money could be made they didn’t deal with them. His question causes another blush, it’s embarrassing. I swear until someone mentioned them I never thought of the crush I developed then died long ago. 

“You are…to both of them.” Menace vibrates from him. 

I shake my head. “It was a middle school crush thing. Tony’s old enough to be my grandfather or close and Dominic would never.” I shrug defensively. “Okay, yes. I did wonder if maybe but I grew out of it. They’re too…” 

“Too what?” He growls. 

Holy crap he actually growled like an angry dog. Fear sends the words spilling from me to placate him. “Too mafia, too gorgeous to be interested in me, too much. Someone like me doesn’t even register to men like them. And in the end I was relieved nothing could or would come of it.” 

“Relieved how?” The menace is finally gone yet he’s still tightly coiled as if he could strike at any moment. 

“I don’t want anything to do with that world. Guns, money, death. I want boring, kittens, books.” 

For some reason it doesn’t seem like he likes that answer. His phone rings, he answers it. I would never have thought Russian was a sexy language. 

Ending the call, he slides the phone back into the inner pocket. “Was Russian your first language? You have only a trace of an accent when you speak English but you also speak carefully like many of us who grew up speaking another language to select the right word in English.” 

He nods. “Russian was my first language. While I was born here in Chicago my father was adamant his children were raised speaking Russian. You were raised on Italian?” 

I’m shocked when he asks the question in Italian. I nod. “On Carlo’s orders, it’s a mafia thing. You speak Italian?”

Another nod, a genuine smile causes my stomach to flip a dozen times. Wow, his smile lethal to all my beliefs that I was immune to a gorgeous man. “I found it helps dealing with the Outfit. They are unaware. I am asking you not to tell anyone.” 

I blush at the honor of him telling me. “I won’t tell anyone—especially Carlo. Tony and Dominic wouldn’t work with you if they didn’t respect and have a certain level of trust with you.” 

He nods. “They had their terms, in the end it was worth it.” 

I’m confused. 

“Their condition to give up our sex trafficking and work that made us so much of our money—my father was not happy it took some talking to get him to agree.” 

The recoil at his words isn’t something I can hide. He sees it, he steps toward me. I take two steps back. “Trafficking is disgusting. Drugs, liquor, and gambling are taking advantage of a weakness already there. Stealing women and forcing them to fuck or die is horrific. You used them until there was nothing left then threw them away like trash. Did you even throw them away or did you kill them?”  

His eyes go wide. Whatever he was going to say is lost when Belinda reenters the room. 

“Okay, clean health report for this one.” Belinda smiles as she offers the kitten to me.

I shake my head. “I need to go home and get ready for work. Can you watch her for me until I get back?”

“Sure.” 

Leaving the room, I ignore Milos. As far as I’m concerned he doesn’t exist. Walking into the front reception area I tell Darla I’ll be back. I open the door to clinic and bypass the SUV still in front of the door. 

Shit, after the time in the warm building it feels even colder. It was twenty-four degrees when I left my house this morning, I can’t help wondering if it’s dropped a few degrees. 

“Stop. I will see you home. Get in.” His hand is around my arm. 

I try to tear away but it’s like fighting with steel. “Fuck you, go away.” 

Goddamnit, he lifts me up and tosses me into the back of the SUV. He slams the door closed behind me. I try to open the door to find it already locked. “Let me out, you fucker.” 

“You are a mouthy little brat. I thought all mafia raised their daughters to be meek, mild, and sweet.” He’s annoyed. 

“I was raised by my grandmother whose husband’s treated her so badly for so long she celebrated his death. She didn’t want me to just lay there and take it the way she had to. Nonna raised me the same way she raised her son—not to take shit from anyone.”

He’s inside beside me. “Your nonna exceeded herself. Behave. I’m taking you home then you need not worry I will ever see you again. You can flee into your little fortress of naivete where everyone who doesn’t do what you want is the bad guy. I am the villain in every story why should yours be any different.” His voice is colder than the wind outside. “Put your seatbelt on.”

It’s a slap in the face, naïve is another word for young and stupid. That’s why he doesn’t want anything to do with me. It doesn’t matter my father was the Don of the Outfit. I’m a bastard, painfully poor, and fat the man is so far out of my league it’s laughable for him to care what I thought of him. Why would he want to see me again?  I sit up and put my seatbelt on. Keeping my face out the window.

“Your address, malyshka.”

I give it to him.

We’re almost home when I give into what I’ve wanted to know since he first said it. “What does, malyshka mean?” 

“Little one, basically baby.” He’s bored. 

“Like I thought, a generic name for women who come and go to men like you.” The SUV stops outside my house. I get out, I can’t hold back from slamming the door. Walking inside I’m proud of myself for not looking back especially when I felt his eyes on me the whole way. I really wish it was one of the Sabatini’s I’d run into instead.

 

 

Chapter Three 

Present Day

Celia 

 

I’m not two feet into the house before Carina is on me. “What happened?” 

I hate the fear on her heart-shaped face. Normally her green eyes are soft moss now they’re a clear, hard emerald. Forcing a smile, I hug her tight. “The best news, Milos asked me to marry him..” 

“Oh god, I’m sorry.” She begins crying. We both were afraid this was why Carlo wanted to see me. 

Wiping her tears, I shake my head. “I’m not. I’m so happy Carina. It’s Milos Levin. He’s beautiful, and he’s been so sweet. Don’t cry, please don’t cry.” 

Caria isn’t fooled. “You can cry with me. I won’t tell Mommy or Carlo.” 

“I’m not.” I’m firm. “This is better than I could have hoped for. I’ve told you about Milos. You get to have my car. Remember the car he gave me? It’s yours now.” I hand her the keys. 

Sniffling, her eyes run over me. “Are you sure?” 

This time I stop hiding from myself to tell her the truth. “Carina, this is an actual dream come true. Come on, we both thought I was going to get an old, crusty guy with too much money who didn’t give a fuck about me.” 

She shudders. “He’s so big and scary. You really aren’t afraid of him?” 

“In the beginning, yes, but after four years not in the least. He’s taken care of me—” Shit. I forgot I never told her about…I force the memory down. “I’m happy. I need you to be happy for me. Can you do that?” 

Nodding, she hugs me tight. “It might be four years but have you really spent more than even ten hours with him total? You only saw him was it six or seven times you said? How can you be sure? Will he let me visit you?” 

I’m fighting for control of my smile. She isn’t wrong. While there were more times than she knew of, all of the time we spent over the last four years couldn’t be more than two whole weeks combined. In the regular world it would have been unheard of. For Mafia, it’s more than most women got. There were lucky women who knew of and encountered their husbands before the family agreed on marriage and terms. However even they rarely were allowed more than a surface knowledge of each other before becoming engaged. “Of course he will. He knows how important you are to me. He’s not like Carlo.”

“What do you mean he’s taken care of you?” She asks. 

Forcing a smile. I run my hand through her hair then tug. “The car and mommy—I told you. Now I need to get ready to get to work.” 

Before she can ask again, I go into my room to get dressed for work at the clinic. I change into the scrubs with kittens on them and into comfy sneakers for standing all day. When I come out of my room, I find the living room empty and can hear an anime playing in my sister’s room. 

Walking out of the house, I find Peter waiting.

He’s out of the large black SUV standing in front of the door to my car. “You need something?” 

I nod. “To go to work. At the veterinarian clinic.” 

He shakes his head. “Nyet, Milos said you are to tell them you quit.” 

“Well, Milos can fuck off and so can you. I’m not quitting. He doesn’t own me. I’m going to work.” 

Turning away from him I begin walking. He steps in front of me. “Milos will be angry if you—” 

“I don’t care. I’m going to work. Now get the fuck out of my way.” 

I never see him move, I’m up in his arms and he carries me kicking and struggling against him to the SUV. The driver, someone I’ve never seen before is waiting with the backdoor open. Peter drops me in then the door closes. 

I’m so pissed, I kick the door. Fuckers. 

“I know for a fact you were ordered never to touch me.” I throw at Peter. 

He shrugs. “Milos said in times of your safety we can. If I thought Milos would kill me for touching you I wouldn’t have done it.” Looking to the driver. He tells him in Russian, not to forget that Milos said not to touch me. 

“Who is he?” I ask Peter as the driver now refuses to look anywhere near me after he’d been staring at me in the mirror. 

“His name is Gleb. Our job is too keep you safe. Don’t make it any harder than it has to be.” Peter warns me.

“This isn’t about my safety it’s about Milos having a power trip. Where the hell are you taking me?” I ask even though I know the answer. 

“Your new home.” He says, his tone bored. “Seatbelt.” 

“Fuck you.” I cross my arms, refusing to put my seatbelt on. Instead I dig into my purse for my phone. It isn’t the flip phone I had four years ago. It’s the phone Milos gave me three years ago to replace the first one he gave me the day I met him. I text the clinic telling them I’m sorry but something came up and I can’t go into work today. 

Today is mirroring that first day in so many ways I can’t stop from thinking of the first day I met Milos Levin and my whole life changed.

 

 

***

Four Years ago

 

I’m still trembling with nerves as I get ready for work almost two hours from the time I came home. Why the hell couldn’t I stop thinking of Milos Levin? Of how he called himself a villain when I knew he wasn’t. The Sabatini’s wouldn’t work with him if he were. He’d gone against his father to stop trafficking. It didn’t matter the reason why. Men in the mafia were raised to be obedient to only their leader and their father. For him to go against his father was huge. 

Stop it, it didn’t matter what he did or why. I’m sure he’s already forgotten me. I need to do the same. There’s a slick black Mercedes sedan waiting in my driveway. The passenger guy who went into the meeting with Milos’s brother is waiting. 

“This is your car. Milos does not want you walking. You stay warm and safe.” He offers me the keys. 

Even though I know the house is empty, my little sister was hunting for the newest serial of her favorite manga. And my mother was at work with Carlo. I still glance at my house sure I’m being set up. This has to be a joke. All I can do is back away from him while shaking my head. “No, I don’t want it. Tell him to take it back.” 

I try to go around him. He steps in front of me. “The car is yours. You will not walk. Your safety is important to Milos.” 

“Go away and leave me the hell alone.” I yell and try to get around him. 

Again he’s in front of me. “Do not anger, Milos. You will regret it.” 

The words stop me. “Are you threatening me?” 

His eyes go wide, shaking his head. “No, if you don’t take the car then we are to take you to work. You do not walk.”

Sighing, I nod. Step close, my hand out as if I’m going to take the keys. Instead, I kick into his instep hard. Then I turn and run. I only manage to get thirty feet before the big SUV is in front of me. Annoyed, I kick the door and try to go around it. 

The guy I kicked is out of the car. He lifts me and stuffs me in the back seat. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

He slams the door, immediately I hear the locks click.

“If you will not take the car then we are to drive you to work. It is too cold for you to walk.” I don’t speak Russian but I’m pretty sure he says a swear word as he pulls out his phone. 

A flood of Russian comes out of him. Oh yeah, he’s talking to Milos.

“Tell him I’m not taking the fucking car! He can take it and shove it up his ass!” 

The guy looks back at me. He says something. Then chuckles as he looks away. 

All I can do is seethe in frustration as the SUV drives to the clinic. I jump out the moment the door is unlocked. I flip them off as I go inside. 

Darla sighs when she sees me. “Your man is gorgeous. How and where did you get him?”

I shake my head. “He’s not mine. How is the kitten?” 

“Oh you mean, Koshka? That’s what Milos said to call the kitten. He paid a fat wad of cash to cover expenses and for the charity fund. Beautiful and kind. Swoon. If you don’t want him, I’ll take him.” She teases.

Faking a smile, “You can have him.”

It annoys me I can’t tell her what he really is—mafia, Bratva. To do that would mean I’d have to tell her how I know. Which isn’t an option. I’m grateful I don’t have Carlo’s name. No one knows who my father—is and my hope is no one ever does. 

The whole time I’m at work I’m waiting for Milos to make an appearance. I’m relieved when the day ends and he doesn’t. I really am. Carrying around the adorable black kitten with yellow eyes that glow up at me I refuse to think of how those eyes remind me of Milos. 

I’m the last to leave the clinic. It doesn’t bother me, usually. I just hate how it’s dark out already. All I have to do is throw the trash then I can lock up and leave. I step outside, the kitten in the pouch I’ve been carrying her around in all night. 

The huge SUV is waiting, the door opens to Milos. 

“Go away.” I hiss at him as I toss the first trash bag. Immediately the guy who tossed me in the SUV earlier is at my side and tosses the other two bags into the dumpster. 

“Are you the last and only one in the building?” Milos is daring me to tell him differently.

“I thought I was never going to see you again.” I mutter.

“If you had taken the car from Peter and not kicked him, you never would have.” The words are so cold, I don’t doubt him for a moment.

I ignore him, lock the door. And turn to—I’m up in Milos’s arms again being carried to the SUV. He carries me across his chest as easily as I would carry a kitten. It doesn’t matter I’m struggling against him. His grip tightens in warning. Shock at how much I like being in his arms makes me fight even harder against him—against what he does to me. It doesn’t help in the slightest. I’m in the back of the SUV, again. 

“Answer me. Do they leave you alone to close all by yourself?”

“Go away you fucking psycho.” I yell at him. 

An exhale of air that might be considered a laugh comes out of him. “If you don’t answer I’ll burn the place down tonight. You can’t work there if it’s a shell.” 

I don’t doubt him for a second. Holy freaking crap. “You are psychotic.” 

“If I am psychotic, don’t you think it’s best not to anger me? Seat belt, Celia.” It’s an order. 

“Fuck you.” The words are barely out of my mouth before he’s pressing me back and putting the seat belt on me. Koshka is meowing up a storm. This close I inhale his scent deep into my lungs citrus, woodsy with a hint of moss green and underlying those already appealing notes is something that is pure Milos—something heady, captivating, so enticing I wanted to lick his skin to taste it on my tongue. 

His large hand grasps my chin, there it is again, electricity surging through my entire body causing me to shudder. A thumb runs over my lips, holy fuck the touch kicks over a hive of bees I had no idea were inside my tummy spilling hot honey through my veins. “Such beautiful lips should not say such dirty things. Behave kotyonok. I can turn you from hissing and spitting into purring—you aren’t ready for it…yet.” 

It isn’t just his words that are a promise, it’s his touch and the way those yellow eyes flare hot with intent. I have no control of my body and want to die from embarrassment at the wet heat flooding my core. My body has never done that before, not even while reading my sister’s smuttiest manga. His body goes tense against mine. Koshka’s little head pops out of the carrier and she hisses at Milos. He pushes away with what has to be a curse word in Russian. 

“Let me out.” I hate the way the words tremble. I’m shocked I found the air to get them out at all.

Milos turns his attention back to me. “Were you the only person left in the building?” 

I sigh. “Yes. It’s fine. This is a safe neighborhood. I’m only two miles from home. If you burn it down I swear I will never forgive you. My nonna might have taught me how not to take shit from anyone but I learned how to be a bitch at the feet of Carlo and his psychopathic men—you think I’m bad now, you have no idea how bad I can be. Besides, my fatass needs the exercise anyway.” 

His jaw goes tight. Violence fills the back of the car until I can barely breathe. “Do not call yourself that. If anyone else were to call you fat I would make them bleed. You do it again and I will ensure you regret it.” 

What? I am not turned on by the menace in him…damn it I am. 

“Either you take the car or my men take you to and from work every day. The decision is yours.” His tone is clear, pick one or he will.

“How the hell am I going to explain a car like that to my family? If Carlo finds out you bought me a car, you will be completely fucked. He’ll pin you into a marriage with me so fast it will make your head spin and he’ll take every dime he can get while he’s at it.” I warn him. 

An odd exhalation comes out of him, almost like a laugh but not quite. What the hell would he think is funny about that? Probably that anyone would force him into a marriage, especially with me. “The car is a donation from someone thanking you for caring for the kitten. And it is. You will care for the kitten day and night for the next few weeks—something I have no inclination or time for. I don’t believe you are not clever enough to keep my name out of it. It is unacceptable for you to be out walking the streets alone. I don’t care you think the streets are safe. A beautiful woman like you alone, is a tasty treat no one who saw you would be able to deny.”  

I roll my eyes. In that time he’s pulled out a phone from his inner pocket and is dropping it in my lap. “What’s this?” 

“Your new phone. The one you have is not safe. It is too old and undependable.” Like it’s not a big deal and he gives away phones to everyone he meets.

Holy crap, this is a thousand dollar phone. I shake my head. No fucking way. I’m not allowed to get my mouth open. 

He holds up my old phone. How the hell did he get it out of my pocket? In a few deft moves, he’s pulled out the sim card then opens his window and tosses my phone out. He offers me the sim card. “You will take the phone and the car.” 

When I don’t take it, too stunned to move, he drops it into Koshka’s pouch with a gentle caress of his fingers over the tiny kitten. 

The SUV stops in front of my house. “I really hate your guts.” 

His chuckle fills the back of the SUV. “You wish, kotyonak.”

Sliding out of the SUV I slam the door and practically run my ass into the house. 

My sister is waiting in my room. “Hey, what’s up with the car in driveway? Did Carlo finally buy Mommy a new car?” 

I shake my head, lying is my only choice if I don’t want to keep tangling with Milos Levin. And I don’t want to. I really don’t. 

“I’ve got a kitten.” I warn her. She sighs and backs away to stand in the doorway. “The kitty’s new mommy gave it to me. She’s a weird lady. Too busy and stressed to feed and watch it until it’s ready to go home with her. So she’s giving me the car to get around in. She found out I’m walking to and from work. The kitten isn’t allowed to get cold.” 

Carina shakes her head. “That is some rich white people shit. Won’t take care of the cat but spends thousands for someone else to do it.” 

I laugh. “I guess.” 

“Why was it here though? I thought you were supposed to drive it to work?” Her forehead crinkles. 

I sigh at the sight, she’s too young for it to do that. Lying to protect her is the easiest thing I’ll do every day of my life. “I tried to argue with her I didn’t need it but she got mad. Threatened to pull the donation she gave for charity. I’ll take it I guess. Until it’s time to give her the kitten.”  

“Huh, okay.” She yawns. “So what did Carlo say about the money?” 

I shake my head. 

She sighs. “I’m sorry. This is bullshit. What are you going to do?” 

Shrugging, “It’s community college and vet tech I guess.” 

Another sigh. “I wish to hell I could help you.” 

“It’s fine. I knew it wouldn’t happen.” I paste a smile on my face while I shrug. Doing my best to pretend I wouldn’t cry myself to sleep over the loss of my dream. 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

Only I couldn’t let it go. When I told Hank, the owner and vet for the clinic I worked at who knew my dream was to one day work with him then take over his clinic, he offered to pay for half of my school as a loan without interest. He saw it as an investment because he wanted me to take over. His son is a pediatrician in the far west suburbs. He hadn’t made any other connections to partner with and didn’t want the practice to close when he was ready to retire in ten or twelve years. 

If that was true, then maybe just maybe I could get Carlo to give me the rest. So more than a week after I met with Carlo I demanded another meeting with him. Yes, I had to ask for a meeting with him.

 The bastard put me off for four days. 

He was in a bad mood the minute I walked through the door. “What do you want now, Celia?” 

I take a deep breath, trying not lose my temper. “The owner of the vet clinic is willing to pay half of my school. All I need is ten thousand all in. Please, Carlo—” 

Scoffing, “What the fuck I gotta tell you? I’m not paying for school. It doesn’t matter if it’s ten or five grand. Shut the fuck up about it.” 

“Why can’t you help me for once in your fucking life?” I hate that I’m crying in front of him. I’m not sad I’m frustrated I can’t kill him. 

“Sonny! Get her the fuck out of here.” Carlo shouts to one of his soldiers. 

“I’m your daughter, you asshole! I’m not a fucking lackey for you to toss out when—” Sonny grabbed me by the arm and started dragging me out of Carlo’s office.

I couldn’t believe it. “I hate your fucking guts. My greatest hope is you get cancer like Johnny and it eats away at your body too!” 

Sonny let me go when he closed Carlo’s office behind us. Anger fired me, I pushed hard against him. I managed to catch him off guard and he went into the wall. 

Another of Carlo’s soldiers, Al was there and laughed at him. “She almost took your ass out.” 

Sonny backhanded me across the face sending me off my feet. The blow left me stunned, my ears ringing. While I was out of it, he grabbed me by the arm again and shoved me out of the house then slammed the door and locked me out. 

I fell, still stunned. My mother appeared at my side. Sighing, “Why do you have to fight with him? You shouldn’t say such things to him. He’s your father.” 

Her words hurt worse than the blow from Sonny. I blink back tears caused by her—not Sonny. “Why do you never fight for me? He says awful shit to me all the time. You never say a word until I say them back. If he were my father he would give a shit about me. But he doesn’t and neither do you.” 

“Celia, please, you don’t understand.” She grabbed my arm to help me up. 

I shook her off, “No, I don’t understand. I don’t understand why it’s always Carlo. How come it’s never me or Carina, even one time.” 

She didn’t say another word or try and help me to the car. I didn’t look back as I drove home.

 

The next day I almost didn’t go to school. I didn’t want the other kids seeing the huge bruise. I was already an outsider, with my weight, dyslexia, and being held back a grade when I was ten because of my dyslexia. And I might have brought a kitten to school a few times to feed. Kids called me the weird cat lady. 

Most of the mafia kids went to private schools, there was a Catholic school and a regular rich place. Capos sent their sons to the rich place and their daughters to the Catholic school. Carlo hadn’t cared enough to send me and Carina anywhere. We went to public school in Evanston.

While it was better than half the schools in Chicago the kids felt childish compared to the mafia sons and daughters I knew. They never dealt with their father’s coming home with blood on them. Or men in and out of the house at all hours, being taught how to shoot a gun, learning how to pick locks, playing hide and seek in old speakeasies. 

My sole best friend other than my sister, and I met in second grade before either of us realized how different we were. Since her mother was too busy trying to get through the day she didn’t care who her daughter was friends with. I cried for weeks when she moved to California in our sophomore year. Once she was gone, I was too much of an introvert to attempt to make more friends. It wasn’t like anyone else ever tried to talk to me either. No one ever picked me when the teachers told us to partner up. The teacher either assigned someone or let me do it alone.  

When I got called into the office by the guidance counselor I was sure it was about the bruise. It wasn’t. I won a scholarship. It paid for everything. Not just tuition and housing, it covered another fifteen hundred dollars a month as stipend to live off and a thousand dollars in housing if I decided I didn’t want to live in the dorms on campus. All the years of school necessary to become a veterinarian, as long as I maintained a C-average. 

I was stunned. How could it be? 

The guidance counselor shrugged. It was created by the family of a recent vet student who loved animals. She saw students around her dropping out because they couldn’t afford school even though they earned their place. Her dream was to create a scholarship fund for those who wanted to help animals. 

Since I had contacted the school a few days ago to decline due to insufficient funds they submitted me for the scholarship and I was approved. 

Three days later I was still on a high when I texted Milos that Koshka was ready for him. She had her shots and was healing from being spayed last week. He told me he was busy during the day, he couldn’t come until this evening or the next day. It was up to me. 

Milos was coming—wanted to come here? After everything that happened, I expected him to send someone. 

Since it was Friday night my mom was spending the weekend with Carlo. Carina was meeting with a client for design work at six thirty and said it would probably take a few hours. 

The idea of seeing him again was already causing my chest to twist and stomach to tighten in anticipation. But the idea of seeing him alone had me breaking out into a hot sweat. I paced as I told myself, tell him to meet me at the clinic tomorrow. I swear it’s what I meant to type but it came out as he could come by tonight whatever time worked for him. Since I was a night owl, I would be up until midnight. 

When he texted back in that case he’d like to take me out for dinner as a thanks for taking care of Koshka. Seeing it, my hands were trembling too badly to type, I dropped my phone. Crap, not the thousand dollar phone. Thankfully due to the ugly as fuck case I bought for it, there wasn’t even a scratch on it. 

 

No need. Between the car and the phone you’ve done more than enough. 

 

I sent it and waited with air frozen in my lungs until he responded. 

 

There is every need. Mine. 

 

Blushing so badly I nearly passed out, I couldn’t come up with an answer that didn’t sound stupid. I guess I took too long to respond because my phone chimed again. 

 

Tell me what you like and I will bring it to you

 

The command was it. I gave in because there was no denying Milos Levin and in the end I didn’t really want to. 

 

I usually love Italian food but I’m in the mood for Chinese if that’s okay. The place Great Wall on Chicago Avenue and Main street does really good rice noodles with chicken and Crab Rangoons. Pretty much everything is good there. 

 

I’m not sure why I was wincing as I waited—prepared for the blow of him saying nevermind. Only for his response to come quickly. 

 

I will see you at seven

 

Falling back on my bed, I sigh. It didn’t matter Milos Levin is everything I shouldn’t want, should stay as far away from as possible—I was drawn to him as powerfully as a moth to a flame. What made it worse is I have no doubt I’m the one who will be burned in the end. 

I changed seven times before six thirty. In the end I went with a pretty purple long sleeve velvet sweater and basic black leggings. Then I saw the bruise matched the sweater. Shit, I needed to cover it up. My only problem was I didn’t have any makeup. I knew how to use makeup but only because I watched and helped Carina with her cosplay stuff. It was all hers. She’d been locking her door lately when she left. She said it was because she thought Mommy was going through her room. A week ago stuff was moved, then again the other day. 

Nonna taught me how to take off a set of cuffs by the time I was ten and how to get into most safes by twelve. Locks were a little harder and took until I was thirteen. I could break into her room—it just felt wrong. 

The doorbell goes off. No freaking way, it’s seven already? Ten minutes early but still. Damn it.

Opening the door, all the air in my body leaves me in a rush at the sight of Milos Levin in all black filling the doorway. I stumble back into the house, giving him room to come in. 

“Good evening, you—” he brakes off as he steps forward, his big hand catching my chin. 

So every single time that electric shock was going to happen? My stomach twists, filling with heat at his touch. Suddenly I want—need his hands everywhere on my body. I expected smooth skin yet there are calluses on his fingers as they grip me tight. 

His touch is a brand burning into me. “What happened?” 

Ice slides down my spine at how dangerous the softly spoken words are. I can’t shake my head, he’s holding me so tightly. “Nothing, I—” 

“Do not lie to me, Celia. I do not like liars.” He growls.

A gust of wind hits me from the open door, causing me to shiver. Milos lets go of me, stepping further inside. He pulls the door from my numb hand and closes it behind me all without ever taking his eyes off me. “Tell me. Who hit you?” 

It’s happening again, the violence is rolling off him in waves. This is a man who has killed and will kill again—if I give him a name. 

I’m afraid, not of him and I’m not sure if it makes me naïve or not. Deep down I trust he won’t hurt me. It’s why I felt safe enough to yell at him, it didn’t matter what I said, Milos wouldn’t hurt me. Right now, I’m afraid of what will happen if I give him the name. 

I shake my head. “I tried talking to Carlo again about money for school. It didn’t go well. This was my own fault. I was dumb and pushed one of his men. He got embarrassed and…” 

“The one with slicked back hair and chain around his neck like an extra on a bad mob movie?” Lethal intent flows out of him inky dark and alive.

How did he know it was Sonny? 

The smallest of nods. “He is the type to hurt a woman if his ego was bruised.”

Shit. I shake my head unable to verbalize the lie. “I deserved. Please, let it go. If you do something you could start a war. I’m not worth that.” 

His frown is so scary I step back from him. “You are worth far more than you could ever imagine. Your father does not deserve your protection from a war of his own making by not protecting you.” 

How could he think that? Eyes wide I shake my head. “I’m not protecting Carlo. I mean you. Carlo is relentless when he’s crossed. I am begging you to let this go.” 

Yellow touches every inch of my face. He nods. “If it is what you wish.” 

“Yes, thank you.” All at once it’s easier to breathe again. “Besides I have amazing news. I got a scholarship for my entire schooling. Everything I could possibly need is paid for. I’m going to get to go to school and become a veterinarian the way I’ve dreamed of since I was eight years old.”

For the first time he smiles wide. This man is so stunning it isn’t fair. “Congratulations. You deserve it.” He slips off his long black coat. 

Wow, once again he’s in black on black. His suit, shirt and tie are all matte, nothingness black. He should be scary with how large he is, yet with the soft light caressing his honey skin and those yellow eyes soft the only thing scary is how much I want him. 

I take his coat, it’s cashmere and I’m sure costs more than I make in a year. I hang it up on the coat rack by the door.

When I turn back to him, he’s studying the small open plan living area of the living room, kitchen and small dining area. I have little doubt it’s probably one of the smallest spaces he’s ever had dinner in. 

“Thank you, I um. Do you want to set the food down? I’ll grab some forks. Do you want something to drink? I have sweet tea, water, and a box of wine that I swear tastes good.” I offer. 

His chuckle skims up my tummy and causes my nipples to tighten in need. “I will take water, thank you.” 

By the time I’m back from the kitchen with a few forks and a glass of water for him and tea for me, he’s unpacked everything and taken the lids off the plastic rectangle containers. I sit down across from him at the table.

For a few minutes we sort everything out and eat in companionable silence. Me with my noodles and him with beef and broccoli.

Koshka appears, meowing like mad to be held or for me to share with her, it was always one or the other with her. 

“She has grown far more than I thought she would in only two weeks.” Milos smiles down at her. 

I can’t take my eyes off his smile. “They do that. It feels like you blink and miss seeing them grow, time speeds past.”  

“It’s not that we have little time, but more that we waste a good deal of it.” We both watch the kitten, who has finally stopped meowing. She yawns and goes down to his feet, lays her head on his shoe and closes her eyes. 

“I think she likes you. Who said that?” I ask.

“Seneca.” He murmurs as he sips his water. 

It’s the last name I would have thought he would give. “You read Seneca? The Roman stoic philosopher?” 

A soft chuckle. “The Russian philosophy I grew up with were from people who were not as successful as the Romans and Greeks at creating and maintaining kingdoms. As painful as it was to accept if I did not learn a different way, I stood to lose everything.” 

His honesty hits hard. I take a deep breath as I move my rice noodles around. “I’m sorry about the way I reacted to you telling me your family trafficked, that wasn’t fair to you.” 

Yellow meets mine and holds. “It was and it wasn’t. I accepted it because it is what I was raised with. My father started me into our life young. At fifteen I was handling business. I trusted we were doing what was right for us. After all we were not the only ones doing it. For years I handled drug and weapons shipments but I never handled human cargo. The day I did I experienced the same horror you showed me. I should not have accepted it because it was done for so long. Just because we could doesn’t mean we should.”

I see it in his eyes, he meant it. I long to touch him to soothe his turmoil. 

“That was the last shipment we ever handled again. Here in Chicago and in Philadelphia where my brothers operate we do not deal in trafficking and we do not work with those who do. While my uncle and cousins do in New York we do not do business with them. Even with the connections they have I could use, I refuse.” His deep smoky voice wraps around me. I couldn’t look away from him if I wanted to—I don’t want to. 

“It’s hard to go against family, going against how you are raised. Even if it doesn’t feel right the fear of losing them if you even question it isn’t easy.” I sigh as I move my noodles around. 

A ghost of a smile. “I can’t see you accepting anything just because it’s how it went.” 

Blushing, I shrug. “I’m going to take it as a compliment.” 

An actual smile that turns my whole body hot and achy. “It is. To you and your nonna.” 

Laughing, I nod. “Nonna would love that compliment. My nonna—Carlo’s mother was the person who raised me and my sister. Almost all my good memories are of her. I still miss her deeply even though she’s been dead for more than three years.”

“Your mother…” Milos Levin unsure, I doubt it happens often.

“My mother wasn’t a mother, so much so until I was six I thought Nonna was my mother. Nonna lived in the house across the street, she refused to live with Carlo so he bought it for her. When my mother came up pregnant it didn’t matter Carlo wasn’t married, he wouldn’t marry her. He put her here so my nonna could be near her grandkids and help my mother. It became way more than helping. My mother woke us up, got us breakfast, took us to school then after school we didn’t see her again until we woke up. We fell asleep in our rooms at my grandmother’s house and spent all our waking time there even in the summer.” I shrug.

“What happened when you were six?” The question is soft, like his eyes. 

How did he know something happened? “Why do you ask?” 

An eyebrow goes up as if to say of course he knew something happened, “Because you said until you were six. What happened for you to learn otherwise?”

I shouldn’t be surprised he doesn’t miss a thing. “Nonna and my sister were in a car accident. Thankfully only broke her arm but it wasn’t easy for her to get around, she was upset my mother didn’t go visit Carina in the hospital. They fought and I heard nonna say she wasn’t even our mother when was my mother going to do her duty to us?”

Suddenly Carina is home.  I almost cry at the loss of the time alone with Milos. 

Her eyes are wide as she looks from me to Milos. “Sorry.”  

“What are you doing home?” I can’t believe she’s here. 

“Client stood me up. I’ll leave you two alone.” She mumbles.

He stands, offering his hand. “Milos Levin, please do not leave on my account.” 

Carina stares at his hand, doesn’t move to takes.

His phone goes off, he stiffens. “One moment please.” Answering the phone, he crosses to the other side of the room. 

Eyeing him with fear, Carina spits out. “I’ll be in my room.” In seconds, she’s in her room, nearly slamming it behind her. 

“I am sorry, kotyonok. Something important has come up. I must go.” Peter is behind him scooping up the kitten and the bag of her things I prepared for her to leave with. Then he’s gone again. 

“I understand. Thank you for dinner.” I offer him the keys to the car. 

A barely there smile is on those thick, plush lips. “Do not end this evening by annoying me. The car is yours. If I find out you are not using it or do something naughty like donating it to some charity I would hate to have a discussion with your father about how you refused my gift.” 

I’m gasping in shock, how the hell did he know I was considering gifting it to charity? He couldn’t talk to Carlo, if Carlo knew the car was from Milos then he’d have the two of us tied up in a marriage before either of us could blink. I would lose everything. “You wouldn’t.” I beg. 

“Try me, kotyonok.” It’s a dare. 

“Fine.” I sigh. “I don’t understand why you care but fine.” 

A finger traces along my jaw. The touch is light, too light yet sends my stomach twisting tight with need as warm honey flows through my veins. “Ty ne.” The Russian words are rich, thick, wrapping around me like smoke. “Odnazhdy ty budesh' kotyonok.” 

“What did you say?” I can’t keep the husky note out of my question. 

His smile has my core clenching tight as it floods with wet heat. “I want you to promise if you need anything, you will call me—day or night. Whether it is your father, your car, anything at all, you will call me.” 

“That isn’t what you said.” My lips are numb from pressing them tight to keep the sob in. 

He caresses my cheek with the back of his finger. I want to grab it and hold it against me it isn’t nearly enough of his touch. “No, it isn’t. Regardless, I want you to promise me if you need anything—even just a voice in the night you will call me. I will answer no matter the time and I will be whatever you need.” 

I blink back tears. He’s saying goodbye but he’s leaving the door open to me. 

“Promise me, Celia.” He demands. 

Nodding, I swallow against the lump in my throat. “I will call you if I need you.” 

Milos gives no quarter. “Not me, anything.” 

“Okay, yes, anything I need I’ll call you.” I promise him. I need him gone so I can cry alone. 

At last satisfied, with one last stroke of his finger across my lips he’s gone leaving my whole body trembling and my lips tingling from the slight caress. Only minutes after he closes the door my mother is home. She and Carlo had an argument she mutters as she slams the door to her room. Holy shit that was a close call. I wipe my face grateful my mom didn’t see I was crying—the tears falling the moment I heard the door close behind Milos. 

He said goodbye. I would likely never see him again and if I did…it didn’t matter it was the right thing for the both of us. 

As I cried myself to sleep, I wondered why he made me promise him I would call him. The man had walked away from me. No way could I bring myself to call him—unless I was on the brink of death and there was no one else.

One week later Sonny disappeared. Carlo flipped his shit. He wasn’t sure if Sonny disappeared on his own or if someone else did it. 

For a long minute I considered calling Milos and asking if he was behind Sonny. Except I knew the answer. Milos would know I knew and see it as the pitiful need to cling to him it was. I couldn’t do it. Despite my promise to him, I made a new promise to myself, never to call him. 

It’s what I thought over the next few weeks as thoughts of Milos lingered. Yet thirteen months later I would call him. And yes, it was only because I wondered if I was on the brink of death. He also kept his promise, he came for me and he saved my life then took another life for me. 

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