Disguised as Love: An Enemies-to-lovers Romance
He’s a surly undercover agent set in his ways.
She’s a genius scientist from the family he’s investigating.
One mistake can cost them everything, including their hearts.
After years working to bring the Leskov family down, Special Agent Cruz Malone is determined not to let the sexy, blonde scientist of the family stop him. Tying her to his side with a lie seems like his only option until having her there becomes his riskiest venture yet.
Avoiding her family’s criminal world was Raisa Leskov’s wish and her father’s command, so being summoned home comes with inherent danger. When a broody agent storms in promising to protect her, she lets him. But that doesn’t mean she’ll just sit back and watch while the infuriating man dismantles her world…or her heart.
From award-winning author LJ Evans, comes another achingly emotional, slow-burn romantic suspense that whirls you around the globe and back with surprises every step of the way.
An interconnected HEA in the Anchor Suspense Novels. Can be read standalone, but is best read from book one.
Release date: April 22, 2022
Publisher: LJ Evans Book
Print pages: 360
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Disguised as Love: An Enemies-to-lovers Romance
CHAPTER ONE - CRUZ
BLESSED AND FREE
“I’m just tryna lay low, so don't mind me
Struggle with my own fights so don’t try.”
Performed by Kane Brown and H.E.R.
Written by Juber / Baptiste / Wilson / Biral / Brown / Chell
I hated cigarettes. Not only the insidious smell that snuck into every orifice and vein, but the way the men I was surrounded with used it as a means of showing how little they cared about anyone around them. As if they didn’t give a fuck if you were there or not. They’d blow smoke straight into your face just to see if you’d react and then tap the ash with fingers that never quivered.
So, it was the tremble in Ivan Gennady’s hand as he inhaled, as much as the sweat beading at his hairline, that proved something had shaken him to his core. I’d been undercover for almost two years in this dank dungeon of a nightclub Gennady called The Roman, and I’d never once seen him sweat.
Gennady rose from behind his desk, his multi-thousand-dollar suit making him look like a Wall Street tycoon instead of the leader of the largest mafiya organization in the western half of the United States. He pulled at the collar of his shirt as if it had suddenly tightened around him.
He eyeballed all of us, gaze settling on me for a long time. I didn’t flinch. Couldn’t. Not this late in the game. Not when I’d barely moved up from being an expendable lowlife to someone worthy of a half-assed second glance. It had taken me bringing him an insurance scam, which had made him a cool million, to finally break out from the bottom of the food chain.
“I’m needed in St. Petersburg. We’re leaving tonight,” he stated. A simple fact and command all rolled together.
Two of the men in the room had phones whipped out in seconds, making arrangements for private jets, hotels, and transfers from Denver to Russia. What no one was doing was asking what had rattled him enough to return to the homeland he despised visiting. It wasn’t Russia itself he hated, but the fact that, there, he wasn’t a king. He was barely a duke. Maybe even just some meek lord compared to the bratva leaders who were vicious enough to still call Russia their home after the deep cleanse of the twenty-first century.
I turned, intending to bring Gennady’s armor-plated SUV to the back door, but he stopped me with a command.
After months of deep cover, I reacted to the name like I’d been born with it. Cruz Malone had been left behind with his FBI shield and gun. Only Antonne Woods existed here.
The room emptied, leaving just the two of us. I kept my face impassive. Neither the itch to reach for my hidden weapons nor the desire to know what had rattled him could show. And it wouldn’t. I was damn good at wearing a mask. I’d been taught how by a father who’d made it his livelihood, and I’d gotten even better at it in my fourteen years with the Bureau.
“I have a special mission for you,” Gennady said, his eyes becoming small slits as he took me in. I wasn’t in a gazillion-dollar suit. I was in black leather and cotton that, along with my black hair, nearly black eyes, and dark-brown skin, helped me blend into the night. It made me a shadow when I needed it most.
I kept my eyes trained on Gennady’s icy blue ones. They stood out against his dirty-blond hair and fake-tanned skin in a way that drew stares wherever he went. He was rich, muscled, and good-looking, which attracted fortune hunters as well as naïve women who showed up at The Roman thinking it was nothing more than a hip nightclub. Women he ruined, but who were so terrified of him they wouldn’t come forward even when the Bureau promised safety and immunity.
“Petya Leskov is dead,” Gennady finally spoke. “His daughter’s presence is required in Russia. You’ll make it happen.”
As shock rolled through me in waves, it required more effort than I’d applied in years to keep it off my face. Leskov was dead? He was the entire reason I was in this goddamn hellhole, weaseling my way into the Denver arm of the mafiya in hopes that it would lead me all the way back to St. Petersburg, Leskov, and the traitor he was harboring. Isamu Yano had murdered the Japanese Kyōdaina’s leader, Tsuyoshi Mori, on U.S. soil eighteen months ago, and I was determined to bring him to justice. I’d promised I would. Just like I’d also promised my bosses the Leskov clan on a platter after years of chasing them.
Once the first wave of astonishment passed over me, the rest of his sentence came into clarity. It was then that I felt the barest hint of perspiration break out at the back of my neck as visions of a blonde-haired, brown-eyed beauty swam in my memories. Her body had been clad in a red dress showing every single curve and not one ounce of pale skin. She’d been covered from wrist to neck, and neck to ankle, and yet I’d been able to make out the outline of her hip bone and the sharp line of her collarbone. I’d been filled with an overwhelming desire to shed her of that red dress and spend an entire evening licking the skin beneath it.
Raisa Leskov was a fucking nightmare to a seasoned undercover agent like me, and now Gennady wanted me to go fetch her like a hunting dog bringing back the duck he’d shot. Gennady’s squinty eyes narrowed even more when I didn’t move toward the door at the pace he’d expected.
“What happened?” I asked as I battled not only images I didn’t want of a sexy female but also of a crumbling investigation I’d spent years and thousands of dollars on. He didn’t like my question, and I wanted to slam a fist into a wall somewhere because those two words could easily blow my cover. Lowlife foot soldiers didn’t question their leaders. They ran to fulfill their commands, and that was all.
“Does it matter? He’s dead. She’s needed. You will retrieve her.” Gennady had barely a hint of an accent left after three decades in the United States, but I heard it in those last four words. You will retrieve her. As if she was resisting. As if she wouldn’t want to fly home to attend her father’s funeral when all the reports I’d read about her said she was very much the doting daughter.
I gave a curt nod and turned toward the door.
“I’ll have Gregory send you her information.”
And I realized I’d made another mistake. I should have asked, even though I already knew where she was at.
I glanced back with my hand on the doorknob to see what his reaction was to my slip up, but Gennady was looking at his phone. Maybe it had escaped his notice because he was too shaken up himself. The tremor remained in his fingers as he brought his cigarette up to his mouth, and it made the hair on my arms raise.
“Don’t disappoint me, Antonne.” His voice followed me out of the room.
Something was seriously wrong, and Raisa Leskov was at the center of it.
♫ ♫ ♫
After assuring myself I didn’t have a tail, I checked myself into a five-star boutique hotel on the outskirts of Stanford. It was a place no one would expect me to stay in either my professional or undercover life because of the price tag that came with the room. But I had fond memories of this hotel from a childhood spent traveling the globe with my mom and grandmother.
I pulled out a disposable phone I kept for my personal calls. Using a burner meant I could smash it and toss it if I thought I’d been made but still allowed me to keep in touch with Mom. If I didn’t, she’d fret, thinking I was dead somewhere. It was the part of my job I hated, causing her to worry about things we both knew could come true in an instant. I took a selfie with the room and the view as a backdrop and sent it off. Her response with the code name I used for her was almost instantaneous.
MOM: What are you doing in the Bay Area?
ME: Assignment. Here for a night.
MOM: You need more than a night away. Make sure you get a massage from the spa.
ME: That’s the plan.
Having a brief moment where I could put aside all of the masks I wore and just be me was exactly what I needed—craved, even. A chance to unwind my tightly coiled muscles and lose myself in the music that had been my entire world before duty had become my calling.
MOM: Nan says she wants to see you soon. I’m performing in Austin this weekend. Maybe you can come and see us?
I’d just about kill to spend time with my mother and grandmother, to spend several days listening to her R&B and Nan’s jazz and soul music, but I doubted it was going to happen. Not with shit hitting the fan in ways I hadn’t even figured out yet.
ME: Probably not. But I’ll meet up with you soon.
MOM: I’ll be back in New York after that, but in July I’ll be going upstate to record at La Musica de Ensueños Studios.
I frowned, flipping through my file cabinet of a brain before I came up with the information I needed. The studio belonged to a country-rock singer who I’d been tasked to help with a stalker issue right in the goddamn middle of the case I’d been building against Tsuyoshi Mori and the Kyōdaina.
ME: Brady O’Neil’s place?
MOM: Yep. It’s nice and quiet there. Maybe that’s what you need.
Upstate New York in the summer would hardly be my pick for an ideal vacation spot, but I needed time away from the job―and soon. Today’s almost fuckup with Gennady was a clear sign.
ME: I’ll see what I can swing.
MOM: Love you. Be safe. Be happy. Be loved.
ME: Right back at you.
My chest ached a little at her words. The image of her smooth brown face with a riot of jet-black curls held back by a patterned headband was embedded in my memories. She hadn’t changed much in the last decade. She was timeless, just like her mother who she was the spitting image of. Other than my size, which I got from my half-Hawaiian father, I took after both the women with intense, oval-shaped eyes, dark lashes, a dense mesh of curls, and skin so brown our teeth stood out like a beacon in the sky.
I tossed that phone on the bed and pulled out my secure, FBI-issued burner. Nolan, one of a handful of people on my team who actually knew what the hell I was doing, had sent me a link to a secure file about Petya Leskov’s death. A CIA source outside of our regular channels had sent it to him in exchange for a bottle of brandy and a future favor we’d both hate giving.
An image emerged on the screen of Leskov slumped over at a table in some expensive restaurant in St. Petersburg. The gold and red décor behind him was a stark contrast to his snowy hair, pale-white skin, and black suit, like a black-and-white image had been layered against a color photograph. The CIA file listed poison as the suspected cause of death even though the official medical report called it a heart attack. I had to agree with the CIA. Leskov was a health addict who didn’t do drugs and drank very little alcohol. He had a strenuous workout routine designed by some of the world’s top trainers, so while it was possible his heart had given out, it was highly unlikely.
I flipped to the other images in the CIA file. Leskov had been at the restaurant with his son, wife, and Rurik Volkov. Volkov ruled the bratva in St. Petersburg and around the globe with a diamond-clad fist. An emperor giving commands that were felt around the world. While Petya Leskov didn’t exactly work for Volkov, he did act as the Russian mafiya’s peacemaker. He’d brokered more than one of the treaties that had ended the gangland wars tearing Russia apart in the nineties.
I flipped from the images to a video clip. It showed a distraught Manya Leskov, Petya’s wife, coming out of the same restaurant. She was shouting at someone obscured in the shadowy light of the doorway, her words inaudible over the noise of the street. She beat her chest, sagging and clutching her stomach. As she collapsed, you got a clear view of her face, makeup running down in dark rivulets along her white skin.
The Leskovs’ son, Malik, was at her side without a single tear. Instead, there was a sneer on his face that seemed a permanent fixture in every image I’d ever seen of him. He had a lanky grace, like a ballet dancer, with black hair that flopped forward over his brows and a trim goatee hiding a severely angled chin. He had his mother’s litheness and none of his father’s solid bulk. In a world where brute force and cruelty were what got you admired, I wondered how Malik had ever risen to the position he had in the bratva.
When the video stopped, it was zoomed in on Manya’s distraught face again. The woman was a taller, older version of her blonde-haired genius of a daughter. The FBI file on Manya went back to her teen years when she’d modeled for world-class magazines before cocaine and marriage to her Ponzi-scheming first husband had sent her scuttling back to Russia with her U.S. privileges revoked.
My gut clenched at the stark pain on her face. The agony sculpted across her features tore at me as much as her similarity to the daughter I’d been sent to retrieve. My nightmare came back to haunt me for real. Every undercover agent’s nightmare―being attracted to a member of the criminal family you were sworn to bring down. But lust was just a chemical reaction, and I knew all about chemistry. After all, I’d double-majored in it and foreign languages in my time at Bonnin University. The key to preventing a chemical reaction was to find its counteractant. That was all I needed to do―find the right ingredient to keep the fizzle of energy I felt when Raisa Leskov was nearby in check.
My third phone rang. Another burner phone I’d been instructed to lose every five days as part of Gennady’s team. A new, clean, and untraceable one would magically appear from his tech team at set intervals. It wasn’t just his paranoia over the Feds, Russian FSB, or Interpol listening in on our conversations. He was even more terrified of his competitors getting an edge.
“Woods,” I answered.
“Do you have her?” Gennady’s voice was gravelly from years of smoking.
“Just landed and got checked into a hotel.”
“Maybe I didn’t make myself clear, Antonne. This is an urgent matter. She needs to be in the air in the next twelve hours. If you can’t do it, I’ll send someone else, and you will no longer be necessary.”
Every alarm in my body ramped up. There was desperation in Gennady’s voice that he tried to hide behind the command. It was as unusual as the bead of sweat he’d shown back in Denver. Goddamn, what was the deal with Raisa Leskov? I didn’t like going into anything blind. I liked having piles of data and paperwork to back up every single move I made. I liked walking into a gunfight not only with my weapons but with every card I could play to negotiate my way out unscathed.
“I’ve got it fucking under control,” I growled.
“Then get off your ass and get her onto the jet I’ve got waiting for her.”
He hung up.
I texted, using code names my team and I had established, to Nolan on my FBI line.
ME: Shit is going down that I don’t understand. Find out everything you can about Raisa Leskov and her connection to Gennady.
I looked around the understated elegance of the room I’d reserved. I’d thought I’d get one night. A night to make a plan…counteractants to be found. But it wasn’t going to happen, and my stomach flipped like it hadn’t since my very first op right out of the academy. I sighed, stored all my electronics back into the various pockets of my jacket, grabbed the go-bag I’d brought with me, and headed for the door. I knew I was unprepared, and I hated it even more than the scent of cigarette smoke that had followed me from The Roman.
CHAPTER TWO RAISA
“Thinking about where I’m from
If I belong there.”
Performed by Sabrina Claudio
Written by Evert / Tirheimer / Claudio / Fischer
My phone vibrating on my desk brought my head out of the numbers I’d been lost in on the computer. I glanced down to see my sister Georgie’s face on the screen. Her dark hair was almost black in the image, and it drew out the pale green of her eyes. The clock on the screen showed it was ten o’clock here in Stanford, which meant it was one o’clock in the morning in D.C.
“What are you doing awake?” I asked, picking up as concern wafted through me.
“Jules had a bad dream. Now he’s passed out in my spot next to Mac, and I can’t sleep, so I thought I’d make sure you weren’t still at the lab.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Please, I left hours ago.”
“Would you like a selfie of me cuddled up in bed?”
“Now, I know you’re bluffing. Send away, oh sister of mine.”
I laughed. “How do you always know when I’m bluffing?”
“It’s in your tone.”
I hadn’t grown up with Georgie, so the fact she knew me better than anyone else in my family, except maybe my father, was telling. She was only my half sister who’d been raised in the United States by her grandmother, whereas I’d been raised in Russia by our mom and my dad. Since moving to the U.S. for college almost a decade ago, Georgie had become my lifeline. She, more than anyone, knew what it was like to want to escape the ties that bound you to your family while still loving them with all your heart.
“Fine. I’m leaving,” I said with a grouse I didn’t feel.
“You need something more than your work, malyshka,” Georgie said, the sweet endearment not at all offensive when someone else calling me baby might have been.
“Not everyone finds love like you did,” I said quietly. “I wouldn’t have time for a boyfriend anyway. And the last thing I need is one more person in my life trying to control what I do.”
“If it’s real love, it isn’t control. It’s caring.”
“Someday, I’m going to rub this conversation in your face,” Georgie teased. There was a hushed conversation on the other side, a deep rumble I expected was Mac, Georgie’s husband. I swore he had some kind of Georgie-radar, because if she was gone for more than two minutes, he knew. It was sweet, but it would make me feel claustrophobic.
“Go kiss Mac. I’m shutting off my computer right now. Love you, dorogaya,” I told her.
“Love you, too, malyshka,” Georgie replied, but she was already distracted, lost in the sea that was my muscled, Navy intelligence officer brother-in-law.
After I hung up, I looked over the latest set of numbers one more time before closing the computer with a sigh. We were so close. Years of research. Years of testing. Huge leaps forward that had been stalled by setbacks, and now I was finally only months away from everything becoming a reality. A reality I’d promised myself I’d make happen as a young girl back in Russia. It was part of the reason it was hard to leave the lab these days. I could almost taste the final success.
I slipped my feet back into the stilettos under my desk and stood, leaving behind my white lab coat and exchanging it for a red Gucci peacoat I’d bought on my last shopping trip to San Francisco with my friend, Violet. The silky liner of the jacket would never hold up to winters in St. Petersburg, but in California, I barely needed a coat at all. Especially not with spring dissolving into early summer. It was only the fog rolling into the peninsula this late at night that made the air chilly enough to warrant the gorgeous coat.
My office door locked automatically behind me, and the fingerprint and eye scanner cast a green flicker into the dim hallway. A body pushed off the wall across from my office. He was a huge man in both muscle and height, covered in tattoos that emerged from his tight gray T-shirt and up along his neck. The tail of a dragon wrapped around his ear and draped below his eye, partially covering a scar. His nose ring glinted in the half-light with a diamond stud larger than the ones I wore in my ears. His bald head was shaved down to the scalp, and his gray eyes were so pale they appeared to blend in with the white, giving him an even more monstrous appearance.
“Sorry I’m so late,” I said to him as he turned to lead me down the hallway.
“No later than usual,” he said, his Russian accent thick, tugging at memories of my childhood and making me ache for my family in a way I hadn’t in a long time. Maybe it was because the latest edict from my father meant I wouldn’t be able to see them anytime soon.
The cool night air hit us as we made our way to the parking lot.
“Have a good night, Professor Leskov,” a cheery voice said from our left, and before I could blink, Ilia had pushed me behind him with his gaze trained on the young undergrad who’d spoken. Her eyes widened as she faced my bulky bodyguard. I put a hand on Ilia’s arm and peeked around him.
“Goodnight, Mika,” I said quietly. “See you in class on Monday.”
She nodded, all but running from the professor known as the ice queen and her scary bodyguard. I sighed, and Ilia looked at me with a grimace I could see even in the shadows of the streetlight.
We’d talked about this a million times, but he would forever be on guard, and my students would forever be afraid of him, just like the majority of the staff was. Hell, I’d been frightened of him the first time he’d shown up on my doorstep as my new bodyguard. But now, he was just another reminder of the life I couldn’t forget. One more thing I didn’t have a say in.
Silence followed us to the car and then to the cottage-style house I’d bought just a few miles from campus. I waited in the vehicle, like always, while Ilia cleared it. When he came back out, he opened the car door for me and escorted me inside.
“Goodnight, Miss Leskov,” he said.
“Goodnight, Ilia,” I responded before shutting and locking the door behind him.
I’d just barely flung my bag and coat onto the rack by the door when there was a sharp knock. I turned back around, opening it without looking, thinking it was Ilia. Instead, I was faced with an enormous man who, impossibly, could dwarf even my giant bodyguard.
My eyes widened in shock, and my instinct to slam the door was thwarted by a booted foot in the crack. My heart slammed into action, the furious pace threatening to block out sound as it pounded in my ears with fear crawling up my back. Papa’s warnings I’d passed off as ridiculous swam through me. I pushed on the door to no avail. As the porch and hall lights merged into one, they brought the man out of the shadows, and I recognized him instantly.
“What the hell?” I demanded. “What did you do to Ilia?”
I peeked around him and located Ilia slumped on the ground near the porch steps. I started toward my bodyguard, but the man blocked my path.
“He’s fine. He’ll wake up with a headache, but that’s it.” His voice was deep with a silky tone to it I could easily imagine narrating the romance audiobooks Violet had turned me on to. I’d needed something to get my brain to turn off after a long day of flipping through numbers and formulas, and the easy entertainment had helped. But right now, as sexy as his voice was, I resented it. Anger flew through my veins, shoving the fear to the back.
I tried to sidestep him again, but he wrapped a huge hand around my elbow. It scoured me with heat, sending a wave of electricity over me.
“We need to talk,” he said.
“Let go of me.” I tried to jerk my arm out of his hold, and when he didn’t let go, I glared up at him. It was like a child looking at a giant, but I refused to be intimidated.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
I did, but all I wanted at the moment was for the electric shocks traveling through me from his touch to subside.
“Let. Go. Of. Me.” I said each word like its own growl.
To my surprise, he did as I asked.
I twirled around and tried to push the door closed again, using every inch of the tiny muscles I had. It was a ridiculous effort that he easily thwarted, holding it open with a single hand. My stomach twisted, dread filling me again. I’d been through this so many times I couldn’t even count them, although they’d occurred less and less over the last few years. I’d thought the U.S. government had finally gotten tired of asking me about my father. I’d thought they’d finally realized I had nothing to tell them. But now, it all came flooding back. The interrogations. The veiled threats.
“We need to talk,” he repeated quietly. He was so close the warmth of his breath skated over my cheek, sending another wave of havoc through my veins. “But not here. Let’s take a walk.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
He hesitated at my defiance, eyes trailing over me. His gaze lingered longer than necessary on my chest. The rapid beat of my heart and unsteady breaths caused my breasts to push against the thin sweater I wore. He reached around me, pulled my coat off the rack, and shoved it at me.
“I don’t want to drag you out, but I will if I have to,” he barked.
He could. I was like the ladybug going up against a whale in the children’s book Georgie had read to me as a child when she came to visit us in Russia. I was the grumpy ladybug. He was the whale ready to slap me back to my homeland with his gigantic tail.
I huffed, slammed my arms into my coat, dropped my keys into my pocket, and went to grab my phone, but he shook his head. I glared but left it behind and headed down the brick path that wound its way to the tree-lined street.
It was almost pitch-black between the streetlamps, the fog leaving a heavy shroud over everything. The quiet of the avenue this late at night in the upper-class neighborhood was almost deafening. At least there was hope that if I screamed, someone would hear me.
I could feel his eyes on me as I walked several steps ahead of him until his long stride easily caught up to me.
“What do you want, Special Agent Malone?” I asked.
“You can’t ever say that name out loud again. You need to forget any and every name Violet and Dawson called me. From here on out, I’m Antonne Woods.”
“Special Agent Malone… Antonne Woods… I don’t care what name you go by. I’ll tell you the same thing I’ve told every other agent and agency that’s tried to talk to me in the U.S., Russia, and Europe. I don’t know anything about my father’s business. He manufactures gun parts. That’s what I know.” I gave him my standard spiel. The one I was tired of giving after a lifetime of doing so.
Whether it was the Russian FSB, Interpol, the CIA, FBI, NSA, or any of the other alphabet agencies across the globe asking, I always gave them the same reply. The same reply I’d given almost a decade ago when I’d been arrested with Georgie because Malik had left a brick of cocaine in my bag while we were in D.C.—I know nothing.
It wasn’t just because I wouldn’t rat on my father. It was the truth. I knew absolutely zilch about my father’s company. Papa had made sure of it.
“You walk fast for a woman in stilettos,” Special Agent Malone said.
The ridiculousness of his comment in contrast to the seriousness of the moment halted me. I whipped around to scowl at him. A streetlight two houses away turned his face into a mosaic of shadows and light while his body dressed all in black faded into the night.
It struck me at that moment how beautiful he was.
The thought was as ridiculous as his comment. But it was the same truth I’d realized when I’d met him at Violet and Dawson’s wedding. He was like a cover model who’d stepped off a glossy magazine cover. His jet-black hair was cut into a fade, leaving just enough curls on top to tempt me to run my fingernails through it. Just like his dark-brown skin, rippling with muscles, called for me to slide my palms along its wide expanse. But it was his eyes, so deep a brown they were almost black, that held my attention the most, just as they had at the wedding. Those eyes had followed me around the yacht where our friends had said, ‘I do,’ as if he was marking me in some way.
I couldn’t afford to let the visions I’d had of my fingers and lips on him exist even in my deepest, darkest thoughts. He was my enemy. He wanted one thing―my father’s kingdom on a platter that he would then hand over to his boss. To the U.S. government.
“What do you want?” I demanded.
My eyes widened. The husky sound of that singular word drifted around us in the night air, mixing with the fog and the smell of the redwood trees lining the avenue.
He seemed to realize what he’d said, and his lips quirked as if it was funny my brain had gone to the one place he likely hadn’t intended. To him…wanting me…for very different reasons than my father and his legal and illegal businesses.
“You need to come to Russia,” he said calmly.
I laughed, tugging at the locket I wore and rarely removed these days. The etchings dragged against my palm, soothing me. “Even if I wasn’t heading into finals next week, Special Agent Malone, I wouldn’t go with you anywhere―least of all, Russia.”
“It’s Antonne. Antonne Woods. And you don’t have a choice.”
My hand on the locket froze. “Excuse me? Are you going to kidnap me? Is the FBI into that sort of thing now?”
He hesitated, as if he’d suddenly realized something.
“No one has told you.”
It was a strange statement. One I didn’t understand and couldn’t unravel as my body focused on how his hooded gaze bled into every orifice of my being.
“No one has told me what?” I demanded.
His gaze darted skyward, and then he spoke in a tone so gentle I almost didn’t believe it was the same man saying the words.
“Your father is dead.”
It took a moment for what he’d said to register, but when it did, the breath left my body. Every muscle and organ seized, making it impossible to inhale the oxygen I needed. Of all the things I’d expected him to say, that was not it. My father…dead. It couldn’t be. He was larger than life. Above the law. Beyond reach. Loved and feared all at the same time by the same people. No one in the bratva dared touch him, and he had no health issues. On the contrary, he was the healthiest sixty-eight-year-old man I’d ever met. Fit and strong. Obsessed with eating well in the same way some men were obsessed with vodka and women.
“You lie,” I finally squeaked out. I reached into my pocket for my phone before realizing I’d left it at the house. I couldn’t call Mama or Malik to confirm this man’s story. I couldn’t call Georgie for reassurance and support. I couldn’t call Ilia for protection...
I was alone.
With a man who could easily do whatever he wanted to me.
And for the first time in a really long time, I felt truly afraid.
CHAPTER THREE - CRUZ
“Struggling between the facts and fiction.
But I’m alive.”
Performed by Lifehouse
Written by Jason Wade
Turned as it was into the streetlight, Raisa’s beautiful face was easy to read. And what I saw was raw pain coupled with doubt and anger before insecurity scuttled across it. As if she’d finally realized how vulnerable she was out on this street, alone with a man three times her size.
When I’d arrived at her door and seen her feisty defiance, I’d been surprised. I’d expected to find her sad and crying as Manya had been in the video. After all, she’d been raised the princess of the family. The golden child doted on by everyone, but especially by her father, as if she was some damn china doll. Except, this doll was going to change the world with her technology―photovoltaic nano cells so small and flexible you could literally put them anywhere and have them fuel houses and cars and entire manufacturing plants.
“The official report says he had a heart attack,” I told her, trying to ignore the sparks traveling over me from just her gaze.
Her body sagged, and I caught her around the waist before she fell. Her reaction to my touch was the same as it had been when I’d grabbed her elbow at the house. She jerked as if I’d burned her and backed out of reach.
She shook her head. “No. No way. He’s healthy.”
I raised a brow. “It’s the official report.”
We both knew that it only took a juicy bribe for a corrupt medical examiner to put down whatever it was the person paying wanted.
“What actually happened?” she asked, her voice seeming to get smaller and her Russian accent drifting back in when normally you’d never know she hadn’t been born and raised in the States.
“Why…” She was clutching a locket at her neck with one hand and waving the other as if she couldn’t breathe. As if the air had been knocked out of her. “Why…everyone loves him…”
I highly doubted everyone loved him. Besides the dozens of agencies around the globe who had him at the top of their international crime list, he had to have crossed some of the other mafiya leaders at some point. No one could have lasted at the top as long as Leskov had without pissing on someone else’s territory, no matter how good he was at negotiating.
She took two steps back toward her house and then crumbled. I had her in my arms like some damsel in distress before I could even think. The heat of her seared its way through me as if we were wearing nothing instead of layers of leather and cotton. The fact that her ass was lined up along my forearm as I held her with her knees flung over my elbow was like a flashing neon sign to my groin. Her long strands of blonde hair fanned out along my bicep and shoulder, glinting like a gem in the streetlight. Lightning zapped its way through my chest. An instant reaction I couldn’t stop.
Her lids were shut, keeping the stormy fire that existed in those brown eyes from my sight. It took me a second to realize she’d actually fainted. Fuck.
I strode back down the street to my rental car. She was a feather. Soft and downy and yet brightly colored in red. Like the tiny crimson sunbird that had flitted its way through my hotel room in Indonesia. But this one was trapped in a gilded cage. A bird I couldn’t afford to admire.
I fished in my pocket for the car remote, unlocked the car, and set her down in the passenger seat. As I leaned across her to strap the seat belt on, I made the mistake of looking into her face. Black lashes layered against white skin. Her wide, full lips were colored a soft pink, barely a shade over their natural color, but they looked soft. I could imagine what they’d feel like against mine, plush and wet and demanding, but I wondered if they’d taste like she smelled. Like cotton candy and cinnamon. Like being at a summer fair as all your best Technicolor memories were being made.
Her eyes fluttered open, and the anguish inside them carved its way into my heart.
My body ached to soothe her in any way possible.
I jerked back, hitting my head against the doorframe, but the thought wouldn’t disappear.
“Wh-what are you doing?” Her voice was a breathy whisper, and I risked looking down again, only to see the anguish from before still blazing in them, but now it was layered with a heady dose of fear.
Her breath was still erratic, and if she didn’t get control, she was going to faint again. I knelt so we were face-to-face while leaving plenty of space between us. I needed her to calm down before I was forced to do mouth-to-mouth. My mind winced at the thought, but my body liked the idea way too damn much.
“Take some long, deep breaths, and let them out slow,” I commanded.
She inhaled slowly, and her struggle to gain control did as big a number on me as her body in my arms had. As big a number as her pink lips a millimeter away from mine. I stood, slammed the door shut, and jogged around to the driver’s side. I needed to get my shit together—and fast.
When I got in, she was unlatching the belt, and I stopped her, covering her hand with mine. I could easily fit two or even three of hers inside my palm.
“Let me go,” she demanded, chin raising as she grasped the locket again.
Her fear flickered away only to be replaced with anger.
“You really are kidnapping me?” she hissed.
“I’m just escorting you to your father’s funeral.”
I started the car and went to put it into drive when her words halted me.
“I can’t go to Russia.”
I shot her a glance, surprise pulsing through me for the second or third time in less than twenty-four hours. My thoughts whirled. Maybe everything I’d read was wrong. Maybe there was no love lost between the father and daughter. Maybe her fainting had been from relief and not grief, but I didn’t think so. The pain in her eyes had been too real. Too raw.
She flung her head back against the seat.
“If I go, I’ll never get out. That’s what Papa said. There are too many parties interested in what I do. Too much money to be made both from my work as well as stopping me.”
Gennady’s demand that I bring her to Russia suddenly made more sense, just like the bodyguard at her door. When she’d first come to the U.S., she’d barely had any security because no one would have dared touch her. Everyone knew hell would rain down on anyone who even looked at Petya Leskov’s daughter. But now, if she represented millions―billions―from new technology, greed would overcome the fear. The one thing I knew about the Russian mafiya was that money was all that mattered to them. They would never have enough of it.
“He made me promise,” she said, eyes closing. “Made me promise I wouldn’t go back for any reason. Any.” She battled her emotions before continuing, “I knew what he meant.”
“He was being targeted?” I asked.
She shook her head, opening her eyes to meet mine. “No…maybe…I don’t know now.”
My phone vibrated, and I reached for it, hoping I wasn’t going to have to explain another delay to Gennady. It was my FBI phone with Nolan’s code name and more encrypted text that hit me in the gut.
NOLAN: My CIA friend says there are whispers Malik offed the old man.
I banged out a quick response.
ME: How sure are they?
He replied using more names hidden in gibberish that only he and I would understand. Names we’d come up with for key players in the multiple crime syndicates we’d battled over the years.
NOLAN: Fifty-fifty. As Yano’s working with Malik, it seems a likely play. It’s the same thing Yano tried to do with Mori. Taking over by getting rid of the old guard and replacing it with the new. The other half say Volkov got tired of Leskov’s inability to rein in his son, so it could have been a warning.
ME: Ito-san still on them?
Not even my superiors knew Ito-san was on the Leskov’s trail in St. Petersburg. Nolan hadn’t been thrilled when I’d brought her on board, and he wasn’t a fan of keeping her a secret. But I knew what management would say. They wouldn’t want a woman hungry for revenge anywhere near this investigation.
NOLAN: You know she is. Dog with a bone.
I cringed, pocketing the phone with my thoughts whirling. A year and a half ago, Isamu Yano had killed his uncle―the leader of the Kyōdaina―in a coup attempt that had unraveled the entire damn crime syndicate in one fell swoop. Tsuyoshi Mori had no intention of letting anyone else run his kingdom, so he’d left Ito-san with enough evidence to bring the entire house of cards down. A gift from the grave from Mori to those who’d been disloyal. What Yano didn’t know was that he’d unleashed a dragon as the syndicate had fallen. A dragon who was now on my side.
I turned to see Raisa rubbing her locket between both palms.
“How long will your brother last when the others find out he’s responsible?” I asked her. It was both a risky test and a cruel play to see how she’d react to the idea of Malik having taken out their father. I didn’t know her real feelings for her brother. According to the reports, she didn’t communicate with him often, whereas she was on the phone almost daily with her half sister in D.C.
Raisa’s palms stilled for a long moment before she gave the chain a single tug with her eyes narrowed on me. “Are you trying to insinuate that my brother killed my father?”
“Word on the street gives it a fifty-fifty chance.”
“No,” she said. It was strong and firm, but it was belied with the wild look in her eyes.
Our gazes remained locked, neither one willing to be the first to balk.
“Take me back to my house,” she ordered.
“I have instructions to take you to Russia. That’s what’s happening.”
“Your boss in Washington doesn’t have any control over me,” she almost growled, and if it wasn’t such a turn-on, I would have laughed. The little terrier marking its territory in the path of a Rottweiler.
“I’m not talking about them. And I’ll repeat myself one more time. You can’t be careless with this kind of talk. Not unless you want us both to end up in the ground with your dad.”
It brought the pain back into her eyes instead of the defiance that had been growing. “Why should I care what happens to you?” she demanded.
Damn, did I hate the way her words hit me in the chest, but I didn’t have time to stop and analyze why. I had a job to do, and it meant getting her on board and fast.
“Violet and Dawson are a little partial to me. They might be upset if you were the reason I ended up dead,” I taunted her.
A loud clack against the glass of my driver’s side window brought my gaze around to a gun pointed at my face. Behind the gun was her pissed-off bodyguard. There was hate and murder in his eyes.
“Let her go, and I might let you live,” the man said, his accent thick and his tone ominous.
I ignored him and turned back to Raisa.
“If you don’t get on the plane, they’ll just keep coming for you. Next time, it won’t be me―the one person who’ll do their damnedest to make sure you get back to the States alive and in one piece. Next time, it’ll be someone who will chain you to a radiator in a basement with no heat, demanding you hand over everything in that pretty little brain of yours”―I swept my gaze over her, taking my time―“and using that sexy-as-hell body as their weekend toy.”
She flinched. I’d wanted her to. I’d wanted her scared and looking to me to protect her. It was the only play I had left, but as soon as she recoiled, I regretted the crassness of my words.
“I count to twenty, and then I shoot,” the man outside my window said.
She unlatched the seat belt and started to open the door.
“Who will your bodyguard work for now that your father is gone?” I asked, my voice low and full of meaning.
Her eyes flicked from me to the man outside the car. I could see she understood as doubt wavered over her delicate features.
“So, I guess the real question is…” I continued, “do you trust him or your brother enough to protect you? If I go with you, I promise you’ll walk away alive.”
She laughed. “If you think you can promise that, you aren’t very good at your job.”
“I’m very good at my job.”
“Jada Mori would surely tell me otherwise. Didn’t she almost die because of you?”
My stomach lurched. Sins of the past. Even if they weren’t entirely my sins, they still came back to haunt me. “Technically, she wasn’t under my watch. I wasn’t the one who brought her in.”
It was a half-truth. I’d encouraged Dawson to use her hatred for her father against him, and she’d almost died twice for her efforts, even though I’d stuck one of my very best undercover agents with her—someone I trusted with my own life.
The cold, hard truth was that family of mafia were always at risk. And if someone really wanted them dead, there wasn’t a whole lot that could stop it from happening. They’d just keep coming until they got what they wanted, or you proved you were useless to them.
I suddenly, desperately, needed for the bratva to consider the Leskov princess just that―useless.
CHAPTER FOUR - RAISA
“Why is everything so heavy?
To so much more than I can carry.”
Performed by Linkin Park w/ Kiiara
Written by Bennington / Bourdon
Outside the car, Ilia started his countdown in Russian. I had felt safe with him, knowing he’d once protected my father, knowing Papa wouldn’t send just anyone. But now my father was dead. The insinuation that my brother was behind his death was both heartbreaking and terrifying because Malik had grown colder and colder over the last few years. I hardly recognized him anymore. He was not the free-spirited―but moody―boy I’d grown up with. That boy had loved to dance by the pond and draw pictures of fantastical birds he’d imagined. The new Malik was into money, drugs, and sex.
Beyond the door, Ilia continued his countdown.
With effort, I dragged my eyes away from the intense look Special Agent Cruz Malone…Antonne…was still directing at me. One that unnerved me. That made me feel like I wasn’t wearing any clothes. As if he could see every single part of me inside and out.
As I pushed open the door, Ilia slid over the hood, putting himself between me and the car.
He flashed me a look. “He hurt you?”
I shook my head, knowing I should explain Special Agent Malone’s presence but unable to do so without blowing his cover.
“We have to go back to St. Petersburg,” I said instead.
I heard Malone’s door slam shut, and Ilia twisted until he had his gun trained on the agent’s massive chest.
“We not go back,” Ilia commanded. “Not ever. Those are my orders.”
“Well, as Papa is dead, his orders are no longer relevant,” I said calmly. It jerked Ilia’s gaze from Special Agent Malone to me. I was already exhausted from keeping up the front, from hiding the tears I wanted to shed because I’d never again feel my father’s arms wrapped around me. I’d no longer hear the pride in his voice when I talked about how I was revolutionizing energy for the world. My throat closed as emotions threatened to flood out.
“Is that what this svoloch told you? He lies.” Ilia’s gun shifted downward in surprise, but fear flashed through his eyes as well.
“There’s one way to find out. We’ll go back to the house, and I’ll call Mama.”
I moved away at a quick pace before either of them could stop me, heading toward my home. My sanctuary. The place I’d been able to just be me in a way I’d never been anywhere else―ever. In Russia, wherever I went, I was not only Petya Leskov’s daughter, but I was also Manya-the-supermodel’s. The expectations of how I should look and talk required me to keep the science I loved hidden below the surface for years. At Stanford, I was the complete opposite of that person. Instead, I was a professor and scientist. A professional who had a very different image to uphold. I had to play down my femininity…my looks…my style. But in my little home, I could be the person who was both the professional and the very feminine daughter of a model. The person who listened to romance audiobooks, and watched black-and-white movies, and believed in love regardless of how I’d teased Georgie about it earlier. I’d seen real love. Not only in Georgie’s relationship with Mac but in my parents’.
I used my key to open the door, and both men followed me inside.
I picked up my phone from the side table and hit Mama’s name in my contacts. It was nearly ten o’clock in the morning in Russia. Normally, Mama would barely be awake and taking tea in bed with a tray of glossy magazines she’d consume like they were pastries.
“Raechka.” The endearment came out scratchy and thin as if she’d been crying. As if she’d been drinking when she rarely did anymore because of her past and Papa’s desire to live a healthy life. My stomach fell, and my eyes filled with tears I refused to shed in front of the men standing before me. Crying wasn’t a weakness I could afford.
“Mamochka, tell me…it can’t be true,” I said because through the entire time with Special Agent Malone on the street, I’d been hoping, wishing, praying that it was just another lie told to try and get me to spill the beans on my father.
“He…he fell into his soup…oh God…he’s really gone…” Her Russian was broken with English as if she was having trouble determining which language to speak.
“I’m coming,” I said quietly.
Mama sniffled on the other end. “He said it wasn’t safe. He told me you would not be back for a long time.”
I swallowed hard. Malone’s crude and graphic image of what could happen to me if I stepped foot in Russia had been right on the money. There were people who would use me for what was in my brain and would not care what they did to my body to make it happen. My heartbeat increased until I thought it might stampede out of my chest.
Dare I go back? I looked at Special Agent Malone and Ilia both standing as if they were at ease when they were both really wound tight, every muscle ready to jump. Malone’s gaze was still on me, and Ilia was glaring at the man who’d taken him out.
If I stayed here, without my father’s protection, I’d have nothing standing between me and whoever came after me. My brother may or may not protect me. Georgie would, with every fiber of her being, which meant her husband, Mac, would try to use his connections in Navy intelligence to make it happen. I didn’t dare drag them into Father’s world. It could cost Mac his job and Georgie her law license.
My friend and fellow scientist, Violet, trusted the man before me because her husband, Dawson, had worked for him for years in the FBI. They’d both trusted Special Agent Malone with their lives. Could I do the same?
If I went to Russia, I would be able to confront Malik. He’d never be able to lie to me about his involvement in Father’s death. And if he was behind it, I’d kill him with my own hands. I knew the chemicals to mix. Better yet, I knew how to build a device so small he’d swallow it without even knowing it. It would zap his heart. Heart attack for a heart attack. My chest ached at the thought, anger and sadness bleeding together. I didn’t want to believe my brother was this far gone. That there was nothing left of the sweet child who’d helped me build dandelion chains during rare summer days.
“Raechka?” my mom said softly. I’d been silent too long, lost in thoughts that were only good at causing me more pain.
“I have extra protection,” I said, my gaze trained on Malone. Ilia grunted in disapproval at my words. “I’ll be there soon, Mamochka.”
We hung up, and I headed down the hall to my bedroom to pack. Malone and Ilia followed. I stopped them at my bedroom door. “Ilia, I need a minute with…Antonne.”
Ilia’s eyes narrowed. “We do not know this man.”
It was true and not. “I know him. He’s friends with people I trust.”
Ilia glared at Special Agent Malone as if trying to see into his soul. Finally, he took a step back and said, “I make arrangements.”
“I’ve already got a jet ready for her,” Special Agent Malone said.
“Whose?” Ilia groused.
“Does it matter?” Malone demanded.
“Stop throwing your testosterone around the room. It doesn’t matter how I get there. If Antonne has a plane already scheduled, we’ll use it,” I said.
“No favors, Miss Leskov. You do not want to owe anyone anything,” my bodyguard insisted.
I agreed. I knew what happened when there were favors owed. Or at least…I had a good idea. I didn’t answer because I had nothing good to say. I just went into the bedroom, and Malone followed, shutting the door behind us. In the closet, I reached up to grab a suitcase from the top shelf. I wasn’t tall enough, but as I grabbed the stepladder I had for just that purpose, Malone pulled it down for me with ease.
“If you come, we need to set some ground rules,” I told him. “I’m not helping you.”
He didn’t agree or disagree. He just talked over me as if I hadn’t said anything.
“Your brother won’t like me there. Not when I’m on Ivan Gennady’s payroll. We need a different…story.” Malone watched as I threw things into my suitcase. More clothes than I probably needed. I had an entire wardrobe waiting for me at our estate outside St. Petersburg, but it had been a long time since I’d worn those clothes. I wasn’t sure they’d fit―not because my size was different, but because who I was had changed.
“I don’t know who that is,” I told him the truth.
“Your brother does.”
“I don’t care about any of that. I just want to bury my father, hug my mother, and prove to you Malik wasn’t involved.”
Malone glanced around the room, stepped closer, and whispered, “Careful.”
“Ilia scans for bugs for me regularly. The room is clean.”
He shook his head as if he didn’t agree.
“It’s clean,” I insisted. I headed toward the bathroom, pulled out a makeup case, and started tossing more stuff inside.
“I’m going to need complete access to you if I’m going to keep my promise.”
I stopped, my eyes meeting his in the mirror. They were so dark it was like looking into the depths of the old well we’d played around as kids. As if a person could get lost in them. I couldn’t afford to get lost in anything right now. Especially not when I knew the truth about why he was here. He was after my father’s good name, my brother’s future, and whatever bratva he could bring down along the way.
“You’ll have the same access Ilia does,” I told him. “I just said you were my extra protection.”
“No. I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
I scoffed. “That’s going to be pretty much impossible. I’m not taking you into the bathroom with me.”
The irony wasn’t lost on either of us that we were, in fact, in my bathroom.
“We’ll say I’m your boyfriend,” he tossed out.
I laughed. “It would be a cold day in hell before I’d ever let you be my boyfriend, pretend or otherwise.”
As I brushed past him to put the case in my luggage on the bed, my entire body reacted to the small touch, just like it had in the car when I’d woken from my faint to find him latching my seat belt. His gaze had felt like a brand, trying to scour me, and I refused to be marked, even if I’d never felt such a sizzling reaction to another human being in my life. I’d had sex. Plenty of damn good sex. But this man…he tugged something from the inner recesses of me. It was a desire to submit. To just give in to whatever he wanted…commanded. My jaw clenched. I refused to give that much control to anyone, especially not an agent of the U.S. government.
“You know it’s the best solution,” he pushed when I didn’t respond.
He closed the distance until he was standing right behind me as I packed. I could almost feel his breath stirring my hair.
“Are you afraid you’ll like it?” It was a taunt. A dare. I knew it, and yet I couldn’t help reacting to it. I whipped around to face him. My chin barely reached his chest. I looked up as my finger poked the brick that was his pectoral muscles.
“Back off, Antonne,” I said sarcastically. “Papa trained me himself in self-defense, and my stilettos can cost you a ball or two.”
If I hadn’t been standing practically in his embrace, I wouldn’t have seen the flare of heat that rushed through his gaze before he hid it. My body wouldn’t have had a chance to react to it. But it did. It betrayed me because it liked everything about this man who I was supposed to hate.
His lips curled up. “I’d like to see you try, little one. Might be fun.”
The unexpected tease had my mouth falling open.
“Don’t call me that,” I growled. “And we both know size doesn’t equal performance.”
A laugh that curled through my stomach, making me forget for all of two seconds the loss and heartache trying to crawl its way out of me. A laugh that made my heart flip, craving to hear it again.
I pushed him aside, and he went when we both knew I wouldn’t have been able to move the mountain that was Cruz Malone if he didn’t want me to. I grabbed some pajamas from my drawer and purposefully returned to the far side of the bed, as far away as I could get, while I added them to my suitcase.
I pulled out my phone again.
“I want a minute to myself to call Georgie.”
He didn’t ask who Georgie was. I was pretty sure the FBI file he had on me cataloged every detail of my life―how I spent my days and every person who strolled through them. He probably knew every man I’d ever been with better than me. None of them had ever become a boyfriend. I’d never allowed them to stay in my life because I would never know if they were there for me, my money, or my connections.
He walked to the door and looked back. “I know I don’t need to say it…that you live it…but none of your conversations are safe. And once we leave here, you’ll need to not jerk away when I’m standing next to you. No one will believe I’m your boyfriend if you run like that.”
“You’re not my boyfriend.”
The door shutting behind him was his only reply.
I growled, picked up a boot from the suitcase, and threw it at the door. But the truth was, the anger he caused to spike through me was a relief. It was much better than the sorrow and tears gathering just below the surface.
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