Five years ago, I escaped a dangerous life I had always wanted to leave. I got away. I found freedom. But it cost me the love of my life.
For five years I lived in hiding, protecting my most valuable secret while Sayer Wesley sat in prison paying for both our sins. I promised to love him forever. I promised to never leave him.
I broke my promises.
Five months ago Sayer found me.
Five weeks ago, I was forced to face my past.
Five days ago, someone took my daughter. They kidnapped her in order to make Sayer and me suffer. I will do anything to get her back. Even if that means coming clean to Sayer, letting him into my life and introducing him to our daughter.
All I wanted was to protect her from this life and now she’s right in the middle of the chaos. Sayer is the only one that can help me. He’s the only one that can get her back.
But it might mean losing him again.
Fifteen years ago, I fell in love with Sayer Wesley. Now I must pay the consequences for falling in love with a con man.
Fifteen Years Ago
Doubt niggled in my gut, forcing me to question my choices. I hated it. I hated the greasy feeling sloshing around in the pit of my stomach. Halting hesitation stilted my limbs and slowed my footsteps.
The door in front of me seemed to stretch to the dark sky overhead. The damp, ivy covered walls seemed to close in on me, trapping me in a prison I wasn’t ready to face yet.
Letting out a slow, measured breath I balled my hands into fists and reminded myself that this was my only option for survival. I’d made my bed and now I had to live in it.
For however long my life lasted.
Wrapping my knuckles against the back entrance to a Russian-run bar in the middle of downtown DC, I swallowed the lump of fear and my uncertainty. The gritty taste in my mouth remained.
“What?” a gigantic tank of a man asked when the metal door creaked open.
The opened door let out a gust of warm air that smelled like booze and sweat. It reminded me of my old man and I had to plant my feet to restrain myself from involuntarily bolting.
“I want to see the bosses,” I declared boldly.
The ogre’s mouth split into a scary smile, revealing rows of gold teeth and a fat, gray tongue. My request was amusing enough that he didn’t bother playing games with me. I obviously wasn’t an FBI informant or slimy CI. I wasn’t wearing a wire. He knew exactly where I came from—the gutter.
He clicked his tongue between his teeth and lips. “And what does a street rat like you want with the pakhan?”
His thick accent made it hard for me to understand him, but I got the gist of what he asked. “I have information,” I told him and then quickly added. “Important information.”
His smile disappeared. “Yeah? How about you tell it to me and I’ll relay the message.”
I shook my head. No fucking way. I give this guy the goods, I’ll never get another chance to get inside. This had to come from me. And it had to go straight to the top. “I tell the bosses. Nobody else.”
He spat a string of curses in a foreign language I assumed was Russian. “I’m not playing games, shithead. And you’re not getting inside. Give me the fucking information or get lost.” When I hesitated, he added, “You have three seconds.”
“It’s about the Irish,” I blurted, desperate to have him hear me out. “And a huge fucking shipment of guns.” I rubbed my tongue on the roof of the mouth. The curse word felt funny on my tongue. Up until six months ago, I wouldn’t have used it out of respect for my mom. But since I’d been living on the streets, I’d learned there were certain kinds of people in the world who only responded to a specific way of talking. If I wanted to be taken seriously I needed to get comfortable with their language.
Besides it wasn’t like I was sheltered or some shit. Thirteen years of living with my dad had taught me how to survive on the streets—I could survive the Russian mob or the fucking epicenter of hell.
The meathead’s curiosity had been piqued. “And what does a piece of scum like you know about the fucking Irish?”
I craned my neck to rub my cheek against my bony shoulder. “I know that I’ve been working with them for two months. I know that they’re expecting a container next month. I know that the guns that were supposed to be on it were delayed because their customs officer was arrested and so they were put on a separate, smaller ship, making them arrive two weeks ahead of time. I know that if you know the right place they’re coming in at you could beat the Irish and grab them for yourselves.”
His jaw ticked, revealing confusion and anger. “And how the fuck do you know that?”
“Because I know it. Now are you going to let me in to talk to the bosses? Or am I going to have to take this information to the Italians?”
“Fucking Italians.” He pursed his lips and spit. I flexed my entire body and held perfectly still. I couldn’t let this guy see me flinch. He was just the gatekeeper, but if I cringed in front of him he wouldn’t take me seriously and I’d lose my one shot at getting inside.
I was tough and I’d prove it here and now.
Caroline’s voice drifted through my head, bolstering my courage, boosting my adrenaline. “Make them realize you’re valuable.” She’d offered the advice like a last-minute question. She’d wanted to save me from the streets. She’d wanted to rescue me from the assholes that had hired me. But she’d done something better instead.
She’d given me something to live for—seeing her again.
“How do you know any of that?” the bouncer demanded. “How do I know you’re not a little spy sent by someone else? The Irish could have sent you. The Italians could have sent you. The goddamn cops could be messing with us.”
“How about you let the bosses decide that? Pretty sure those questions are above your pay grade.”
I expected him to punch me in the face, but he threw his head back and laughed instead. “How old are you, kid?”
I had no reason to lie. Although I probably should have anyway. “Thirteen.”
“Fucking balls for a kid of thirteen.”
I shrugged. “Are you going to let me in or what?”
“Fuck it,” he grumbled, but pushed the door open so I could walk inside.
Repressing the relieved smile playing at the corners of my mouth, I inhaled the sticky sweet stench of the bar and tried not to gag. God, I had hated places like this. I hated the loud mouth men yelling at each other from across the room. I hated the pounding music that never ended. I hated the women that worked here, that dressed in as little as possible and let the drunk ass men put their hands all over them.
This bar was too close to home. And it took everything in me not to bolt. I wanted to run away from this place like I wanted to run from my past. I wanted to head back to the mission house that had given me a hot chocolate and offered a warm bed to sleep in.
Bile rose up in my throat and I banished the manipulative thoughts before they could take root. That idyllic dream would lead one place—to child services. And they would just send me back to foster care.
There was only one thing on this godforsaken planet worse than my old man and that was foster care.
I’d take the Russians before I’d ever let them send me back.
Hell, I’d even stay with the Irish before I let that happen.
I followed the goon through the bar and toward a darkened staircase. Everyone we passed sent curious looks my way, but my new friend didn’t offer any explanations. I appreciated his discretion, even if he was trying to keep the number of witnesses to a minimum.
At the top of the stairs, we took the single hallway to the farthest closed door. I ignored the sounds coming from the other rooms as we walked by and the occasional screams of both pleasure and pain.
Eyes wide open, I reminded myself. I was stepping into this world fully aware of what I was getting into. I was choosing a life of crime, of immorality… of sin. This was my life, and for the first time ever, I was deciding how I wanted to live it.
My guide pounded his meaty fist against the door until someone on the other side called out a terse, “Come in.”
The door opened and the goon shoved me through it. “This kid says he can get us the next shipment of Irish guns. Says he wants to trade something for it.”
I hadn’t said that. A wave of gratitude washed through me for this nameless stranger. I knew enough about the world that I could recognize this for what it was—a future favor I would be expected to make right. I was grateful enough to be okay with owing this guy one.
The cool, calculated gazes of three well-dressed men turned to me. The bosses. I had never seen them in person before, but it was obvious who they were. The entire room was practically bowed in their presence.
I’d overheard the Irish talk about them enough to know there were three of them and they were brothers. Dymetrus was the muscle in the family. He controlled the enforcers and handled the punishments. Aleksander—the brains. He made the money decisions and ran the businesses. And Roman—the boss of bosses. He was the face of the family, the oldest brother and the end all be all of the Russian mafia in this city.
It was Roman I would have to convince.
It was Roman I would have to survive.
And there he sat, directly across the room from me, at the head of the table, his brothers to both sides of him, his closest men in chairs bordering the large room. He was dark-haired and slick-looking, like oil personified. He was groomed to perfection and his tailored suit was worth more than my life.
I hated him immediately.
He had everything I wanted and didn’t have. Money, power, security, a place to sleep. Something settled inside me, dropping to my gut like the first stone of a new building, the one the rest of the foundation would be built on. Or the seed of a mighty oak that took root and began the arduous task of growing, developing, of becoming something bigger, better and more permanent than what it was.
I decided right then and there that I wanted everything Roman had. Not just the money and the clothes and the material possessions—I wanted the job too. I wanted the power. I wanted his empire.
And today was the first step to getting it.
“Speak, child,” he ordered, his voice heavy with Russian influence. “Tell us your tale.”
His black eyes glinted in the low light, sparking with curiosity and mystery. I held his gaze and ignored the buzzing of nerves threatening to make me puke. “I did a job for you two months ago. It was an electronics store. I climbed up a wall and turned off security cameras, then hid in a space between two walls and jumped the driver of a delivery truck when he stepped out of the cab.”
Roman’s head tilted to the side. “I thought you were going to tell me about where I can find Irish guns.”
“I want a job,” I told him evenly. “If I tell you about the guns, I want to work for you.”
“It sounds as though you’re already working for me,” Roman countered. “And the Irish. And who knows who else.”
I shook my head, realizing I needed to slow down. “I don’t want to be a six. I want to be one of you.” I jerked my chin toward the bouncer. “I want to be bratva.”
Roman’s eyes narrowed. “You’re a child.”
“I’m about to help you take out the Irish,” I reminded him.
“What did the Irish do to make you hate them so much?” his brother asked. By his trimmed beard and glasses, I pegged him as Aleksander, but I couldn’t be sure. “Why are you here tattling on them as though we are your mother and they have picked on you at school?”
I shook my head again. They weren’t getting it. “I never wanted to be Irish,” I explained. “Since the job two months ago, I’ve only wanted to be Russian.”
“Then you should have stayed working for us,” Roman sighed. “Now we can’t trust you. Now we assume you are an Irish spy and we should send you back to them with your tail between your legs.”
“Or in a body bag,” Dymetrus murmured.
Heat rushed to my brain and I felt my face turn red. “I’m not a spy. I went to the Irish in order to find you something to take them out. That’s all. I never wanted to work for them.”
The three brothers stared at me. “Did someone tell you to do that?” Roman asked. He turned to his other brother. “Who was in charge of that job? Who would give advice of that nature to this… child?”
Dymetrus snorted. “Leon Valero ran point as I remember. We needed his daughter on the inside. He didn’t do a half bad job of it, but Leon’s not kind enough to recruit a kid.”
Daughter. I wondered if they meant Caroline. I filed that information away. “It wasn’t Leon,” I interrupted and tensed for their response. “It’s not important who told me what to do. Besides they didn’t say specifically to get work from the Irish, just that I needed to do something to prove my worth in order to stay. I want to stay, so I did something to prove my worth. That’s all. I’m not an Irish spy. They probably won’t even notice I’m gone. I was just a six for them. A six that happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
“What is your name?” Roman asked when I expected him to demand more information.
Nerves pinged through me again, my stomach tightening into a twisted ball. “Sayer.” I cleared my throat. “Sayer Wesley.”
Roman sat back in his chair. “How do I know that name?” He turned to his brother again. “Why is that name familiar.”
“His father was a cop,” Aleksander offered. “He’s dead now.”
Recognition flashed in Roman’s eyes. “Suicide.”
I scanned the room for the closest trash can, convinced I was going to puke. Thankfully, I hadn’t eaten anything today so there was nothing in my stomach. I managed to nod.
Roman shared a look with his brothers before turning his black eyes back to me. “It’s time you told us everything, Sayer Wesley. Starting with how a dead cop’s kid ends up trying to defect from the family his own dear dad used to work for.”
“My dad might’ve been Irish, but I hated him. I want nothing to do with his family. I want nothing to do with the Irish.” I spit the words out as promises. Anger bubbled beneath my skin, fury ready to be unleashed in my fisted hands.
“You say that here,” Roman countered calmly. “But what about to them? Maybe you say the same things about the Russians to them. Surely they expect you to carry on his legacy. Surely they expect another dirty cop? Or at the very least a loyal soldier.”
I ground my teeth together. “Then this will set them right.”
Something in my tone or in my eyes must have finally convinced them I was telling the truth. Roman sat back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “And how can we trust someone one that hates his father so much? Family means something to us.”
“Family means something to me too. I just want to be able to choose who my family is. I want to decide who I call brother and who I swear my life to. The Irish don’t get that honor. My fucking dad didn’t get that honor.”
“And you think the guns are enough?” Roman asked still calm and unruffled. “You think one ship full of guns is enough to turn your Irish blood Russian?”
I struggled to swallow past the baseball-sized lump in my throat. “Yes.”
“You’re wrong,” Roman said with a small, amused smile. “But it’s a start.”
His words were a fatal blow, a crushing disappointment that felt like total destruction. I hadn’t realized how much I had hoped that this would be easy or how desperately I needed them to give me what I wanted. I had nowhere else to go. I had no backup plan. I had no other options. “A-a start?”
“Who told you that you needed to prove yourself to become bratva?” Roman demanded in a tone I knew better than to argue with.
“A girl,” I confessed quickly.
The brothers shared another look. “Did this girl have a name?” Aleksander asked.
I licked dry lips and contemplated how to answer. “There were two girls there. It was the one with short hair.” I felt proud of myself for not giving away her name. If the Russians were like the Irish, they had a dozen or so nameless street kids working for them. The bosses wouldn’t know who they were. And I wouldn’t be expected to remember one of them after meeting them only once.
Only I did remember her. I remembered everything about her.
The brothers lapsed into Russian, their expressions growing stern and serious. They seemed to be arguing about something, gesturing toward me and the window behind them. And then they said her name. Caroline Valero. And I knew I’d turned her in.
I swallowed and tried to pick up the repeated phrases or words so I could go to the library tomorrow and look them up, but it was impossible to understand them. I didn’t know any Russian and they were speaking way too fast for me to memorize anything substantial.
Roman had the last say and the other brothers closed their mouths, even though they didn’t look happy about it. He turned his gaze back to me once more and looked more sinister than ever. I couldn’t pinpoint it for a second, but I realized he reminded me of a cartoon cat with a mouse dangling from his fingertips. He had something he wanted.
And I was just now realizing that something was me.
“I want you to tell me about the guns, Sayer Wesley. If your information proves to be accurate and if my men are able to procure the weapons, I will in fact allow you to become bratva. Not a six, like you’ve suggested, but a brother. We will blood you so that you will no longer be Irish, but Russian. We will tattoo you so that everyone in this city knows who you belong to, so your ties with the Irish mob will forever be severed. And we will treat you as one of us. We will give you a place to live and you will work for us for the rest of your life. Is that what you want?”
The promise was too much to resist. My voice shook with dangerous hope as I answered, “That is what I want.”
“Then there will be one more task for you to complete. If you can give us the Irish and we make you bratva, then you must do one more thing.”
Reality sliced through me and I realized I had walked into the spider’s web. Willingly. It was one thing to become Russian. It was another thing entirely to owe them a favor.
Roman hesitated long enough that I thought he might not tell me, that he might make me wait until after I was bratva to demand his pound of flesh. At last he said, “You must give us Caroline Valero.”
My heart kicked at my chest and I pushed up onto the balls of my feet, readying to run. “What do you mean?”
“I want her,” Roman explained. Before I could fly across the table and murder him, he added. “In the brotherhood. She has a… special set of skills I only see improving. I want to own her talent. I want her to be bratva.”
“She’s already a six—”
“She works begrudgingly to help her father,” Roman explained. “She has no intentions of getting marked. My niece tells me she has plans to go to college and leave the life completely.” His nose wrinkled in distaste. “Not only do I refuse to lose her talent, she has a certain influence over my niece that I will not abide. She must be bratva. Do you understand?”
From the second I saw Caroline, I knew she was different. This information didn’t surprise me at all. She didn’t look Russian. And she didn’t look like she belonged in that back alley. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and if she hadn’t talked to me, I wouldn’t have believed she was real. Of course she wanted to go to college. She didn’t belong with these lowlifes. She didn’t belong to this world. “You want me to convince her to not go to college?”
Roman stretched his neck impatiently. “I want you to give her a reason to stay. A reason she cannot leave.”
I shook my head. “I don’t follow.”
Roman said what sounded like a curse word in Russian and leaned forward, stretching his folded hands in front of him on the sleek table. “I want you to give me a reason to make her bratva. I want you to prove you belong here by securing her future with me.”
My heart pounded and adrenaline rushed through me as I realized what I was being asked. There were two ways to enter a life like this one. The first was to walk willingly into it. Like I was trying to do. The second was to do something that trapped you inside—usually a sin of some kind, a bargain with the devil that could not be broken. They were asking me to give them an opportunity to trap Caroline in the bratva.
“How much time do I have?” I asked, my tongue heavy and stiff in my mouth.
“You have until she tries to leave,” Roman answered, his lips twisting with a small smile. “She will work for us as long as she lives here and her father is working for our organization. I need her choice to be taken away from her. I need her loyalty. You have until she graduates high school. But sooner would be preferable.”
The tumultuous feelings inside of me started to become clearer. I realized I wasn’t afraid nor was I upset on her behalf. I was excited. Thrilled. Happy.
It turned out that Roman and I wanted the same thing—Caroline Valero. His task was in complete alignment with what I had set out to do.
“Your price is Caroline Valero?” I asked when I started to doubt what I’d heard. Could I want this so badly I had just imagined it?
“Make her mine,” Roman ordered. “And you will always belong to this brotherhood.”
“Okay,” I told him knowing that it was a lie. Knowing that Caroline would never be his. But I would do what he asked to make her mine. I would figure out how to make her bratva not so she wouldn’t leave the Russians, but so she wouldn’t leave me.
I spent the rest of the night explaining the shipment of guns I knew was on the way. I gave all the details of how many men would be there to pick it up and exactly where the guns would go. I showed them the fax for the port details and what time they could expect the ship to dock. After they had everything they needed, they called the bookkeeper over and arranged a place for me to stay. And then sent me home with him.
He gave me a place to stay, a shower, a hot meal and a bed to sleep in. I fell asleep knowing my future was secure, knowing my place in the brotherhood was as good as finalized, knowing I would get Roman everything he asked, because it was everything I wanted.
I would do anything to make Caroline Valero mine. Even if that meant making her bratva with me.