The cold wind stung Natalia’s face and her ash-grey skirt snapped against her legs. The embroidered headband kept her cream-colored veil in place, but it whipped about in the breeze and momentarily obscured her vision of the slums of her town. Shame and fury kept her warm despite the cold blast of air blowing off the Volga River in the distance.
Smoothing the veil back, she darted a glance down the street to see if anyone had watched her approach the building. Regardless of the fact that she was about to enter a gambling den no good woman would set foot in, she still considered herself respectable. She was just cursed with a father who did dishonorable things.
Worrying her lower lip with her teeth, she took a hesitant step toward the muddy wooden boards leading to the sidewalk. Whores loitered in the open doorways of the brothel, except for the wide, empty one at the north end of the building. It appeared they’d been told to avoid that one.
She tried to summon her courage and sucked in a cold breath that chilled her teeth. Her heart pounded in her ears. This was the second gambling den in Kazan she’d had to search. The windows on the first floor had been sealed over long ago, as were most main-floor windows on this street. Natalia presumed it deterred against theft and more importantly, kept the actions of those inside secret.
The embroidered leather of her black boots protected her feet from the spring mud and refuse that surrounded the wooden boards leading to the entrance. Sweet tobacco smoke and harsh male laughter grew stronger as she stood before the door.
She hated this, hated having to endure the lecherous looks of the men inside, hated having to beg her Papa to come home, and hated being alone in the ghetto of Kazan. Beneath that hate, her heart ached at the constant reminder that her love was never enough to keep her Papa out of the gambling dens. That she wasn’t good enough, smart enough, or pretty enough to deserve the same kind of love he had lavished on her older brother before he’d died of a fever in the army. Was it because she wasn’t short and blond like her Papa and brother? If she looked more like him instead of a taller version of her mother, would he have loved her?
Shaking off the familiar pain, she squared her shoulders and took a last, deep breath. She may not be worthy of her Papa’s love, but her mother loved her with all of her heart. And right now her mother was relying on her to bring her husband home.
A quick stroke over the hunting knife hidden in her pocket gave her a needed measure of confidence. She shoved the heavy door open and smoke wafted out on beams of sunlight. The giant man guarding the door squinted his eyes against the glare and gave a tired sigh at the sight of her.
Trying to ignore him, she searched the smoke-filled room for the familiar curve of her Papa’s green felt hat as the door shut behind her. He wasn’t in his usual spot, huddled over the main floor card tables. Panic made her palms sweat and her stomach churn. Maybe he was upstairs at the expensive tables. Had he found the small stash of money from her tutoring hidden in the chicken coop?
“He’s not here, Natalia.” The guard had a scar running across his forehead and arms bigger than her waist. He shifted his bulk to block her view of the tables and she tightened her hands into fists at her sides.
“Well then, you won’t mind if I have a look around, will you?” She narrowed her turquoise blue eyes at him. Tall for a woman, she still had to look up to meet his gaze. Panic gnawed at her mind and she had to resist the urge to try to duck around the guard. She must check if her Papa were upstairs. Her tutoring money had to go to the landlord to pay for the rent of their farm.
“I can’t let you in. You’re not the kind of woman my boss wants walking the floor.”
She sniffed and gave a disdainful glance at one of the young girls serving the patrons liquor. Her blond hair hung long and loose about her shoulders and the top of her red dress hung unlaced to show a square of pale flesh. It was common knowledge that the women who worked in the gambling dens also sold their favors. For a moment she worried that her Papa might be upstairs with one of them, but she quickly dismissed that idea. If nothing else, he was faithful to her mother and he wouldn’t waste money that could be spent on gambling and liquor on some other woman.
Glass breaking made the guard turn his attention away. Two men began to fight in the back of the room and a table full of cards and coins tipped onto the floor. Some of the patrons scooped up their earnings and moved away, while others cheered on the combatants. The guard muttered a foul oath that made her ears ring. He waded through the crowd of drunken men and into the fray.
Wiping her sweaty hands on her cotton skirt, she inched along the wall and made her way to the stairs. One quick peek at the tables and she could be gone from this place.
A dirty hand grabbed her wrist as she tried to pass along unnoticed. The hand belonged to an older man with a filthy grey shirt and a mustard-yellow conical hat. What few teeth he had left were blackened with rot and his breath stunk as he yanked her close by the front of her dress, snapping some of the delicate threads embroidered there.
“What are you doing here, pretty girl?” he slurred as he tried to pull her onto his lap. His lust vibrated off her body and stirred the darkness of her soul. Energy, sweet and pure, rushed through her and her lip curled back in disgust at the sight of his dirty nails digging into the pale skin of her arm.
She backhanded him. He lost his hold on her wrist as he fell from his chair in shock.
Her brother, Maxim, had taught her how to defend herself and years of working on the farm had given her the strength to back up her fist. After she had begun to develop into a woman, learning how to protect herself against unwanted advances had become essential. Especially when her brother entered the military. and later, when her Papa was never around anymore to keep her safe.
“Don’t touch me!” she hissed. rubbing her sore wrist. The sting of his punishing grip made her nipples stiffen behind her dress and she cursed her treacherous body. The darkness within began to spread, overtaking her rational mind and distorting her view of the world.
His friend with a greasy brown beard began to laugh and shoved away from the table. He hitched his belt over his tunic and stalked toward her with an arrogant swagger. “Don’t be so angry. I just want a little kiss. Come upstairs with me and I’ll share my opium with you while you ride my cock.”
Loathing, fear, and panic made her stomach sour and filled her mouth with bile. The guards had their hands full hauling the bloody combatants out the door and breaking up the fights on the other side of the room. The bearded man edged closer and the ripe stink of his unwashed body added to her disgust. Slipping her hand into her pocket, she gripped the wooden hilt of the hunting knife, and used her thumb to ease the blade from the sheath.
With one hand held to his red cheek, the man with the bad teeth spat blood and phlegm on the floor. “Nice big tits and ass for a stupid peasant girl. I’ll enjoy teaching you not to hit a man.”
He lunged at her and she grabbed his arm, slamming him against the stained wood wall with enough force to rattle the boards. Elation filled her at the sight of his face bouncing off the wood. She bared her teeth in a snarl and curled her hands into fists. It would feel so good to hit him, to feel the skin give way like an overripe plum and spill his heat onto her fists.
The thought of his blood, thick and hot, pooling onto the sawdust of the floor, made her instincts rejoice. He must pay for thinking he could touch her.
“Enough!” a deep voice roared from the top of the stairs. A man with hair the color of fire and wearing a long black jacket and pants embellished with gold thread stood surrounded by more guards. His chocolate-brown eyes focused on her and he gestured to the men who surged into the now silent crowd. Tall, with broad shoulders and a lean waist, his lips narrowed into an angry line as he strode down the stairs toward her.
Her two attackers shrank back as he approached and his cold gaze locked onto hers.
Without a change in expression, he slapped her hard across the face. She gasped as unwanted pleasure flushed through her.
When she’d entered womanhood, something had happened to her body; any pain she felt would become distorted into pleasure. She’d tried to ask her friends about it as casually as she could, but their horrified response to even her most tentative questions had convinced her that what she was feeling was abnormal and wrong. Now, each one of these reactions shamed and embarrassed her. She felt like perversion of nature and avoided all men, to the point where her mother asked if she was planning to join a convent. At twenty-two years old, she was running out of excuses for not settling down and starting her own family.
As the pain between her legs settled into a sweet ache, the humiliation and anger that followed twisted her mind into a savage rage. It felt so right, so good, to let anger wash through her. It swept away the part of her mind that shrank from the violence of this place. It fed the icy burn in her soul, allowing her to rejoice in the aggression and lust.
Rational thought was no longer an option as she struck back, jerking the knife from her pocket and grabbing the man in a headlock. She had practiced the motion with her brother behind their barn a hundred times, until it became smooth and instinctive. Unfortunately, his advice of not using this move unless you meant to kill your opponent didn’t surface in her mind until she had the blade jammed into the man’s muscled neck.
She pressed the cutting edge deep enough into his skin to draw a thin ridge of blood that soaked into the high collar of his jacket. Deadly silence settled over the room as the collective shock and fear of the crowd made the hair on her arms stand. A rill of desire moved through her and increased as the man in her arms went passive. Submitting, he relaxed against her and she could taste the delicious scent of blood in the back of her throat. Rich and heady, the scent affected her in a way she had never felt before. Something deep inside her soul stretched, and began to awaken. That new awareness grew stronger each second the man was pressed against her, and grew stronger the more she held him.
She shook her head, trying to clear her mind of the seductive presence that urged her to lick the blood from his neck.
The guard from the door dropped the man he had been beating and started to make his way toward them, along with the rest of the professional muscle. They circled her like a pack of angry wolves as she bled their leader.
“Tell your men to step back,” she whispered into his ear, her voice husky with passion and anger. His cologne, a combination of dark spice and sandalwood, made her libido purr. He stayed still against her, a solid wall of muscle, but held up a hand to the men. They froze and watched her with glittering eyes.
He started to press back into her and she dug the knife in deeper. He shuddered against her grip but did not try to pull away.
“Tell me your name,” he said in a low voice.
“My name is none of your business. Tell your men to back off and I will leave you with your life.”
He laughed as his blood smeared across the side of his neck. The fine red hair on the back of his head tickled her arm as he replied, “Tell me your name, and I will let you live.”
“No. You have five seconds before I slice your throat.” The words came out in a low growl as she tried to cover the tremble in her voice. The more he relaxed, the more the darkness in her soul relaxed in turn and her rational mind began to slowly regain control.
“Wouldn’t that be a shame?” He chuckled and she wondered about his mental state. “Let her through. She’s under my protection.”
She pulled the knife out of his throat, but kept it pressed lightly against the skin. Blood ran down the blade and wet her hand. She fought off the urge to lick it from her fingers. It was the blood of her enemy and it had the appeal of a glass of the best wine in the world. This unnatural thought startled her out of the cold anger and hot lust for a moment and her grip faltered. What was wrong with her? She had slaughtered plenty of animals on the farm, but never wanted to drink their blood. The very thought made her stomach churn, but at the same time she couldn’t deny the craving to taste him.
His men stared at him in shock, but backed away from the door. The adrenaline rush that made her feel invincible faded and fear filled the void.
“I don’t want the protection of a man like you,” she spat, and began to pull him toward the doorway. No one tried to stop her and she struggled to edge the door open with the tip of her boot. The lust tried to rush back in as he trembled against her. That dark presence filled her mind with forbidden knowledge, an insight into his soul that was so clear, she felt like she was inside his mind for a moment. She knew it wasn’t fear that was making him quake, but desire that felt like the stroke of rabbit fur against her skin. The sensation scared her and pushed the desire back, clearing her head.
“Let me get the door for you. On my honor, I, Gregor Trezent, will let you leave my establishment unmolested.” He waited, still against her but stiff with tension. He moved his shoulders slightly to look back at her and his jacket rubbed over her stiff nipples. She sucked in a breath through her nose as the throbbing in her cheek continued to send little bursts of pleasure through her body.
Disgusted with herself and this place, she released him and darted for the door. He blocked the way with his arm. “Allow me.” He opened the door with a small bow and reached out, straightening the cloth of her veil so it lay properly over her back.
She gave him one last glare and ran out into the street. Sanity filled her mind with a sharp clarity as she bolted away from the gambling den. What had happened in there? She had never reacted like that before. If the desire had not stayed her hand, she would have happily slaughtered everyone in that room. Her breath hitched in her throat as she realized the insanity she had been battling for the last few months was gaining strength. Tears streaked down her cheek in icy tracks and she wondered how long she had before she lost her mind completely.
The thieves and prostitutes who lived in this section of the city gave her wide berth as she sprinted past them. The bloody knife was still clutched in her hand. Tormented by the ache between her legs and the memory of Gregor Trezent’s dark eyes, she worried she had just signed her death warrant.
Gregor rubbed his lips and shifted as his hard cock demanded attention. He had to find out who she was. A woman that beautiful, and bold enough to attack a Bratstvo lord in his own den, was a gift beyond anything he had ever imagined. When she had looked at him, her turquoise eyes had sent a bolt of lust through his body that still shook him. He had never felt anything like it.
He motioned to his lieutenant and climbed the carved stairs to his office behind the high-stakes tables. “Who is that girl?” Her memory haunted him already and the urge to possess her took root in his soul. He would do anything to have her.
“Do you want me to kill her?” Filip asked and shut the heavy wood door.
A ball of opium on the end of the bar reminded Gregor that they would have visitors from his grandfather soon. That thought quickly melted beneath the memory of the woman with the knife.
He gazed out the window and tried to catch a glimpse of the woman’s cream veil. She was stunning. Tall, with abundant hips and breasts, not rail-thin like most peasant girls. The tree-of-life embroidery on her headdress indicated she was unmarried. How a woman as beautiful as that managed to remain unmatched was a miracle.
Her spirit made his body clench with desire, almost as much as the pain of her digging the knife into his neck. When he felt the stinging kiss of the blade, his cock had instantly stood at attention. Her voice only stoked that want. Never had he heard its like. Rough honey and smooth velvet, it rubbed over his body like a caress as she whispered words of death into his ear.
“Gregor?” Filip asked again.
“No, do not touch her. She’s under my protection. I want you to spread the word. If anyone harms her, they will answer to me and I will cut their cock off and they can die choking on it.”
Filip’s dark brows rose in surprise. “As you wish.”
Gregor relaxed back into the leather sofa that rested against the wall. For a moment, he said nothing, staring at the brass oil lamp on the small end tables. “Find out who she is, and why she was here. I want to know everything about her.”
Filip nodded. A knock sounded on the other side of the door and he turned to open it. One of the guards from downstairs came in and hooked his thumbs in the wide leather belt encircling his thick waist.
“Mr. Trezent, sir, if I may have a moment of your time? It’s-it’s about the girl downstairs.”
Gregor pressed a handkerchief against the still-seeping cut. That hellcat could have slit his throat if she had pressed harder. The thought excited him and made him impatient. “What is it?”
“I—I would ask for your mercy on her. I’ve known her parents since childhood. They would be devastated if they lost her so soon after the death of their son. I’m sure she will never come here again.” The man grew pale as Gregor remained silent. “Please, forgive me. I did not mean to overstep my bounds.”
The huge man trembled with fear as Gregor smiled at him. “You know her?”
He nodded and swallowed.
“Tell me about her.” Gregor found himself fascinated for the smallest detail of information. The more he knew, the quicker he could find her and make her his. No one would have the pleasure of those long legs wrapped around their waist but him.
“Her name is Natalia Shura. Her family rents a small plot of land on the edge of town. Maxim, her older brother, died last year from a fever while serving in the army.” The guard fiddled with his belt, darting a glance over at Filip, who watched him with an expressionless face. “After her brother’s death, her father turned to gambling. That’s why she was here. She was looking for her father.”
The sunlight began to dip behind the building across the street as Gregor turned over the information in his mind. He wanted to win her over, have her come to him willingly. He was very good at charming people. It was part of the reason he’d risen so quickly in the ranks of the Bratstvo. That, and the fact he could kill anyone without remorse.
“How often does her father gamble here?”
“When he has the money. He used to be a carpenter, but I haven’t seen him selling his goods at the market in a long time.”
“You may go. Natalia,” he relished the way her name rolled over his tongue, “will not be harmed.”
Filip moved aside and the big man smiled and ducked his head in thanks as he lumbered out the door.
Gregor shifted on the sofa and his cock continued to throb and demand attention. “Tell that slut Saria to come up here.” Usually he chose the blond Anechka, but the memory of striking blue eyes beneath black brows as delicately arched as a willow leaf fueled his desire tonight. “And spread the word that Natalia Shura is off limits. She is mine.”