I can’t breathe.
Even with the air conditioner blasting through the small office, it’s too hot to breathe in here. The air is too thick to take in.
“Anya.” Mr. Sidorova says my name firmly. “Anya, are you all right?”
Air whooshes back into my lungs and my vision focuses on my father’s attorney staring at me over the thick black rims of his glasses.
“I’m fine.” I swallow back the panic and twist in my seat. “Did I hear you correctly? I have nothing?”
“I’m afraid so.” He nods. “The only financial support you have left is the fund your mother set up for you.”
I nod along with him. Maybe if I pretend like this isn’t the worst news I could hear, it won’t be. Maybe I can bring my life back to normal by sheer force of will.
“The apartment will go up for sale next week.”
“I—” I clear my throat. “I don’t understand. I mean, we don’t know for certain my father is even gone for good.” There’s been no body found. And there won’t be, not here in the States or back in his home country.
Mr. Sidorova sits back in his chair, eyeing me with a touch of pity.
“I mean, shouldn’t there be an investigation or something? Doesn’t a person have to be missing for several years before declared dead? There’s no evidence he’s actually dead.” I can grasp at as many straws I want; they’re all flimsy and easily broken. Igor Romanov didn’t leave anything to chance; he cemented any and all loopholes. My father’s estate is gone.
“It’s better this way, Anya,” Mr. Sidorova says in a soft voice. I understand his meaning. Don’t fight back. “If your mother hadn’t set up this trust for you, you’d have nothing. I suggest you accept the situation as it is.”
“I don’t understand how this is happening.” I want to jump across the desk and shake him. He’s my father’s attorney, my family’s attorney. He should be trying to help me, not telling me to cower beneath the power of the Romanov family.
“I don’t know the details. I only know Igor Romanov has acquired all of your father’s assets and accounts. The only thing left untouched has been your trust.”
“Because of my mother’s involvement.” My mother saw through my father; she knew him better than anyone could—or wanted to.
“Yes. Your father had no control over the trust.”
I’m sure my mother didn’t have this exact scenario in mind when she set up the trust, but she had enough foresight to know it needed to be done.
“If he had, Mr. Romanov would have taken it too.” I sink back into the lush leather chair.
“Yes. Well, technically, your father signed over everything to him. All the documents are in order.” He’s already explained this to me; it doesn’t make the situation any better. “You do have your own savings and your own accounts. Whatever was transferred to you is untouched and will remain so.”
“But my father has debts. I don’t have enough money. And they are insistent on being repaid.” I grip my hands together to stop them from trembling. “Isn’t there anything left in the estate to at least pay off his debts?”
“What company does he owe?” Mr. Sidorova shuffles papers around his desk as though he’s actually looking for the paperwork. He’s been my family’s attorney since I was a baby; he knows damn well what sort of debts I’m referring to. There’s no sale note or loan document to be found.
“It’s not a company.” A bitter taste drips on my tongue. The full picture of the mess my father has left me in forms before my eyes. Everything has been taken from me. My father is gone, presumably dead and buried. All of his estates have been drained, his condo is already sold, his house up north is gone, his restaurant sits on the Romanov books now. I haven’t even been allowed to visit the house to retrieve my childhood things. Everything’s gone. And I’m still left holding his debt.
“What did my father do?” I ask, anger building in my chest. “What did he do to make them do this?”
He frowns. “I have no information for you, Anya. Other than what I’ve already explained.” Which is next to nothing, yet more than I was able to extract from Igor Romanov before he hung up on me.
“What am I supposed to do now?” It’s more of a question for myself than him, but if he has any ideas—I’m all ears.
“My suggestion? Get a job. Start over without any connections to your father’s previous business dealings. Do you have other family in the area?”
I shake my head. “That live here in New York? Just one cousin, but he’s not being very helpful. Whatever my father did to burn his relationship with the Romanovs, I think he was involved. Other family members aren’t available.” I haven’t heard a word from any of them. And those that I’ve tried to contact have brushed me off. It’s like I’m contagious in some way. Even a conversation might infect them.
“Then a clean slate.” He slaps on a grin. “A fresh start. It will be all right. You have your trust.”
“You said I don’t get access to my trust until I’m twenty-five or I marry,” I remind him.
“Then maybe a marriage—”
I shake my head even harder. “The last thing I need is a husband.” I push up from my chair. “I’ll figure this all out. How long do I have before I have to move out of the apartment?”
“The apartment goes up for sale next week. Igor Romanov wants the place cleared before it lists.”
My stomach rolls. “I only have a few days to find a place and move?”
His smile turns pathetic. “I’m sorry, Anya.”
I take a deep breath and sling my purse over my shoulder. “It’ll work out.” Negativity brings negative things. My mother’s words float through my mind. Even when the cancer dragged her to death’s door, she still refused to give in. She fought for every last second she could get from this world.
“If there’s anything I can do, Anya, you have my number.” He stands and puts his hand out to me.
I can’t even afford the phone call to his office now.
“Thank you.” I shake his hand and throw on a gentle smile. “I’ll be in touch, I’m sure.”
We both know it’s a lie.
I grab my sunglasses from my purse and slip them over my eyes as I step out of his office and onto the busy Manhattan street. The sun beats down on me and the stench of the city rides on the summer breeze.
My father’s presumed dead. And if he’s not, he probably wishes he was.
And the De Luca family wants the million dollars my father owed them. Apparently, even death doesn’t stop them from collecting debts.
With a deep breath, I take my first step into my new life. One step at a time. First things first, I need to find a place to live.
My phone dings and as much as I don’t want to, I pull it out and check the message.
Time is running out, pretty girl.
It sends my stomach into knots. My fingers tremble as I put the phone away.
I’m not sure my mother had an affirmation that could fix this for me.
I’m completely fucked.
Fading sunlight streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows, beating down on the wood flooring of the empty apartment. A rug covered the area at one time, probably for that very reason. There’s no sun damage to the flooring.
“Fresh coats of paint in every room. A more neutral coloring, I think. We’ll need to have these floors sanded and re-stained. I think darker is better.” Antonia, the realtor slash interior decorator my father hired to renovate and sell the apartment, walks around the living room making notes and prattling to herself.
I wonder how many times he’s fucked her. He likes to give favors to the women he brings to his bed—a job, a trinket, or a one-way ticket out of town if they get too clingy.
I have no interest in what the realtor wants to do here, or what my father plans for this place. It’s haunted as best I can tell. Her perfume still hangs in the air.
It’s not fair—what my father has done to her—but in my world, fair isn’t relevant. Revenge, payback. These words are best understood among my family. Including me.
The betrayal my family endured deserves vengeance. And if this was happening to anyone else, I wouldn’t be standing in the skeleton of their past getting a last whiff of their perfume.
But she’s not just anyone.
In a world of corruption and evil, she’s always been innocent. The little light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
But now, that light is being snuffed out.
And it’s not even her fault.
“You’re still here.” Alexi walks in while looking around. “Shit, this is a nice place.”
Antonia mumbles again and scribbles on her pad as she walks out of the room and into the adjoining dining room.
“The decorator or realtor or both. My father hired her,” I answer before Alexi has a chance to ask about her. “What are you doing here anyway? I told you I’d meet you later.”
“I was driving past, saw your car downstairs.” His shoes click against the hardwood flooring as he makes his way to the built-in bookshelves. “This really is a sweet apartment. Your father seriously wants to sell it?”
“He does,” I answer. “He’s renovating it then selling it unless he decides to rent it out. The neighborhood is good and the building is prime.”
Alexi runs his hand along a shelf. The frame of the unit was hand-carved. “The woodworking is really good. Not that compressed wood shit they sell now.”
“My father had them handmade for me for my college graduation.” A hard voice echoes in the empty room.
I turn to find Anya standing in the foyer, holding her handbag with both hands in front of her. The fall wind has tinted the tip of her nose pink, and her long hair is pulled back tight into a high bun. Those diamond blue eyes of hers brush over me before moving to the left, away from me.
“I didn’t think anyone would be here,” she says. “My attorney said I had until tomorrow.”
“We acquired the keys already.” I take a step in her direction, but she’s on the move.
“I left a box in the bedroom; I just need to get it.” She gestures toward the hallway leading to her bedroom. Before I give permission, she walks out of the room. A broom handle would have had more flexibility than her back as she walks away.
“Maybe I can talk to your father. I can buy this place or maybe he’ll rent it out to me,” Alexi says, completely unresponsive to Anya’s presence.
My jaw tightens. “You’re not living here.”
“I can afford it.”
“I don’t give a fuck. You’re not living here.” I won’t let him play the vulture here like my father has. Anya has been through enough already.
He frowns, then his eyes dart over my shoulder.
When I turn back, Anya’s walking toward us, a shoebox tucked under her arm.
“The movers missed it,” she explains, placing one hand over the top. It’s banged up on all sides. It’s been shoved behind or beneath something for a long time. What secrets does she keep in it?
“Have you found a new place?” I ask when she looks ready to keep walking.
Her eyes meet mine and anger flashes hot. “I did.”
“Where?” I can’t imagine she’s found anything half as secure as this place. Money buys security, and she has none.
With a huff, she turns to walk away from me, but I reach out and grab her arm. Immediately, she pulls away.
“Don’t you dare.” The anger rolls off her, enveloping me. “You have no business asking about where I live or anything else for that matter.” Her lips curl.
“You know my father—”
“No.” She shakes her head. “Obviously I don’t. Because the man who came to every one of my birthday parties since I was a little girl has just taken everything from me. Everything, Arman.” She takes a step back. “I don’t know him. And I sure as hell don’t know you.”
I clench my jaw, taking in a cleansing breath. I’ve known this woman since we were kids, growing up too fast and taking no prisoners along the way.
“Anya. Where are you staying?” It’s not a request. Her father is dead. She has no siblings, and what was left of her family after my father’s revenge began has scattered across the country. She has no one to keep her safe.
She shakes her head with a laugh. “Fuck off, Arman.” Readjusting her grip on the box and her handbag, she stalks out of the room.
Curling my hands into fists at my sides, I talk myself out of chasing after her. I have no rights to her. It’s none of my business what happens to her now. The betrayal didn’t come from her, but it came from her family. I can’t go against my father’s decision.
“That was interesting,” Alexi says from behind me. “I think she’s the first person to say something like that to you and leave the room without a few bruises.”
When the front door slams, I force my muscles to relax.
“Antonia!” I call for the decorator. She pops her head around the corner from the dining room.
“You need me?”
“I need you to hurry the hell up,” I bark at her. “I have a meeting I need to get to.” I make a show of checking the watch on my left wrist.
“Unless you feel the need to be here, I don’t need you. I’ll take more measurements and put all this into a presentation and send it over to you for approval.” She flashes the pad of paper. From where I stand, all I can see is scribbles and sketches. It doesn’t matter; I won’t like anything she’s going to suggest.
“Fine. Send it over when you’re done. Lock up when you leave.” I gesture toward Alexi. “Let’s go.”
He follows me out of Anya’s apartment. “You going to chase her down?” he asks when we’re in the elevator.
“No.” I flex my hands.
“Still gonna pretend you don’t have a thing for her?”
I glare over my shoulder at him, and he puts his hands up.
“Leave it alone.” For the longest time, Anya was too young. Hell, she’s still too young. Eight years younger than me, but she’s not a child anymore. She’s not a little girl chasing after me in pigtails trying to smear her lipstick on me. And she sure as hell isn’t the teenager who hid in her room all night because she had a pimple on her chin. No, that little girl is long gone.
I left that little girl when I left New York on business for my father for a few years. I traveled so often between New York and Boston that I barely saw her. But when I came back, when I settled back into New York, she wasn’t a little girl anymore. She was all grown up. Eighteen, perfectly legal. And still completely off limits. She was my father’s best friend’s daughter.
Now, at twenty-one, she’s off limits for an entirely different reason.
Now she’s seen as an enemy.
The elevator doors glide open when we hit the lobby. “I’m riding with you,” I tell Alexi. “You can drop me back here for my car afterwards.”
He nods and pulls his keys from his pocket, swinging the fob around his finger as we exit the building. I follow him down the street and the summer sun hits my face, making me turn away. On the corner, at the bus stop, Anya stands, holding her box and her handbag, waiting.
“Here I am.” Alexi hops off the curb and walks around his car to the driver side. “You coming?”
I stare at her another moment. My jaw tightens. She could be going anywhere. To work? Home? Is it safe where she sleeps?
“Arman.” Alexi hits the top of the car. “C’mon, let’s go.”
“Relax,” I snap at him, jerking the door open and climbing in. “Try not to get pulled over.”
He says nothing as he fires up the engine and pulls out into traffic. I check the side mirror.
“Leave it alone.” Alexi throws my own words at me. “It’s trouble you don’t want.”
I pull out my phone and swipe it to life.
“Just fucking drive,” I say.
A hot pink thong dangles from my finger. Of all colors, I despise pink the most. My father insisted I wear the color constantly when I was a little girl. My bedroom was draped with it.
Little girls like pink. Don’t be difficult. His voice plays clearly in my mind.
“Annie, your shift is starting. You should probably get dressed.” Tanya breezes past me, the feathers from her boa fluttering behind her as she heads out of our dressing room.
I drop the thong onto my vanity table and blow out a long breath. It’s been over a month since I took the job here at Original Sin. Stripping probably isn’t the career move my mother was thinking of when she took me to all those ballet and dance classes, but here I am.
Closing my eyes, I take in the sounds and smells of the dressing room. The scented lotions we smother our bodies in have a baby powder fragrance to them. If I really let my mind wander long enough, it’s almost soothing. But someone comes into the dressing room and the obnoxiously loud music from the club interrupts my moment of peace.
Six months ago, I was finishing my final projects for graduation. But a Bachelor’s degree in English isn’t helping me much at the moment. It was meant to be a precursor to law school, but even considering continuing on when I have the De Luca family breathing down my neck is beyond foolish.
Now, I’m checking to be sure I’ve put enough glitter gel on my cleavage poking out of the sequined bra so I can get a few extra bucks in tips.
I dig around my bag until I find a different thong and quickly finish dressing. I’ve only been here a few weeks, so I’m not given any stage time yet. Peter, the manager, has me working the tables and waitressing. The girls on stage earn more. And more is exactly what I need if I’m going to pay off the De Lucas and get them off my ass. So far, they’ve been annoying but not threatening. But that doesn’t mean it will stay that way for long.
With a snap from the elastic of my thong against my hip, I’m ready to get to work. I throw my bag in my locker and spin the wheel to secure it before marching out onto the darkened floor.
My heels make my feet ache, but it’s not as bad as not having a place to live, so I ignore it and continue to the bar where I get my section assignment.
Sarah is on the stage now. She’s nice, and she’s been helpful with some tips for lap dances, but when she’s on stage, the customers have eyes only for her. I’ll have to wait for her to finish to get any customers of my own. Luckily, salivating over what they can’t have makes them thirsty, so I’m making a decent amount on tips.
After I’ve been at an hour of waitressing, Sarah finds me and taps my shoulder.
“Hey, Annie, Peter wants you to work the VIP corner,” she says into my ear. I pull away and wrinkle my brow.
“VIP? Are you sure? I’m not sure I’m ready for over there.” It’s high paying clientele. Peter usually sends the veteran dancers there. Having anyone in the VIP section unhappy is bad for business.
She lifts both shoulders, looking as confused as I feel. “That’s what he said. He said go get Annie and tell her to work the VIP section.”
I glance over at the section we’re talking about. It’s dark in here except for the stage lights, and they’re not enough to give me a clear view of anyone sitting there. Other than several bodies, I can’t make out much else.
“All right.” I sigh. “I hope he knows what he’s doing.” I hand her the tray of drinks I was carrying. “These go to those college kids at booth nine. It’s their first round.”
“I’ll take over then.” She nods and balances the tray of beers and a plate of nachos on her shoulder.
As I approach the VIP section, a dark sensation creeps over me. It’s been a long day, and after working eight hours at the doctor’s office answering phones, my mind is exhausted and has decided to play games with me.
“Hey, Annie. Take that back corner booth,” Jared, the bouncer protecting the VIP section from the rest of the club, tells me.
“Do they need an order taken?”
He laughs. “No, sweetheart, he ordered a lap dance.”
“Oh.” My heart flutters in my chest. I’ve done a few of these, the tips are usually great and in this section the pockets are deep. I’m not sure why Peter would send me over for a lap dance when there are better girls here tonight to deal with this section, but I’m not going to think too deeply about it. The money is good back here.
And I need the money.
After taking a few deep breaths, I move through the section. Several girls are already back here. It smells like sex in this corner. Fucking isn’t required, but if the offer is right, and the girl is willing, Jared will look the other way. So long as the club gets a cut.
My stomach knots as I pass Candy on her knees sucking off a guy sitting in a chair at the front tables. He’s watching the girls on the stage, but has his hand resting on Candy’s head, pushing her farther down his cock. Will I have the courage to say no if the guy in the corner wants the same from me?
Dancing and shaking my ass for a few bucks doesn’t bother me in the least. For a few minutes, my mind wanders, and I lose myself in the music. But could I actually touch or be touched in order to get the money I need?
As I move closer to the corner booth, I’m afraid I’m going to find out sooner rather than later.
The booths back here are crescent shaped with high backs. All I see as I take one shaky step after another is a pair of men’s legs covered in dark slacks wearing black polished shoes.
Two more steps. I steel myself. If he wants sex, I’ll call Jared over to get him another girl. It will be fine. I might have to wait for another chance to get a high tipper, but I can handle it.
“You asked for a dance?” I lower my voice and push on a bright smile as I step around the booth and come face to face with the client.
My blood runs cold.
Arman Romanov sits before me with a dark glare settled on his features as he lifts his gaze up to my face.
“Fuck,” I huff.
“Just a dance for now.” The side of his mouth quirks up. “Maybe next time I’ll take the fuck.”
“I’ll get someone else.” I start to walk away, but he catches my hand and pulls me back.
“No one else, Anya. Just you,” he says in that dark, sultry tone that might have worked on me before. But not now.
“I’m not dancing for you.” I jerk my hand away from him. “Why are you even here? You should leave.”
“Oh, I’m not doing that.” He leans back into the leather cushion of the booth. With a purposeful survey of my outfit, he asks, “What are you doing working here?”
My teeth might break if I clench my jaw any harder.
“You have a full-time job already. It pays enough to live off of. Not in the same way you’re used to, but I never thought of you as a princess type.” He cocks his head to the side.
“How do you know that?” I purposely didn’t tell him anything when I saw him picking over the bones of my empty apartment. When his father informed me that everything my father opened was now his, and I was no longer welcome at his home, it cut me off from the Romanovs. And it cut them off from me. I owe them nothing. Especially Arman.
“I tried to ask when I saw you, but you wouldn’t tell me.” He covers his fist with his other hand. “In fact, you told me to fuck off.”
I really shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. Revenge is what he’s after. It’s what his father has sent him here for. It’s not enough that they’ve taken my father, and everything else, from me. They want to humiliate me.
“I’m still telling you to fuck off.” I take a step back. “Either let me get you another girl or fucking leave. I’m not giving you one more second of my time.”
He grabs hold of my arm and spins me back to him as he moves to his feet.
Without thinking, I snag the glass on the cocktail table and throw the clear liquid in his face. Shock registers for a moment before a chilled glare settles on me. He’s still holding me.
“Annie!” Jared’s voice pierces through the thick tension. “Mr. Romanov. I’m so sorry.” He takes the glass from my hand.
“Jared. I want this guy gone.” I try to yank free of his grip, but he’s not letting me go. “Get him off me.”
But Jared isn’t even looking at me; he’s too mortified at the liquid dripping from Arman’s chin. Arman hasn’t even wiped his face yet.
“Shut up!” Jared barks at me. “Let me get you some napkins. And a clean shirt,” Jared says to Arman.
“It’s all right, Jared. It’s just a little vodka.” Arman runs his thumb along his jaw, wiping away the droplets clinging to his dark five o’clock shadow while burrowing his darkened gaze into me.
“If you’ll let me take Annie, I’ll have her collect her things.” Jared doesn’t even glance my way while announcing he’s going to fire me.
“Jared!” I tug harder, but Arman has a death grip on me. “You don’t even know what happened.”
“I think I’ll handle this one myself.” Arman breaks his stare with me and turns to Jared with a softer expression. “I’ll take her to my office. I’m going to need privacy.”
Understanding grabs Jared, but I’m still lost. What the hell are they talking about?
“Of course, Mr. Romanov.” Jared nods. “If you need anything just let me know.” He glances my way and a mixture of irritation and pity wars in his eyes.
“No. I’m not going with you anywhere,” I seethe.
“If you don’t, you’ll be fired on the spot and I promise you, you won’t be hired at any other club in New York. No waitressing jobs, no bartending jobs, and sure as fuck no more stripping jobs,” Arman lays out my options. Or lack thereof. I need a second stream of income, and the clubs are the best way to get late shifts that won’t interfere with my day job and will pay more than minimum wage.
Jared waits a moment then turns on his heel and walks away. As I watch him, I notice no one else in the area is even looking our way. There’s no one to stop this craziness.
“Let’s go, naughty girl,” Arman whispers into my ear and pulls me along. There’s no sense in trying to get out of his grip at this point, so I follow along to the stairs leading to the offices upstairs.
I stumble on a step halfway up, and he pauses to be sure I have my footing before dragging me up the rest of the way. He takes me to the last office on the left side of the hallway, farthest away from the noise and lights of the club below.
Withdrawing a key from his pocket, he unlocks the door and slingshots me inside. I catch myself before I stumble in my ridiculous heels. The lights flicker to life and the door slams shut.
And then we’re alone.
He stands at the door, glaring at me like a panther ready to pounce.
“You own this place, don’t you?” Finally, realization hits me. I hadn’t bothered to look into the owners of the club when I came looking for a job. I know the Romanovs have their hands in all sorts of businesses, but it didn’t occur to me they’d own a strip club.
Fool that I am.
“It’s one of several that I own, yes.” He tucks his keys back into the front pocket of his slacks. He’s wearing a dark purple button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled up over his wrists and the top button undone. Even in his dressed-down clothing, he looks like money grows in his back yard.
My heart calms as the silence between us stretches.
“What did you bring me up here for?” I ask since he’s not saying anything. I expected him to rage at me. Threaten me. Something. But he’s staring at me like he’s not entirely sure what to do with me.
“To punish you,” he finally says and the words stroke my heart back to a racing pace.
“You can’t.” I shake my head. It’s a stupid thing to say. He’s Arman Romanov. His family has destroyed everything I had. Of course he can punish me. He could have me dragged out of here and dumped in the Hudson River if he wanted to.
“What are you doing working here?” He ignores my statement.
I scoff. “Seriously?”
“I already know you can afford your apartment. It’s a shit place by the way, but at least it has working locks.”
“You’ve been to my apartment?” I admonish.
“I’m asking the questions. You’re answering them.” He points a finger at me. “Why are you working here when you’re earning enough to survive?”
“Maybe I’m looking for a sugar daddy.” I put my hand on my right hip and shift my weight, taking a more seductive stance. I once practiced this very pose right before he and his family came over for dinner with my father. It had made my best friend, Sophia, laugh her ass off. Hopefully, I’ve perfected it since I was ten.
He raises his brows.
“Try again. And another lie will earn you another punishment.” His hands flex, like he’s itching to get them on me.
“It’s none of your business, Arman,” I say quietly. “When my father disappeared while on vacation with your father, everything about me became none of your business. When your family drained my accounts, froze my father’s assets, and took every penny from his estate and left me homeless and penniless, everything about me became none of your business.”
If I had expected some sort of regret to cross his eyes, I would have been an idiot. Nothing but a blank slate.
“Why are you working here, Anya? And if I have to ask one more time, I’m going to take my belt to your ass instead of giving you a little hand spanking.”
My heart leaps into my throat.
“You’re insane.” I laugh. He’d threatened me before with a spanking, but I was eighteen and didn’t take him seriously. He didn’t like the boy I was talking to while I’d been home from school on Christmas break, and he tried to forbid me from talking with him anymore.
He walks over to the desk and pulls out the straight-back chair, turning it around. His hands go to his belt buckle and with experienced movements, he has it undone. My throat dries as his hand wraps around the metal buckle and he pulls, whipping it through his pant loops.
“No, but I am out of patience. Come here.” He crooks his finger at me.
“I’m not going to let you hit me with that.” I hate the tremor in my voice. I hate him for putting it there.
“Well, either you come over here willingly or I drag you over and throw you over my knee. Either way is fine by me.” He says this as though he’s giving me realistic options. As though everything he’s saying isn’t complete insanity.
“You’ve taken everything from me, and now you want to do this?” Tears burn my eyes, but I will not allow him to see them. He doesn’t get to enjoy my pain.
His shoulders drop a fraction. “This has nothing to do with your father or mine. This has everything to do with you. You threw my drink on me. You refuse to answer my question. You told me to fuck off.”
Maybe throwing the drink was a little childish, but I really don’t care. His family threw me out of my life.
After another moment passes in silence, he unleashes a disappointed sigh. “Have it your way.”
In two long strides he’s on me, grabbing my arm and pulling me to the chair. No matter how hard I twist or yank, he easily manages to sit down and throw me over his lap. His knee hits my stomach, briefly knocking the wind out of me.
I tense, expecting his belt to make contact right away, but nothing comes. Then his hand touches my ass, but it’s a soft touch, prodding.
“What happened here?” He pokes a spot on the bottom of my right ass cheek. “There’s a bruise. Has someone else been spanking you?” There’s a bite to his question.
“Then what happened?”
I huff. “I walk around in a thong serving drinks and dancing for horny men, what do you think happened?”
“Someone touched you?” It’s a question, but he says it so softly, with such darkness, I’m not sure I should answer.
“Guys get handsy sometimes,” I find myself explaining. I owe him nothing, but here I am trying to soothe his concerns about my ass getting pinched too hard at work.
“None of the girls are supposed to be touched.”
I crane my neck to look at him over my shoulder. “Seriously? It’s a strip club, Arman.”
His dark gaze travels from my ass to my eyes.
“Are you going to tell me why you work here? Why you walk around in your panties and wiggle your ass for drunk horny men?”
“I need the money.” Truth told in the least number of words possible. I learned some things my father taught me.
“For what?” The belt is folded in his left hand and rests on my back, while his right hand is running circles over my ass.
“None of your business.” If I tell him, everything could get exponentially worse. I’ll take the belt. Hell, I’ll let him fire me. But I will not let him stick his nose in my life.
He shakes his head. “I’ve given you too many chances already.” He switches the belt to his right hand, folds it over again, and raises his arm.
“Arman!” I yell, but it doesn’t stop him.
The first stroke is sharp. It sends a searing pain through my entire ass. By the time my brain registers it, he’s already on stroke five or seven. I can’t count because he keeps delivering them. Over and over and over he brings his hand down, leaving no spot on my ass untouched.
“It hurts!” I scream, flinging my hand behind me. Without missing a beat, he sweeps my wrist into his hand and pins it to my back. No amount of wiggling is getting me out of this.
“Answer my question, Anya,” he says and I swear the man sounds like he’s enjoying himself. He doesn’t even sound out of breath.
“I already did! I need the money.”
“For what?” He continues to spread a wildfire across my ass.
I clench my jaw. There are no signs that he’s going to stop soon, or at all if I don’t tell him what he wants to know. And everything I do to block the pain of the belt fails.
“I’m in debt!” I cry out finally.
Instantly, he stops. The room falls silent except for my heavy breathing. My eyes burn, my cheeks wet from the tears that roll down my cheeks endlessly.
“My father had a lot of debts. I don’t have the means to pay them back, obviously.” I suck in a long breath, trying to calm my heartbeat.
The belt clanks on the desktop, and his hands gently run over my hot, throbbing ass.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” he asks, his voice soft.
“I hate you, Arman.” I close my eyes. It’s childish, but maybe if I can keep him from my view, I can pretend he’s not there. Maybe I can distance myself from his touch, his voice.
“That’s okay. You can hate me.” He pats my thigh and helps me to my feet, moving to his own as I stand. With his thumbs, he wipes away the tear tracks on my cheeks. “You’re not working here anymore, Anya.”
“Even after that you’re going to fire me?” Any sort of comfort his gentle touch brought a moment ago is gone. I want to scratch his eyes out. I shouldn’t have expected any less from a Romanov.
“You’re going to tell me how much is owed, and I’m going to take care of it.”
I take a step back. “Fuck, no.”
“Anya.” There’s a warning to his tone.
I shake my head. “I’ll just owe you the money instead. No.”
His jaw tightens.
“I want nothing from you.” I wipe my hand across my cheek as another tear falls. “You know what? That’s fine. I’ll figure out something else.” I sniffle and wrap my arms around my bare stomach.
“Let me help.”
My ass throbs.
“You’ve done enough, Arman.” I turn for the door. “Just leave me alone.” I flip the lock and yank the door open. I half expect him to charge down the hallway after me, demanding I listen to him. Demanding I talk to him. But he doesn’t.
He does exactly what I asked him to do.
He leaves me alone.
And I almost hate him more for it.