His dark gaze locked on me the moment I entered the room.
My steps faltered as fear closed my throat.
I didn’t have to know who the man was to know he was someone to be feared.
It wasn’t just the fact that he was significantly taller and bigger than most of the men in the reception room of the Four Monks Private Club, or the sinister tattoos that peeked out above his tuxedo jacket collar and on the top of his hands, although those things certainly helped.
No, it was the way everyone seemed to keep a respectful distance around him despite the crowded room.
Even those who dared to approach him in conversation did so hesitantly, and not before doing this awkward dance of bowing their head and pausing, as if waiting for permission to speak.
Only powerful men with authority and obscene amounts of money, enough to make them someone to be feared, commanded that kind of fidelity.
My heart pounded in my chest.
I lowered my head and focused on the brightly polished emerald marble floor, tracing the shimmering gold veins with my eyes, in an attempt to calm my frazzled nerves.
This was a mistake.
A huge mistake.
I shouldn’t be here.
I should never have agreed to this stupid scheme.
I swallowed past the paranoia that made my mouth dry.
I couldn’t believe I was actually in the reception hall of the infamous Four Monks Private Club.
This was so far from my world I might as well have been waltzing into Buckingham Palace, yet even I knew about the Four Monks Club.
You’d have to live under a rock in Chicago to not know about its reputation for ties to the Russian mafia and its powerful influence over not just local, but national politics and financial affairs because of its elite membership. Rumor was it was called the Four Monks because the owners were named after Russian monks who had all been tortured to death.
I shivered and held my clutch purse more tightly over my stomach to cover the slight damp mark from where I had scrubbed off a smudge of white deodorant in the taxi over here.
I really didn’t belong here, among these uber-rich and famous people.
Especially knowing why I am here.
I scrunched my toes in my too-big borrowed high heels, praying I didn’t trip and fall on my face. God, I wished I was home right now on my sofa watching some ridiculous reality TV show, still only dreaming of attending an event like this one day, because the reality of actually attending one was stomach-churning.
Hiding behind a wave of my long, dark hair, I hazarded a glance in the man’s direction again and gave a start.
He was still staring intently at me.
I desperately wanted to look away, to break the contact, but it was as if I was mesmerized.
I pressed my elbows against my ribcage to stop my arms from shaking.
Somehow he knows what I’m here to do.
There was a man trying to talk to him, and he either didn’t seem to notice or didn’t care.
The man ignored all those around him and just gazed at me with a cool arrogance that was seriously off-putting.
Maybe I was wrong?
How can he possibly know why I’m here or about our plan?
I didn’t even know about the scheme until a few hours ago.
Again, I chastised myself for being guilted into agreeing to it.
If I survived this night not being thrown into jail, or worse, I would never complain about my boring life ever again.
I had to be wrong.
Why would a man like him stare at someone like me?
He had to be looking at something, or someone, behind me. Right?
I mean, he was rich, not to mention handsome in that tuxedoed James Bond villain meets dirty sexy cage fighter sort of way.
Older, distinguished, rich-as-fuck men like him stared at gorgeous haute couture models and European hotel heiresses. They wouldn’t stare at a twenty-something broke-ass cosmetologist wearing a slightly too small, off-the-rack dress.
I yanked on the too short hem of my black cocktail dress. My curves made the dress more form-fitting than I liked, making me very self-conscious. Unfortunately, my hem tug pulled the dress too far down in the front, exposing the top curves of my breasts and the scalloped edge of my black lace bra.
With a gasp, I covered my chest as I pulled on the neckline, adjusting it.
As my cheeks warmed with embarrassed heat, I tortured myself with another reluctant glance in the man’s direction.
Of course, the man had seen the entire humiliating, uncouth display, further proof I didn’t belong among this cultured crowd.
And so had the person talking to him.
I could tell by his leer and the crude way he licked his lips and gestured in my direction.
What happened next sent a shockwave throughout the reception room.
The man turned and grabbed the person leering at me by the throat and lifted him off the floor.
My hand flew to my mouth.
There were several gasps from women in the crowd, but other than that, no one said a word… and no one moved to help the man being attacked.
Someone within earshot of me chuckled. “Stupid fuck. That will teach him to piss off Antonius Ivenchenko.”
So that was his name… and he was Russian… as if the man could get any freaking scarier.
The spectator’s companion then said, “Everyone knows the four monks have short fuses and to steer clear of them. You would never catch me talking to one of them. Not worth risking my membership to the club.”
The four monks?
He is one of the infamous four monks?
The room spun.
Antonius Ivenchenko, the man staring at me, was one of the owners of the private club I had just agreed to help rob.
I opened my lips as if to speak, but closed them.
What on earth would I say? Please don’t kill that man for staring at my boobs?
For starters, I was across a room filled with over two hundred people.
No, not people, witnesses. Attempted murder witnesses.
Was it possible the owners of the Four Monks were so powerful that one of them could literally strangle a man to death in front of a room full of people and get away with it? I mean, I was fairly certain there were at least several aldermen here and at least one state senator in attendance.
Thankfully, security appeared.
Antonius released his grip and the man fell to the floor in an inelegant heap.
Far from accusing Antonius of trying to kill him, the man actually rose up on his knees and clutched at Antonius’ tuxedo pants. He started to beg him for forgiveness. He was still begging when security grabbed him under the arms and dragged him away.
Antonius lifted his arm and barely gestured with his two fingers.
A smaller man in a tailcoat tuxedo and a gold waistcoat who seemed to be some sort of floor manager came rushing over.
Antonius nodded in my direction.
This must be what drowning in ice-cold water felt like, to suddenly feel numb and overwhelmed. You wanted to move and thrash about and escape but you were too terrified. Your limbs felt heavy and weighted down, and all the sounds around you were just loud rushing water.
Just then an elegant older woman, with her silver hair arranged in a French twist, distracted the assembled guests. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, the card tables are now open, please enjoy.”
She swept her left arm out as, on cue, three rows of arched oak double doors opened in unison.
Inside was a stunning two-story ballroom decorated with crystal chandeliers, gold and cream damask wallpaper over deep cherry wood wainscoting, and plush cobalt blue velvet high-backed chairs surrounding oval green felt poker tables evenly spaced throughout the room, each with a tailcoat tuxedoed dealer standing at attention.
Bile rose in the back of my throat at the sight of it.
I was going to be sick.
“I can’t do this,” I whispered.
Yuri, my friend’s boyfriend, and the person who dragged me into this mess, leaned in closer. “What did you say?”
I sucked my lips between my teeth, trying to quell the nervous nausea.
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Yuri. I wanted to help you and Heather, but this is all too much! I didn’t sign up for this!”
I gestured low with my hand, not wanting to draw any more attention to us.
Thank God, Antonius’ attention was at least on the swarm of guests eagerly filing into the poker room.
Yuri wiped his hand over his mouth. He then leaned in close and hissed, “You promised, Brynn.”
I lowered my head as I hunched my shoulders, nervous at his rising anger.
I didn’t know Yuri that well.
I barely knew Heather when it really came down to it.
The only reason why I had even agreed to this stupid scheme was because Heather was my co-worker and eight months pregnant.
This was just supposed to be a little harmless misadventure while doing a favor for a friend… but this was a freaking nightmare.
I wrapped my right arm around my waist. “You said it was a casual poker game with some friends of friends and that you only needed to win a couple hundred bucks to cover rent so you two didn’t get evicted,” I accused.
He shifted from one foot to the other as he looked at the people moving past us, clearly eager to get inside and choose his seat. “Yeah, so?”
I nodded toward the room. “This isn’t a fucking casual poker game, Yuri! This is the fucking Four Monks Club! I heard someone say the buy-in is fifty grand on some tables.”
A just for rent poker game with some friends was on a rickety card table surrounded by a couple of metal folding chairs and covered in a faded piece of thin green felt with the fold marks still down the middle. It took place in a cluttered garage that smelled like gasoline and dusty cardboard. And the refreshments were cans of lukewarm cheap beer served out of a scuffed-up cooler filled with watery ice and a bowl of slightly stale pretzels.
It was not a stunning nineteenth-century multimillion-dollar private club housed in two converted townhouses located on Astor Street in the exclusive Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago. With drinks served by gorgeous women in long cocktail dresses wearing black diamond chokers, carrying sterling silver trays with crystal martini glasses.
The members currently chatting warmly with one another and taking their seats were the who’s who of the powerful elite of not just Chicago, but Washington, D.C. and Hollywood.
And Yuri thought I was going to help scam these people out of their money!
My fingernails dug into the cheap patent leather of my clutch.
I needed to get the hell out of here.
Yuri rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve got it handled. Someone’s staking me. Now come on. I need to make sure I sit in the seventh seat of the seventh table and eat seven olives before we start.”
I blinked. Ignoring the ridiculous superstitious nonsense gamblers were notorious for, I held back. “Staking you? Yuri, listen to me. This is insane!” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Even I know the Four Monks Private Club is affiliated—” I stopped and looked around.
Antonius seemed to be in a heated conversation with three other equally large, super scary-looking men in tuxedos with tattoos, probably the other three ’monks.’
At least his attention was not on me.
I turned so my back was facing them and mouthed, “With the Russian mafia.”
Yuri was also Russian but not big, scary Russian, more like scrawny, twitchy Russian. He should definitely have known this club had a sinister reputation.
Yuri’s eyes twitched.
He rubbed his neck again. “Brynn, you promised Heather you’d do this for us.”
This was pretending to be Yuri’s companion for the night, and if necessary, handing him one of the playing cards that were hidden in a special pocket along the side hem of the dress Heather insisted I wear.
It was called a card switch.
Apparently, Heather had done it for him in the past, but being eight months pregnant, she was drawing too much attention and couldn’t pull off the sleight of hand required.
I guessed Yuri couldn’t hold the cards himself, because he had been caught card switching before. So now he worked with a partner so he wasn’t busted with extra cards on him.
And it was totally cheating.
The only reason why I had agreed to be part of it was because he and Heather had laid a huge guilt trip on me about how they were broke and she was pregnant and they were about to be put out on the street and how it would only be one harmless hand of poker for a few hundred, just enough to cover their rent shortfall.
I made him swear he would only gamble enough for rent.
Just enough for rent.
Fifty fucking grand buy-in at a private club owned by the Russian mafia was not a just-for-rent-money poker game.
I shook my head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t sign up for this.”
I turned to head out.
He grabbed my upper arm. “You can’t leave. Look, we lied to you. It’s not rent. I’m in the hole for a lot of money to a lot of bad people. I’m in real trouble. They’re going to kill me if I don’t pay them back soon. This game is my only chance. Just one hand, please, Brynn, I’m begging you.”
I wasn’t sure why, but I looked over my shoulder at Antonius Ivenchenko.
He was no longer speaking with his partners. There was a dark scowl on his face as he looked from me to Yuri then down at Yuri’s hand on my arm.
My eyes widened as Antonius separated from them and stepped toward us.
The very real possibility that I would end the evening explaining to Heather how I got her baby daddy killed by a big scary Russian, possibly mafia dude, flashed across my mind.
Turning toward the ballroom entrance, against my better judgment, I gave in as I allowed him to pull me inside, losing us in the crowd.
“Fine. One hand.”
Within twenty minutes, it became painfully obvious why Yuri owed people money and had to resort to cheating to pay them back.
I barely knew how to play the game, and even I could tell he was a terrible poker player.
The current hand had a staggering seventy-five-thousand-dollar pot.
It was dizzying to watch the other men and one woman around the table just casually toss in the custom-made poker chips worth thousands of dollars, with their embossed Four Monks logo made of real gold leaf, or so I overheard one of the players say, as if it were no big deal.
Finally the moment I had been dreading came…
Yuri reached down and flicked the side of my thigh with his finger.
That was the signal.
One flick meant he wanted an ace.
Two meant he wanted a queen.
Three a king.
He flicked my thigh twice.
I had been standing next to Yuri’s chair pretending to watch the game, and not to be searching the room for any sign of Antonius Ivenchenko.
So far, I hadn’t seen him, which somehow made me even more nervous than when he had been openly staring at me.
The moment I felt the signal, I froze.
I stared at the stacks of chips in the center of the table.
It was so much money—seventy-five thousand dollars—that I was about to help Yuri steal.
That it didn’t seem to matter to these people was no excuse; it was still cheating, stealing.
It was still wrong.
If we were caught, it was a felony… or worse.
At least I thought it was, I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t even sure if poker was legal.
I didn’t even know why I was worried. If we were caught cheating at freaking Russian mafia-owned Four Monks, I seriously doubted they were going to call the freaking cops.
Oh, God. My stomach turned. I was seriously over my head.
Yuri flicked my thigh again. This time more insistently.
The players around the table shifted in their seats.
A few of them made comments to Yuri to decide.
Yuri cleared his throat and looked up at me. His eyes were pleading as he said to the table, but looked at me, “Sorry, I was distracted thinking about my pregnant girlfriend waiting for me at home.”
Low blow, asshole.
Tightening my stomach to stop the nervous butterflies, I unclenched my right hand and slowly lowered my arm to the hidden pocket where he and Heather had stashed the queen of hearts.
Just as my fingertips touched the edge of the playing card, strong fingers clamped down on my wrist.
A hard body pressed against mine from behind, as an arm wrapped securely around my waist, trapping me.
Antonius Ivenchenko leaned down and growled in my ear, “You’re in big trouble, little one.”