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Sweet Savagery: A Dark Mafia Romance by Zoe Blake – Sample

Chapter One


Chicago, Illinois

I sat on the floor of my tiny studio apartment staring at the piles of cash around me.

The boxes arrived a few days ago from Russia, sent by my Uncle Harry. Despite receiving a stern email from him warning me not to open the boxes, I didn’t waste any time tearing into them.

I was the weird one in my family. The only one who had chosen not to pursue a life of crime. I rarely spoke to anyone related to me and hadn’t seen my Uncle Harry since my father’s last parole hearing over ten years ago, when I was still a teenager. So when I received the boxes and a cryptic email from my uncle addressed to his favorite niece I was, of course, suspicious.

And judging from the stacks of cash taking up half my apartment floor, I had every right to be.

Five hundred thousand dollars.


My uncle had sent me five hundred thousand dollars through the freaking mail.

What was strange was, each box only weighed about six pounds. I totally would have thought hundreds of thousands of hundred-dollar bills would have weighed more. Although, to be honest, that wasn’t the truly strange part. The truly strange part was that I had freaking FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS strewn about on a ten-dollar, slightly stained throw rug I had purchased from the Salvation Army last month.

Once again, I picked up my cell phone and tried to call my Uncle Harry. I had no idea what time it was in Russia, or even why he was there, and I didn’t care. I wanted an explanation. When he didn’t answer, I tried calling my other uncle, Uncle Frank. If anyone else was involved in this mess along with Uncle Harry, it would be my Uncle Frank. They were two petty criminal peas in a pod. Uncle Frank’s cell number was disconnected. Typical. Tossing the phone aside, I sighed as I surveyed the money.

There wasn’t a doubt in my mind this money was dirty, like really, really dirty. Anything anyone in my family touched was always filthy. They wouldn’t know how to make an honest dollar if it slapped them in the face.

What the hell was I going to do?

I glanced at the alarm clock and cried out. Damn, I was late for work. Work, another concept my family was completely unfamiliar with. I was the first in our family to attend community college. Now I was scraping money together for a real estate broker license.

Four thousand three hundred and sixty dollars, that’s how much I was in the hole right now. Between the pre-licensing courses, licensing exam, my basic real estate agent license and now the desk fees at the brokerage where I worked to become a licensed broker, I was in serious credit card debt. It had taken me three years of saving some of my server tips just to scrape enough together to cover costs while I took a huge pay hit launching my new career.

I lifted the edge of my Murphy bed and tucked it back into the wall cabinet so I could open the bathroom door, and turned the knob for my shower. The old pipes rattled and clanked. Rusty water spurted from the faucet. I turned the knob to cold so I wouldn’t be wasting hot water and money as I waited for the water to run clear. I turned on the coffeepot and reached for my toothbrush. One thing about being poor and living in a tiny studio apartment, everything I needed was literally within arm’s reach, especially when the kitchen and bathroom shared the same sink. Swishing the mint foam around my mouth as I brushed, I glanced over my shoulder at the money still lying on the floor.

Forty one-hundred-dollar bills.

Forty out of five thousand one-hundred-dollar bills.

That’s all I would need.

Forty thin pieces of rectangular paper and most of my problems would be gone.

Disgusted at my thoughts, I spit in the sink and shrugged out of my T-shirt before stepping in the shower. My breath seized in my lungs as the icy water hit my chest. I had forgotten to switch the water to warm. Sidestepping out of the freezing stream, I frantically turned the knob, but it broke off in my hand. With a resigned sigh, I inhaled a deep breath and braced myself for the arctic chill as I flipped my long hair over my head and reached for the shampoo.

As I closed my eyes to avoid the suds, all I could see were the neat stacks of cash lying only a few feet away.

Wouldn’t I be doing a good thing by using just a tiny portion of the money for honest purposes? I wanted to have my own brokerage firm one day. A firm where female real estate agents could safely work without having to worry about getting their asses pinched or being told to fetch coffee. It may be the twenty-first century, but in many ways the real estate industry was still living in the 1950s.

In order to do that, I needed money, way more money than I was currently making. It would be at least ten years before I could afford to start my own business, unless — I peeked around the shower curtain at the money.

With a frustrated huff, I finished scrubbing the suds out of my hair and got out of the shower. Wrapping a slightly scratchy towel around my middle, I poured coffee into my favorite chipped mug and added sugar and powdered cream. No daily Starbucks on the way to work for me. I couldn’t afford such tiny luxuries.

I unplugged the coffee maker and plugged in the hair dryer. As I combed through the tangles in my hair with my fingers, I looked in the mirror and once again saw the cash.

It wasn’t like I would use it all, maybe just fifty thousand dollars’ worth. That would be enough to cover rent for a year, office furniture, equipment, and some splashy colorful marketing brochures. If I borrowed just a few thousand more, I could even get a professional website done instead of a basic do-it-yourself WordPress one. The appearance of wealth in this business was essential in getting the higher-end clients. Money attracted money. It was why I spent my rent money on nice dress suits and real-looking pearl necklaces. I would get nowhere in this business showing up in an ill-fitting thrift store outfit.

I leaned over the sink to apply mascara. My gaze traveled again to the cash. Okay, sixty thousand dollars and not a penny more. I would buy myself a decent wardrobe and maybe lease a nice Lincoln Town Car to shuttle my clients around Chicago to different properties for sale.

Sixty thousand dollars wasn’t that much, only six hundred bills out of five thousand. It probably wouldn’t even be missed. I would then donate the rest to charity or maybe play Santa Claus to the other hard-up residents in my building. I could leave little envelopes of cash for each of them to help cover rent and food. I couldn’t go to hell for using dirty money if I used most of it for good, right?

Going to the police was out of the question. I may have distanced myself from my criminal family, but I still shared their aversion to authority. Besides, with my juvenile record, there was no way they would take me at my word that the cash had just arrived on my doorstep and that I had nothing to do with it. And of course there was the bonus that it had arrived in boxes from Russia. Sure, nothing shady about that. My eyes rolled so hard I gave myself a headache.

I tiptoed between the piles of cash as I crossed the room to my bedroom/hall/linen/pantry closet. I selected a deep cranberry red A-line skirt with white flowers and matching white silk blouse that I had gotten a few weeks ago at the Anne Taylor Factory outlet and got dressed. I completed the outfit with a pair of black ballet flats and my favorite fake-but-real-looking pearl necklace.

I would rather wear four-inch platform heels to make up for my five foot six inch frame, but I had an open house today and would be on my feet for hours. It was smarter to wear the flats. It was a shame. My life was a little easier when I was taller than the men around me. Especially when one of those men was Larry, my boss. Middle-aged, balding and with a pooch of a belly, he somehow thought he was God’s gift to women.

I stared down at the cash at my feet. It was nice to dream, but there was no way I was going to touch one lousy bill of it for myself. That’s how it would start. Compromising my principles once would make it that much easier to compromise them again, then again. I had turned away from that life when I was a teenager. It had taken years to clean up my act and break free of my criminal family’s binds, and I wouldn’t turn back now. Even if abandoning those principles now made my dream of owning my own brokerage firm a reality, I would always know I had purchased it with tainted money. It wouldn’t be truly mine. It wouldn’t be something I had earned through hard work and determination.

With a sigh, I bent down to pick up several piles of crisp one-hundred-dollar bills. I turned and surveyed my apartment. Where the hell could I hide all this money till I figured out what to do with it? I had precious few options in my studio apartment. There were no cabinets under the sink, and I already stuffed my closet full of clothes and ramen noodles. I surveyed the Murphy bed. It would have to do.

I pulled the bed back down to the floor, piled the cash on top and then quickly raised the bed frame back into its upright position. I snatched several wayward bills as they floated in the air and shoved them between the mattress and wall.

With one last sip of my now lukewarm coffee, I raced out the door. I would figure out what to do about the dirty money later, after I got ahold of one of my uncles. For now the money, and I, were safe enough. Although we weren’t close, there was no way my Uncle Harry would have shipped the cash to me if he thought someone was actively looking for it, or if it would put my life in danger. Family was still family.

So, it wasn’t like I had to worry about some big Russian thug breaking down my door for it.

Chapter Two


Moscow, Russia

Two days earlier

There were only two ways I survived in my world. First, by taking whatever I wanted, and second, by letting no one take from me.

When my men dragged the thief’s bruised and battered body through the crowded restaurant, only the tourists looked on with shock and confusion. Native Russians knew better. Men like me, whose wealth came from questionable income sources, were the true power in this country. When the fickle mistress of capitalism finally came to Mother Russia, she sank her claws in deep. Wealth was now respected far above any out-dated political ideology.

I had a personal stockpile of sniper rifles, AK-47s, grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles, and even several actual tanks and attack helicopters, all courtesy of the fallen Communist regime. I sold to the highest bidder and didn’t give a damn what they did with my product. That was on their soul, not mine. As a result, I was one of the wealthiest billionaires in all of Russia, so missing a half million in cash was no real hardship. But it was the principle that mattered.

No one got away with stealing from Ivan Morozov, and no one who tried lived to tell the tale.

I kept my attention on the thick Porterhouse steak on my plate as they tossed the thief onto the chair across from mine. Slicing into the rare, bloody flesh, I took a bite and thoughtfully chewed as I surveyed the twitching man who shook so violently his chair rattled against the cold marble floor.

The thief’s wide eyes fixated on the knife in my hand until I set it aside and picked up the white cloth napkin from across my lap. I swiped it over my mouth then placed it on the table before leaning back.

The silence stretched.

As the tension escalated, the thief visibly flinched when the server approached to refill my wineglass. The corner of my mouth lifted in a smile. I enjoyed playing with my prey. What fun was there in killing them off quickly? More importantly, what lesson was there for my enemies if those who crossed me died without enduring long hours of torturous pain?

Finally, I spoke. “So, Harold. You visit my country from Chicago America and spit in the face of my hospitality by stealing from me.”

The man leaned forward in his seat, dripping blood on the crisp white tablecloth, one eye swollen shut and the other half closed. He pleaded with me in earnest. “Ivan, let me explain.”

I laughed as I shared a look with my men who flanked Harold Prescott.

Casting a nervous glance over his shoulder, Harold’s lips twisted into a stiff smile as he tried to share in our merriment.

My lips thinned. I picked up the knife and toyed with it. I narrowed my gaze as I drove the sharp point into the wooden table through the linen fabric. “We are not comrades, Harold. I have not given you permission to address me as Ivan.”

He raised his hands. The two middle fingers on his right were hanging limply at an odd angle, clearly broken. “My apologies. Please, Mr. Morozov. This is all a misunderstanding. If you will just allow me to contact my brother in Chicago, I’m sure I can get your money back for you.”

I tapped the knife point against my plate. “So, let me get this straight. You come to my country. I allow you to purchase a not inconsiderable sum of untraceable SR-V Vektor and P-96 pistols on behalf of your buyer. You skim half a million in American cash from the purchase and claim it was the buyer who cheated me. My men then catch you trying to sneak out of the country on a private plane — and yet it is somehow me who has misunderstood the situation, no?”

Harold nodded vigorously. “Yes, I mean no. Please, Mr. Morozov. I can fix this. I sent the cash to a relative in Chicago who will keep it safe until I claim it. Just let me fly back to America and I will have your money by the end of the week.”

Again, I shared a laugh with my men. I wagged a finger at Harold. “You are quite the comedian, Harold. Either that, or you think me stupid. So which is it? Are you a funny man, or do you think I am stupid?”

At significantly taller than six feet with the muscular build of a boxer and the military training of an assassin, few men had ever dared to call me stupid, and none had lived to regret it.

Harold swiped at the sweat over his upper lip, grimacing as he used his broken hand to do so. “No! No, of course I don’t think you are stupid. I would never dream of saying such a thing, Mr. Morozov.”

I pulled my Beretta 92F from its shoulder harness and laid it on the table between us. The hand-engraved chrome and gold gun had been a gift from my men when I left the 45th Guards Spetznaz Special Purpose Brigade. I had been their commanding officer for several years, but after reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel when I turned thirty, it was time to join my old friends Dimitri and Vaska in the arms trade and start earning some real money. I had been doing business with them for years, selling off unwanted or surplus arms from abandoned posts forgotten by the old Communist regime. The millions I earned doing that was nothing compared to the billions I had earned as a full partner in their arms dealings these last five years.

Perhaps it was time I visited my old comrades in America? Retrieving my money was as good an excuse as any.

I spun the gun on the tablecloth, pointing it in Harold’s direction. “You are going to tell me the name of this relative.”

Harold’s eyes shifted left and right before responding. “It would be better if I went personally. They won’t give the money to a stranger, only to me.”

I smiled as I stroked the polished handle of the gun. “I can be very persuasive. Their name, Harold.”

He licked his lips. “If I tell you, you’re just going to kill me.”

I sighed. “I’m going to kill you either way. My apologies. I thought that was clear. Now, how painfully and slowly I kill you — is up to you. Tell me what I want to know, and you have my word it will be quick and painless.”

Harold’s face crumpled as he sobbed.

My brow furrowed as I gestured to the surrounding restaurant guests. “Please, Harold. There are people trying to eat. Let’s not disturb their meal with your troubles.”

Harold swiped at his swollen eyes, grimacing when he once again used his broken hand. Some people just never learn. “Their name is Dylan Prescott. They live in Lincoln Square in Chicago. I sent the money in two boxes.”

Replacing my gun in its shoulder harness, I rose and buttoned my suit jacket. As I stepped around the table, Harold grasped at the hem, leaving a blood-smeared smudge before my man jumped in to restrain him. “Please, Mr. Morozov. Don’t kill me. I have money! I’ll pay you whatever you want!”

Shrugging into my heavy, long wool coat held by the maitre’d, I turned up the fur collar to prepare for stepping out into the cold biting wind of a Moscow winter. “This was never about the money. It’s about the principle. No one takes what’s mine.”

With a nod to my men, I pivoted on my heel to leave as they dragged Harold through a back door of the restaurant. Later, they would put a bullet in his head and sink his useless body down into the dark, ice-cold depths of the Moskva River. He would become just another American tourist victim. For now, my men would keep him in a secure location till I had recovered the money. In my line of work, it was always a mistake to kill someone before their usefulness was completely over. I may need more information from them later. Of course, there was no point in telling Harold that… let him suffer thinking any moment would be his last.

I texted Dimitri and Vaska, telling them to expect me by tomorrow.

It was time to track down this Dylan Prescott and demand he return my property.

Chapter Three


Chicago, Illinois

I glanced at my phone as yet another couple walked around the marble topped kitchen island. They weren’t serious buyers. The home was over five thousand square feet with four full baths, one half bath, and three bedrooms located right off of Lake Shore Drive in the uber-expensive Near North Side neighborhood. At a listing price of over four and a half million dollars, it was safe to say whoever finally bought it wouldn’t be carrying around a knock-off designer purse with Chanel spelled with two n’s.

Not that I faulted them for wanting to get a peek at how the other half lived. That was partly the reason why I became a real estate agent. It was fun to waltz through these large open spaces with their elegant artwork, polished Macassar ebony hardwood floors and Italian marble bathtubs and imagine it was all mine.

When I was still in community college, I used to convince my best friend Carinna, who lived just across the hall from me, to get dressed up and go to the Sunday morning open houses downtown. We thought we were so slick, slowly walking around the elegant rooms asking what we thought were intelligent questions about property taxes and natural lighting. I know now we stuck out like sore thumbs to all those real estate agents. We hadn’t fooled them for a second.

The woman turned to face me. “Does the kitchen get plenty of natural light?”

I pressed my lips together, smothering a laugh. I nodded. Some things never changed.

Larry was already gone. This was his property listing. When it sold, he would bring in close to three hundred thousand dollars in commission fees. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t see a penny of that. Despite being the one who took all the photos, prepared the floor plan brochures, set up the listing, scheduled the open house, called potential clients, and even arranged for the catered trays of fresh fruit, macaroons and champagne. Nope, not a penny. As Larry put it as he tried to look down my blouse this morning, I was getting paid in experience.

There was just this couple and another one upstairs, looking at the bedrooms. Thankfully, the open house was almost over, and I could soon pack up and get back to my apartment to deal with the mess my uncles had dropped in my lap.

I scrolled through my texts. There was nothing from Uncle Harry.

There was a text from Oliver, my so-called boyfriend, although he was barely even that. Didn’t someone have to actually date and speak to one another occasionally to officially be girlfriend and boyfriend? He had cancelled on me so many times over the last three months I had forgotten what he looked like. Last night was supposed to be our big reconciliation. We were supposed to get back together and finally start acting like a real couple, but of course, he had stood me up.

I had waited at the stupid laser tag place, which had reeked of body odor and old hot dogs, for over an hour. Laser tag hadn’t even been my idea. Why on earth would I want to run around with a bunch of obnoxious teenagers shooting a toy gun for my Saturday night? I mean, I was twenty-five now. Shouldn’t I have a boyfriend who wanted to take me out for a nice dinner and a bottle of wine? Or at least a romantic movie?

I needed to officially break up with him. For good this time, no more second chances. No more allowing him back in my life after he ghosted on me for months. Carinna hated him. I couldn’t blame her. Oliver was kind of obnoxious. He laughed at his own jokes and was a bad tipper, something I always took offense at, having been a server. He had been my attempt at dating a “decent” guy, one whose idea of committing a crime was getting away with an expired parking meter. I had wanted to show myself that I could fit in and be boring and normal like everyone else, that I wasn’t like the rest of my family, that I didn’t have to succumb to a life of crime.

I still believed that was true. My problem was trying to prove it through a man, but I was done with that and done with men.

They were too much trouble.

From this point forward, I would focus on my career.

Texting Oliver back, I reluctantly agreed to meet him tonight for dinner. He promised he wouldn’t be late and that he would take me to a proper restaurant this time. I should tell him to his face that I never wanted to see him again. Besides, he owed me a dinner out. It was the least he could do after standing me up, and it was far better than the microwaved ramen noodles which waited for me at home.

The man interrupted my train of thought. With his hands in his pockets, he rocked back and forth on his heels, “So what are the property taxes like?”

Before I could answer, the chime from the security system sounded at the front door.

I held up a finger. “Will you excuse me for just one second?”

Maybe I would get super lucky, and it would be a serious couple interested in buying the house. Wouldn’t that be something else if I stole the listing out from under Larry? He’d still find a way to cheat me out of my half of the commission because I was just a lowly agent trying to learn and he was the head of the brokerage firm, but it would be nice to show him up.

Smoothing my skirt and pasting a fake smile on my lips as I entered the massive front hallway, I prepared to give my usual warm real estate greeting. I threw open the door. “Welcome to —”

The words died on my lips.

The man standing in the doorway was… HUGE. Not like over seven feet tall or four hundred pounds huge, but just plain huge. He was like a wall of muscle. It was obvious he wore an expensive custom-tailored suit under his grey wool overcoat. Armani would be my guess, because I couldn’t imagine anything off the rack fitting over those insanely large biceps of his.

As my shocked gaze took in all of his six foot five height and probably about four foot wide shoulders, I noticed the tattoos peeking out from his shirt collar and cuffs and the heavy silver band rings on his fingers. In my past, I’d known many men who’d worn rings like that as makeshift brass knuckles.

 From the close-cropped hair and beard to the tattoos and massive body, he looked like a sinister crime boss who’d been squeezed into a suit by his attorney to make him more presentable for a jury. I should know, I’d spent half my childhood in the gallery of courtrooms.

My gaze traveled to his face. My mouth fell open as I made some kind of inarticulate, high-pitched squeak. The man was gorgeous. He had the nose, jaw and cheekbones of a Roman gladiator chiseled in stone. Even the scar slashed across his upper lip couldn’t take away from the beauty of his full mouth. And his eyes! No man on earth should have eyes that clear bright blue and piercing.

As I continued to stand and silently stare, one black eyebrow slashed into an arch over his mesmerizing blue gaze. I blinked several times, then licked my lips as I tried to swallow past my dry throat. His gaze moved to my mouth, which sent a shock of white-hot lightning straight down my spine.


What are words?

How do I speak them?

I stood there struck dumb, unable to force my brain to work.

Finally, the Roman-gladiator-statue-come-to-life spoke. “I’m looking for Dylan Prescott. His office said he would be here.” His voice was a low, dark baritone like the deep sound of a cello playing a mournful lullaby. His accent was also heavily Russian.


Fuck, this man was Russian, and he was looking for me.

That couldn’t be a coincidence.

Years of survival skills kicked in.

I backed a few steps away. He had asked for Dylan as if I were a man. I would just go with that.

I cleared my throat. “I’m… I’m sorry. You just missed him. He left… for…. for the airport. Some overseas trip. We don’t expect him back… ever.”

The man stared at me for several heartbeats. I had this strange sensation he was staring into my soul. Before he could respond, the couple joined us in the hallway.

The woman held out her hand. “Thank you so much, Ms. Prescott, was it? It’s not quite big enough for what we are looking for.” That was a lie, of course.

At any other time, it would have amused me to think about the cute little rental they were probably returning to, as they shared a couple of takeout hamburgers and split an order of fries and dreamt of a future filled with caviar and champagne. It’s what I had done a thousand times.

I clung to her hand. “Are you sure? There are some great financing options and interest rates are at a historic low.”

The woman wrenched her hand from my grip. “Sorry, no.” With a startled look, they both scurried past the silent giant and were gone.

The man rubbed his jaw as his fiery blue gaze slowly slid over me from head to toe. In his thick Russian accent, he asked, “How can you be Dylan? Dylan is a man’s name, not a proper name for a beautiful woman.”

I snatched a curl of my hair and twisted the long length around my index finger, a nervous habit. “My dad wasn’t around a lot when I was a child. He was a big Johnny Cash fan who apparently thought the song A Boy Named Sue made for great parenting advice, so he named me Dylan.”

Stop talking.

Stop talking!

First, I couldn’t speak and now I couldn’t shut the hell up. Why? Why in the world was I telling this man all this? Plus, I just admitted that I was Dylan Prescott, not that the cat wasn’t already out of the bag. But I didn’t have to confirm it.

I waved my arm behind me, gesturing wildly toward the curved staircase. “We’re not alone. There is another couple upstairs. So you should probably leave. Now.”

The corner of his mouth lifted in what I could only presume was supposed to be a smile. Fascinated, I stared at the white scar across his lip. The slash wrinkled slightly as his mouth moved. Realizing I was ogling his mouth, I averted my gaze. His chuckle told me he had noticed.

He took a deliberate step into the hallway and closed the door. It sounded like in the movies when they slam the jail door shut and there’s the heavy sound of impending doom. The front entrance was once more cast into shadows, deepening the harsh angles of his face. He shrugged out of his grey wool overcoat and tossed it onto the hallway bench.

He then stalked forward like an animal on the prowl. He tilted his head to the side, then once again his gaze slid over me like an unwanted caress. He sank his teeth into his lower lip after licking it, as if he were savoring the taste of me. Finally, when he spoke it was in a low, menacing purr. “I’m not going anywhere, Dylan.”

Normally, people pronounced my name with a short harsh ‘duh’ followed by a high-pitched mosquito-like whine, ‘laaaan’. Not this man. With his Russian accent, the ‘d’ sounded softer and longer — ‘dee ’— followed by a gentle ‘lun’. It was the most feminine my name had ever sounded.

My nails dug deeply into my palms as I clenched my fists, trying to quell the strange mix of desire and fear which was coursing through my veins. The sharp pain brought my brain back into focus. “You have me at a disadvantage. You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

Would he tell me his name? I couldn’t imagine what it would reveal, and there was no way of even knowing whether he gave me a fake one, but still I waited, holding my breath.

He bowed his head slightly, keeping his intense sapphire gaze on me. Placing a palm on his chest, he said, “Ivan Avelovich Morozov at your service.”

Other than sounding like the perfect name for a Russian super villain, it didn’t ring any bells.

My ass bumped against the hallway table as I backed away from him. “What do you want, Ivan Morozov?”

He reached to unbutton his suit jacket, showing how casually at ease he was in the luxurious space. “I want you—” he paused, and my heart stopped, “to give me a tour of the house.”

My cheeks flamed with both heat and embarrassment as illicit erotic scenes crashed around my brain during that tiny pause. So much for focusing.

The house? He wanted a tour of the house? Of course he did. It was an open house after all. Maybe he wasn’t here to murder me after giving me a thousand mind-blowing orgasms? Maybe he had picked up one of the hundreds of business cards I had left around the city, and that’s how he knew my name. Maybe it was just a coincidence that the very same day I received two boxes filled with dirty money from Russia a clearly wealthy man covered in tattoos from Russia appeared, asking for me. It was possible.

My voice broke as I gestured down the hall. “Why don’t I show you the kitchen first?”

Yes, the kitchen, where there were lots of knives for protection. An image of me throwing a knife and it bouncing off this man’s enormous chest like a plastic toy ran across my mind.

Again, he bowed his head slightly, as if in deference to my wishes. It was a courtly, gentlemanly gesture at odds with his brutish demeanor. “After you.”

There was no way I was turning my back on this man. I plastered my fake real estate agent smile on my face. “No, after you.”

He took a step forward. I was trapped between the table and his steel wall of a body. He was so dangerously close, I could smell the peppermint and coffee on his breath. Ivan leaned down, breaking the one-foot distance between our heights. “I insist, Dylan.”

Dee-lun. There it was again. The sex on a stick covered in dark chocolate way he had of saying my name.

Sliding my left foot to the side, I shimmied past him and scurried down the hallway.

His measured footsteps echoed on the marble tile as he slowly followed.

Careful to keep the island between us, I inhaled a deep breath through my nose, trying to calm my racing heart. I focused on my memorized speech. “As you can see, it is an extremely spacious kitchen designed by the German manufacturer Bulthaup with their signature floating wall, which hides all the utensils and pans. They also equipped it with a La Cornue range and an Everpure water purification system.”

As I prattled on, I leaned against the countertop and slipped my hand behind my back. Waiting till he turned to admire the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows, I eased open the drawer I knew contained the knives. It slid on a silent, well-greased track.

Ivan spoke without even bothering to turn around. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Playing the innocent, I asked, “Do what?”

He pivoted, rooting me to the spot with his icy glare. “Touch those knives. It would do you no good and only make me very angry.”

The thinly veiled pretense he was only there for the open house was dropped.

My heart pounded in my chest as I scanned the room, trying to remember where I’d set down my phone. It wasn’t on the counter. Dammit, I must have left it in the hall.

The couple!

The last couple looking at the house were still upstairs. Seeking safety in numbers, I bolted for the back stairway off to the side of the dining table.

Ivan gave chase.

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