Sweat pooled across Luka Petruskenkov’s brow, and his muscles remained tightened against the rushing adrenaline. Razor-sharp senses recorded every sight and sound along the darkened rural road that wound through the heavy woods. His 9mm SIG was drawn and ready to use again. Two members of an insignificant street gang lay dead in the ditch and the last one was long gone, leaving a trail of blood trickling across a fresh layer of snow. Luka had drawn that blood, a necessary casualty in a war without borders or rules of conduct.
Moving his hand to the front pocket of his charcoal gray dress slacks, he assured himself the flash drive remained safe, completing their goal despite the bright red splatters staining the ground. He took another few deep breaths to slow his heartbeat before slipping the gun back into the holster snugged against his chest. It would have been easy to follow the survivor and destroy the threat for good, but his instincts told him to circle closer to his cousins and assess the damage, drawing from a family bond that would stand the test of time. Besides, no matter how hard that zasranec tried to hide, like his two lifeless associates, he’d pay for his futile attempt to cheat Luka’s family.
Yuri Petruskenkov’s six foot four frame dominated his leaner, older brother, Slavic, but the two men’s familial resemblance to each other couldn’t be denied—tousled dark blond hair and matching brown eyes that mirrored their gentle mother. With their own weapons drawn, however, they resembled their father, Pavel Petruskenkov, a true warrior in a clandestine world of organized crime. They stood back to back a few feet away from Luka, but his youngest cousin, twenty-five-year-old Anton Andreyev, remained on the ground.
“What’s his status?” Luka asked abruptly in Russian as Yuri knelt at Anton’s side. “We’ve got to move. Quickly.”
Yuri grunted as he stood, wiping Anton’s blood across his heavy jacket to leave an ugly smear. “He’s alive. He took one in his thigh and another in his shoulder. We can’t treat this. He needs a doctor.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” snapped Slavic, leaning into Anton’s shoulder to stop the blood from pooling under his jacket. The force was necessary, but Anton’s silent grimace showed the extent of his pain. “We aren’t taking him to a doctor with two dead bodies lying in a drainage ditch. It’s only a matter of daylight before somebody finds them, and we can’t let them tie any of this to us. Leave these guys, put him in the car, and we’ll drive him back to my parents. Zoya can take care of a few bullet holes.”
“It’s six fucking hours to Brooklyn,” scoffed Yuri. “You wouldn’t be so fast to make that call if you were the one bleeding out on the ground. Rochester is a good hour away from all of this, so we can take him there. Besides, it’s going to snow all night. Pull these two into the woods, and they’ll be buried for weeks. That guy with a bullet hole in his leg sure as fuck isn’t going to the cops. We’ll be fine.”
The brothers continued to argue while Luka inspected the kid for himself, evaluating his weak, but steady pulse and gray, clammy skin. Anton still didn’t speak. The youngest of all of them by almost five years, Anton’s bright blue eyes had always watched the world quietly. Even as a little boy when his mother and father had been around to protect him from the harsh realities of life, he’d said little and expressed none of the temper most of his family exploded on a daily basis. But he would never have been described as gentle. His mother had been a Petruskenkov, and Anton had the scars and the grit to prove it.
“Six hours is too far, and we’re not taking him all the way to Rochester, either,” said Luka dryly, offering Anton a reassuring smile. “We’ll take him back to the house. Relax, Anton. Yuri, Slavic, help me get him to the car.”
He waited for the others to obey. Their roles were embedded in a complicated dynastic hierarchy that dated back generations. As the son of their current patriarch, Luka had been groomed for greater authority than his cousins. Anton was his responsibility, and Luka had been taught to accept his responsibility from an early age, no matter the costs. Yuri outweighed him by a good forty pounds of linebacker-sized muscle, but he’d also spent a lifetime accepting orders and moved quickly, taking Anton’s shoulders to bear the majority of his lean frame.
A few months younger than Luka’s thirty-five years, Slavic was darker and less compliant. “We’re going to do this my way,” he commanded, applying a tight tourniquet to Anton’s thigh. “You don’t understand American customs, that’s why your father sent you here in the first place. This isn’t St. Petersburg or even Brooklyn. We can’t just walk him into a hospital, and you can’t buy your way out of this. Besides, we need to get that flash drive as far away from here as possible. I don’t want that guy to come back with a few friends.”
Ice coursed through Luka’s veins, and his fists clenched into angry, rock-hard weapons prepared for battle. He understood, even appreciated, his fury, learning from his father’s tirades that sent fear into men twice his size. Taking Slavic by the collar, he pulled him close to his face, ready to beat the little shit to a pulp the way he had when they were children in St. Petersburg. “If you want to keep those pretty teeth your father paid so much money to straighten, watch how you speak to me, kuzen.”
“Stop,” demanded Yuri, demonstrating a rare moment of authority. “Luka’s right. I’m not going to let Anton bleed out in the fucking cold. Let Slavic go, Luka, and help me move him to the car. Nothing will be gained if you two start beating each other on the side of the road.”
Luka shoved Slav to the ground, effectively releasing some of his anger. The younger man stood, running his hand across his chin with a nod of acquiescence to further settle Luka’s temper. As a team, they transferred the wounded man to Yuri’s Audi, laying him gently across the back seat.
“Be strong, Anton,” Luka said, climbing in next to him and covering him with a blanket from the floor. “I have a medical kit with some morphine back at the house. It will keep you comfortable while we go for help.”
Despite the gentle snowfall and occasional glimpses of a sparkly full moon among the heavy clouds, the darkened back roads of western New York kept the three men on edge as Yuri negotiated the icy conditions. With the exception of an occasional whispered groan from Anton when he shifted positions, they remained silent for almost half an hour before Yuri spoke. “I need to ask what the plan is, Luka.”
He owed nobody an explanation, so Luka didn’t respond, but Yuri persisted. “I understand in Russia, you’d make all the decisions. Your father is the pakhan and that gives you power we respect, but Slav is right. You aren’t American and things are different here. You’ve got to have some trust in the two of us.”
Luka almost laughed at the ease with which his cousin used that word. Trust. Even within his family, he trusted no one, but these two would never understand what life was like in the heart of a war where strategies formed before breakfast to change the life of an unwitting soul. When tensions between their fathers had reached a breaking point, they’d moved with Pavel to America when they were still boys, developing strong New York accents and odd American mannerisms. Their new world had included private schools, Saturday playdates, and late summer baseball games, giving them the gift of an innocent childhood and sheltering them from the reality of their family business. They didn’t understand the world was a brutal place, waiting at every turn to destroy life and the small amount of happiness he’d been foolish enough to let into his heart.
But they’d never understand what drove him to do his job, either, the familial responsibility and access to an endless power created from blood and tears. Like his father, he’d been nurtured since birth to live this life, commanding respect and obedience from friends and enemies alike. He’d earned his place and on this cold, dark road in America, he was in charge and there would be no argument.
“We’ll drop Anton and Slavic at the lake house,” dismissed Luka. “Get him the morphine, and he’ll sleep until we get back. You’ll take me to the hospital in Rochester, and we’ll bring somebody to him. Call your father to tell him what happened. We’ll deliver the flash drive to New York as soon as Anton is stable enough to travel. And get our cash from that guy’s pocket. The dumb shits should have moved faster if they were going to rob three men.”
Yuri exchanged an uneasy look with his brother, and a calmer Slavic spoke for both of them. “Look, Luka. I’m not arguing with you, but you aren’t going to get somebody to come all the way out here to treat a Russian kid with multiple gunshot wounds. The first time you open your mouth, your accent’s going to set off alarms, and it will only be a matter of time before they connect us to that shooting. Even if they don’t have any evidence to tie all of this together, we don’t need anybody looking at us that closely.”
“Relax,” said Luka, leaning back into the soft leather seat and closing his eyes. A long night lay ahead of them, and a few hours of relaxation would keep his senses sharp. “You may be the American experts, but people are driven by the same fears and insecurities no matter what country they are from.”
“But he’s right,” insisted Yuri. “You aren’t just going to pull into a hospital parking lot and ask some doctor to come with you. Doctors in America are too busy for house calls.”
Luka responded with a calm shrug. “They’ll come. I’m Damir Petruskenkov’s son, and we’ll do things my way. How much encouragement they’ll need to get into my car is up to them.”
After a grueling sixteen-hour shift, all Mia Anderson could think about was a long hot shower and uninterrupted sleep. On a normal long day, she could have grabbed a nap in the resident’s on-call lounge, but the heavy snowfall had brought numerous multi-vehicle accidents to the ER on top of a gang-related shooting at a neighboring nightclub. Sheer adrenaline and an attention to detail had gotten her through the chaos, but given the chance to stand quietly for a few minutes, she struggled to find the strength to get home.
Waiting for the elevator in the half-empty hospital lobby, Mia rummaged through the oversized pink gym bag to find her cell phone and check her messages. After a little sleep, she’d have the strength to call her challenging mother and make sure nothing disastrous had happened with her little brother over the weekend. If she could get him through high school, he could use his technical school training as a carpenter’s apprentice, and all she’d have left to worry about would be her two little sisters.
“Dr. Anderson!” cried an all-too-familiar voice from the end of the hallway.
After graduating from med school in Buffalo, Mia had spent six months at the coveted internship at Rochester’s best hospital, honing her skills and further preparing her for a career in emergency medicine, but it still took her a moment to react when people addressed her by title. “Wait,” said Dr. Kevin Wright, a little more urgently. “We’re all going to that new restaurant at the Armory tonight, and I’m not taking no for an answer this time.”
It was hard not to smile at Kevin, a popular intern who organized most of their social events, but her small crew of professional acquaintances lived on a very different budget. Weighted by student loans she’d likely never repay in her lifetime, her own expenses, and a commitment to making the rent at her mother’s two-bedroom trailer, she had nothing to spare. Despite his sensitivity as a doctor, Kevin never seemed to understand her refusals.
“Sorry, Kevin,” Mia said with a forced smile, propping her leg on a large planter filled with well-maintained ferns and pachysandra to find the damned phone. “I’m just beat. Thanks for thinking of me though.”
“You don’t take care of yourself,” he scolded lightly, taking the bag so she could continue her search. “Come on, I’m buying the first round.”
“But with a first round comes a second,” she said, trying to sound forceful. “Really, thanks, but I’m good.”
Kevin nodded, but the burrowed frown showed his disappointment ran deep. “At least let me give you a ride home. The wind chill’s below zero tonight. You never did get your car fixed, did you?”
“No,” she grumbled, reddening at the public display of her drama in the hospital’s lobby. “When your little brother totals your car without a license, you’re pretty much screwed. I’m working on saving enough for a down payment on something used and beat up that he won’t want to borrow the next time.”
“He didn’t borrow it, Mia. He stole it right out of the employee parking lot. You should have pressed charges. You aren’t responsible for the whole world. Give me a call tomorrow when you wake up and maybe we can go for coffee and just talk.”
“Press charges against a seventeen-year-old kid?” she asked incredulously, her tone rising along with her indignation. What did these privileged assholes understand about responsibility? What did they know about the needs, wants, and challenges that faced everybody who’d ever climbed out of that trailer park? She wanted to curse him out, defusing her stress the way she would have a lifetime earlier, but she’d long since learned to control her temper in a world where patience and communication were the key to success. “What good would that do besides send him into an overworked and under resourced juvenile system? You know how bad things are.”
“But—” started Kevin just as the elevator doors opened.
“But nothing,” she interrupted, taking the bag and standing her ground. “Thanks, but I’ll see you on Wednesday morning. I’m just going to take a few days on my own and rejuvenate. I don’t want to call anybody. I don’t want to talk to anybody. I’m fine.” She stepped into the elevator behind a handful of people, dismissing him with a wave.
Mia leaned her shoulder against the wall with a sigh. She felt a little guilty for the abrupt dismissal, but after the last few hours, she needed two blissful days of uninterrupted sleep along with a little housecleaning and, maybe, running a few errands before her next shift. To be honest with herself, however, it wasn’t entirely the money that kept her from socializing with her well-meaning colleagues. Since her earliest memories, she’d avoided any close relationships while seeking solitude in the overcrowded thousand square feet of metal trailer she’d grown up in. It was the reason her quiet little house in the 19th Ward neighborhood of the city was so important to her. The battle-scarred hardwood floors and ancient baths and kitchen still needed a lot of work, but it was all hers and the happily ever after, fairy tale ending buried in her well-read romance novels would just have to wait.
An elderly man stood next to her with a dazed look, and Mia offered him a quiet nod of acknowledgement. Whether celebrating a birth or struggling with a personal or family illness, people who came to hospitals were uniquely vulnerable, facing life-changing events that made the simplest tasks difficult. She reached toward the elevator button and prepared to ask him what floor he wanted when a second arm brushed her shoulder to push the brightly lit panel.
“Excuse me,” said a heavily accented voice.
Mia turned to face the darkest pair of eyes she’d ever seen in a human, catching her off guard with their intensity and their depth. Without a hint of a smile, the man exuded a raw power that sent a tingle of fear through her system. His black hair was pulled into a small ponytail that failed to hide hints of a curly wave, and a shadow of a beard speckled with flecks of gray covered his chiseled chin. Deep scars ran over his left brow and down his cheek until it connected with a swirling tattoo creeping out of his coat collar, and a single diamond stud surrounded by a hunk of gold rested in his right ear.
His intensity churned her stomach, demanding she look away, but he held her in place with a piercing glare. He was lean, probably just short of six feet tall, but she felt tiny and vulnerable standing next to him as her face reddened in mortification. His unblinking expression burned to her core until she stared at the floor, the heat twisting to inexplicably make her clit pulse, reminding her just how long it had been since she’d fucked something other than a hard chunk of vibrating plastic.
Looking to break his gaze, she turned to their gray-haired companion, willing her tone to remain strong. “Are you all set, sir?” He didn’t speak, but nodded without a smile. They rode in silence until she reached the street level, leaving the stern stranger and elderly gentleman to continue without her, grateful for the arctic blast that cooled her overheated body.
It had been a balmy thirty-five degrees when she’d left her house the previous day, but she’d lived in western New York her whole life and understood better than most how quickly the weather could change. A shift in the jet stream had twisted the icy winds from Canada to a frenzy, ripping across Lake Ontario to leave blizzard-like conditions in its path. In a world where any significant snowstorms were measured in feet, she was always prepared. Pulling the heavy parka she’d had since college a little tighter around her neck, she slipped into a bright blue wool hat and gloves, grateful for the old boots that would make her trek home a lot more comfortable than the thin sneakers she wore around the ER.
The hospital was located near a brightly lit popular restaurant and bar scene, but she was one of only a few people out and about after midnight on a Sunday. She kept her head low, watching her step as she negotiated the thick slush and keeping a sixth sense on her surroundings with a skill she’d acquired during her tumultuous childhood. By the time she’d crossed the river and turned onto her residential side street, the cold was winning and her feet were damp. When she saw her porch lights reaching through the darkness, she picked up her step.
The nondescript four-door sedan caught her attention as soon as it turned the corner behind her. Demons lurked in all the dark crevices of the world, and she kept an eye over her shoulder, judging its speed and distance against the remaining paces to her front door. It appeared to be innocent, slowly driving past her and the heavy tint on the windows blocked any acknowledgement from the driver. Dismissing her fears, she started to search for her keys in the oversized bag.
Without warning, the car pulled in front of her at a sharp angle, slipping a few feet on the icy road, and a man left the passenger side too quickly to give any appearance of normalcy. Fear closed her throat, but the high snowbanks lining the sidewalk caged her to a few feet. She turned to run back to the brightly lit main drag, but he was too quick. Grabbing her arm, he pulled her around until she faced the dangerous stranger from the elevator, his powerful glare causing her stomach to somersault in dramatic waves.
“Let go of—” she started to scream, but he clamped his gloved hand firmly over her mouth. Twisting her body, he pulled her arm behind her and backed her against his chest. The bitter, salty leather filled her taste buds, and his wool coat brushed her cheek. She was trapped, close enough to feel the warmth from his breath on the back of her neck.
“Hush, Dr. Anderson,” said the same heavily accented tone. Eastern European. Russian, maybe Ukrainian. Despite her vulnerability, she tried to take in every detail about his person to report to the cops, but his grasp dug into her wrist with increasing strength as she fought for her life, even scratching his face through her gloves with no effect.
He pulled his head away from her reach and secured her spare arm, fully pinning her back to his chest. “Stop,” he demanded with an almost surreal politeness. “I have a proposition. I need a doctor to come to my home. You will be well paid for your services and for your silence.”
“Hurry, Luka,” said another voice from the darkened car, reminding her there were more enemies close at hand. How many? Did they have weapons? The rest of their shouting came in a foreign language but presented a sense of urgency.
The dark man pulled harder on her arm, tensing her shoulder muscles until a sharp pain registered past her fear barrier. Survival often meant giving up, at least temporarily. She stopped struggling to show her compliance, and he continued to speak calmly. “My cousin reminds me we can’t stand on a street corner all night to have this conversation. I am going to let you go, and you will get into my car. You won’t scream, or I’ll tie and gag you before I throw you into my trunk. It is a long, cold drive to my house, and I am assuming you would rather ride inside the car with leather seats and a working heater. Do you understand?”
Mia nodded slowly, still evaluating his movements to calculate her escape. He removed his hand from her mouth and loosened his hold, but she pulled away sharply before he grabbed her wrist, pulling a gun from the inside of his jacket. “I am not going to lecture you again. You will come. Now.”
The shiny metal drew her entire focus, freezing her into place and destroying any thoughts of escape, his unsmiling face and his dark eyes even more ominous than they’d been in the public elevator. As hard as she tried to process an alternative, she couldn’t think of a single option. “Do you plan on killing me?” she asked, struggling to form the words. “Because honestly, I’d rather take my chances on the side of the road than get in a car with you. There is a limit to what you can do to me here.”
The driver of the car spoke again, his tone rising and his meaning unrecognizable. With a growl, her captor pushed her into the back seat, smacking her knee against something hard and further increasing her terror as the pain pulsed down her leg.
“Just do what you’re told,” he warned, climbing in behind her, “and nobody is going to get hurt.”
Sheer panic trumped her earlier exhaustion, and she pushed herself as far away from him as the small space allowed. She pulled her bag closer to her chest as though it offered some sort of protection, trying to take in every detail of her kidnappers, the car, and their direction. The possibility the two men would rape or torture her was not her only fear. With the reality they were making no attempts to hide themselves, she was convinced they would kill her as soon as they had the chance. Steadying her nerves was the only way to find an escape.
“Stop looking at me like that,” demanded the dark stranger with unnerving insight. “We have no plans to hurt you as long as you do what you are told.”
“I don’t know how else to stare at kidnappers,” she responded bravely. “And you don’t have a lot of credibility with me right now.”
“I didn’t kidnap anybody,” he said with a sigh, slipping the gun back into his holster. “This is a business decision. You will be paid for your services.”
The huge man in the front seat offered her a weak smile before returning his attention to the snow-covered road. “I’m sorry for the drama, Dr. Anderson. We’re not kidnappers, and we aren’t going to hurt you. My name is Yuri Petruskenkov, and this is my cousin, Luka. We need medical attention in a private matter. Luka was supposed to ask you nicely to come with us, but he doesn’t always have a good grasp of what ‘nice’ is. It’s a personality fault we’ve recognized since childhood.”
“She started to run before I could say a word,” dismissed Luka. “I wasn’t going to lose her.”
“Then you forced me into this car at gunpoint,” she insisted. “That pretty much meets the definition of kidnapping as far as I’m concerned. And if you want to prove yourselves, take me back to where you found me, and we’ll try this all over again.”
The two men exchanged a look in the rearview mirror before the big one in the front seat burst into laughter, but the humor was lost on Mia. “You bastards think this is real funny, but you won’t when I call the cops. You can’t just go around forcing women into your car.”
The laughter stopped as quickly as it had started. Luka reached back into his coat to retrieve a large steel knife. “Let’s get something straight,” he said with an even, cold tone. “You will be a guest at my house, and you will care for my young cousin who has been wounded. You will be treated with respect and paid appropriately for your services. We will give you five thousand dollars in cash for treating him and another five thousand for your silence. When I am satisfied he is safe, we will return you to your home, but…”
The cold knife rested against her cheek before delivering a small, painful bite. “If you ever speak of this day to anybody, I will find you. And I will be angry, which will make you very unhappy. Do you understand?” She nodded slowly, her eyes round with fear as he withdrew with a satisfied grunt. Moving her hand to her face, she expected to find he’d drawn blood, but he hadn’t. There was only the slightest hint of a scratch.
Any noise or movement would provoke her endless screams, and Mia stared out the window at the passing expressway and tried to focus on steady breathing. The swirling, angry snowfall had increased dramatically, making it difficult to see more than a few feet in front of the car, but the driver continued at an unsettling speed as she processed what limited information she had.
Ten thousand dollars. In cash. Despite the sketchy circumstances, the financial possibilities were endless, including a new car and maybe even getting her brother to a spring baseball camp he desperately wanted to attend. He needed more than food stamps and trailer park drama if he was going to have a chance, and Karrie and Rosie would need new clothes for the warmer months. She needed the money, but just as important, these two men weren’t presenting any options for refusal.
This was a terrible idea, but she had neither the emotional nor the physical resources to refuse him. “Fine,” she said, swallowing hard. “I’ll take the chance on you, but you have to promise me you won’t bring out that gun or knife again. I’ll help your cousin, but I don’t want to be intimidated.”
“Unfortunately,” said Luka without a hint of a smile, “I don’t make deals, Dr. Anderson. I decree them. Behave yourself and don’t disappoint me. It’s simple.”