“That’s unfortunate.”

Venedikt snapped the pencil he gripped. The wood splintering like his voice. “Why?” He growled.

“We can use her. Put her up for auction…”

“No!” The sound tore from the pit of his stomach and forced its way out.

The silence froze like an icy tendril skirting the air through the phone connection. “What did you say?” No one defied Rurik.

“She’s a young girl…”

“So, she’s not of legal age. In Nevada, you can become a prostitute at eighteen, correct? What does she look like?”

“I told you…”

“You told me nothing. What does she look like?”

“Lightning….”

Rurik’s sharp inhale crackled through the phone. “Did you say lightning?”

“Her eyes are a very unusual color. Like a thunderstorm, silver metallic. Haunting. Her skin is a light brown skin that reminds you of soft leather. A body with curves like a mountain road. The kind you see when you’re flying in for a landing, and all you see are miles of curves and turns. Her legs are endless…”

“What. The. Fuck? Are you a fucking poet now? Do you have some special feeling for her? Are you claiming this woman, this girl, as your own?”

Venedikt shook his head. Failing to shake the silver tendrils that had wound through his thoughts and dragged him into a fantasy world that did not exist. Could not exist. Ved’ma. She was nothing to him. Nothing. “No, of course not. She was a stupid young girl who came here with an impossible request.”

“Not impossible. Necessary. And we will use her request to get what we need.”

“For what purpose? We don’t sell women.”

“No, we don’t. But she’s selling herself. She came to you. So, we will use this girl to draw out Baranov.”

“How?” Ven huffed through the fumes smoking from his nostrils.

“You will leak that the Ismailovs have an exquisite girl for sale. A virgin we are auctioning off. A unique and indescribable beauty….”

“I didn’t say all that. Sasha’s pretty, but…”

“Hah,” Rurik gave another bark of laughter. “You said that and more. ‘Lightning,’ you said. She stunned you, the great Venedikt. The player. Never even dated for longer than a week. And yet something about this girl has you arming yourself like a soldier.”

The smoke fanned higher. “She is not mine.” The words escaped from the steel cage of his lips. “It won’t work, anyway. Everyone knows we don’t sell women. Why would he fall for this trap?”

“Ah, you should have spent more time hunting with me in the woods and less time on your silly computer games. Then you would understand. Every prey knows the trap, sees it’s a trap. But to get them to enter, anyway, you make the bait more attractive. Irresistible. And it has to look easy. It works the same way with your casino. With the right bait, a hunter can catch anything.” He gave another rough bite of laughter. “Even you, brother. So, beware. Don’t let the bait trap you.”

Ven’s nails dug crescents into his palms, but he kept his lips closed. Rurik was a master hunter and loved strategy games. To him, life was chess. If he decided this was the winning maneuver. Nothing would stop him. Rurik would win even if it meant putting the beautiful Sasha in harm’s way. The only thing Rurik would not risk was family.

Did Sasha have a family? A boyfriend? Anyone to care if she got hurt? A boyfriend? Was anybody looking out for her? She was a foolish girl, but now she’d be his responsibility. He’d protect her. The noose around his collar tightened a little more. As it would continue to do until either the monster of death dragged him down or snapped his neck in half.

* * *

“Stop fidgeting,” Venedikt growled. Watching her pull the hem of her scarlet silk dress up and down was torture. His straining dick couldn’t take much more of the rack. Her silver eyes glared hotter than the bright lights of the photo shoot.

“It’s hot.”

Yes, you are. No, stop that. He glared back. “The proper lighting is everything. You’re supposed to look sexy. This is the image that we will use for the sale.”

She brushed her hair over her shoulders. They’d done something to her hair, so instead of the dark, tight curls she’d had when they first met, her hair was straighter than his. Bone straight. The hairstylist said something about giving her a Brazilian. The only Brazilian he’d ever heard of made his dick stiffen and strain. “I’m sure they’re almost done?” He looked over at the photographer they’d hired. The man gave a sharp nod and began packing up his lenses.


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