Authors: Krystal Shannan
“You don’t look like a nerd to me. What do you program?”
“Right now I’m working on a security network for my papa.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m building a mainframe and server.”
“Wow, that’s some heavy duty stuff.”
She swallowed a bite of toast and grinned. “Several professors have tried to get me a teaching position at NYU, but the university won’t hire me. Being a Sharanov is a red flag to most employers. I want to work for the Russian government, but that won’t work out either. There are good universities in Russian to teach at, though. I will find something when I graduate with my masters and doctorate in computer science in a year.”
“You want to work for the Russian government?” He took a sip of water after he spoke.
“Papa would never let me, but yes, I would like such a job. I will settle for teaching, though.”
“Who you are? I don’t get it.” Her face darkened, and she shifted her gaze to the floor.
What is she hiding
Matt leaned back and stared at the brunette beauty across from him. She was a caught in the middle of a family feud, a computer genius, and the daughter of a Russian…what?
“Is your father wanted by the US government?”
Please say no
“Oh, no.” She shook her head.
He breathed a sigh of relief. “What does he do?”
“That isn’t something I’m free to discuss.” She shrugged and downed the glass of orange juice. “I stay out of it. My papa knows I want nothing to do with the business or the feud. That’s partially why he agreed to let me leave the country and study at NYU. He’s trying to let me have my own life…away from the family problems.” She laid her fork carefully on the table. “But they killed Yuri and attacked me. Or he betrayed the family and helped them kidnap me. Either way, the feud will continue.”
“Your dad will order them killed?”
She frowned and glanced away.
“You are okay with that?” Matt stood up and stomped to the kitchen sink with the dishes.
What the hell is wrong with these people
Who did I just sleep with
“Look, I didn’t ask to be attacked, and they didn’t have to kill Yuri! He was injured in the attack, not able to defend himself or me, and they just shot him…I think.” The pain in her voice tore at him.
She cries for her friend, and in the same breath wonders if he planned the whole thing. What kind of life is that
“No!” she wailed and got up from the table. Matt moved toward her. He hadn’t meant it the way it sounded.
“I’m sorry. It’s just—”
“You jerk! You don’t know what it’s like to always look over your shoulder. Not to be able to go on a date alone with anyone. To never to have the freedom to go shopping with friends without a bodyguard present. Everyone looking at you, wondering why you have a bodyguard.”
Matt dodged a well-aimed right hook and grabbed her arms. He grunted in surprise when she landed a pretty solid knee to his kidney. “I’m sorry.” A fluid twist spun her around to face away from him, and he wrapped her in a tight hold. “Ksenia, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you angry. You’re right, I don’t understand.” Her body went limp and she broke into sobs. “I’ve been a soldier most of my adult life. I’m angry that you’ve had to live like this. What if you return to Russia, and they do manage to hurt you?”
“I should never have talked to you. Never told you about my family.”
He carried her to the couch and curled her into his lap. She was so strong to have grown up with so much pain. She was a soldier at heart. Not many people could have mentally and emotionally survived what she’d been through…or what she still expected to go through. She had lost her mother and brother and who knew how many others. He had family littering West Texas from Midland all the way to Sweetwater—aunts, uncles, and dozens of cousins.
Life would be so empty without them. Life is empty without them
. He hadn’t gone home for the annual reunion since his wife passed away three years before.
Her sobs slowly subsided and he could tell by her steady breathing she had dozed off. Matt slipped her to the couch and covered her with a heavy afghan his mom had made and sent him last Christmas. She grumbled at the move, but latched onto the blanket and snuggled into the soft couch. He smiled down at her. She was so beautiful—long brown hair, creamy skin, and a heart that was breaking down the walls around his.
She opened her eyes and stretched on Matt’s very comfortable couch. The afghan on top of her was fabulous, just as good as the ones her nana made. The navy blue mixed with streaks of white and red suited the cabin well and added a bit of color to an otherwise very drab and undecorated home. She glanced around.
It is the only hint of color at all
The cabin was so quiet. Where had Matt and Juno gone? A yellow sticky-note on the coffee table caught her eye. She sat up and plucked it from its place.
Went hunting for dinner, will be back soon. Make yourself at home. Matt
“Hunting for dinner? Well, I guess there aren’t any stores within walking distance.” She stood and stretched, popping several vertebrae. “Much better.” A clock on the wall chirped like a bird, and she glanced up—two o’clock.
She wandered into the kitchen and opened the fridge—beer, bottled water, ketchup, mustard, mayo, a brick of cheddar cheese, a hunk of ham, eggs, a slab of bacon, a loaf of bread, and a drawer full applesauce cups. Not as sparse as she had expected for a bachelor.
She grabbed an applesauce cup and a bottle of water. After digging through a few drawers, she snagged a spoon then slid contentedly onto the bench next to the dinette table.
Before she could peel the top off the fruit cup, an array of gunshots cut through the silence of the still afternoon.
Oh, God, no
! Fear filled her mind. She couldn’t lose him, too.
She ran to the front door and threw it open. The icy cold air froze her face and cut through the flannel shirt she was wearing. Juno’s barking echoed through the clearing. She studied the forest edge from the shelter of the doorframe, trying to catch a glimpse of either Matt or Juno.
The redheaded man from the SUV barreled into the clearing, holding a large handgun. Nausea covered her like a dark shroud.
? The Russian met her gaze and smiled, but another shot cut through the silence. The goon dropped his gun and collapsed.
Juno came charging out of the forest, teeth bared, straight at her. What the hell was going on? She heard footsteps and swung her fist as she turned. Another man, unfamiliar, stood behind her.
The third man in the white pickup. How had he gotten into the cabin
?“No! Matt! Juno, help!”
He kicked the door shut in Juno’s face. The white shepherd barked and growled in frustration. The dog threw himself against the window several times. “Shut up,
. We are going to have a little fun,
“No! Let me go!
Kooshi govno ee oomree
!” She kicked and writhed, trying to slip loose from his iron grip. There was no point; he was three times her body weight and at least a foot and a half taller.
God, help me! Please
He spun her around. The kitchen door was wide open.
That’s how he got inside
“He will kill you, too,
’. He killed your partner.”
“Not before I taste you. Only then will I slice you into little pieces to send gift wrapped to your father and grandmother for Christmas presents,
The bitter taste of bile rose in her throat.
The bastard plans to rape me before killing me
. She turned and looked at the front window. Juno wasn’t there anymore. Seconds later, an angry white shepherd came tearing in through the open door.
Her attacker released her to try and block his face from the snarling canine. She slipped to the floor and crawled to the edge of the room. Juno’s teeth were locked onto the man’s shoulder. It took him several minutes to rip the animal from his body He threw him to the floor, and Juno whined. The shepherd scrambled to his feet and ran to her side. Blood poured from the wound on the Russian’s shoulder. He loosed a volley of curses and pulled a gun from a holster on his side.
“No!” Her voice was drowned out by another shot. She turned. Matt stood in the front doorway holding his pistol aimed at the big man’s head. When she dared another glance, she caught her attacker’s surprised gaze before he fell to the floor with a crash.
She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t move. A warm tongue slid up her cheek and immediately her entire body relaxed. Air rushed to her lungs, and she threw her arms around the shepherd.
“Are you injured?”
She shook her head.
“Sit tight. I’ll be right back.”
She nodded and clung tighter to Juno. The dog woofed and licked her face again, before sitting down next to her. “Thank you, again, Juno,” she whispered and rubbed behind his ears. Matt hurried out the front door.
A few minutes later, he reappeared. He hurried across the living room and sat next to her. “The radio in my truck worked. I let the sheriff know what happened. He’ll be here in twenty minutes. Are you okay, sweetheart?”
“Are they dead?” She eyed the body lying on the floor across the room.
“Then, yes. I am okay.”
Juno moved off a couple of steps. “Good boy, Juno.” The shepherd wagged his tail and stretched out on the floor with a loud sigh.
“What?” Matt asked.
“I didn’t know dogs could sigh.”
A deep rolling laugh bellowed from his chest, and she scooted closer to him. He folded his arms around her and pressed a gentle kiss to the top of her head. “After that, I think we all need a good sigh.”
She nodded, her head against his chest.
She stood with Matt on the front porch watching a county sheriff’s SUV pull into the driveway. Two uniformed officers got out and approached them. She glanced up. He didn’t seem nervous at all, probably because he was police, too.
As they paused beside the body in the middle of the front lawn, a third person emerged from the rear seat and joined them on the porch. He had the letters S.C. M.E. stamped across his jacket.
“O’Reilly, been getting into trouble? I thought I told you to take some vacation this week.” The older officer smiled.
“Sheriff Stanfield, I tried, but apparently I attract trouble.” Matt shook his hand. “I wish I could have kept them alive for you, but I didn’t have the option.”
“The lady looks pretty enough to cause some trouble.” He tipped his hat.
Matt put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed it. He was trying to reassure her everything was fine, but she couldn’t help worrying. “This is Ksenia Sharanov.”
“Glad you are safe, ma’am. You are a lucky lady to have stumbled on O’Reilly. He’s one of my best.”
Her cheeks warmed, and she gave him a weak grin. “Yes, sir.”
He addressed Matt. “We’ve got to take you to the office and get the cabin processed. You know the drill.”
Several unmarked vehicles pulled up.
Holy crap. What is going on
? Her body quivered.
Matt turned her to face him and bent down to eye level. “Ksenia.” She met his gaze with a shaky nod. “The officer waiting at the bottom of the steps will take you to the station. They will need your clothes and statement of what happened.”
“W-what about you?”
“I’m coming, too, but in a different car. I need to show them where you fell and where the first body is…if the animals left anything of it. I’ll be along shortly. I promise.”
I can do this. Everything is okay
The Summit County Sheriff’s Office was small, no bigger than the Wells Fargo Bank building next to it. Both buildings sported red brick. She smiled.
The bank is actually next to the sheriff’s office. I wonder if they planned that
. The glass doors slid open, and she followed the officer who had driven her into town inside.
“I need to make a call, please.” The officer nodded and pointed to a phone on the front desk.
“Thank you,” she answered, approaching the desk. The small blonde woman seated there gave her a casual glance before speaking. “Just press nine to get an outside line, hon.”
“Thank you,” she answered, dialing her father’s cell.
“Ksenia! Are you okay?”
! I am safe, Papa.”
“I thought I had lost you when you didn’t get off the plane at LAX. Why weren’t you on your flight?”
“Men attacked the car.”
“I came straight to Denver when I couldn’t get hold of you.”
“I’m at the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.”
“Wait for me and the lawyer. Do not speak to the police yet.
, Papa, I understand.”
“I will be there soon.”
She hung up and turned around.
“Everything okay?” the young officer asked.
“Yes, but I’m supposed to wait for my lawyer before speaking with you.”
“That’s fine. We need to collect your clothes and fingerprints. Follow me, please.”
A half hour later she sank, exhausted, into a hard metal chair in an empty room at a table bare except for the bottle of water the officer had left behind. The walls were beige, and a camera peered down at her from the far corner near the ceiling.
They’d taken her clothes…well, Matt’s clothes she’d been wearing. The sheriff’s office had replaced them with a white scrub-looking outfit.
I look like a mental patient
. Her neon green bra showed plain as day through the thin cotton. She’d had to ask for some underwear, having chosen not to wear hers that morning.
. Her lips curved into a smile.
Papa is going to flip when he sees me
The door latch rattled and her father, followed by an unfamiliar man in a very expensive suit, pushed into the room.