Only in Las Vegas did VIP terminals for private planes have a crowd. Was everybody that damn important? Venedikt Ismailov ignored the purse puppies yipping in their Louis Vuitton bags and the Rolex wrists flicking for valets. If Rand wasn’t outside, he would geld him with slow cuts from a dull, rusty knife. When he’d given Rurik the information on Jessalyn’s family, Rurik insisted on dragging Ven along to confront her. He didn’t have a choice, but then he’d never had a choice. Everything he did was with family in mind. He lived for them, and he’d probably die the same way. Ven wasn’t dead yet, but when you were in their business, you knew that death was the biggest, ugliest monster imaginable. Snarling and sniveling with drool dripping from its hot mouth. Chasing and gaining on you. Constantly gaining on you. You might evade the beast with a zig here and a zag there. Get away for another year or two, but it kept coming. Like a cyborg Terminator, it never gave up.
Most people evaded the monster with distractions that helped them forget. Drugs, booze, women, and gambling. Ven helped them with all those things. Delivering their dirtiest desires in sanitized and pretty packages. In Sin City, all seven deadly and illegal sins were respectable entities. Served up hot and fresh, all day, every day. Had he wanted to spend his life serving up those vices? No. Had he had a choice? No. After an accountant murdered the uncle running their small casino, Ven took his place. It was family. It was duty. Responsibility was the invisible noose around his neck, yanking him in one direction or another. Ten years ago, the rope yanked him out of school and dumped him in Vegas. He was old enough, even though he’d only just turned twenty-one. Hadn’t his father taken on a heavier burden at sixteen? It was time for him to shoulder the responsibility. He’d done his best. Used his brains and tech-savvy to shoulder their operation from a barely profitable run-down gambling hall to another dazzling jewel in the strip’s crown. The Desert Fox towered between the south strip’s upper-class, fun tourist traps filled with movie stars and families, and the north strip’s darker bowels. Fucking families owned the south strip. All because someone decided Las Vegas should be rebranded as a vacation attraction. But the North strip remembered who they were, what Vegas was. At the Desert Fox, no movie stars did photo-ops outside the doors. Instead, they visited through the darkened tunnels of the VIP’s cavernous garage beneath the casino. Whisked by security into parties where they danced and gambled in no-cameras-allowed private rooms. And if the noose jerked him out of his penthouse suite to mingle with them, so be it. The noose had yanked him into worse places and situations. Ven mingled, danced, and sometimes even gambled. Smiling and partying like he had a fucking choice in his life.
* * *
Arand Daniels grinned when Ven threw his bags into the back of the car and jumped in the front seat. “Hey boss, welcome back.”
“Don’t start with your shit today.”
“Both my brothers have lost their fucking minds over their fucking wives.” He glared out the window, watching as the desert flew by and the city’s bright lights came into view. God, he loved Vegas. He wouldn’t live anywhere else. Rurik lived an hour’s drive into the desert, and Sanyet preferred Michigan. He’d frozen his ass off as soon as he stepped onto the tarmac, and it was fucking summer. Thank God he was back in Vegas. He turned to Rand. “If I ever get that crazy over a female, shoot me in the fucking head. Don’t hesitate. Just blow my fucking brains out.”
Rand grinned again. His straight, even teeth took up half his face when he smiled. The white contrasting with the dark hues of his dark ebony skin. Whenever he looked at Rand, he thought about the line from a poem he’d memorized as a kid. “Dark as the night that covers me.” That was Rand. He didn’t smile often. When he worked, his face was statue stiff. A monolith. Giving zero clues to his mood or thoughts. But with his friends, he was an open book. According to Rand, he was: ‘His brother from another mother.’ The strange phrase skipped his Russian ear and landed on his heart. Where it settled, making perfect sense. His brother.
“I take it you didn’t like her?”
“Who, Jessalyn?” Rand nodded. They’d run a deeper background check on the girl who’d witnessed his brother committing murder. And whom he had married to prevent her from ever being able to testify about it.
“She was okay. She surprised me. Not at all what I expected from her profile. But Sanyet surprised me more. I thought she’d shake and cry after we confronted her about the police officer family she’d neglected to tell us about. But she held her own. And even convinced Sanyet that, though she’d called them. She hadn’t meant to betray him.”
“Do you believe her?”
He shrugged. “I only know my brother bought every word. He trusted her, and he doesn’t trust easy. Hell, I don’t even know if he trusts me.”
“So, you’re going to let it go? Give her a pass.”
“Hell no. Jessalyn’s still connected to those fucking cops, and they weren’t too happy about being detained by airport security while we questioned her. And even though she reassured them she wanted to be with Sanyet. I don’t know if they are going to let it go. I hope they let her live her life and go on with theirs.”
Rand arched his brow. The tip of it nearly reached his bald hairline. “Is that what you’re going to do?”
“Hell no. When I returned her phone, I installed another tracker on it. I also set up more monitoring equipment in their suite while the newlyweds… talked.”
“And you wonder why he doesn’t trust you?”
Venedikt’s brows lowered over his eyes, and his nostrils flared. “He may not trust me, but he knows I have his back. Always. And if that means watching him, even when he doesn’t think he needs it. So be it.”
“So, you’re willing to listen to hours of the newlyweds getting it on?”
Ven grimaced and swallowed. “God, I hope not. You think… hours?”
“Trust me, bro. If anybody ever nailed me down. I would take full advantage of the situation. For hours.”
“You take full advantage of any situation.”
“True.” He laughed again. Another reward for their closeness.
“Okay, tell me. How is Yuri today?”
Rand checked the rearview mirror as he merged into the wall of traffic leading to the casino district. “Yuri is spending his last days as if he knows they are his last. A different woman every night, sometimes two or three. No favorites, yet. No confidences spilled. Requesting only the best liquor and gettin’ the bus boy to deliver him cocaine and marijuana, which he alternates.”
“So, Luis is still running his side gig?”
“I told him he could continue. Some customers want it, and since we don’t provide that request, it’s a good side gig for him. He’s got to pay for college somehow.”
“That’s how you did it.”
Rand’s eyes hardened. He didn’t make many references to his past. “Yep.”
Ven shrugged and looked out the window. “As long as he keeps it clean of our business. He’s okay. I told him if it blows back on us, I will kill his ass, and I don’t care who his fucking mom is.”
Rand shifted in his seat. As if Ven didn’t know he had a soft spot for the boy’s mother. “Yeah, well, he’s being careful. Your boy Yuri, not so much. He calls the same number about ten times a day, but no one answers. Guess he doesn’t understand the concept of a burner phone. Baranov used it to contact him once and then probably dropped it in a lake somewhere. Every call goes straight to a voicemail that hasn’t been set up. All he has to do is sit tight and wait for Baranov to contact him. But he’s too fucking antsy. It’s only been a week since they tried to take your other sister-in-law.”
“Yeah, well, Rurik wants blood. Baranov would never have tried something like this if he didn’t have it all lined up with someone he thought powerful enough to challenge us.”
“There’s always the possibility that he actually is that fucking dumb.”
Ven shrugged. “Either way, we’ll find out soon enough.”
* * *
Ven swiped the elevator fob for his penthouse suite. But then he hit the close button and swung around. Almost bumping into Rand. “Fuck it. Let me go meet her. I need to meet the woman that has you afraid to say no.”
“Not afraid, just… well, you’ll see.”
Yes, he fucking would. In the SUV, Rand had broached another problem. A woman needed to speak to him, and she’d waited in his office for hours. Before leaving, only to return the next day. Refusing to state what she needed. It was personal. Probably a gambling debt, either hers or someone she loved. Shaking his head, he turned down the long, carpeted corridor from the elevator to the casino’s lower-level hive of offices. He passed a string of doors, ignoring the open ones. If he stopped and acknowledged any of them, he’d be swept along on a tide of bull shit situations to handle. Most people dreamed of being the boss because they thought they wouldn’t have anything to do. No supervisor to report to. Underestimating the weight of having everyone report to them. Every fucking person in the building thought they had a right to update him. On every menial, trivial piece of crap.
Dumping all of their bull shit incompetencies on his lap for him to handle. Ven didn’t mind cleaning up but come to him too often with that bull shit dump, and their ass was fired. He didn’t babysit people who’d begged for the job, saying they could handle it. He ran his hand under the collar of his shirt. Loosening the invisible noose a little more. His eyes burned and drooped from the trip; his feet were sluggish. Just a few more minutes, and then he was done. He’d drop Rand off on the casino floor, kick his shoes off and fall into bed. Clothing optional.
Ven opened the door, nodding curtly to his secretary when she stood up and snapped to attention. Looking, as always, as if she were about to salute. He tipped his head, and she swallowed hard, her Adam’s apple bobbing up and down before she swallowed again and waved to the other side of the office. He read the name on the paper she handed him.
Sasha Velle. What the hell kind of name was Velle?
“This is Miss Velle. Those are the messages she left. And even after I told her you were gone, and I assured her I was not lying to get rid of her. As if I would do such a thing.” She gave a little nostril flare before patting her salt and pepper hair back into her bun and huffed. “She came here to wait.”
“How did she get past security, and why wasn’t she escorted out?” He kept his back to Miss Velle. Let her sit there and fucking sweat.
“Ask him.” She huffed and pointed at Rand.
Rand raised his palms and backed out of the room. “My job was to get you here. And give you any updates. Now that I have, I’m out. I’ll keep you posted.”
Motherfucker. He should have shot his ass a long time ago. Ven looked down at the paper he was holding again before turning around.
His eyes were looking down, so he saw her legs first. Miles and miles of them. Planted like the thick trunks of a young sapling in fuck me heels with peek-a-boo toes. Red toenails. Candy apple red. His eyes took their time tracing up both boughs until they disappeared under her skirt. An inch over her knees. Catholic school regulation. But there was nothing demure about the skin-tight skirt plastered onto the curve of those hips. A stripper, had to be a stripper, and if she wasn’t, then she needed to be one. His eyes traveled a little faster around the curve of her waist. The rolling indentation between the curve of her hip and the fall of her breasts had him swallowing down pools of drool. Swallow or drown in them. Yes, he would put her on a stage and let every man there drool over her. His candy apple doll. No, not candy apple. That was her nails. Her name should be taffy. Could he pull and stretch her like the sugary treat? It didn’t even matter what her face looked like. Not with her fuck me, hot as hell, stripper body. He’d seen more girls than a gynecologist. Like it was a medical specialty, he was good at spotting talent. And she had it in droves.
His mind was making plans, but his eyes were still greedy for more. They’d taken big gulps of her, but they needed more, so he traced his way from her stripper body to her face.
Damn, he swallowed again. Had he called her a stripper? He needed to go down on his knees in penance. Say the rosary, and he wasn’t even Catholic. She had the face of an angel. Dropped straight from heaven. A sweet baby-faced angel. Her silver eyes were wide open as if she looked at the world from a different, holier, far more innocent place. She didn’t belong in the mortal realm. And she damn sure didn’t belong in a place like this. No matter how much he’d put the pretty ribbon on the pig’s ear. He lived just one small step above the cesspool. And he’d never minded before. It had brought him more money than most men dreamed of, helped shore up the Ismailov coffers, and was damn entertaining when it wasn’t dragging around his neck. No, he’d never minded the filth that clung to him, even when he’d literally rise above it to his penthouse. But with her face shining with some bright inner halo, he felt every bit of the dirt and grime he’d picked up from his trip and from breathing the air of his Desert Fox. What was she doing here? There had to be some mistake. Rand didn’t know what he was talking about. He’d straighten the whole mess out and escort her home. No, that was dangerous. Not when he wanted to be absolved by those tinsel eyes while he fucked her stripper body. No, not a stripper. He had to stop with the stripper. Maybe she was a dancer. Her calves said she danced like a ballerina, and her thighs screamed gymnast. She had to be stuck somewhere between both professions. Yes, a dancer made sense and was safe. Did she want a dancing job?
“Miss Velle, I’m Venedikt Ismailov. I believe you’ve been requesting to see me.”
She nodded. He needed to hear her voice. Did it trill like angel wings or Christmas bells? Instead, she bit her lip, the plump pout both sexy and innocent. She was the ultimate child-woman. Every pervert in the building would lose their fucking minds. Which would be good, would make it less painful, when he shot them all in the fucking forehead for thinking of her the way… the way he was.
“Yes, I wanted to speak to you. I need to ask you something. But please, it’s private. It will only take a minute of your time.” His brows drew together, and Ms. Peterson harrumphed behind him. No doubt with her finger tapping the security speed dial number. But he gave a sharp wave of his hand to stop the call and surprised them both when he answered.
“Of course. Right this way.” Ven gave a tight smile, waved trouble into the office, and closed the door.
Merci pour la lecture!
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