It's finally happened! After a harrying few days sorting a few kinks out, BEFORE THE MORNING is seeing the light of day as a brand-new release on my list, and on the Noble Romance Publishing catalog!
Come check out the book - here's the link (click it, click it! LOL)
And, to whet your appetite (and maybe convince you that you just have to read more... *grin*), here's the whole of Chapter 1!
Oh, and peeps - Noble is really pumping this book's release... by making Book 1 of the Corpus Brides, WALKING THE EDGE, free for a limited time! So go get your copy, if you haven't done so already!
As promised... the first chapter...
Before The Morning
Thursday, July 12, 4.55 p.m.
To hell with common sense and protocol—he'd be damned if he let a woman get assaulted in front of him. He took his job as a paramedic with the London Ambulance Service seriously; he had to provide assistance, under any circumstance.
Ash Gilfoy sprang to his feet after he made sure his partner attended to their patient on the ground. They had already ascertained the ABCDs of the situation—Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability—and determined the patient was non-time critical.
What was about to happen was time-sensitive, though.
Ash sensed trouble brewing the minute he looked up and spotted the silver-haired man storm out of the open French window, at the top of the stone steps that led down to the tiered garden. The bloke was hot on the heels of a tall, curvy woman. Both of them spoke in loud, angry voices in a language he didn't understand. Russian, Ash would risk a guess—he'd heard that tongue a lot while growing up, his next-door neighbour being of Russian origin.
The silver-haired man caught up with the woman. He grabbed her arm, then yanked her to him. When she landed against his chest, he kissed her, hard.
Lovers' tiff, Ash thought and immediately paused in his step, but he was wrong. She wrestled free, shoving the man away before she slapped him.
That was when Ash knew everything would turn into a total muck-up. The look of fury on the other man's face clearly stated he wouldn't take the hit lying down, not in front of the small group that had assembled in the garden when they, too, heard the angry discussion. The guy released her, drew one arm back, then slammed his fist into her face.
In a precarious position, with one foot on the edge of the step, she reeled from the blow. Ash charged up the stairs, two by two. He caught her in his arms, taking her whole weight, and his back crashed into the three-foot-tall, carved stone banister as he braced her, one arm around her waist.
Sharp pain, like licks of scorching fire, erupted along his spine, and he let out a sudden breath. With his free hand, he reached for the banister and gripped the edge, hard, to stop their fall. His fingers hurt, as if the bones had splintered under the harsh pressure, and the skin of his palm stung and burned where it had chafed against the coarse rock. But what mattered was that he had caught her before she rolled headfirst down the steep flight.
Her limp body thumped into his like dead weight, and when he managed to breathe without feeling flames of agony sear his back, he lowered himself onto the steps, cradling her.
"Are you okay?" he asked, once he released her into a sitting position. He glanced up toward the man at the same time someone brushed past him up the stairs.
Ash trained his gaze on the newcomer, a large, bouncer-type bloke with thinning, platinum hair—one of the men he had attended to when he came in.
On the landing, the big guy restrained the silver-haired man.
Good. At least he was taken care of, for the moment. And where the hell were the bloody cops, who had secured the scene, when someone needed them?
Ash returned his attention to the woman. "Madam?"
She lowered her head. Long, straight, glossy black hair—a stark contrast against the long-sleeved white jacket she wore over a clinging mini-dress—fell like a concealing curtain across her shoulders and hid her cheeks.
"Let me look at your face."
She shook her head.
"Please. You're hurt, and I should check on you."
Gingerly, he reached out and cradled her face in his palms. He coaxed her to tilt her head back . . . and that's when his heart skipped a beat.
He knew her.
"Rayne." The name slipped off his tongue in a mere whisper.
She parted ruby-coloured lips, and her heavily made-up, dark blue-grey eyes grew wide, but she didn't give any indication she knew him, didn't say his name.
No—she wasn't his childhood best friend, whom he hadn't seen in seventeen years . . . .
"Irina!" a man shouted.
A large, male hand closed like a vise on her upper arm. Ash glanced away from her face to see the silver-haired guy at their side.
The man had left Bouncer Guy on the landing and come for them. He pulled her to her feet, handling her as if she were a rag doll.
"Nikolai." She breathed the name out, then launched into Russian.
From her tone, Ash guessed she pleaded with the other man. The Nikolai fellow didn't heed her words—instead, he dug his fingers into her flesh.
Ash saw pain on her face—her features scrunched under the agony, but she didn't make a sound, took the inhumane treatment with her eyes lowered.
"Get your hands off her." Ash moved up one step, onto the landing, and pushed Nikolai away.
"Stay out of this. It's none of your business," Nikolai said. His words were clipped and dry, with a pronounced Eastern European accent.
Ash also heard menace in the tone, but he paid it no heed. Domestic abusers like that bloke were all smoke and no fire, especially when they went up against a man not intimidated by a fistfight. "It is, when you assault her in front of me."
There was barely one foot's distance between them; they stood nose to nose.
"Nikolai, ostanovit'!" The woman shrieked.
She'd asked this Nikolai to stop—that one word Ash could understand.
She reached out to hold the other man's arm, but he pushed her away. The young woman lost her balance and landed in a heap on the hard, stone surface. Bouncer Guy took a step in her direction, but then he stopped. No one here would dare go up against this Nikolai guy.
"What's going on here?" Darren Cahill, the police sergeant who had secured the scene for the paramedics, ran up the stairs to where Ash stood, still inches from Nikolai.
The strapping cop settled one beefy arm against Ash's chest, slipped a large palm against Nikolai's, and pushed them apart.
"That fellow just hit the woman there. Slammed a fist into her temple." Ash turned toward her. Going down into a crouch, he then helped her get up.
"I told you to stay out of this." Nikolai sounded lethal, his pale face a mask of brooding fury. "None of your business."
Ash jumped to his feet and went up against the Russian man again, slamming against him, chest to chest. The bloody bastard—he showed no remorse for hitting her so hard. "Damn wrong! You cannot assault somebody like that—"
"Gilfoy, let it go." Cahill called out the order with a hand on Ash's shoulder, pulled him back. "You're not a cop anymore."
Bloody hell! He turned a narrowed glare onto a grim-faced Cahill. The cop gave a slight shake of his head, a silent message that urged Ash to stay put.
He had to comply. He could do nothing else. Damn it. Ash grabbed Cahill's arm and shoved the cop away from him.
At times like these, Ash wanted to curse his whole life to hell and back. He'd become a paramedic to make a difference, for God's sake, to save lives. Not to watch innocent women get beaten by irate fellows with punch-happy fists.
Like Karen . . . .
Cops could do nothing against abusers unless the women took the first step and pressed charges. Even then, with a restraining order in place, the furious husbands found a way to get to them, these encounters often ending in murder. Not a bloody thing the police could do, and he grew tired of heeding rules and other stupid protocol that would see a woman go to her death and not lift a finger to help her. That feeling of helplessness drove him crazy—the orders and modus operandi of the police had made him sick of himself, so he'd quit . . . to work in a position where he wasn't restrained by the fear of a lawsuit slapped onto the whole profession when he attempted to help someone, and not let another kill that someone.
All to no avail, with cops like Cahill involved. Damn it.
Maybe he could try another approach. He knew how cops worked—why not use the same code of behaviour to his advantage?
"I saw it happen," he said to Cahill. "Take my witness statement. You were here, too, when it took place. You can arrest him."
Cahill drew closer and lowered his voice. "I can't, and you know it. Not if she won't press charges."
"Then, ask her."
Cahill sighed. He looked over to where the woman—Irina—stood. "Madam, do you want to press charges against this man?"
Her face remained blank.
Comprehension dawned in Ash's mind. "She doesn't understand English."
"And I don't speak Russian," Cahill said. "Let. It. Go."
"Damn it. We can't just leave her here."
Cahill gave him a pointed stare.
Ash curled his hands into fists at his side. "I need to check on her."
"You stay away from her." Nikolai grabbed her arm again and tugged her toward the French windows that led into the house.
No way he'd let the damn prick whisk her away so easily. Ash followed in their footsteps and caught up with them on the threshold of a luxuriantly appointed sitting room. "She's hurt. At least let me look at her."
Cahill stepped in and, after another pointed glance at Ash, turned to Nikolai. "Sir, please. He's just doing his job. I promise we'll be out of your hair the minute he's done."
Nikolai stood there, with his back erect. Tall, imposing, a man who carried an air of menace and danger as a halo, the stare from his steely eyes bored into Ash.
Without a shred of doubt, Ash knew everyone who met this man would have no trouble believing they'd better stay in his good graces.
The grey-eyed gaze moved from him to Irina.
She glanced up, and Nikolai gave a small nod. "You have two minutes."
Ash gently took her arm and directed her toward a sofa in the sitting room.
"Sit down," he said, and softly pushed on her shoulders to make her understand. He kneeled in front of her and cradled her face in his palms, made her look at him.
Damn, she looked so much like . . . . But that wasn't possible. Her name was Irina, she was Russian, and she hadn't recognized him. No matter how much she reminded him of Rayne Cheltham, she wasn't his childhood best friend. He also remembered Rayne as he had last seen her, seventeen years earlier, when they had parted ways at London Waterloo, where she took the train to France.
Rayne would be thirty-four today, and Irina looked like she was in her early twenties. She still carried a soft layer of baby fat on her cheeks and down her jawline.
The area along her left cheekbone was an ugly, dark red colour. It would definitely swell and bruise later on. Thankfully, the skin hadn't broken. He ran the pad of his thumb across the injury. She winced, and he noticed the healing cut on her lower lip, concealed with dark-red lipstick. His gaze roamed over her, to notice once again the lightweight jacket that sheathed her from the waist up, with long, fitted sleeves. She couldn't be cold, not in the smouldering summer heat.
She hid bruises. The fist slam today was not her first.
"Why do you let him do that to you?"
She blinked. Her lips parted, but she didn't answer. He'd forgotten she didn't speak English.
"Are you done?" Nikolai asked from the doorway.
Reluctantly, Ash released her. As much as it pained him to admit, there wasn't anything more he could do for her. She seemed alert, and he couldn't proceed with a neurological assessment, given that she wouldn't understand his questions—Nikolai wouldn't help as the translator here. "You should put an ice pack on her cheek."
Nikolai remained stoic. Ash turned back to Irina.
"Take care of yourself," he said softly. She wouldn't understand his words, but maybe she'd figure out the message in his tone.
She looked up. "Spasiba."
Thank you. The word was a small whisper, but Ash smiled and nodded to indicate he understood what she said.
He brushed past Nikolai on his way out. The hushed and frantic voices of the couple in the throes of an argument reached him. He didn't turn back, kept walking down the stairs to the ground level where his partner, Ally, waited for him to lift their patient onto the stretcher. A few feet from them on the wide patio, the party that had stopped temporarily, after a fight between three men, was back in full swing. Alcohol flowed freely, the too-sweet smell of liquor floating over to him.
Ash and Ally had been called to attend to the assault victims. Two of them had minor scrapes and bruises, but the last one, who was piss-drunk already, in the middle of the afternoon, had taken a nasty fall down the stone steps that led from the upper floor to the ground level of the garden. At least the others had had the good sense not to move him from his position.
Ash crouched by the young man's side. The guy kept up a litany of moans, even after his mangled left lower leg was secured in a box splint, and he received analgesia. Despite the non-re-breathing mask that delivered high-concentration oxygen to the bloke's mouth, he could still make loud, long-suffering groans. There was no haemorrhage to the limb, and, though limb trauma could be painful, the drugs should've kicked in already.
Ally looked up from where she checked on the splint. "You'll never let up, will you?"
Ash shrugged. "I couldn't stand there and do nothing."
She chuckled. "The knight in shining armour. You'll make a lucky girl a fabulously chivalrous prince, one day."
Ash double-checked the cervical collar and the splint on the patient's broken leg. He then proceeded with the re-evaluation and the recording of the patient's circulatory and neurological functions, as limb trauma protocol required.
When satisfied with the patient's response, he and Ally worked the young man onto the small mattress and secured him, before they stood to draw the stretcher up on its wheels.
About to push the stretcher out of the garden, Ash turned and threw another glance up at the still-open French window. There had to be a way to get her out of this hell. No woman should have to serve as a man's punching bag.
"You two done here? Let's pack up, stat." Cahill sidestepped them and went around the house to the front.
Ash trained his eyes back on the cop.
Bloody hell—something was wrong here. Cahill itched to leave, but it wasn't even close to the time when any of their shifts would be over. Why the haste, then? The cop also behaved like a total wuss back there, reluctant to do anything but kowtow and kiss arse with the Nikolai fellow.
What brewed here?
Ally took the front of the stretcher, which forced Ash to focus on the task. He grabbed the other end, and they wheeled the stretcher out onto the pavement in front of the freehold residence located in the trendy Mayfair spot known as Shepherd’s Close. After he secured the patient safely in the back of the ambulance with Ally, he closed the doors, then stalked over to where Cahill slid into his car. He needed some answers, and he would get them.
"Bloody hell, Darren. Whatever happened to positive arrest policy? I can't believe you left her in there."
Cahill stepped out from his car. "Bugger off. You have no idea what you're getting into."
"Then you owe me an explanation."
"You're nothing but a bloody paramedic today, Ash. Don't make me have to spell it out to you."
So that's how the little twit would play the game, eh? "Like you didn't spell back there, when you told me I wasn't a cop anymore?"
"You're no longer a police officer, and that's information I cannot give you."
"No, fuck you! You're the one who fucked us up, Gilfoy, when you left the force."
"And you're still not letting me live this down? It's been five bloody long years, Darren. Get over it."
"If you'd stayed, you'd at least have made it into the Major Incident Unit by now, a full-fledged Ministry of Defence Police investigator. That's how good you were." Cahill's tone was full of recrimination.
Ash closed his eyes. He and Darren had met on the day they had signed up, back to back, to enter the police force. Matthew Dearborn, another new recruit, had also joined them. They’d become fast friends, at least until the day Ash left his job. Darren was still a constable back then.
Wait a minute. Darren was a sergeant.
Ash stood straighter and faced his former colleague. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"What do you mean?"
"Don't play dumb. That assault in there was nothing but a common drunken fight. They send rookie constables on such calls. Not sergeants."
Cahill pulled the car door open and stepped toward the vehicle. "That's on a need to know basis."
Ash reached out and grabbed the other man's forearm. "You didn't arrest a man responsible for domestic violence. What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"She knows what she got herself into, Ash."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Cahill sighed. "Seven months ago, that woman whom you were so intent on saving was nothing more than a high-end call girl in Moscow."
"And that makes it all right for a man to beat her? Because she was a hooker?"
"Damn it, that's not what I meant." Cahill paused. "I've already told you more than I should."
As if he'd take that bullshit. "Cut the crap, Darren."
Cahill sighed. "You're as much a hothead today as you were back then, aren't you? You're lucky to still be alive, mate."
"What are you talking about?" Ash gripped his friend's sleeve tighter.
Cahill looked away, then back at Ash again. "You didn't hear the information from me, okay?"
"The man inside is Nikolai Grigorievskiy. Ring any bells?"
Ash frowned. "You mean—"
"Exactly." Cahill yanked his arm from Ash's grip. "One of the most dangerous criminals from the former Eastern European block. Drugs, firearms, prostitution rings, human trafficking—you name it, and he's got a hand in there. Any person who dares go up against him ends up dead a few hours later."
"What's he doing still roaming free? No one’s been able to nab him yet? He was hot stuff even five years ago."
"That's the catch. There isn't any concrete evidence." Cahill nodded toward the ambulance. "The bloke in your rig is Grigorievskiy's nephew, Mikhail, and one of the men involved in the fight is Boris Petrov, Grigorievskiy's right-hand man. See what you got involved in? You're lucky I was there to bust your arse out."
"So I should have let him hit her? That's what you mean?"
"That woman is trouble. She's the reason the fight happened today. Mikhail accused her of cheating on his uncle, and Boris jumped to her rescue. The other guy involved was collateral damage."
That didn't make sense. "Cheating on his uncle?"
Cahill snorted. "You got involved with Grigorievskiy's wife, Irina."
"She's in danger."
"No, she isn't. She chose to be with him. Irina is a twenty-year-old call girl who hails from a derelict suburb of Moscow, with whom Grigorievskiy had an affair during the New Year celebrations. Three weeks later, he married her. For her, life is like the scenario of Pretty Woman coming true." Cahill paused. "You can't save her, Ash."
"Shut up." The words came out as soft whispers.
"She isn't Karen Dearborn," Cahill said softly.
Ash closed his eyes briefly at the mention of her name—the reason he left the force, when she died because Ash hadn't been able to protect her from her abusive husband. What good was it to protect a whole country, if he couldn’t protect a single life when it mattered?
"So we just leave her in there?"
"You know as well as I do that our hands are tied, unless she presses charges, and looks to me like she won't."
Ash knew a dead-end when he saw one. The reality of domestic violence showed that most victims chose to remain with their abuser.
"As much as we can, we don't mess with guys like Grigorievskiy," Cahill said. "We're keeping a close watch on him and praying he leaves the British Isles real fast, so we can wash our hands of him." The cop placed a hand on Ash's shoulder. "Forget about her."
"I can't believe everyone is letting this guy roam free."
Darren sighed. "Seven men, Ash. French, British, Dutch, German, you name it. All sent to infiltrate his operations in the past few years. Each one stabbed and tortured, mutilated, then butchered, before what remained of their bodies landed on the doorstep of their respective agencies in a sealed crate. No one can take that guy down. Let it go."
Ash stood there and watched as Cahill got into his car and drove away. He wasn't worried about Grigorievskiy—let the cops do their job there. But Irina—she was a different matter.
He cursed and kicked the pavement in his frustration, which sent a loose piece of gravel flying. The stone hit the metal railing around the house with a sharp ping.
There wasn't anything he could do, and the notion drove him insane. Ash ran his fingers through his hair. There wasn't anything he could've done when he'd been with the police; he'd hoped that becoming a paramedic could change that. How wrong he was—he couldn't save the people who mattered. People like Irina, whose partners used them as punching bags. Like Karen, who had lived in permanent fear of Matt, her moody and unstable husband . . . .
As he walked to the ambulance, he stopped by the driver's door and glanced back at the house. Somehow, he hoped Irina would make it out of her situation alive. He yearned to barge in there and pull her to safety, but he couldn't. Irina was one more victim he couldn't help.
He closed his eyes and in his mind, he saw her as he’d left her back there in that sitting room. Her dark, blue-grey eyes superimposed themselves on another pair of irises of similar colour.
Think of her—she is thriving and secure. At least, he hoped so. Where was she today? The last time he had heard from Rayne, she was in Kinshasa, working with the humanitarian organisation that had recruited her straight after she finished secondary school. The call had come in the middle of the night, had lasted just under three minutes, like the other twenty-five times she had called him during her seventeen years away.
Her last call came through eight months ago. She might not even be alive any longer. Who went into war-torn and strife-heavy areas of the world and got lucky every single time?
I can't afford to think of her, not under these circumstances.
Not at that point. A patient relied on him to get proper medical care.
Ash climbed into the vehicle and started the engine. He had to get Rayne out of his mind, but to do that, he had to find out if her family had any news of her. Given that he'd thought about her, he needed to know if she was okay.
Wherever she was, was she safe? Or was some man using her as his punching bag? The Rayne he knew would never allow anyone to lift a hand to her, but who knew what sort of men she dealt with every day in those God-forsaken places she visited?
Suddenly, it killed him, like never before, not to know where she was.
* * * * *
From the front-facing window on the second floor of the Shepherd's Close freehold, Corpus secret agent Rayne Cheltham watched the ambulance pull away from the curb.
Shivers crept up her arms, and she hugged herself, to ward them off.
Get a grip!
She was a professional on assignment, an elite operative trained by a clandestine agency that handled operations for governments and international forces, as a stealthy left hand. Her agency entrusted her with the most important missions—nothing should faze her.
Before today, she would've said that nothing could affect her when she had her eyes on a goal.
But she wasn't sure anymore. She'd never had her past collide with her present like a few moments ago, in the form of her childhood best friend.
Ashford Gilfoy, better known as Ash. The boy who had been there to catch her when, at six, she had slipped while climbing the chestnut tree that sat right on the border between their two houses in Hastings, two days after her family had moved there. The boy who had taught her how to ride a bicycle without the training wheels, on the long and winding, gravel-covered lane leading to her parents' mansion. The teenager who had smashed the nose of the first lad who had broken her heart at thirteen, during recess in the schoolyard. The young man she had left seventeen years ago on a platform at London Waterloo, on the day she bid her old life goodbye.
For the first time since that day, she was back on British soil, and kismet decided Ash should cross her path.
Why then, of all times? She was a hair's breadth away from closing the contract on her latest mission. Seven months of intensive infiltration work, and she was ready to achieve her aim—neutralize Nikolai Grigorievskiy's criminal operations before she took out the man. The Corpus always sent her for the kill, but the trick was that she had to make her target's death appear self-inflicted, at the bare minimum, or an accident, in the direst of cases. Measles, as such operations were known in their clandestine world—a planned assassination that didn't leave any indication of the cause of death. She would also have to sanitize everything—leave no evidence, no witness, nothing that could lead back to her. Unlike her other agency counterparts, she wasn't an out-and-out black ops assassin, but a different level of highly sophisticated agent provocateur.
In other words, a consummate actress who got to her ends by manipulating people and circumstances. All those years of drama school, at her mother’s insistence after she'd grown too tall to become a ballerina, had come in handy. In fact, her portrayal of Lady Macbeth in the drama school's end-of-year play had caught the eye of the Corpus recruiters. Her talent, plus seventeen years in the agency, fifteen of them as Kali, her operative name, had turned her into a sociopath with no apparent conscience, who followed her orders with diligence. Never had any one of her targets come close to figuring she was an undercover agent. She had a flawless track record—each assignment undertaken resulted in a one-hundred-percent success rate and a marginal body count.
Until today, when she'd almost gotten burned.
Ash had recognized her. For a second, she'd thought her cover was blown. Then, she'd taken a deep breath and forced herself to remain in character. Never panic, always stay in control, breathe, and gather your wits—the first lesson drilled into the mind of any secret agent. Pulling on a blank face was one of her fortes, and Ash had bought the act. He thought she was Irina, a clueless twenty-year-old from the dirt-poor suburbs of Moscow who didn't speak any language other than Russian.
She'd had a few close encounters in the past, but never like that. Rayne and Kali each had separate, compartmentalized lives that ran parallel. The two should never have touched, because that would end up making a mess of her. She could keep each persona separate, as long as she pushed Rayne to some dark corner of her mind. Her job taxed her, and she walked the tight line of paranoia every single second while undercover.
But if Rayne came to the front during a mission . . . .
Damn it, she wasn't a rookie agent on her first mission. Cherries, as the CIA called them. Hell, even during her first undercover operation, she'd had no qualms and no trouble achieving her aim.
Why today, when everything was smoothly sailing toward a much-desired goal?
She closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the windowpane. The glass was warm against her clammy skin.
I'm sweating? That will not do. I have to take control again.
She had to forget about Ash, about Rayne, and focus on being Irina, the one who would bring down a notorious criminal. Her agency, the whole world, counted on her to take out the piece of scum. She represented their last hope, sent in as the trump card after good cops got killed when trying to bring Nikolai to eternal justice.
Someone knocked on the door. She pulled away from the window. Damn it, she still had a job to do.
On a deep breath, she willed confidence to steel her spine as she turned around. She blinked a few times, called forth tears. She was supposed to be a young wife who'd just been hit by her husband, a man she'd left downstairs at the party with a leggy blonde draped all over his side.
The moisture trickled onto her cheek, and she swiped her eyes to smear the kohl and mascara.
There—she should present the desired picture of despair.
"Da?" she answered as she stepped toward the door.
The panel opened quietly. "Zdrastuyte, Gaspazha Grigorievskaya."
Hello, Mrs. Grigorievskaya. Such formality. Only one man addressed her with such deference and respect—Boris Petrov, Nikolai's right-hand man.
"Zdrastuyte, Boris Ivanovich." She replied him with the same formal greeting, using his patronymic name to show her respect, as customary in the Russian culture.
Boris was the least disposable target in the whole operation—the keystone. She had to bring him down, or at least create a rift between him and his boss. Everything would crumble, afterward. Nikolai wouldn't have his main pillar of support and would thus crash down through the pyramidal structure of his operations.
"Are you okay?" he asked, as he stepped into the room and closed the door behind him.
She shrugged, forcing a small, tremulous smile. Russian wives, she'd learned, tolerated a lot of their husbands' outbursts. "It's nothing."
"You shouldn't listen to what Mikhail said. He is just jealous that Kolya's attention is not wholly directed onto him any longer."
"It does not bother me," she said in a small voice.
Make a move, she silently urged him. For her plan to work, Boris had to capitalize on the simmering embers of passion that flared between him and his boss' wife, on the feelings he denied he had for her. She'd already lost too much time and had to start the measles process immediately.
I have to take matters into my own hands. There's no other way.
She trained her eyes on him. Boris was a big, burly man in his mid-forties. Anyone could imagine him knocking out a person with just a flick of his thick wrist. Toying with him was like playing with fire—she could get burnt. But she had no other choice. The time had come. Five months to gain Nikolai's trust and compliance; two months to plant the seeds of discord within the criminal's entourage. She didn't have much leeway to work at influencing outcomes anymore. No—she had to provoke.
Rayne inhaled, felt the oxygen fill her lungs and clear her brain. She forced herself into her character. What would Irina do?
She gasped and brought up her hands to cover her mouth. With rapid steps, she rushed to Boris' side. She reached out with one hand and trailed the tips of her fingers along one of his eyes, swollen nearly shut from a blow.
"You shouldn't have," she said in a soft whisper, letting tears streak down her cheeks. "Not for me."
Boris' swift intake of air was the only sound that hissed between them. He closed his eyes under her touch.
Do it, she urged.
"I am so"—she paused and sobbed—"so sorry." Her voice was small and breathless, heavy with sadness.
Boris settled a heavy, meaty palm on her hand, to keep her fingers unfurled on his cheek. "Forgive me, Irina. I couldn't let him say those ugly lies about you."
He is caving.
"Boris, please." She pleaded with him.
"I will do anything for you."
"I am a married woman."
"Why don't you leave him?"
She gasped. "I cannot. I pledged myself to him."
"But look how he treats you!"
"Borya," she said, using the nickname for Boris, "back in Russia, for every one like me, there are ten other girls, more beautiful, waiting to take my place."
"There isn't any woman more beautiful than you in all of Russia."
She smiled, making sure she displayed sadness and resolution on her features.
"You are such a sweet man." When he wasn't forcing underage girls into the cargo holds of boats docking at most major European ports, then plying them with drugs before supplying them like meat to brothels and sex perverts, she thought.
"Leave him," Boris said, the words a subtle urge.
"I can't. Where would I go?" She gently tugged her hand from under his and took a step closer to him. "I can't go back to that life, Borya."
The sound of the door opening startled them. Nikolai stood on the threshold, his tall, dark form an intimidating silhouette in the dim doorway.
Kali threw one look at Boris, shook her head softly, and retreated a few steps. The back of her knees hit the edge of the window seat. She stumbled backward into a sitting position on the upholstered ledge.
Nikolai's narrowed gaze went from Boris to her, then back to his right-hand man.
"Leave us," he said softly, the words obviously an order.
Boris nodded and exited the room.
Good—she’d sown the seeds of doubt. Her "husband" would wonder what went on between her and Boris, and Boris would try to get closer to her. She would play on this nearness between them, subtly make people wonder if something was happening behind Nikolai's back.
At that point, she would move her final chess piece—Nikolai would die at the same time as Boris. For the world, things would look like an altercation gone wrong between a spurned husband and a forbidden lover, with the wayward wife caught in the crossfire. That's how she'd ensure her exit from the operation.
Yes, all the pieces of the game were falling into place.
Nikolai closed the door behind Boris, the click of the latch falling into place sounding louder than it should have.
He turned toward her, pressed his shoulder against the doorframe, and pushed his hands into the pockets of his Gieves and Hawkes champagne-coloured, tailor-made linen trousers.
Her "husband" focused his steely grey eyes on her.
The stare burned into her skull. Still, she refused to look up. Not yet.
After a few moments, he straightened, removed his hands from his pockets.
That's when she lifted her head in his direction. She ran her gaze from his short, silver hair, across the lean, ruggedly handsome face, over the button-down, pale blue Oxford shirt from No. 1 Savile Row, down his trouser-clad legs, to the brown Crocket and Jones handgrade shoes from the exclusive Robert Old store, then all the way back to his eyes.
Then she smiled, and his face broke into a grin, too.
She raised both arms, beckoned him to come over. He ambled across the room to take her hands in his.
"You are a better actor than I thought," she said.
He knelt in front of her, and she brought their clenched hands onto her lap.
"I didn't hurt you too badly, did I?"
She smiled, freed one hand, and ran her palm against his hair. "No, my pet, you didn't. I told you to make it convincing."
He sighed. "I was so worried. Please don't make me do that again."
She rubbed the pad of her thumb over his eyebrow. "You know I can't promise that. We have an image to present here."
"Can't we do it without me having to hurt you? I love you, Ira. I cannot stand to see you hurt."
He really did love his Irina—Ira, as he affectionately called her. Nikolai was the perfect husband. Never mind that he could kill in cold blood without any hint of remorse or a conscience; that he played with the lives of thousands every day through all the drugs he supplied, the firearms he sold, the women he pawned as cheap sex stock. He loved his wife and for him, the world started and ended at her feet.
Sometimes, she wondered how he could reconcile the two different personas so effortlessly. And sometimes, she was tempted to ask herself if she would ever find a man who could love her as much as Nikolai loved his Ira. Why did the perfect husband have to be the perfect crime lord, too?
For all his tough, cold, and ruthless image, no one would've thought that Nikolai was, in truth, a total pussy in the right woman's hands. The first time she went to his bed under her cover as a call girl, she aimed at becoming a regular mistress, making sure he asked for her whenever he contacted the escort agency.
But that night, she saw an opportunity, and she took a gamble.
Nikolai Grigorievskiy was sexually submissive—all it took was one dominant, commanding woman. Within three nights, she had him bowing to her every command, then pushing him to make her his wife barely a couple of weeks later.
Everything worked out to Kali's advantage. Nikolai adored her, but the fact that he acquiesced to anything she said was also a double-edged sword. His entourage might come to know she pulled the strings, and she couldn't have that.
She tuned in to the rumours and the gossip, found out no one expected their relationship to last beyond a few months.
Kali thought out a strategy, then acted on that new plan. Everybody would be suspicious of a controlling wife. But no one would look twice at, or even think about, a beaten, cheated-on wife.
That's how she subtly tipped the visible part of their relationship. Little by little, she appeared with concealed bruises. At her behest, Nikolai also started drinking more and spending time with other women—she convinced him he couldn't afford to show he was committed to her, or else no one would take him seriously. Soon, nobody paid any more attention to Irina. She conveniently melted into the background, where she could work her influence in covert ways. Exactly how she wanted it.
"Ira," Nikolai said in a low murmur as he placed his head in her lap.
She leaned back against the padded panel at the side of the window seat. Nikolai's head lay against her knee, bare below the hem of her mini dress, and he placed a soft kiss on her flesh. When she didn't stop him, he crept up farther, and trailed his warm lips along the inside of her thigh.
She wore no knickers—in another moment, his mouth would close on her sex. Nikolai loved to worship her orally—her satisfaction was his goal.
Usually, she had no trouble lying back and letting him pleasure her. What else could she do? The man had a gifted tongue.
But not today. Not like that.
Not after seeing Ash.
His lips were on the crease between her thigh and her sex when she pushed his head away.
"Ira, please." He begged with his words and his eyes as he looked up at her.
"Not now, Kolya," she said in a soothing tone. "Our work is not done yet. You need to do one more thing to show me what a good little pet you are."
"Spend the night with Elena." Elena was the blonde model who'd been all over Nikolai downstairs.
"No," he said softly.
"Don't make me have to repeat myself."
He lowered his head. "Yes, Irina."
"Good." She caressed his head, then cradled his jaw. Making him look up, she bent and dropped a light kiss on his mouth. "Go."
He stood and walked out of the room. When he was gone, Kali let out a breath. She sagged against the cushions and closed her eyes.
She had to close the operation.
Getting up, she took the stairs to their living quarters located on the third floor. Once inside the south-facing suite, she went to the floor-to-ceiling windows to stare out of the glass at the view of Central London. In the distance, she could make out the green treetops that formed an oval inside Grosvenor Square.
As her eyes lost their focus in the immensity of the view of London's rooftops, she breathed out . . . and let Rayne come up.
She darted a look at the immense, gilt-framed bed—a replica of Marie Antoinette's at Versailles.
That's where she should be, working her wiles on Nikolai, reeling him in further.
But she couldn't. Not tonight. Not when the only thing on her mind was Ash, the man she had always loved.
Tomorrow is another day, she told herself, but tonight was hers—Rayne's.*****
Here's where you can find the book once again: https://www.nobleromance.com/Books/420/Before-the-Morning
From Mauritius with love,