New Dark Romance Preview - Untitled & Unedited

            Sweat trickles down my back. My tank top is soaked. A morning run in the blazing heat of summer hadn’t been my best idea. But then again I wasn’t known for making smart decisions or good ones for that matter.

            I stop at the deli on the corner and buy a water and cinnamon roll. Juggling grocery bags and keys, I elbow my way through my buildings front door. The concierge, Jorge, smiles at me, a young guy with wiry hair and bleached teeth. He’s going to school for acting. The concierge gig is just a pit stop. He likes to talk. I keep walking. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t engage. You’ll be here forever if he starts chatting. Typical actor, he loves a captive audience.

            “You got a visitor, Ms. Evans. I went ahead and sent him up,” Jorge says behind me.

            I stop short, my hand curls into a fist around the brown paper bag. “Visitor?” I’m breathless but it’s not because of the run. I turn my head slightly and eye Jorge over my shoulder.

            “Yeah,” Jorge smiles. “Big guy.” He holds out his arms to demonstrate.

            Slowly, I pivot so I’m facing Jorge and the glass doors. Panic inches up my spine. Outside, idling at the curb is a black sedan with dark tinted windows. Three years and I’ve gotten lazy. I’ve stopped looking over my shoulder.

            My mind races through all the options.

            There are only two.

            Hope that I can outrun them.

            Or brazen it out, take the elevator up to my apartment and see what fate awaits me.

            It’s not my life that’s in danger. It’s my freedom. Something just as precious. I’m no coward. A decade and a half spent in the foster care system hardened me. Besides the car at the curb isn’t the only thing waiting for me outside. I’m sure there are at least two more cars, at least a dozen men just out of sight. The whole block is probably surrounded. This has all been carefully planned. If I had to bet on it, he’s probably been watching me for weeks. Discovering all of my exit strategies. This is a life lesson. Never fall in love with someone smarter than you. Also, never fall in love with a monster.

            Seeing my frozen state, Jorge’s smile dims. “Were you not expecting anyone? The guy said you were. I’m sorry Ms. Evans. I’ll call security.”

            He goes to pick up the phone but I stop him with a bright smile and a quick, “No. It’s okay.” Jorge should not interfere. The last man who stepped between my monster and me lost his fingers, his toes then his life. A dangerous thought occurs. “Noah,” I blurt then force myself to calm. “Have you seen Noah this morning?” I can’t remember if he was supposed to work. I’d left him still sleeping, half naked and all tangled up in my three thousand count sheets.

            Noah lives in the apartment next to mine. The first day I moved in, he knocked on my door to welcome me to the building. I was standoffish, skittish, afraid to make friends. But he’d persisted. He’s a cop. Stubborn as hell. When he wants something he doesn’t stop until he gets it. Eventually I gave in, falling under the spell of his tough exterior and sweet interior. He made me feel safe. A false sense of security.  

            Jorge nods. “Mr. Shepherd left about a half hour after you.” Shepherd. Noah’s last name. When I first learned it, I thought it might be a sign. Generally it means, one who herds but it can also mean one who guides, who cares. It fits Noah’s cop personality. He’s a born leader. He loves deeply. I don’t deserve his affection. But I am greedy and needy so I stay with him. He cares too much and I care too little. Jorge goes on, “Said he was off to the gym then going to visit his sister.” For once I’m thankful for Jorge’s chattiness. I know where Noah is. He’ll be at least an hour at the gym then another hour or two at his sisters. She’s divorced with three kids and relies on Noah for extra support. He’s safe for now.

            I mutter a thank you. My mouth feels dry. My heart dances wildly against my rib cage. Boom. Boom. Boom.  

            “You sure you don’t want me to call security? They can escort you up to your apartment,” Jorge offers again.

            I shake my head. “No. I’m fine. Really. I must’ve over done it on my run.” I used to stumble over my lies, my tongue tripping. But they come easily now. Three years of pretending to be someone else and I almost believe it. Almost.

            I toss the grocery bag into the nearest trashcan. I’ve lost my appetite. Punching the elevator button, I wait. It seems like an eternity passes before the bell dings and the doors open. I can feel Jorge’s eyes on me. He’s concerned. I just hope he follows my wishes and doesn’t call security. I don’t need any more blood on my hands. I enter the elevator and smile at Jorge just as the doors shut. This is the last time we may see each other. I’d like to be remembered as happy, as confident not a frightened rabbit.

            The elevator begins to climb. I live on the twentieth floor. I chose the apartment for the view of downtown followed by a sprawling forest. The elevator dings and the doors part.

            My front door is ajar, cracked just an inch open. It’s silent on the other side but I know someone is there. It is as if I can feel their breath ruffling the air. I place my hand flat against the heavy wood and push.

            A man sits on a stool at the kitchen bar, his frame too big for the antique French stool I found at a flea market. I recognize him at once. He’s not my monster. He’s still a monster. Just not mine. He is Vasili, the right bloody hand of my monster.

            “If you break my stool, you’re buying me another one,” I say.

            Vasili turns and smiles – it is a wicked smile, like the curved edge of a blade, it brings with it a fatal promise. “Emma.” I flinch at the name. I haven’t heard it in so long. It is a nothing name. It means industrious. My crack whore mother picked it out at random of a phone book. I am so much more than that. Or at least I thought I was.

            “It’s Nora now,” I say. Nora means light. I lived for so long in the dark it seemed right to pick a name that literally meant illumination.

            Vasili snorts. He’s helped himself to a glass of water. He takes a slow drink and sucks his teeth. A gun rests on the counter. “Shut the door, Emma.” His voice is deep and thickly accented with a hint of Russian.

            I swallow and turn to close the door. I hear the scrape of the stool and the hair rises on the back of my neck. The door shuts with a snick. The walls are concrete and the windows are double pained, all with the intention to damper the downtown noise. No one will hear me scream. Vasili moves around my living room. He’s dressed fine in a dark pricey suit. No matter how civilly he is dressed I know there is a savage underneath. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

            “This is a nice place,” he says, studying a frame on my bookshelf. It is the only picture in the apartment, a photograph of Noah and me. In it, I am smiling, bright and carefree. I remember that day. We’d hiked to the top of a waterfall and skinny-dipped in the pool. Noah told me he loved me. I want you to be my wife, he’d said. I’d distracted him with kisses. I couldn’t tell him, I’m already married to a monster. If my husband finds you, he will kill you. Vasili arches a brow at me. “Nikolai will not be pleased.”

            I release a breath. My monster doesn’t know about Noah. Vasili will tell him, though. “I thought in your line of work being a rat is frowned upon.”

            He bares his teeth.

            I try another approach. “He’s an ex boyfriend. I haven’t seen him in a year. I only kept the photo because I like the way I look in it.”

            He chuckles, the sound like gravel under tires. “Vanity doesn’t suit you. And neither does lying. What is his name?”

            I straighten my spine. “Vasili,” I say, my tone beseeching. It wasn’t always like this between Vasili and me. He kept my secrets. We were friends once. A fact my monster grew uneasy with. Monster’s don’t like to share. Vasili sported two black eyes for a while. But that wasn’t the worst of it. His family bore the brunt of my monster’s anger. For all the times Vasili lied on my behalf, my monster took his mother’s tongue in payment. Now Vasili harbors a barely concealed resentment toward me. He should. What happened to him and his family is my fault.  

            “Emma,” he volleys back, his tone biting and bitter. His pants pocket rings. He withdraws a phone and peers at the screen. “It is Nikolai. He is anxious to hear of you. Three years of dead end searches have driven him almost mad. He is more vicious now than ever.” I get what he is saying, that everyone suffered with my disappearance. Monsters take their pain out on others. The phone silences then begins to ring again. “I’d almost convinced him to give up the search but then we had a breakthrough. You should have stayed hidden.” I know immediately what he is speaking of. I resurfaced once five months ago. I’d driven six hours and called from a hotel, checked in with a fake ID and paid cash. I’d made one phone call. It lasted ninety seconds. Not enough time to trace, or so I thought. I’ve been wrong about so many things. Again, I am reminded how lazy I’ve become.

            The phone continues to ring, shrill and too loud. My eyes widen and fill with liquid. “Please,” I whisper. It’s not too late. “Tell him it was a false lead. I’ll disappear for good this time.”

            Vasili shakes his head as if he’s disappointed in me. He answers the phone and I see my life as Nora quickly die. “Dah?” He speaks in rapid fire Russian. I understand some. She is here. His gaze sweeps from my toes to my hair. She is fine. My heart lodges in my throat. She lives alone but –

            I wrestle the phone from Vasili’s grip before he can inform my monster of Noah. He immediately lets go as if my touch burns. And I guess in a way it does. He knows better than to fight me. Touch a hair on her head and I will collect tenfold, my monster used to say. We stare at each other for a moment, chests rising and falling with huge breaths. I swivel away from Vasili’s burning gaze.

            With a shaky hand I raise the phone to my ear. “Nicky,” I say into the receiver addressing my husband, my monster.

            A pause, then a steel voice wrapped in silk speaks. “Solnyshko.” It means small sun. He called me this because I was the only light in his dark, dark world. My heart thumps an uneven beat. “I’ve missed you,” he says. Like Vasili his voice is accented. But where Vasili’s inflection is guttural, Nikolai’s is smooth, cultured – a signal of his upbringing. He was raised to be Bratva royalty. A little prince turned to a brutal king. “Have you missed me?”

            Sometimes, I want to answer. Sometimes I dream of you Nicky, of your rough hands, of your otherworldly blue eyes as cold and clear as a glacier. You haunt me. Instead I say, “Please, don’t.” I don’t know why I beg. My pleas always fell on deaf ears before and it is the same now.

            He stays silent.

            “What is it you want?” I ask.

            He sighs and clicks his tongue. “You have had your fun. It is time to come home, myshka.” He calls me little mouse now. And that’s what I am. A rodent caught in a maze. I should’ve known I could never get away.

            My hands shake. “I am home.”

            He doesn’t like my answer. “Your home is here. With me,” he says in a lethal voice.

            “I won’t go,” I threaten.

            “You will,” he says quietly.