Brutal Scoundrel by Aria Cole

1

Safi

“Why did I agree to this?” I put my hand to my head, squeezing my temples, wondering if there’s a quiet way out of this kitchen and back to my old life.

My safe old life, studying cuisine and keeping out of trouble.

My old life where nobody ever really noticed me.

My old life of wondering where the next paycheck will come from. Of wondering if I’m going to be able to make my share of the contributions for my brother’s care this month, or if this is the month he goes into a home.

That’s why I agreed to this, I tell myself. That’s why I have to follow through.

Glancing out of the doorway into the large, softly-lit private room, I watch the two men at the table with a pile of chips sitting between them, cards in their hands as they talk in voices so gruff they’re like sandpaper on a chalk board. Clarissa told me not to speak to them unless they speak to me, and preferably not even then. The client appreciates discretion, apparently. I’m to have no eyes or ears, just provide the food.

Which would be fine, except they’ve already noticedme.

I mean noticed me, noticed me.

How am I supposed to have no eyes or ears when they’re mentally undressing me and making comments that would have a working girl slapping them across the face?

“Just do the job, Safi,” I tell myself as I head through into the main kitchen area. “One evening, then that’s it. A good reference from a clearly well-connected client to get your own business off the ground.” I nod, as if to myself, as I come around the corner to where the main business is going on. “God, I wish Clarissa was here instead.”

“You’re doing fine.”

I turn to Becca, the sous chef Clarissa provided me with, and force a smile. “Thanks, but I’m not. I’m out of my depth.”

“Anyone would be. I’ve done this with Clarissa before and even she ends up rushed off her feet. The client likes discretion and that means far too few people to cover the kitchen in my opinion. But we have it under control, you and me. The appetizers are popular. Main course will be ready to plate up in thirty minutes. You can do it. How is Clarissa, by the way, have you seen her?”

“I saw her this afternoon for a final rundown of tonight’s menu. Her leg’s healing.”

I shrug and Becca nods. What else can she say? A broken leg is a broken leg, and dealing with all this when you’re on crutches would be impossible.

Clarissa and I met on my first day at culinary school, when she just happened to be there to see one of her old instructors. I was running late, tripped over my own feet, landed in her arms and she made a comment about at least buying her dinner first.

In short, we hit it off right away.

She’s amazing. The best caterer in the city. And me? I’m talented, even if I do say so myself, but I haven’t even quite finished my schooling yet. I’m just hoping nobody tells the client I took her place, or we’re both in deep dog poo.

“More of these, malishka. They are fucking delicious.” The larger of the two men, Egor, laughs as he holds up the tray of vol-au-vents and winks at me, and his friend, Mikhail, grunts as he tries to sneak a glimpse of his opponent’s cards.

Malishka. I don’t like it. He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him. I want to tell him I’m not his anything, let alone his malishka.

Whatever that is.

Instead, I draw a deep breath, blowing it out slowly before putting my game face on. “Sure thing, two ticks!”

Clarissa designed the menu. I have her sous chef assisting. I can do this.

What’s a bit of staring and a few lewd comments? A few more hours and I’ll get paid. Turning to the counter, I pick up another tray of vol-au-vents and head back through to the gaming area, which is in darkness with a couple of strip lights above the long card table. A dealer is standing by, but he’s mostly just for decoration, like the statues of Greek gods placed at regular intervals around the walls and the trickle of water from the fountain in the corner.

All just here for the entertainment of the men playing cards, who I’m sure have been discussing business in Russian all evening, and I’m equally sure are not the kind of businessmen that sit in board rooms and have an abiding love of spreadsheets.

“Fyodor, here at last!”

The tray almost tips all over the floor as I flinch out of the way of Mikhail’s flailing arm, turning as I step back and almost falling into the arms of a much younger man, with curly blond hair and a neatly-trimmed beard. He makes no attempt to hide the way his dark eyes linger on my cleavage.

“Three years since I last saw you,” Mikhail continues, not even offering an apology. Seen and not heard. Sure, maybe if I could be seen at least. How is your family? Your wife is still just as beautiful as ever, I trust?”

“Moscow Mike,” the younger man says, finally drawing his gaze away from me. While the other two have strong Russian accents, Fyodor’s is an easy, natural American. “How are things, brother? I’ve told you, call me Frankie.”

“What is this Moscow Mike? I am from Omsk.”

“Oh, come on, it’s a nickname, Mikhail, nothing meant by it. Gloria’s doing well. She sends her love to you all of course.”

“Hmm. Well, your wife has manners at least. She is a good woman, you married well. Don’t you think so, Egor?”

“Da, she is. Have one of these, Frankie, they are delicious.”

“Thanks, Eggo.” He heads over to the table and takes a seat, grabbing one of the vol-au-vents and taking a bite, then his eyes return to me. “Fucking right. Compliments to the chef. Anything else on the menu, sweetheart?”

He grins and winks, and I almost lose my lunch.

“Apollo always provides the best catering. I have always liked him.”

“He sure does. So, how about it, darlin’? Can they spare you out in the kitchens?”

My mouth falls wide and no words will form. Weren’t they just discussing his wife? And here he is making a pass at me? Should I be flattered? “No, I mean…” I hear the words coming from my own lips as I glance at the door, wondering how quickly I could get out of here if I needed to.

“Fyodor, you have embarrassed her. Ignore him, malishka, he has no manners.”

“Oh, that’s not embarrassment, Egg Man, you need to learn a thing or two about women. Forget the vol-au-vents, darlin’, I’m in the mood for something sweeter.” His grin widens as he opens his legs, and I can see the small bulge between his thighs. With a squeak of helplessness, I turn away, looking for anyone who might come and help me. The dealer is standing by, but he seems oblivious to what’s going on. Or perhaps he doesn’t care.

Most likely, he knows they’d probably kill him if he stepped out of line.

Please, somebody.

Frankie chuckles. “No need to worry, darlin’, I just want to peruse your, er, menu, so to speak.”

As they all laugh at the joke, I start to back away. This is more than any amount of pay is worth. “I—I’ll get another tray of vol-au—”

“Oh, no need to go.”

Someone’s fingers are on my shoulder and it’s too much. I pull back, clattering over the table leg and losing my balance. The vol-au-vents go everywhere as I grasp for something to hold onto and pull a glass of scotch down with me. As my legs go wide, the drink falls on the bodice of my dress, splashing a dark wet patch right across my left breast. I scramble to cover it, but Frankie’s hands are already on my wrist.

“Ohhh, hey, let me help you up there, darlin’—”

“Don’t touch me!” I shout the words, no longer caring who they are as I scratch at his fingers. All he does is laugh, his other hand going to the inside of my thigh.

“Feisty! I love a woman with a bit of—”

There’s a yelp, and suddenly his hands aren’t touching me anymore. In fact, as the room falls eerily silent, I watch him plucked into the air like a child’s toy. The world is moving in slow motion as he’s slammed against the wall with a thud that reverberates through the whole room, probably the whole casino.

I take a single, deep breath, as I allow my eyes to follow the hand that’s tight around his neck. Thick, gnarly knuckles twist and pop as Frankie squirms, struggling against his captor. His hands look tiny, almost comically so, as he scrambles at the wide wrist covered in coarse dark hair that’s sticking out of the sleeve of a dress shirt, diamond cuff links catching the low light. My gaze travels along that strong arm, to wide shoulders, neck tendons like train hydraulics, a sharply-chiseled jaw covered in a spattering of stubble, and eyes like…

Like a shark’s.

Like a predator staring down his prey.

My heart, already thundering, picks up the pace as I see the power, the confidence. If these other men are frightening, this new contender is terror incarnate. I draw back, wanting to get away, wanting nothing to do with whatever this is. I’m caught in the middle of something I should never have been a part of.

“Fucking touch her again and I’ll rip your arms off.” The voice is deep, earth-trembling. His words rumble in my mind. Fucking touch her again…touch her again…touch her.

He’s protecting me. Why is he protecting me?

I stare at the man’s face, disbelief making my lips fall open. Lights glint from the sweat across his shaved head, a deep scar cutting through his lip, nose to chin.

“Roman…brother…just having a little fun. With the entertainment, you know? I didn’t mean anything—”

Frankie falls silent as my protector growls. An actual growl. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man growl like a wild animal before, but it does something. Changes something inside me. I’m no longer seeing him as a threat. He’s a knight, protecting the damsel in distress, and I feel like I’ve never felt before. There’s a dampness between my legs as I shift against the floor.

“Don’t even fucking look at her, Fyodor. I mean it. Your eyes go to her, I’ll pull them out and feed them to you.”

“Uspokoitsya, Roman… Fyodor said he was sorry.” Egor’s voice is calm, placating, respectful and fearful. “He sees an attractive girl, he gets excited. He means no harm or disrespect.”

The man, Roman, turns, and Fyodor drops to the floor like forgotten trash. He glares at the two men still sitting at the table, his eyes unreadable, his jaw set. He’s like a gladiator surveying the competition sent to fight him and finding it wanting.

With a dismissive grunt, his gaze turns to me, and I draw a breath as our eyes meet.

He isn’t so scary.

The thought occurs to me as I stare into his eyes. He’s big, sure. Powerful. A force of nature. But he won’t hurt me. He would never hurt me. I’m as certain of it as if he’d just said so. His face may be hard, but it’s beautiful, his eyes are the gentlest, most calming ocean-blue. The scar that cuts through his lips only makes me want to press mine against them, to taste them, to feel their coarseness.

“Are you hurt?” he asks, his voice gentle.

I shake my head. Words? I’m not sure how to string them together into a sentence. My hands flutter to my chest, trying to calm my breathing. I gulp air as I feel my heart thudding through the dress, my fingers finding the patch where the drink spilled on me.

“Wet,” I say, distractedly, running my fingertips over the spill.

Wet…” he repeats, slowly.

I can barely drag my eyes away from his, and when I do I see it. I don’t even want to think about the bulge Frankie tried to taunt me with just a few moments ago, but I can’t help comparing his pathetic display with the ridge I see against Roman’s leg. The urge to set it free, to get my hands on it, to taste the tip…

What is happening to me?

I’ve never had thoughts like this before. I’ve never seen a man the way I’m seeing him. It’s like we’re suddenly the only two people in the world and I’m free to think whatever I want to think. I bite into my lip as his gaze travels down my body, making me tingle and shiver as I clench every muscle. A trickle of liquid spills from between my legs and I mewl at the feel of it.

And finally, that sends him over the edge.

“Everybody out. Now. I want you all gone.”

“Chyort! Roman, come on, we’re here for business.”

“Not anymore. I said get the fuck out.” In a couple of strides he’s across the room, throwing the door open. “I won’t ask again.”

Mikhail stands from the table, but he doesn’t move for the door. “Roman, be reasonable, your father won’t stand for this. It is by his invitation we’re here, and this is how you treat us? We’re honored guests, you should be—”

“My father isn’t here. This isn’t his casino. Now get the fuck out or I’ll call security and have you thrown out. I’ll call the fucking police if I have to.”

“Nyet! Call the police on us? Nobody will do business with your family again!”

I watch as Roman reaches into his silk dinner jacket, my heart in my throat. Is he going for a gun?

Instead, he pulls out a cell phone. “Nine. One… You want me to press the one again? I will if I have to.”

Mikhail blows out a breath through his nose, shaking his head, but he holds up his hands. “Pidaras. Whatever you say, Roman. I will be talking to Apollo about how you treat his guests.” He turns to me and his lips twist into a snarl. “Shluha vokzal’naja,” he mutters as he grabs what’s left of the tray of vol-au-vents and hurls it at the wall above me.

Apparently, he shouldn’t have said whatever he just said.

Even Egor and Frankie look shocked as they silently turn their eyes on Roman. And following their gaze, I see the blind fury written on his face. Mikhail straightens his tie, attempting to look unflustered, but when he takes a step forward, it’s like the spell has been broken.

As Roman thunders across the room, drawing his fist back, Egor and Frankie flee out of the open door, and I pull myself back into a crouch against the wall, drawing my knees up to my chest. Glancing at the kitchen, I see Becca, her eyes wide as she watches what’s going on, and where the dealer went is anyone’s guess. Roman’s fist connects with Mikhail’s jaw like a battering ram, Mikhail’s head whipping around so fast it’s surprising it doesn’t break his neck. Blood spatters across the wall as I yelp in fear.

Even if he’s offensive, I don’t want to see him killed. But apparently that’s not on the cards.

Roman grabs the back of his collar before he can turn back to throw a punch of his own, and an instant later he’s hurled out of the open doorway, stumbling into the silence of the main casino.

“Nick. Boris. Get over here. See to it that this gentleman makes it to his car safely. Then do not let him back inside my casino. Never again. I mean it.”

Roman smacks his hands together, as if ridding them of dirt, then huffs as he turns my way. He looks me up and down as I cower against the wall, sucks on his teeth, then stomps across to me, holding out his hand.

“Let me help you up, my sweet treat.”