Mafia Soldier's Irresistible Lover (The Karzhov Crime Family Series Book 3), p.1part #3 of The Karzhov Crime Family Series
Mafia Soldier’s Irresistible Lover
The Karzhov Crime Family Series
By Leslie North
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Melody Campbell Goeken
“Grigori, this is Valentin. He specializes in finding things that have… gone missing.”
Val frowned at the description. He hated when expectations were set too high. Better to assume the worst for anything and be pleasantly surprised. Still, a job was a job, and he put his attention on the man in front of him.
Grigori looked like a man who could afford Val’s fees. Val shook hands and looked past the surface—expensive suits could be bought, but a man’s past lived on his face. Grigori looked as if he had a tough life—and as if he worried too much. Lines etched his forehead and pulled at his mouth. But his handshake was firm and he had a direct look to him. He got straight to business.
“Nikolai recommends you highly. Says you are an expert with technology, a marksman, and you spent several years on the mixed martial arts circuit, yes?”
Val’s frown deepened. He folded his arms. He’d dressed casual for this meeting in Las Vegas—one Nikolai had arranged. A gray suit with a cashmere sweater underneath—Las Vegas in winter meant snow on the mountains. His shoulder twinged as it always did when he thought of it. The dislocation that had ended his career had given him a new job—one within the mafia.
He glanced at Nikolai, who stared back, his face blank. Ah, so it was up to Val to decide if he wished to take this on. He turned back to Grigori. “If Nikolai has placed his confidence in me, it must be true.”
Nikolai grinned and slapped Val’s shoulder. “Most definitely. Now, let us eat and talk.” Over coffee, fruit, and pastries—Nikolai had ordered the meal up to his penthouse suite with a view of Las Vegas—Nikolai filled Val in on the information obtained from the phone records earlier that day.
Val sipped his coffee—black and a very good brew—but he did not eat. He did not want the distraction. He leaned back in his chair. “So Danil is working with the Yakuza? How is that possible?”
Shaking his head, Nikolai waved a hand. “We do not yet know the extent of Danil’s involvement, but we must assume the worst. We do not wish a war with them, but whatever dealings Danil has are not authorized and must be dissolved. But carefully.”
Putting down his cup, Val leaned forward. He understood the need for caution. If Danil had Yakuza backing, they would not be pleased to see Danil eliminated. Not unless they also saw that Danil would betray them. A delicate hand would be needed. “So what exactly is my role to be?”
He saw Grigori and Nikolai share a look. Ah, they had discussed this already. That was not a surprise.. Grigori pulled out a flash drive from his pocket. He put it down on the white linen tablecloth. “As you know, the destruction of both the Ryndin brothers and Leonid’s leadership left a gap. I have been working to help facilitate Stefan’s authority to rule in the area.”
Val held himself still and waited. He wanted to hurry the man past the obvious, but Grigori seemed intent on testing Val’s patience. Val did not plan to fail such a test.
Grigiori gave a tight smile. “What you may not know is that Misha Ryndin had a child. He extracted a promise from me before his death to find the girl and ensure her safety.”
Jaw clenching, Val wanted to shake his head. Instead he held himself still again. I would never put a child of mine in such a position! Ah, but he had no child. He had no one. He liked his life that way. Simple. Easy. He waited for Grigiori to say more.
Fist clenching on the table, Grigiori’s eyes narrowed. “Danil has betrayed not only our trust, but has no honor. Death is too easy for such men!”
Val heard the controlled anger in Grigiori’s voice. He nodded. He was glad not to be the one on this man’s bad side.
Leaning forward, Grigiori’s voice dropped. “The girl—Misha Ryndin’s daughter—you must find her before Danil or any gun he hires does.”
Sipping his coffee, Val nodded. “What of the mother?”
“Alexandra Usov’s dead,” Nikolai said his voice flat.
Val understood what wasn’t being said. Danil had probably killed Usov. “And he will send someone from Leonid’s organization for the girl you think? Someone he trusts. Do we know who is working with him?” He knew Danil must have men on his side. He would need support—friends. And not just in the Yakuza.
Nikolai shook his head. “We will find out. I have men working on that.”
Not me, Val thought with a touch of irritation. He pushed the useless emotion aside and nodded. “So I am to find the girl and her mother?” And what are you not telling me, he wondered.
Grigiori pushed the flash drive forward. “This holds Danil’s information, including his banking history and his passwords to various electronic accounts. They will help. You will know what he knows. Locate the girl. When you do, insinuate yourself into her life. This thing with Danil is not done and until we know who is working with him—both in the Yakuza and our organization we need to allow him his freedom. For now. Find the girl and keep her safe until you hear from us.”
Val picked up the flash drive and slipped it into his coat pocket. He knew more was not being said—Danil had reasons to want this girl dead. But he had his orders now. He offered a small smile. “I can definitely do that. Your trust in me is not misplaced.” But he wondered if he really could trust that this job would be as easy as it sounded.
“Darya, you need to come inside now, sweetie. It’s starting to get dark.” Chelsea hugged her arms and shivered. Colorado mountains got cold once the sun set.
Still on the swings Darya called out, “In a minute.”
“You have two.”
“Mom, I’m ten. I should be able to stay out late.”
“Your ten in two weeks, and it’s getting cold.”
Climbing off the swing, Darya trudged toward the front door.
“She’s a lovely young girl.”
Chelsea startled at the deep, masculine voice from behind her. Heart thudding hard, she turned fast and almost stumbled. He caught her arms.
The man was easily six feet six, with broad shoulders and hands that held her tight. Cool blue stared at her. His dark hair, cut almost in a military style, ruffled slightly in the evening breeze. Beneath his coat collar she could see the faint edges of more than one tattoo. Chelsea’s breath c
Then Darya tugged on Chelsea’s coat. “Mom, do we have a guest? Hey, mister.”
Mouth dry, Chelsea pulled herself together and out of his arms, but her skin tingled. The five o’clock shadow made him look dangerous and sexy at the same time.
She put an arm over Darya’s shoulder, but the guy crouched down so he was on Darya’s eye level. “I’m Val.”
“Val—that’s a girl’s name.”
“No, it’s my name. Like St. Valentine. Only I spell my name without an ‘e’ on the end.”
“I didn’t mean to startle you.” He rose and held out a hand. “Valentin Tolstov. I called about staying at your bed and breakfast.”
Chelsea forced herself to find an easy smile. “Of course. We don’t get many visitors to Clear Springs this time of year. Tourists like the summer fishing and hike, and we get a few hunters in fall, but once the snow starts, it seems like everyone wants the ski lifts.” She knew she was babbling, but she couldn’t help it.
She hadn’t rented a room in far too long—the savings account was getting slim, and the costs to adopt Darya had been higher than she’d thought. This guy was going to help save her butt. And boy was that a nice butt. She admired it as he turned to get his bag. And she told herself, ‘down, girl.’ She had enough going on with Darya and the adoption, and fixing up her bed and breakfast.
The man—Valentin Tolstov—waved a hand at the wood on the deck. “Do you need help bringing this in?”
“How about we get you settled first?”
He opened the door for her, giving her a sexy smile that made her breath catch again. Chelsea herded Darya inside, who was still chattering, asking ‘Mister Valentin’ questions.
“Call me Val,” he told her.
Darya grinned again. “You can call me Dar—I’m trying to get my mom to call me that, but she thinks it’s dumb.” Darya rolled her eyes.
Patting her on the back, Chelsea headed Darya upstairs. “Bath, Ms Dar. And homework done before you can watch any shows.”
With a groan Darya ran up the stairs.
Val turned and smiled at her. “Nice kid.”
Chelsea headed to the desk she kept in the parlor and handed over the register. “She’s ten going on forty if she had her way.”
“Does she take after her father more?”
A lump rose in Chelsea’s throat. She got it anytime someone remarked on the differences between her and Darya—she was fair and Darya dark. And she still missed Alexandra, Darya’s mother.
“I’m adopting—Darya’s mom was a friend.” A really good friend. “I’m not—Alexandra never mentioned Darya’s dad. And…well, the state’s been unable to give me much information on him.” Babbling again. She bit her lower lip. She was not going to talk about the money that had been showing up even after Alexandra’s death—last month that had stopped just as mysteriously as it had begun. She’d refused to touch it, but she was keeping it set aside. Darya might need it for college someday. She offered up the guest book, and Val signed it.
He had nice handwriting—strong just like the rest of him.
She frowned at herself.
She did not need a man in her life—no way. Not now. And she also did not need a mysterious guy with a sexy hint of an accent. Maybe once the adoption was done and Darya stopped having nightmares and the B&B was paying its bills. She let out a breath—who was she kidding. She had enough on her plate for the next twenty years.
She forced another bright smile. “Breakfast is between six and eight. But since you’re the only guest, we can accommodate different hours if you like. You have room ten. Top of the stairs and to your left—it’s our best room.”
“Do you need help with your bags?”
He smiled. He had dimples. Of course he would have dimples. “How about I help you bring in some wood. After that drive from Denver I could use the exercise. And it will make me feel better for asking you if you would also include dinner?”
She laughed. “Okay. Deal.”
Heading back outside, Chelsea could feel his eyes on her. Her face heated but she told herself of course he was checking her out—that’s what guys did. Two teenagers from town had come last weekend and chopped and stacked her latest load of firewood, and she was set now at least until after the New Year. At the base of the deck, she began loading her arms up with wood. She glanced at Val. “Are you sure you don’t mind doing this?”
He grabbed another log—one bigger than she could handle—and winked at her. “Not at all. I’m used to much more physical exercise than I have been able to get the last few days.”
“Oh, that’s great!” Chelsea grinned. “I mean, not great you’re not working out, but we just put in a small exercise room at the back of the house. You can let me know if it’s working for you. James—he’s one of the local kids who works for me—he and his brother, Samuel, help out around the place a few days a week. They put it in. Swore it had everything a guy needed to stay buff—not that I’m saying you’re not buff, since you’re…I mean, you’re…” She let the words face, her cheeks hot.
Val smiled and just opened the door for her, using his shoulder to hold it open so she could enter ahead of him. The close quarters of the doorway didn’t allow much extra room, and as Chelsea slipped past him, she twisted her body, accidentally brushing up against all that hot muscle she’d just been trying so hard not to talk or think about.
Val gritted his teeth, willing his reaction to her inadvertent touch to dissipate. Way to go, Val. You’re here to protect the little one, not jump into bed with her caretaker.
He had already picked up on her nervous chatter. He didn’t know what he could do to set her at ease—and frankly he wasn’t sure he didn’t like that she had noticed him.
Chelsea Barlow was one gorgeous woman. He liked her easy smile, and she had an air of confidence and optimism that he found alluring.
She knelt now next to the fireplace to stack wood in the fire box.
“Where do you want this?” he asked. She glanced up with a smile and his body hardened. In another place, another time, he would not have wasted time seducing her into bed. But that was not his job—and he did not need distractions. It was his job to keep Darya—and therefore Chelsea—safe.
Standing, she dusted her hands. “The kitchen. There’s a large wood box in the mudroom.”
“I’ll find it.” He found the wood box, stacked his armful of logs inside it, and turned to find Chelsea standing in the kitchen, watching him. He raised an eyebrow at the frank appraisal she was giving his body.
Her cheeks colored. She started babbling about fixing dinner, and he decided he should give her time to find her composure. “I will wash before dinner, yes? And thank you for the meal.” He could not resist and so he took her hand and kissed the back of it. Calluses roughed the pads of her hand, and he was sorry for that. But he liked how she blushed at the attention he was giving her.
Upstairs, it took but a moment to unpack.
His guns, he kept. He also did a full investigation of his room. It was clean, tidy, a few antiques, a comfortable bed, and a view to the front of the house and the road. He would need to find a lookout for the back. If he was after Darya, he would come from the woods.
Pulling back a lace curtain, he looked out at Clear Springs, Colorado. He’d followed the mother’s trail here—a brief mention of Alexandra Usov’s funeral had led him here. And if he could track down the girl Danil was trying to kill, Danil could do the same.
But just how did Chelsea Barlow fit into this? Was she the innocent she seemed? What did she know of Darya’s past?
Heading downstairs, he heard Chelsea’s voice. “I’ll be up with dinner for you shortly.”
Val peaked into the room to see Chelsea kiss Darya’s head. Darya pulled a face—a very typical ten-year-old girl—but there had been something in Darya’s eyes that he had seen. T
Heading downstairs, Val stopped in a room that looked like a library. Bookcases lined the walls. This was where Chelsea had left her armful of logs for the fireplace. He heard noises from the kitchen and headed there.
He found Chelsea in front of the refrigerator, eggs, milk, butter, and something else in her arms.
Turning, she kicked the fridge door closed, sat the food on the counter and grabbed a loaf of bread. She turned, saw him and jumped back, a hand to her chest. “Jeeze—you’re sneaky.”
“I prefer to think I am quiet.” Intrigued at the urgency that seemed to lie just underneath her need to cook, he approached the large kitchen island and used his foot to pull out one of the bar stools. He seated himself even while he watched her continue her preparations. “What are you making?”
“Apple French toast for tomorrow’s breakfast. And, uh…quiche for dinner. Do you eat quiche??”
“Do you mean to say if I do I am not a real man?” Her cheeks reddened, and he took pity on her. “Do you always make breakfast the night before?”
“Not always.” Taking a breath, she returned to her cooking tasks. “If I can I like to get the dishes ready for the oven...it’s getting dark earlier each day, isn’t it. I love winter—the snow and everything. But I hate when it’s dark before dinnertime. I always want to curl up in a nice big warm bed.”
With someone? Val thought.
He could have sworn she thought the same because she glanced at him, her color adorably high again.
He watched her move around the kitchen, confidently adding spices and other ingredients without ever using a measuring cup. Cooking had always intrigued him. Not just because he loved to eat, but things never seemed to go well for him in a kitchen. She glanced at him. “So, Val, you’re here to take pictures?”
“Yes and no.”
She glanced up with a questioning look. “How can the answer be both?”
“Well, I’m here to take some pictures, but more than that, I’m here to relax for a few weeks.”