There is nothing like the first deep drag of good weed.
I suck the heavy, sweet smoke into my lungs and close my eyes, waiting for the first punch of “I don’t give a fuck” the THC gods promise.
Anything to take the edge off being stuck in the sticks of Vermont, hidden away at a fucking boarding school in the middle of nowhere, USA.
I fucking hate it here. Not that I’ll say anything.
My father doesn’t openly show it, but he relishes my misery, and I refuse to give the heartless motherfucker one thing to celebrate. I’ve been his smear on the family name for eighteen years. The bastard seed, second son. And he makes me pay daily in subtle… and sometimes not so subtle ways for fucking up my half-brother, Vlad’s, uncontested, singular position as heir to the Romanoff name, fortune, and power with nothing more than my sheer existence.
Like I jumped straight out of his balls and into my mother’s uterus all by myself with no help from him.
I snort as I exhale, coughing on the smoke I greedily try to hold in my lungs. A gust of frigid wind blows through the underside of the bleachers, carrying away the evidence of how I’m spending my Friday night. The icy cold licks against my skin, leaving a biting sting in its wake. I welcome the pain. Pain is the one thing in my life I can count on.
This frozen, shit-ass town was just one more form of punishment. A Podunk purgatory to watch my brother wrap the entire student body, faculty, staff, hell, the entire town around his finger—not very original.
Shit. The old man was falling down on the fucking job. Like I haven’t been doing this sideline shit my entire life.
Six different boarding schools. Same old story… only the faces change.
No matter how many miles he puts between us, even here, stuffed in some backwoods shit box near the Canadian border while he rules his kingdom in Russia, he’ll never escape his illegitimate stain.
All because Maxim Romanoff, one of only a handful of elite Bratva kings, couldn’t keep his cock in his pants.
Now his legacy, rich off the pain and suffering of others, is shrouded in constant uncertainty.
My father likes things neat.
Black and white.
I’m the gray.
Whistles pierce the air, bodies collide, the crowd screams, and the golden Russian god, hero of the Brownington Academy varsity football team, crosses into the end zone, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
No, my father will never escape me, not as long as I’m tethered to the cold-blooded legitimate heir, building hollow fiefdoms everywhere we go… and now reveling in his victory touchdown.
He’s coveted here, just like everywhere he goes. The pounding of feet on the metal overhead muffles the sharp screams of the crowd. Someone fucks up and hits the wrong key as the marching band adds to the celebration with some throwback classic designed to keep even the least interested parents engaged in the action.
None of this is for the team… not really. This is all for him. And the players, his coach, they’re all too stupid to realize it. Instead, Vlad’s teammates lift him up on their shoulders and march him around like those bullshit underdog scenes in American movies.
Like he’s a fucking hero.
But heroes are a myth. There are no saints. Only sinners.
Innocuous sinners at best, evil permeating every cell at worst.
If only they knew who they really carried on their very shoulders. Someone so heinously malevolent the Devil himself would shudder in his presence.
They see the sneer on his face and call it confidence.
They look into his cold blue eyes and become pliable idiots basking in his movie star good looks.
Their mythic devotion contorts reality until they don’t see—no, can’t see the flashes of the monster within.
Smoke curls before me again, blurring my view of Ivan’s square jaw through the narrow gaps of the home team bleachers, chiseled in the way of endless generations of Romanoff men.
He has them all fooled. Every pussy in this school drips for their golden god.
If they only knew…
He took his first woman at thirteen.
He raped her with the power of a man in his prime. He savored her blood filling his mouth, swiping his tongue over his teeth where crimson seeped into the crevices between each one. He bit into the plump, flawless skin of her cheek so fucking deep he opened her flesh clean through, revealing her jaw.
He sauntered away from what he’d left of her, her blood soaking his shirt, staining his hands, and caked on his cock, leaving her broken and wishing for death as her blood ran down her face, into her hair, and soaked through the bedding in a crimson pool.
Because he could.
Because our father would cover up his sins. Anything to protect his legacy, his heir.
And my father, the ruthless fuck he is, enjoyed the aftermath. He had her jaggedly sewn up and serving us breakfast the very next morning with the kitchen staff. Purple bruises bloomed over the side of her face. One eye swollen shut, the skin shiny and stretched so tight it looked ready to burst. A deep cut in her lip opened every time she tried to force the required smile, sending fresh blood trickling down her chin.
My father and Vlad just smiled at her agony. Like they shared a secret. Some sort of twisted bonding moment while bile burned the back of my throat, my veins filling with venomous disgust watching the twisted tether uniting them.
Twin sinister souls.
Vlad waited until I was looking right at him, challenge in his eyes, then smiled up at her, his empty juice glass raised, waiting for her to refill it.
Like he was waiting for me to break under the weight of cruelty… or become one of them.
My blood pounds through my veins and in my ears, even now, hot and heavy at the fucked-up memory.
A sharp, frustrated cry snatches me out of the past and I turn to see a sobbing girl running toward me, ducking through the narrow opening under the bleachers, while a group of douchebag locals in lettermen’s jackets laugh at her from the sidelines.
She swipes viciously at her young cheeks, muttering curses under her breath.
My lips twitch.
She’s got fire, I’ll give her that. She just has no fucking clue when to use it… or how. And that’s the worst mistake she can possibly make, falling apart in front of them and summoning her courage where no one can see it… Fuck, if she didn’t just hand them all the power.
Never hand them fucking power.
Especially mama’s boys like those assholes. Rich shit locals… every last one of them. Once rulers of the school… until Vlad came along. Now they were nothing more than his disciples doing his bidding.
She doesn’t see me and I’m good with that. I don’t want conversation. I don’t want complication. I just want the fucking sweet oblivion of getting stoned out of my fucking mind so maybe, for just a little while, the screams from my past, the screams my future promises, will quiet.
Just when I think she’s going to stomp behind the crossbeams I’m propped against, she shifts direction and slams into me, knocking my joint to the frosted ground at our feet.
Because even this moment of peace and oblivion is not mine to have.
“I’m so sorry.” She grabs my arm to steady me which is a goddamn joke since she’s at least a foot shorter than I am. Her gaze shoots to the ground and she wrinkles her nose at the half-lit joint dying a slow death as moisture seeps into the rolling paper. “Is that—”
“It was.” I crouch down and squeeze the tip off; the little bit of cherry still burning singes my fingertips.
“Gross,” she mutters, waving away the bit of smoke still lingering in the air.
I glare up at her. “I wasn’t sharing.”
“I wasn’t ask—” Her eyes meet mine and the words die on her lips. “Nikolaj,” she whispers, pronouncing my name just right, the heavy accent on the I and the silent J that no one here in bumfuck central can manage to figure out.
The sound is sweet and breathless… and I want to hear her say it again.
She takes a small step back, her eyes locked on mine, unblinking. Like she senses danger in me.
Smart girl… at least on that front.
I watch the slim column of her throat as she swallows hard and wonder if I trace my lips over the delicate skin between her neck and jaw, if I’d feel her heart hammering there under the warmth of my mouth.
Put getting laid on the list of things I need because getting hard up for some little girl, not my finest moment.
If she were really smart, or had even a shred of self-preservation, she’d take off. She wouldn’t risk being seen with me. She wouldn’t take the chance that the two of us looked like we were anything other than two students at the academy, just passing by one another.
I toss my head to where the people are starting to file out, and the cluster of assholes who made her cry still glancing over and pointing while they laugh. “Where was that attitude when the fuckwads over there gave you a hard time?”
“I—um, I don’t know. There’s so many of them and just one of me and I just—I wasn’t expecting—look, it all happened really fast okay.” She crosses her arms in defiance and narrows her eyes at me, but then she glances over at them—and the pride stiffening her shoulders slides away. She bites her lip and swipes at her red-tipped nose. Fresh tears pool in her eyes again, ready to streak down her pale cheeks at any moment. “And now they’ll torture me with it.”
The bleachers empty out above us, the excited voices and laughs drifting farther away with the dull thud of feet overhead.
Walk away, Nikolaj. Walk… the fuck… away.
She thinks her biggest mistake tonight was showing those conceited fucks how they hurt her.
And yeah, it was a huge tactical error in the ruthlessness in the high school hierarchy. But it was sheer child’s play compared to her other mistake.
No… her biggest mistake was running toward me.
She catches a glimpse of the bastards tormenting her as they walk past the bleachers with one last glance. Brett Dixon, the single biggest douchebag at Brownington Academy, high-fives his right-hand man in all things asshole, Dylan, and that’s when the damn breaks.
When she curls in on herself and the tears fall down her flushed cheeks.
My shoulders bunch, the muscles taut, ready for a fight. She bites back a sob and my blood pounds, watching what their torment reduces her to.
My fingers itch to grip her arms and shake some sense into her.
Brett and Dylan have no fucking clue what they just unleashed.
They don’t know the evil that walks among them. The viciousness a Romanoff is capable of—the torture we get away with.
But they will. Soon.
I step up to her—into her, the toe of my boots bumping against her mud-caked chucks. Grabbing her chin, I turn her face to me. My grip is hard, her skin turning white around the indents of my fingertips.
Leaving no doubt who’s in control.
When I drag my knuckle over the curve of her damp cheek, a pulsing ache spreads through my chest in this secret moment in time where I let myself touch something—someone—innocent and good.
Blood surges through my veins, each second of this delicate memory I’m making branding itself in me.
This is what it’s like to be normal. To hold something special. These are the stirrings of the blood people like her search for.
What I’m never meant to have.
When the cold edge of my insignia ring meets the delicate skin under her eye, her lips break apart and a sharp intake of breath pushes tiny tits against her sweater. Tits she’s maybe only had for six months.
She’s young. Older than the girl Vlad raped. Fourteen maybe. A freshman.
Four years between us probably. May as well be four decades.
One of us primitive and violent.
The other civilized and untouched.
I tuck a lock of copper hair behind the soft shell of her ear. “Country mouse.” I don’t recognize my voice. “What did they do to deserve these tears?” I brush my thumb over the freshest of them rolling down her porcelain skin sprinkled with a faint dusting of freckles.
Her eyes lock on mine and I swipe the salty evidence of her bruised heart with my tongue.
She sucks in a breath, her gaze darting to my mouth. Her spine straightens, her shoulders stiffen, pride filling them right back up, and she looks at me again. “They don’t.”
Good girl.
I don’t know what I’m doing giving this little girl the time of day. Why I even notice her pain.
Why it pisses me off and makes me hard.
Anger and arousal. Volatile. Raw. Nothing tender and soft.
Nothing like her.
And that’s how I know—with one slip over the razor edge I walk day in and day out—what I can turn into.
I’m always one breath from turning into Vlad.
“You have no idea how close you are to total darkness, little mouse.” The low, deep warning barely above a whisper, hovers over her lips. I taste the mocha and cream in her warm breath as it washes over me. My eyes narrow and lock on her pure, rich mossy-green orbs flecked with gold.
She sways. Her feet dig in as if to turn, but her body—that sweet little innocent body of hers—it reaches for me.
My fingers curl into my palm, and what’s left of my joint crumbles in my hand, the fragments fluttering to the ground in the breeze. I can’t let her touch me—won’t let her take control and reach for me. Getting close to me means marking her. Turning her into a plaything for him.
Vlad breaks his toys.
He has no finesse. No patience. Only cruel hunger.
No, I won’t cast the shroud of darkness over this innocent country mouse. I won’t get close, turning her into a pawn in a simmering, soon-to-be endless blood war that will only intensify a hundredfold the minute we graduate.
I catch movement over the top of her head. My brother swatting the ass of a cheerleader, his hand lingering, his fingertips digging into the flesh of her cheek, making her flinch even as she pastes a smile of invitation on her face.
She won’t trust the flash of warning in the ache his fingers leave behind. And before the night is out, he’ll deliver a blinding pain that will wipe this brief warning encounter away.
A wound she’ll never escape.
He reaches down and hooks his longer fingers around the face shield of his helmet. When he straightens, his eyes narrow on the space between the slats, his wicked gaze zeroing in on me.
On her.
A buzz of warning fills my ears, my heartbeat a heavy echo reverberating through me, lighting up every pulse point.
“Run.” The command is jagged, and so deathly ominous, her eyes widen, and she stumbles back.
She takes off toward the side edge of the bleachers and ducks out.
Keeping going.
But she doesn’t. She turns and her eyes clash with Vlad’s.
Vlad tilts his head and the slow grin I recognize spreads over his lips. The sinister smile with razor-sharp edges punctures my lungs, pierces my next breath, and sinks deep in the soft tissue between my ribs.
The same grin from when he was thirteen and proudly covered in innocent blood.
His deep, mocking laugh fills the odd silence settling over the field.
And she finally runs.
But it’s too late.
And I know what I have to do.