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First pages

Prologue

“Ms. Donetsk, we’d like to begin by thanking you for your time and for allowing us the opportunity to review your application. Your performance has been excellent in your five years of service here. The board is impressed with your work ethic and dedication.”

So far, so good. I’m getting good eye contact from my manager, and he doesn’t seem nervous, as if he’s about to deny me the promotion. Although, he did butcher my last name, as he always does, despite working with me for the past five years. Every time he says my surname it comes out sounding like, “don’t ask.” I also find it worrisome that the balding HR representative sitting beside him hasn’t set his gaze on me since he shook my hand when I first entered. He keeps glancing in my direction, then looking out the window, or examining the generic paintings on the wall. Is that guilt in his eyes?

Natalie, calm it down! You’ve got the job. You own this job.

The whole speech sounds more rehearsed, overdone, and unauthentic the longer it continues. I find my attention drifting, studying Mr. Edmunds’ paisley patterned tie, the straggly hairs that have managed to stay attached to the upper sides of the rep’s head, and the coffee ring stain on the right-hand corner of the otherwise pristine desk.

Mr. Edmunds somehow manages to use the word “coruscating” in a sentence, prompting me to refocus on his words. I nod my head politely, as Mr. Edmunds continues to detail all of my attributes. Outwardly I’m calm, though my hands are twisting in my lap, because there’s one key word I’ve been waiting for since this meeting started, and I haven’t heard it yet.

Say congratulations. Come on, just say it. Congratulations. Congratulations.

I should, “have it in the bag,” so to speak, considering my boyfriend works in management. Surely he would have told me if I didn’t get the job. Of course, the last time I talked to Jeff, he wasn’t forthcoming about much of anything. Something is beginning to feel off about the whole thing. Mr. Edmunds is talking too much for this to be an offer. The man likes to talk, but this whole spiel seems too much even for him.

“However, I’m sorry to inform you that we do not feel this position is the best fit for you at this time. The Accounting Director requires a certain level of experience to deal with the myriad of complex situations that may arise. The board has elected to hire someone with more managerial and business experience.”

No. This cannot be happening. Mr. Edmunds just went on for minutes, literal minutes, about how awesome I’ve been in the company. He’s made me out to be even more accomplished than I portrayed in my own résumé, and that’s quite a feat.

“Mr. Edmunds, no Charles, can I call you Charles? Charles, you’re full of bull. I’ve earned this position. EARNED it. You gave it to Kimber, didn’t you? Yeah, I know she’s the CEO’s son’s latest conquest.”

I jump to my feet, pushing my chair back as I do so. The HR rep is finally looking at me, though his eyes are less guilty and more scared now. Good.

“Now, Ms. Donetsk – ”

“It’s Donetsk. Doyn-yesk. Say it with me, Donetsk.”

I lean over his monumental, executive desk and spit the pronunciation guide in his face.

“Now see here!” he yells back.

The HR rep ducks beneath the desk, giving a glimpse of the top of his shiny dome, while I lean even farther over to get a good grip on Mr. Edmunds’ tie. It’s a hideous tie, and I have an overwhelming desire to strangle him with it. His face bleaches of all color as I sprawl across the top of his desk, wrap my hands twice in the absurd silk of his tie, and tug upwards until his face starts to bulge and redden. The rep beneath the desk begins to whimper and cry, but the icy, fierce Russian blood running through half my veins has walled off my emotions and the fear of reprisal from the satisfaction of vengeance.

“Ms. Donetsk. Ms. Donetsk? Are you alright? Would you like a glass of water? Mr. Simmons, please fetch a glass of water.”

Don’t ask; don’t ask, and I won’t tell, about the day I killed you, and all was well…

The room slowly comes back into focus, and I do my best deep breathing exercises to attempt to erase the vision of what I want to do from my head.

The rep, who I now know is named Simmons, stumbles to his feet and to the corner of the room, where a table with refreshments sits against the wall. He nearly knocks the pitcher of water over in his haste to obey Mr. Edmunds.

My voice is robotic as I thank the two cowardly, rich men for giving me the opportunity to apply for the job. Thanking someone for rejecting you is a tough pill to swallow, but I do it with poise and a sip of ice-cold water.

Chapter One

“Congratulations, Nat! So, with your new promotion, just how rich are you? Are we talking rent a limo and head down to the casino rich, or take a cruise to the Bahamas on the company’s dime rich?”

“Neither.”

Meagan is my best friend and roommate, and she has the power to make me smile even when I’m so depressed, disappointed, and angry that I just envisioned killing my boss with his own tie…

“Come on, don’t be modest. Give me the goods. Like seriously, I expect goodies from all the trips you’ll be taking.”

Meg is crazy, because even if I had managed to land the promotion, there wouldn’t have been Bahama cruises on the company card in my future. I don’t know how many promotions at Waller Funds I’d have to get to earn that kind of clout. Although, I bet Kimber and Jackson Waller Jr. take frequent vacations.

“Nat? Nat! What happened?”

It’s two o’clock on a Friday; I should be in my cubicle fixing accounting book errors and preparing taxes for my clients. Instead, I’m in my Honda Accord listening to my friend’s voice through the Bluetooth connection on my phone just to stay sane.

“I didn’t get it.”

“WHAT?! Aww, Bay, how are you?”

It’s not an easy question to answer. I’m still furious, I’m still feeling homicidal, and I’m confused as to why Jeff didn’t give me a heads up so that I wouldn’t be blindsided.

“I’m…feeling mixed emotions.”

“I’ll bet. What did Jeff say?”

It’s somewhat hard to hear her voice over the hair dryers and chatter in the background. Meg is a great hair dresser; she does my hair every three months at an awesome discount, but I think I’d be upset if she was on the phone the entire time she cut and styled my hair.

Meagan’s voice has transformed to calm and comforting, exactly what I need right now. She knows that Jeff and I are working through a bit of a rough patch, but we’re close enough that she can ask these kinds of questions without being intrusive. We’ve been friends for a decade now. It still surprises me that I’m old enough to have had a friend for that long, but at moments like these, I’m thankful for it.

“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him about it yet. But I took off early to have some time to get over this and to go talk to Jeff. I needed a break.”

“Girl, I’ll say! You’ve been putting in so much overtime that I’ve barely seen you for over a month and a half! That’s too long to be without my подру́га!”

A little more calm floods my system as I pull into Jeff’s apartment lot and swipe my card to gain access through the main gate at Orchard Lakes apartment complex. Hearing that Russian word from Meagan always makes me feel loved. I don’t really speak any Russian, but when we first became friends, Meagan was always obsessed with the fact that my father is Russian. She insisted that he give us a “code word” for friend in his “native tongue” – Meagan was quirky even then. Подру́га, pronounced pa-droog-a, means girlfriend in English, or as Meagan would say, “It’s like, hey, gurrrlfriend! – but more formal and Russian and stuff.” Personally, I believe that she loves the word so much because it sounds similar to the sound Roger Rabbit makes in that movie when he sees the hot redhead.

“You totally deserved that promotion. Do you know who got it? Wait – don’t tell me!”

“Ok,” I agree.

“It was that skank-butt, Kimber, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it! Oh, she’ll get what’s coming to her, I tell ya. Karma is a you-know-what.”

I didn’t think I’d feel any desire to laugh so soon after this morning, but the reaction of the beauty salon crowd at Meagan’s use of “skank-butt” is hilarious, even through the muffling barrier of the phone.

“Yeah.” It’s hard to choke out the word through my laughter.

Perfect. There’s a parking spot directly in front of Jeff’s apartment. I’ve been wearing 3 and a ½ inch heels for the past two weeks in preparation of being called in to hear about the promotion. My feet are dying, and I don’t think I can bear traipsing through the parking lot today.

“Look, Meg, I’ve got to go. I’ll call you later tonight. I’m going to go talk with Jeff.”

“Yeah, girl. Don’t forget. I want deets!”

“Of course, Meg.”

“Love you, подру́га.”

This elicits even more heckling from the salon crowd, causing Meg to turn into her Boston tough girl persona. I hear a bit of her rant before the sound abruptly cuts out and “call ended” flashes across the console screen.

I use my key at the door and go up the stairs. I know Jeff probably won’t be home yet; I vaguely remember him mentioning some sort of luncheon and meeting with some higher ups, but I can get a head start on planning and preparing something for dinner, maybe clean up his apartment a little as a surprise. Jeff’s a stickler for neatness, but he struggles to have the time to tidy up when he’s been traveling to supervise major audits. I’ve been telling myself that all the traveling is the reason he’s been distant. He’s back now though, and this weekend should be open for us to reconnect.

When I open the door, the foyer is just as I expected: chaotic. Coats are lying over the top of the couch, two pairs of dress shoes and a pair of loafers are tossed against the wall, and once I reach the kitchen, I find about three days’ worth of dishes in the left side of the sink.

I start with the dishes, because it’s my least favorite, and with so much on my mind I don’t have to focus on the task of scrubbing day old lasagna from the striped plates. Orange juice ringed cups, ketchup globbed plates, and soggy flake filled, cereal bowls endure the same fate. Finally, I spray down the sink and set everything in the dishwasher, because it seems to me that the dishes could stand a good sanitizing.

Just as I shut the dishwasher door and am about to press the start button, a muffled squeal from upstairs stops me short.

Is someone else in the apartment?

Jeff doesn’t have a maid, and from the state of the place, it doesn’t appear as if he’s hired one since I was here last. He doesn’t have roommates, and his parents are from out of town. Who else could be here?

I grab an umbrella from the sophisticated iron scroll umbrella stand by the front door, just in case it’s a friend over for a visit, and I palm the Uzi knife from the front pocket of my slacks, in case it’s someone more sinister.

I feel like Rambo as I edge my way up the stairs, avoiding the creaky third step out of habit. My heart is pounding in my chest as I gather my courage outside of his bedroom door. When I grab the knob and turn, I hear the same sound from before. This time I’m close enough to clearly distinguish that it’s a sound only a woman could make, while the grunt that follows close behind could only come from a man.

The door slips from my fingers, creeping open to reveal Jeff and a short, busty, blonde woman with smudged red lips.

“Jeff!”

“Natalie! What are you doing here?”

He yanks the sheet over himself, earning another squeal from his bed partner when the move uncovers her in the process.

Well, we’re far beyond modesty now. I slam the door fully open, satisfied when the retort of the door against the wall causes the unidentified, platinum blonde to squeal again. Her face is covered by the comforter, but the rest of her is scrambling around to conceal herself.

“How long has this been going on? You sniveling, little - ”

“Now, Natalie, there’s no reason to hash this out like this. We are adults. This tantrum is beneath you.”

“Huh. Well, I would have thought, as an adult, cheating would be beneath you, rather than some bimbo. Clearly, I overestimated you.”

The girl is obviously not the brightest bulb in the box; though her hair color is certainly the brightest I’ve ever seen. It takes a full minute of Jeff sputtering and rearranging the sheet into some form of wearable toga for the girl to gasp in indignation at my words.

“You’ll never work in this town again,” are the words that Jeff finally manages to string together.

Really? Why did I ever date this loser to begin with? He’s quoting every old western that ever existed, as he stands with his hands propped on his periwinkle blue sheet covered hips.

I always did hate those sheets.

So I do what any other self-respecting woman would do. I rush him, yank the sheet from his grasp and toss it on top of the woman in the bed. Then, while Jeff squawks like a freshly plucked chicken, I take a step back and snap a pic on my phone of the scene in front of me. With Jeff naked and standing in front of the horrified looking girl, it almost appears as if he flashed her.

“Mess with me and this goes viral. Loyalty is a valued quality in the corporate world. Your cheating tendencies will not be appreciated, Jeffrey. Neither will yours, Kimber. Oh, and congratulations on your new job. Hopefully, you can keep it longer than you kept your dignity.”

Jeff attempts to chase after me, as Kimber shrieks curses at the both of us from behind him. I don’t want to be included in an expletive laden rant from the woman, especially if I’ll be lumped with the despicable man with whom I’ve wasted most of the past year. Why did I ever think it’d be a good idea to date him?

I’m fuming the entire time I’m storming back down the stairs. A resounding slap echoes behind me, which doesn’t make much sense to me, considering the fact that Kimber knew Jeff and I were together. The only unknowing party in this fiasco of a love triangle was me. But despite the sheer craziness of Kimber slapping Jeff instead of me, I’m glad that at least someone has the presence of mind to hit him.

I’m almost to the bottom of the stairs before I hear his footsteps behind me; I glance over my shoulder just in time to see his feet get caught in the sheet haphazardly wrapped around his waist. Down the sheet goes once again, this time with Jeff still half-wrapped up in it. I slam his front door shut as he rolls down the stairs.

He’s not even my type! His hair is thinning, if you’re kind, and balding, if you’re honest. He’s timid when he should be brave and outspoken when he should be quiet. Most importantly, he’s a low-down, cheating, son-of-a-gun, who didn’t even go through the trouble of finding someone who looks differently than his current girlfriend. More infuriating than the fact that Jeff is cheating on me, is that he’s cheating on me with the airbrushed, curvier version of me.

Kimber has the same light blonde hair, though mine is natural and the barest showing of roots atop her head proclaims hers to be bought. Her eyes are almost the same shade of my Caribbean green, with maybe a bit more blue. Although there is a bit of variance in our skin, because hers is a lovely, golden tan, while mine is more a light peaches and cream. I also have a smattering of light freckles across my nose, while Kimber’s snoz is surgical thin and flawless perfection. For some reason it rankles even more to catch your significant other in bed with someone who looks so similar, yet with noticeable upgrades.

The nerve! I hope he cracked his head when he finally landed at the bottom of his stairs, and I hope Kimber tramples him when she follows him down. But as much as seeing that collision would thrill me right now, I don’t stay to see it. With my luck, he’ll magically right himself mid-fall, and not suffer a single injury, then Kimber can jump into his arms so he can tote her down the stairs.

Today is not going well. At. All.

My car is sluggish to start, as if the bucket of bolts senses that I really need dependability right now and is being contrary. It’s a 2004 model and, though beloved, is starting to lose its pep. Thankfully, the engine turns over just as the front door opens and one slender hand, tipped with scarlet red fingernails peeks out around the edge.

Yeah, I bet you don’t want word to get out to your CEO Jr. boyfriend about this little episode, do you?

I’m so glad to have the picture evidence on my side. If I had lower morals, I’d be texting the little gem of a snapshot to Mr. Edmunds right now. Instead, I’m speeding out of the parking lot as fast as possible to escape the whole awkward situation.

I want to quit. I want to hide. I want to crawl in a hole and die.

Melodramatics are normally beyond me, but really, how much can a woman be expected to take in one day? How much longer can I stay in a job that refuses to acknowledge ability and work performance over good looks and the possibility of bed sport?

I want to call someone and vent, but the entire thing is just so humiliating. I lost out on the promotion I’ve been grooming myself for over the past three years to some fake-lashed bimbo. Oh, and I just caught my boyfriend of nearly a year in bed with that same bimbo. Yeah.

Sometimes the best way for me to soothe myself is through driving. I drive around aimlessly, ignoring the incoming calls from Jeff and some unknown number I assume to be Kimber’s. When I pass the third It’s All Java coffee shop, I consider it a sign and pull into the drive-thru. Two cars away from ordering, I attempt to leave the line, because I know my perfectly applied makeup from earlier looks like crap, and already I’m considering the fact that I won’t be getting that promotion along with the pay raise. But then again, it’s just a coffee; it’s not like it’s going to cost a fortune. So I nudge back in line.

Cars start honking when I reason my way back out of and then back into the line, now only one car away from ordering. For fear of a drive-thru line assault by some poor soul starved of their mid-afternoon caffeine boost, I don’t attempt any more dare-driving stunts after that. I pull to the window and reason that I deserve this coffee treat. I should get some muffins for my brothers and me too. I should buy one of everything!

“Hello, welcome to It’s All Java, how can I make your day just java?”

I should not have come here. No iced, hot, or frozen coffee beverage can make my day “just java” today. It’s too late for that.

“You know, if you could help me put out a hit on my ex and his bit of fluff, that would make my day just java. It’d be totally java. I have Russian family; someone has to know someone in the Russian mafia. I could make it happen. Or if you could put in a recommendation here for me to take on a managing financial position? Oh, what am I saying? I wouldn’t even want to waste the risk of jail time on such a lowlife as Jeff. I’m sure they’ll be plenty of other people I’ll need to use possible hit connections on in the future. Furthermore, I don’t even like accounting. It’s boring and straight-laced and monotonous. And –”

“Mam? I’m sorry, but is there any coffee beverage, smoothie, or hot, home baked good that could possibly make your day java?”

The poor lady through the intercom is still being polite, even though I’m acting like a complete idiot in her drive-thru line.

“A medium, Irish cream, Java-wave please,” I say, ordering one of the more calorie-laden drinks.

“Yes, mam. Please drive up to the next window for your special java treat!”

This place uses the word “java” entirely too much, but the staff is always friendly, the coffee is always strong enough not to get lost in the syrups and flavors, and their baked goods are incredible.

When I drive up to the window, I meet the friendly face behind the voice. The teenager is a pretty girl with braces, olive skin and caramel hair and eyes. She hands me my frozen coffee confection, and I see that she added sprinkles to the whipped cream, something I don’t normally see on my Java-waves.

“How much do I owe you?” I ask.

She smiles, displaying even more of her bright pink braces, and hands me an It’s All Java bag that smells strongly of cinnamon.

“I didn’t order –”

“It’s on us today, mam. Frankly, I know it’s not all java, all the time.” She laughs. “But I do hope your day gets better!”

She leans farther out the window, “But I’ve found that a little kindness and most importantly, some chocolate cinnamon rolls, can make any day a bit brighter.”

“Thank you.”

They’re the first words I’ve truly meant all day.

~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~

“Chocolate cinnamon rolls! Gimme one!”

“Hands off, Nic! They’re mine!” I growl.

Nicolai is sweaty from the game of football my brothers engage in every Friday. I don’t want his grimy fingers grabbing and tainting my rolls. Not that I have much chance of avoiding that, because at the announcement of food, my other two brothers are already crowding around the kitchen table.

That’s what I get for visiting home with food. I know better. I’m the second youngest of four, and the only girl. I know that food is a sacred commodity and can be used to barter for video game time, shotgun rights in the car, and the exchange of chore duties. The rules of that still apply, even now that we’re older and three of us don’t even live at home anymore.

Maxim spies the bag and leans in from behind my chair. “Is that It’s All Java? Did you go to the one on Hemming Street? Did the cute Mexican girl wait on you? Why didn’t you tell me you were going? I would have gone with you!”

“The ‘Mexican girl’ has a name, Max,” I say as I smack Alexei’s hand away from the largest cinnamon roll with the most icing. Figures Alex would go for that one. He’s always been greedy. In my distraction, I lose another roll to Nic.

Nicolai and Alexei are fraternal twins and the oldest. Bless them, because despite my day, I’m smiling at their antics as Nic tries to evade Alex’s attempts to eat the roll from his fingers.

“Dude! You almost bit my finger that time!”

“Well, if Natalie would share,” Alex stops to glare at me and wag a reproving finger, “I wouldn’t have to split that tiny, little roll between the two of us. I’m a starving bachelor, man. I know Macy cooks for you. Look he’s getting a gut!”

Macy is Nic’s wife and a fabulous chef.

Alex slaps Nic’s trim stomach, causing him to suck in a breath and choke on his last bite of roll. Chocolate and icing spurt out of his mouth. Maxim, the youngest, steps up behind Nic and attempts the Heimlich.

“Wait! Save the rest! He’s gonna blow!” Alex yells. One of his hands covers my head as he spreads his arms wide in an attempt to cover the remaining two rolls and me, protecting us from whatever might be dislodged from Nic’s throat.

His expression is almost valiant, well until he starts eating one of the rolls, using just his lips and chin to maneuver it into his mouth in his awkward position against the table.

“What is going on in here?”

My papa’s voice sounds from the front door. He must have gone with the boys to referee their game. He doesn’t get out much since his diagnosis of autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA) and now chronic lymphocytic leukemia, but he doesn’t like to miss out on anything. He’s still the strong man who raised us hellions, though he’s paler and thinner now, and his blonde hair is starting to recede, already turning ash gray at the temples.

“Dad!” they shout at the same time.

Maxim finally manages to dislodge Nic’s dessert blockage, at the same time that Alex pops up, resulting in a bit of nearly unrecognizable chocolate mix landing on the back of Alex’s sweater.

“DUDE!” Alex yells out.

The twins have always liked that word, and even though they’re not identical, they’re so alike sometimes that it’s eerie. The word suits Nicolai, with his blonde hair, blue eyes, and surfer tan skin. Not so much with Alexei. He’s the only one of us to have dark hair, and is the somewhat shorter, stronger version of Nicolai’s tall, reedy body, though he also has the Donetsk blue eyes.

“This is cashmere!”

“Dude! I was choking. I could have died. Max, tell him I was dying.”

“Good afternoon, papa,” I say, snatching the last roll and handing it to him.

“Huh! You four will cause your old papa an early death.”

“Papa, don’t talk like that!”

“Psh, psh, Лапушка. Your papa is made of stronger, eh?”

Лапушка, pronounced as lapushka, is sweetheart. The familiar cadence in my papa’s rough voice is something I never want to lose. It makes my day both better and worse to hear that. How much longer do I have to hear it? Papa has lived far longer with his disease than most. For much of his life his condition went undiagnosed, but now that it has a name, it feels like his illness is more powerful than ever.

I move to hug him, but Max stills me with a shake of his head. Papa walks tall and proud to his recliner in the living room, still holding his roll, while Nic and Alex follow, elbowing each other along the way. Alex pulls off his “cashmere” sweater, which I know to be only a cotton-polyester blend, because I was with him when he bought it.

Max settles at the table beside me, and we both survey the disruption we always wreak on a room when we’re all together. I sink my head into my hands, because I know the day is coming when Papa won’t be there to soothe our ruffled feathers and settle everything back into place for us.

“He doesn’t like to be seen as weak,” Max says.

In the living room the TV comes on, and I hear Papa admonishing the twins, though good-naturedly, for showcasing such rough behavior in front of their delicate sister. I snort at that. Nic responds that I taught them everything they know. Papa lets out his huge laugh, the same laugh that’s managed to stay rough and boisterous despite everything he’s been through.

“Just like her мама, that one!”

After all these years, we’re finally able to smile at such a reference to our мама. She died in a car wreck five years ago.

“Natalie?”

My head is still resting in my hands, because a part of me still wants to run in and jump on Papa’s lap like I used to, back when things were simpler.

“Natalie?”

This time, I lift up my head to see Maxim’s concerned face.

“Everything’s fine, Max.”

“No, it’s not. You don’t indulge in those kinds of heavy calories and sugar when everything’s fine.”

He points to the chocolate smeared It’s All Java bag, and picks up my Java-wave.

“Irish?” he asks.

I nod, and he takes a sip, settling back on the two rear legs of his chair. He’s lucky Papa is in the living room, or he’d be scolded for that.

“One day you will fall and crack that fool head, Maxim, my boy,” Papa would say. “Then who would mow the lawn?”

Max has always been able to read me so easily; he settles back on all four legs of the chair and places his elbows on the table, still sipping from my Java-wave.

“You didn’t want to finish this, did you?”

I shake my head, and he lifts the plastic cup in a cheer before draining the rest of the contents.

“Now, tell me what’s wrong before those knuckleheads come back in here and cause more chaos.”

“I didn’t get the promotion.”

“Hmmm.”

Max glances to his watch, then up towards the living room, then back to me, clearly urging me to continue before we’re interrupted. Eventually, I’ll have to tell Papa, and the twins, but for right now, when the misery is so fresh, it’s easier to dispense the information only to Maxim. However, I don’t want to go further into the details, because a hanging party of Max, Nic, Alex, and all of their closest friends, will be formed as soon as they find out about Jeff’s infidelity. And call me crazy, but I don’t enjoy the prospect of visiting my family in prison.

My phone buzzes beside me once again. I know without looking that it’s Meagan calling. For the fifth time. Not that I’d have time to answer it between the eight texts she’s sent me since I left Jeff’s apartment. I turned off the sound after the third time, because the ringtone was becoming permanently attached to my brain. One can only take so much of “Everything is Awesome,” before they consider ending it all – or at least the friendship. My phone might truly blow up from the excess if she doesn’t calm it down.

“You can avoid Meagan. You can avoid Pops, and you can even avoid the twins. But you can’t avoid me, Nat. I will follow you to your car, sit in your seat unwashed, and crank the radio to Russian rap if you even attempt to leave without spilling. And Nat, I played running back today. In case you can’t smell it from over there, I stink.”

“I can smell it.”

And I can see it. His sandy blonde hair, the same shade as Nic’s and my papa’s, is soaked in sweat.

“No, Natalie. I mean I stink. Majorly. Your car cushions will carry my stench until the bucket of bolts meets its final resting place in the junkyard.”

My phone finally stops buzzing and doing its vibrating dance across the table. With the ease only a pickpocket should have, Max reaches over and pockets my phone and my keys from the table.

“Are you really going to make us both suffer through Russian rap?” he asks.

“Jeff cheated on me with the girl who got my promotion,” I lay it out there like it doesn’t matter, like it doesn’t sting.

Max is an easygoing fellow, generally. He’s a bit of a ladies man, smooth and funny, but when he gets mad – it’s all over, and God help the one who’s earned his wrath.

God help Jeff.

“I’ll kill him. And her,” Max’s normally cheerful face is set in true anger. His fists are clenched against the table as he slowly rises to his feet.

“Max…”

“Don’t worry about it, Natalie. We’ll take care of it.”

We’ll take care of it. He’s going to tell Nic and Alex, maybe Papa too. That would not only complete my humiliation, but result in the lot of them getting arrested.

He moves towards the living room, but I grab him in a hug from the side. He immediately stops.

“Natalie.”

My name is a clear direction to move aside; I don’t.

“Max, if you do anything, Jeff will press charges.”

“He can’t press charges if he isn’t alive. We’re Russian Nat, we can take care of a body.”

I know he doesn’t mean it. I know that Max won’t kill Jeff, but I also know that he’d have no problem beating the hell out of him.

I can’t lose Max. I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but if I’m honest with myself, Max is the brother closest to my heart. I’m closer in age to the twins, but Max and I have always been close. I can’t let him get hurt, or let him endanger his future because of me.

“Max! He’ll ruin your future. You’ll be arrested; you’ll have a record, lose your college scholarships, and be labeled unmarriageable material. You’ll be a bachelor for the rest of your life, no one will want to hire you, you’ll end up living with me, your parole officer will suspect that I was involved, I’ll be arrested as an accessory years after the fact... The world will end if you even threaten Jeff.”

“Natalie,” Max is smiling, though he seems reluctant about it, “I don’t think any of that would actually happen.”

His hands gently squeeze my arms around his waist, and I drop my hold.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I'm a college graduate working in the IT world, but my passion is writing. This is my third novel, and my first venture outside of the series I began with my first novel. Words contain more power than people know. Words can motivate, inspire, captivate, destroy, and terrify. Words can be poetic and beautiful, just as they can be raw and harsh. It's this complex beauty that keeps me writing.

Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I love alpha males, and there's nothing more alpha than a werewolf doing all that he can to protect and keep his mate.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
kaitlynnaisling.weebly.com

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