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Hidden Truths: Chapter 9

Angelina

I enter the living room and head toward the sofa, planning on watching TV for a bit, when I notice a stack of throwing knives on the table. Would Sergei notice if I took one? He probably would, and anyway, I still have the cleaver and the steak knife. He hasn’t confiscated them. I’m pretty sure he noticed me slipping the scissors into my pocket this morning, but he didn’t say anything. It doesn’t seem like Sergei thinks I pose any kind of threat.
I don’t have a problem with using violence to defend myself, but there has been nothing here to defend myself from. Other than the fact that I’m not allowed to leave, I’ve been treated as a guest the entire time. I don’t know why I keep piling up the weapons.
If the shipment had been intercepted by one of the rival Mexican cartels, and they found me on that truck, I would have been raped—probably multiple times—and then sold. A shudder runs down my spine just from thinking about it.
I take one of the knives and hold it in front of my face, inspecting its sleek shape. It doesn’t look like an ordinary knife. There’s no standard handle, and it seems like the whole thing is made from a single piece of metal. Based on its appearance, I expected it to be lighter. I turn toward the wall-mounted wooden board, where a few knives are still lodged, and walk across the room to inspect it closer.
There are six knives stuck in the board along the white stripe. They are so evenly spaced, it’s as if Sergei used a damn ruler to make sure of their precise placement. I look over my shoulder, trying to calculate the distance between the board and the spot by the sofa where I found him last evening. More than twenty feet. My gaze travels back to the perfectly aligned knives. How is that even possible? There was barely any light in the room. I take a few steps back and narrow my eyes at the white stripe.
“You’re too close,” a deep voice says from behind me. In the next breath, Sergei’s arm wraps around my waist and tugs me backward.
“Wouldn’t it be easier if I’m closer?” I ask while my heartbeat picks up when he presses my back to his body.
“No. You need more distance so you can throw it properly.” His hand comes to rest on my forearm, then slides down until he reaches my fingers. “You start here.” He lifts my hand that’s holding the knife and slowly demonstrates the throwing motion. “One fluid move. And just release it. Don’t flick your wrist. Try it.”
“No way.” I shake my head, dropping my arm back to my side. “I’m going to hit the window.”
“You’ll probably just hit the floor, but it doesn’t matter. Come on.” He lifts my hand again. “Ready?”
Nope, I’m not ready. And I doubt I’ll be able to hit anything, because I’m too distracted by having his body pressed to mine. Sergei guides my hand and I release the knife as he said, only to watch it clatter to the floor halfway to the wall.
“I guess, you’ll need more practice.”
“No shit?” I laugh. “What are those used for anyway? Can you kill a man with this?”
“In theory, yes,” he says, still behind me, and then places another knife in my hand. “In reality, it’s too much bother. You need to calculate the distance, so the knife finishes its rotation just before it hits the target.”
He lifts my hand and swings. I release the knife as he instructed, but it ends up on the floor again.
“If you’re outside, you also need to consider the wind. And, if the target moves, you’ll probably get them with an edge instead of the tip. Even if you hit them, it won’t be lethal in most cases. It’s much easier to approach and stab them.”
“Why do you do it then? Why practice if it’s pointless?”
“It relaxes me.” He dips his head, brushing the skin of my cheek with his own. “Do you want to try one more time?”
“Yes,” I whisper, but the fact is, I’m not interested in practicing knife throwing. The arm around my waist tightens slightly, and I close my eyes, enjoying the sensation of his fingers trailing down my arm.
“Try to concentrate. Swing and release. Okay?”
I nod and let his hand lead my motion. This time, the knife hits the wall, at least a foot below the board, then, it clatters to the floor.
“Not bad.” His arm vanishes from around my waist. “We can continue tomorrow if you want.”
“Sure,” I say, mourning the loss of his closeness.
“We should get going. Pakhan wants to talk with you.”
I pivot on my heel and stare at Sergei, trying to control the panic rising in my stomach.
“Why would your boss want to talk with me?”
“No idea.” He shrugs.
“Do I really have to go?”
“You can’t ignore the Bratva’s pakhan when he calls you for a meeting.” The corner of his mouth tilts upward slightly. “Unless you’re hiding something really bad.”
“Of course not.” I try to pretend indifference. “What should I wear?”
“That’ll do.” He nods toward my jeans and T-shirt. “But bring a hoodie, and no flip-flops.”
“It’s ninety degrees outside.”
“You’ll get cold on the bike.”
I raise my eyebrows and laugh. “I am not getting on that thing.”
“Why not?”
“I like my body in one piece, thank you very much. Can we go by car?”
Narrowing his eyes at me, he places a finger under my chin and tilts my head up. “I would never put you in any kind of danger.” He brushes my chin with his thumb, and instead of pulling away, I have to fight the need to lean into him. “If you’re afraid of riding the bike with me, we’ll take the car. But, I’d like to take you for a ride on my bike.”
I look into his eyes, light and clear, so different from the way they were last night. Where does his mind go when he zones out? It can’t be a nice place.
“You promise you won’t let me fall off that thing?”
“I promise.” He brushes my lower lip with his thumb. “I’ll wait for you outside.”
I stare at the door he just went through, wondering why his closeness impacts me so much. Saying that Sergei is good-looking would be an understatement. But still, he’s keeping me a prisoner in his home. I shouldn’t be attracted to him. Just the opposite. Shaking my head, I rush upstairs to the bedroom to grab a pair of socks and sneakers, my hoodie from the recliner and head back downstairs.
I regard the huge red bike parked on the driveway in front of me and wrap my arms around myself. Nope. Not happening. I don’t even like bicycles. The idea of a vehicle that runs on only two wheels has never sat well with me.
Sergei approaches the bike, throws one leg over it, kicks up the stand, and sits down. “Hop on.”
It suits him. The bike. I wonder what he looks like when he goes to a meeting. Does he wear a suit? I find it hard to imagine him in dress pants and a jacket. Or wearing a tie.
“Cold feet?” He smiles at me, and a pleasant warmth washes over my body. The need to be close to him overrides my urge to hightail it.
“No,” I say. Taking a deep breath, I close the distance between me and that thing, and climb up behind him.
“Here,” he says and passes me a red helmet.
I look it over, then put it over my head. It makes me feel like a giant ant.
“Arms around my waist and hold on tight. We’ll go slow. If you want me to stop, just squeeze twice, and I’ll pull over right away. Okay?”
Leaning forward, I plaster myself to his back and wrap my arms around him, feeling his rock-hard abs under my palms. Sergei puts on his helmet and starts the bike, and as soon as the engine roars to life, I press myself into his back even more.
At first, I can’t think about anything except keeping my arms locked in a tight grip around Sergei, but after some time, I find enough courage to open my eyes and look over his shoulder. It’s not that bad. As he keeps driving, excitement surpasses my fear. I’ve never been into extreme sports because I had enough excitement at home with all the raid attempts and random shootings around the compound, but this . . . I could get used to this. But more than the thrill of the ride, I’m affected by Sergei’s closeness. It feels good, being plastered to his huge body in this way, and without actually intending to, I find myself leaning into him even more. I wish I didn’t have the helmet on, so I could press my cheek against his wide back.
I’m not sure how much time passes, surely not more than half an hour, when Sergei takes a side road that goes slightly uphill toward the estate visible through the iron fence. He stops at the gate, pulls off his helmet and nods to the guard. After we pass, he drives for a minute or so and stops in front of a huge, white mansion surrounded by finely trimmed grass.
Sergei helps me get down from the bike, and I need a few seconds to acclimate to the solid ground under my feet.
“All good?” he asks after he takes off my helmet.
“Better than expected,” I say and grin.
“Does that mean you liked it?”
“Maybe.”
Sergei reaches to take a strand of hair that fell out of my short ponytail and hooks it behind my ear. His palm comes to cup my cheek and he tilts my head up so he can look into my eyes. An excited shudder passes through my body and I find myself leaning forward, with my gaze fixed on his lips. I wonder how it would feel, having those hard lips pressed to mine. A security guard opens the front door, bringing me back to reality.
“Let’s get this over with,” I mumble and take a reluctant step back. Sergei’s hand falls from my face.
“Sure.” He nods and heads up the steps toward the mansion door.
We enter the mansion and cross the big foyer, then turn to the left. At the very end of the long hallway, Sergei knocks on the door at the end, and we step inside. I try my best to keep my expression neutral, and my body relaxed, while in reality, I’m a bundle of nerves ready to explode.
Roman Petrov, the Bratva’s pakhan, sits casually behind the desk on the other side of the room and follows me with his eyes. He is wearing a tailored dress shirt, the same shade as his ink-black hair, with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
There’s a barely visible smile on his face, and I don’t need a Pakhan for Dummies manual to know that it’s not a good sign.
“Sergei,” he says without removing his eyes off me. “I would like to talk with our guest alone, please.”
Sergei places his hand on my upper arm. “Are you okay with that?”
Hah, like I have a choice. “Sure.” I smile.
Sergei nods, then turns to Roman and points a finger at him. “Don’t scare her,” he says and leaves, closing the door behind him.
Petrov watches me, and the wicked smile on his face grows a little wider.
“It’s good to finally meet you, Miss Sandoval,” he says. “Please, sit.”
My legs feel like they’re locked in cement as I take a few steps toward the chair opposite him and drop down onto it.
“You needed to speak with me, Mr. Petrov?” I ask.
“I need you to start talking.”
I sigh and close my eyes for a second. No one in their right mind would lie to the leader of the Russian mafia. “What do you want to know?”
“Let’s start with what the fuck were you doing stuck in the Italians’ drug shipment.”
“It was the only way to get away from Diego Rivera,” I say.
“What does Diego have to do with anything?”
“Two weeks ago, he came to our compound under the pretense of talking business with my father. They were partners for years, so it wasn’t unusual, and nobody suspected anything, even though he arrived with more men than normal. My father took him to his office. We heard the gunshots soon after.”
Petrov leans forward, surprise visible on his face. “Diego killed Manny? I thought it was the police that killed him.”
“That’s the story Diego told everyone.”
“I’m sorry about your father. We weren’t on the best of terms, but I respected him.”
“Thank you.”
“So, Diego decided to take over your father’s business, I presume.”
“Yes. And, he concluded it would be more easily accepted by my father’s men and associates if I was married to him.”
“Of course, he did. So, how did you end up on that truck?”
“Diego was sending one of the girls with the shipment as a gift,” I say, “I took her place.”
Petrov tilts his head to the side, then leans back. “Okay, let’s say I buy that story. Why did you lie when Sergei asked who you are and what happened?”
“You’re partners with Diego. If you knew who I was, and that he was probably looking for me, you would have sent me back.” I fix him with my gaze. “I would rather die than go back and marry the pig who killed my father.”
“So, what was your plan?”
“There wasn’t one. My main goal was to leave Mexico and get to the US. I have friends here who would have helped me. I planned on contacting one of my father’s partners to help me get documents so I can access my accounts, and then be as far gone as possible.”
“Which partner?”
“Liam O’Neil.”
“I don’t think asking Liam O’Neil for help is a good idea, Miss Sandoval.”
“Why not?”
“Because, the information I have says that Liam and Diego started working together.”
I curse inwardly. There goes my plan for getting the documents. What am I going to do now?
Petrov watches me through narrowed eyes, probably wondering what the hell he should do with me.
“I have a proposition for you,” he says finally.
“What kind of proposition?”
“I need help with something. You help me, and I get you the documents and anything else you need, and make sure Diego never finds you.”
“And if I decline?”
“I tie you up with a bow and send you back to Mexico.”
“So, you’re blackmailing me?”
“Yup. It’s worked great for me in the past.” He smiles. “I blackmailed my wife into marrying me. Twice.”
Poor woman. He’s probably keeping her tied up in a room somewhere in the house. Bastard.
“What do you need me to do?”
“Nothing special.” He shrugs. “Just stay where you are for the next couple of months. Let’s make it six months, that’s my favorite blackmail period.”
I stare at him. “Sorry, I’m not following.”
“I need you to stay with Sergei and keep doing whatever you’ve been doing so far.”
“I wasn’t doing anything other than sleep, eat, and wander through the house.”
“There.” Petrov smiles. “That doesn’t sound hard, does it? Think of it as an impromptu vacation.”
“That’s ridiculous. Why would you want me to stay there and do nothing?”
“Because, my brother seems to have an unexpectedly positive reaction to you being there.”
“Your brother?”
“Sergei is my half brother.”
I look him over. They don’t look anything alike at first glance, but now he’s mentioned it, I can see the similarity in the lines of his face. The sharp cheekbones, the jawline, the build.
“You want me to play therapy dog for Sergei?” I ask, incredulous.
“Yes!” He hits the table in front of him with this palm, laughing. “A therapy dog. I couldn’t have put it better myself.”
“That’s . . . crazy.”
“Felix doesn’t think so. He says that you’ve managed to snap Sergei out of his episodes. Twice.”
“I didn’t do anything. I just babbled some nonsense. Anybody can do that.”
“Do you know what happened the last time someone approached Sergei while he was in that state, Miss Sandoval? The man ended up in an ICU for a month.” He gets up, takes the cane leaning against the desk, and comes to stand in front of me. “You help my brother, and I help you.”
“Or I’m getting sent back to Diego?”
“With a bow.” His lips widen in a wicked smile.
“It’s not like I have a choice, is it?” I sigh. The fact that I don’t find the idea of staying repulsive should be seriously concerning. Stockholm syndrome was right on the money. “Did something happen to Sergei? Why does he have those episodes?”
Petrov grinds his teeth, turns toward the set of drawers on his right, and takes out a thick yellow folder, which he throws on the desk in front of me.
I pull the folder toward me, open it, and start leafing through the stack of papers. There are dates on each corner, starting eleven years ago. The last one is four years old. At first, I don’t understand what I am looking at. It seems like they’re some kind of reports, but most of the text is blacked out, and only parts of sentences here and there can be read. One thing that’s common on all the documents is the signature at the bottom. Felix Allen.
“What’s all this?” I ask, trying to grasp the meaning. I see some locations listed, mostly Europe, but there are some in the US and Asia as well. “Almost everything is redacted.”
“The reports on black ops missions usually are.”
My head snaps up. “Sergei was black ops?”
“A special side unit. An experimental project where they took in teenagers no one would miss, usually homeless, and trained them into becoming operatives for the government’s special missions.”
I look down at the stack of documents, flip back to the first page, and look at the date. “How old is Sergei?”
“Twenty-nine.”
I do a quick calculation. “This means he started working for them at eighteen.”
Roman waves at the papers. “Those are from when they started sending him on the missions. They took Sergei in when he was fourteen.”
I stare at Petrov. That’s not possible.
“What did he do for the government, exactly?”
“Whatever they needed that they couldn’t achieve using regular channels. But, mostly, it was termination of high-level targets,” he says.
Chills rush down my spine. “You mean . . .”
“Sergei is a professional hitman, Miss Sandoval.”
I gape at him for a few moments, then drop my eyes back to the folder in front of me. There are dozens of reports there. The man who’s been teasing me, who carried me around because I was tired, who bought me nine different body washes because he didn’t know which scent I would like . . . who saved my life . . . is a professional killer?
Petrov leans in, takes the folder from my hands, and puts it away in the drawer. “It’s not my intention to scare you, but I need you to understand what you’re dealing with. I don’t believe Sergei will hurt you, especially after what Felix told me, but if something happens that makes you think he is losing it completely, you need to pull back immediately. Do you understand?”
“Yes.”
“Do you? Really?” He narrows his eyes at me. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t look like someone who could deal with Sergei’s shit.”
“Oh?” I raise an eyebrow. “And how do I look, exactly?”
“Like a librarian. You’re only missing the glasses.”
“What a coincidence.” I cross my arms over my chest. “I applied for a librarian position at Atlanta University two months ago. Still waiting for their answer, though.”
“Are you shitting me?”
“Nope.”
He sighs and squeezes his temples. “Perfect. I just hired a fucking librarian to watch over a trained killer.”
“Looks that way.”
“Well, it is what it is.” He shakes his head. “There’s a fundraising party next weekend, and Sergei will have to go in my place. You will be going with him.”
“I don’t do parties.”
“You do now. There will be a lot of important people there, and I need Sergei to behave. He never loses it when on business, but I don’t want to risk it.”
“I don’t even know how to walk in heels.”
“Then wear flats.” He pins me with his gaze, which clearly says the discussion is over. “If you have questions, talk to Felix.”
“Do you plan on sharing our agreement with Sergei?”
“No. I’ll tell him what you told me, and say we agreed for you to stay until the situation with Diego is resolved.”
“Okay. But I have a favor to ask.”
“I’m listening.”
“My nana stayed at the compound in Mexico. Can you try to get some information on her? To see if . . .” I take a deep breath. “If she’s alive? I’m afraid Diego might have killed her because she helped me escape.”
“The name?”
“Guadalupe Perez.”
“If she’s alive, do you want us to try bringing her here?”
“Yes.”
He nods and extends his hand. “You help my brother. I get you your papers, and your nana.”
I stare at his hand for a moment, feeling like I’m making a deal with the devil, then take it. We shake hands and I start pulling away, but his fingers tighten on my hand in a viselike grip.
“If you go back on your word,”—he leans forward until his face is right in front of mine—“you better pray Diego Rivera finds you before I do, Miss Sandoval.”
He releases my hand and nods toward the door. “Let’s go find Sergei. I’ll walk you out.”
As we leave his office and head down the hallway, the big double doors on the far side fling open and a petite, dark-haired woman runs out, holding a pot in her hands. She sees us coming and rushes toward us on bare feet.
“Roman! Help!” she shouts as the door behind her opens again and a rotund, bearded man in a cook’s apron bursts out. He yells something in Russian, throws a kitchen rag onto the floor, with frustration apparent on his face, then turns and stomps back into what I assume is the kitchen.
The woman reaches us, laughing all the way, and halts in front of Petrov. “You want some Bolognese sauce, kotik?” she chirps.
Kotik? I blink. It means kitten in Russian. Did she just call the Russian pakhan kitten?
“Give me that!” Petrov barks and takes the pot from her hands. “What have I told you about carrying heavy stuff and running around?”
“It’s five pounds, max!” She reaches to grab the pot back, but Petrov lifts his arm, holding it out of her reach.
“Angelina, this is my wife,” he says, and I stare at the woman in front of me who is currently jumping up and down, trying to reach the pot.
“Stop jumping, damn it,” Petrov snaps, “You’ll give my child a concussion.”
“Thief!” She scrunches her nose, pokes him in the ribs, then turns to me and offers me her hand, smiling. “I’m Nina.”
She doesn’t seem like someone blackmailed into a marriage.
“Thanks for the clothes.” That’s the only thing that comes to mind to say.
“Any time.” She winks at me and starts to say something more when the front door opens and an older man in a suit rushes in.
“Maxim? What happened?” Petrov asks.
“Giuseppe Agosti had a heart attack. He died thirty minutes ago.”
“Fuck,” Petrov curses and trusts the pot into the older guy’s hands. “Get Sergei. I want you two in my office in five minutes.”

Sergei

I focus on the picture hanging on the opposite wall, and try to reign in the need to storm out of the room and look for Angelina. As soon as Roman heard the Cosa Nostra don had died, he ordered Maxim and me into his office to discuss our next steps as far as the Italians are concerned. But, it’s been hard to follow the conversation with Angelina still not at my side.
Sitting in the chair beside me, Maxim says, “Agosti doesn’t have sons. I think Luca Rossi is the most probable successor. If that happens, do you think he will honor the truce we made with the don?”
“I only met him twice. He’s a wild card.” Roman places his hand on the table and starts his agitating habit of drumming his fingers. “Rossi is more into arms dealing than drugs, but that could change if he becomes the don. He will have to go with what most of the Chicago Cosa Nostra Family wants.”
“Do you plan on meeting with him?”
“Let’s wait to see what will come out of this shitstorm first. We’ll continue our business as usual, but Maxim, send someone to keep an eye on the Italians,” Roman says and turns to me. “There’s a fundraiser for homeless kids next weekend. I need you to go and leave a big fat check. I don’t want the city authorities looking our way for the next month or so. Can you handle that, or should I send Kostya? Maxim and I are stuck handling transportation until Mikhail is back.”
“Kostya will only end up banging some official’s wife in the restroom. I’ll go.” I nod.
“Good. The event requires a plus one. Angelina will go with you.”
“Roman, I’m not sure that’s wise,” Maxim throws in. “What if someone recognizes her?”
“Last I checked, the cartel members don’t frequent our government’s fundraiser parties,” he says and turns to me. “You’re taking your cartel princess with you. And make sure you behave.” He points his finger at me. “No weapons are allowed there.”
“Sure. Is that all?” I can’t take this anymore. I need to go find Angelina or I’m going to lose my shit in front of my brother. I know that nothing will happen to her while she’s in Roman’s home because this house is better guarded than Fort Knox. The fact that my fear is completely irrational does nothing to lessen the pressure.
“Yes.”
“I’m off then.” It takes tremendous control for me not to run out of the damn office and down the hallway.
I find Angelina in the lounge, laid back in one of the big recliners, while Nina is sitting on the floor in front of her and sketching something on a piece of paper. Nina is jumpy around me, so instead of going in, I stay in the doorway and watch Angelina play with a strand of hair, wrapping it around her finger. I remember it was once long. She looks up, and when she notices me, a strange look crosses her face, but then it’s gone the next instant.
“Ready to go back?” I ask.
“Sure.” She stands up and turns to Nina. “Can I see?”
“Of course not. It’s just a sketch. You’ll get the finished thing when I’m done.” Nina hides the paper behind her back and looks over at me. “Is Roman in the office?”
“Yes. And he’s exceptionally cranky.” I reach out, take Angelina’s hand, and the pressure in my chest subsides.
* * *
“What did Roman want to talk about?” I ask the moment I park the bike in front of my house.
“He wanted me to come clean with what I’m doing here.” She sighs. “It didn’t seem like a wise thing to keep lying, so I spilled the beans. Told him that I ran away from Diego Rivera. And Petrov promised he won’t send me back to him.”
“What does Diego have to do with anything?”
“Other than killing my father? Well, he locked me up in my room and started preparing for our wedding.”
I feel my body go stone-still. “Diego killed your dad?”
“Killed him, took over his business, and decided to marry me by force. Yes.”
The image of Diego Rivera touching Angelina with his meaty hands fills my mind, and the familiar buzzing sound starts filling my ears. “Did he do anything?”
“No, he didn’t do any . . . Sergei?”
Her hand grips my forearm, and it grounds me a little. My demons are somehow afraid of scaring her, so they withdraw when she is near.
“Sergei, look at me.”
A touch of her warm palm brushes my neck, then my face.
“Please don’t zone out on me. Sergei?”
I blink, and Angelina’s face is in front of mine, her palms pressed to either side of my face and her big dark eyes staring into mine.
“Are you back?” she whispers.
“I’m back.” Fuck. I close my eyes. “So, what now? Do you plan on leaving?”
I’m not letting her go even if she says yes.
“Your pakhan said it would be wise if I wait until we see how the situation with Diego plays out.”
“Good. You’re staying here.”
“You’re not sick of me usurping your room yet?” She smirks.
“Nope.” I take her hand and lead her to the house. “Let’s see what crap Albert has prepared for lunch.”

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