Authors: Nic Saint
When Joanna saves the life of the daughter of a well-known Russian mobster, she incurs the gratitude of the man’s main enforcer Vitaly Loganov.
That night, when Vitaly goes on a routine debt collection mission, he’s surprised to find that his target is Joanna. Knowing she’s on his employer’s hit list, the only way he can keep her safe is for her to become his bride.
Before long, Joanna finds herself sleeping in Vitaly’s bed, wondering when she’ll be able to escape the man’s ‘protection’… and the unwelcome flutterings of attraction stirring in her own bosom.
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The Russian Enforcers Series - Book 1 - Vitaly & Joanna
The wind was sweeping across the deserted plain, and Joanna’s hair billowed and swirled around her oval face, her eyes closing against the nippiness in the air. She should have brought her cap, she knew, but had wanted to feel the forces of nature whipping at her unfettered frame.
These days, she didn’t mind the cold so much as she did the humidity. Strange, how the change in season could seep into your bones and chill you to the core. It seemed only yesterday that a summer’s breeze had wafted along the outstretched meadows surrounding the patch of forest that was her home, and then suddenly winter was upon the land and touched everything with its icy tendrils of frost.
She stared out across the vast space, blinking the tears from her eyes, and thought she’d never felt this pervading sadness as keenly as she did now. Ever since her husband had left, leaving her to fend for herself in a world that was not her own, she’d managed to cope. She was at the end of her rope now. Much further and it would all be over. All hope lost. A life, fleeting as a castle made of sand, would end, and no one would ever know. Or care.
Joanna blinked and wrapped her shawl tighter around herself, planting her feet firmly in the soggy soil. Rain had arrived along with the first cold, and the scent of decaying leaves had mingled with wood stoves being kindled. Darkness set in earlier, the sun stealthily creeping away before the moon’s ascent.
I need to get out of here.
The thought suddenly stood out amongst the welter swirling in her head.
I need to get out of here, or I won’t survive another winter.
But where could she go? This was where she’d lived her whole life. Now only her father remained, her brothers having moved away when Mom died. They all had families of their own now—she really couldn’t impose upon them.
Crouching down, she plucked a lone wildflower, the last remnants of summer lingering. This was how she felt. A single flower surviving against all the odds. She’d lived a sheltered life with Jonathan, safe in the comfort of their home on the edge of Lincoln Forest. Now that he was gone, she found herself alone and pining for the family they’d never had.
Her phone hadn’t rung in weeks, and even when she passed through town to pick up groceries, all her eyes met were curious glances, cursory nods, or brief words murmured in greeting. They all wondered what had induced her husband to up and leave when he did.
Some of the women eyed her with disinterest, others with pity, still others with the guarded look of one fearful of the competition. She was, after all, still in her prime. Five years of marriage had done nothing to diminish her untamed beauty. The flaming red hair, the remarkable emerald eyes, the pointed chin, often raised in mutiny, the pale skin liberally strewn with freckles.
She couldn’t stay here. She couldn’t join her brothers on the other side of the country. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide from the heartache the divorce had brought.
Shivering against the cold and relishing in the sensation of goosebumps appearing on her alabaster skin, she set foot for the cottage that had been her home for the last five years. Her and Jonathan’s. Briefly, they’d been happy there. Now all that was left were the ruins of their union, and even dwelling on the past made her heart shrink.
As she crossed to the forest that lay between the plains and her home, she thought she heard a cry sound in the distance—carried on the wind. At first, she couldn’t be certain whether it was human or animal in nature—or simply the wind itself howling through the trees.
As she neared the forest, she suddenly saw a streak of red passing between two trees to the left. A fleeting impression that barely registered on her retinae. When she instinctively turned to track the movement, a wail rang out, louder this time, distinctly human.
After a moment’s hesitation, she set foot for the source of the cries, curious to see if one of the townsfolk had perhaps landed in a ditch or a child fallen from a tree. Then a cry rent the air, the pitch urgent—desperate.
Picking up her pace, she hurried over to the edge of the forest where the blotch of red had caught her attention. Man or beast, something was in trouble, and she hadn’t the heart to ignore the desperate cry for help.
As she neared the first trees, something whizzed past her ear and she yelped in surprise. Instantly sensing danger, she scrunched down, then made a run for the forest in hopes of finding cover against this unexpected attack. An arrow or a bullet, she could not be sure, but some projectile had been aimed in her direction.
And as she reached the brambles and hurried around to use them for cover, she saw the man, large as life, suddenly looming up before her frightened gaze.
Not ten yards from where she cowered, he stood tall and proud, his penetrating eyes brooking no nonsense, and when they first hit her, she felt their power shooting sparks of electricity through her huddled body. Had he seen her? Had he spotted her? Only now did she see the bow and arrow in his hands, his eyes narrowed and scanning the forest in the falling dusk. His eyes turned away, and she felt a whisper of relief fluttering through her.
On the forest floor before him, a figure lay, dressed in red and partially obscured by the man’s hulking frame. Inadvertently she brought a hand to her face, eyes wide in horror. The figure in red… it was a woman, a tangle of blond streaking out across the red, an arrow’s vane pointing to the sky, her fingers curled around its shaft, soft whimpering sounds escaping her lips.
She’d been shot.
The tall man—
he’d shot her!
The woman heaved a guttural cry, and the man turned his fierce dark eyes on her, his archer’s weapon ready, poised for the deadly arrow to swish from his grasp and end his victim’s life.
Joanna couldn’t bear to watch as he readied himself to finish her off, and diverted her horrified gaze. But then a different sound assaulted her ears. Not the sickening thud of an arrow piercing flesh, but the howl of a hunter’s trumpet being blown not far from where she hid.
At the sound, the man whirled in the direction whence it had come, and briefly kneeled next to the woman, speaking harsh words in a foreign tongue before he was up and away, lithely disappearing into the brush. The moment he had vanished from view, Joanna, her heart pounding and her breath coming in short bursts, began an urgent approach. Her eyes darting left and right, she hurried over to where the woman lay and fell to her knees beside her.
She was surprised by how young she was, barely a woman at all. The moment she gazed into her face, she knew she was badly hurt. Her eyes fluttering closed, the young woman nevertheless appeared cognizant of her presence, for she whispered something incomprehensible.
Lowering her ear to the woman’s lips, she held her breath, and when the words registered, she frowned in confusion.
“Mama. Vozmi menya k mame.”
Not comprehending, Joanna whispered back, “I’ll get you to a doctor.”
Though the moment she’d spoken the words, she understood her promise was an empty one. She would never be able to move her. Not with a wound as lethal as the one the man had inflicted. Her eyes were drawn to the arrow as it protruded from the woman’s chest. She didn’t know much about medicine, but from the blood spreading like a bloom, she knew it was bad.
For a moment, she wavered, then made up her mind. She would hide her body in the brush, then run to town for help.
The moment she touched her hands to the woman, her eyes snapped open and she winced in pain. “Don’t leave me,” she moaned.
“I won’t leave you,” assured Joanna, then slipped her arm beneath the woman’s back and gave her a gentle tug. When no response came, she realized she’d passed out, her body limp and her eyes now closed. Swallowing away a lump of fear, she started dragging the victim behind the brambles that had provided her a hiding place from the man.
Either the woman was heavier than she looked or her strength was failing her, for she had only progressed a few yards when the sound of a bugle startled her. This time it seemed much closer, and she knew she didn’t have much time before the hunters would be upon her.
Using all the strength she had, she dragged the poor woman away where she hoped she would be safe, then quickly covered her with fallen leaves and clumps of grass, concealing her from the passing observer as well as she could.
Pricking up her ears, she waited for a moment, trying to steady her racing heart, then moved away from the undergrowth and snuck to the edge of the forest, looking out across the meadows for a sign of danger.
When nothing stirred, she sprang up and made her dart to safety, crouching low and making haste, putting as much distance between herself and the man as possible. She needed to get to town, and fast, before the woman succumbed to her wounds.
And she’d just reached the open fields, when a voice rang out behind her.
“Come back here, you!”
Making a wild dash, she ignored the command and ran as fast as her legs could carry her across the soggy land. Just then, an arrow whizzed past her ear, and she cried out in terror and fear.
“Stop right there!” the voice came. “Or the next one will hit its mark!”
Trembling like a leaf, she abruptly halted in her tracks, her wild streak at an end.
Slowly, she heeded the order and started turning to the source of danger. When her eyes met the tall man’s, she knew this was the end. And even though just before she’d been contemplating ending it all, she now found she wasn’t ready. She wanted to live—not die like a beast in this field.
“Just—let me go!” she cried out, her voice quaking. “You don’t have to kill me.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. With steady steps, he approached her, his bow now slung over his broad shoulder, the arrows poised in their holder, dangling from his waist. Up close, he was even more impressive than she’d thought. His eyes were a striking fawn with not a hint of mirth. His face was hard and angular, his brows hooked over his eyes and his nose a sharp slash.
There was power in those eyes and those irregular features, and even though he wasn’t handsome in a traditional sense, she felt a twinge of regret she couldn’t have made his acquaintance under normal circumstances, instead having to view his face as the last she’d ever gaze upon.
When he was upon her, she closed her eyes, knowing that the end was near. This brute would slay her like he’d slain the woman in the forest. Blood would soon bloom on her chest as well, and she brought her hands to her heart in a final gesture of defiance. Protecting her chest from the invading iron.
When fingers clasped around her wrist and yanked her hand away, her eyes flashed open, and she found herself face to face with him now, and her impression that he was a force of nature increased. Hair the color of coal fell across his tan brow, and when she raised her eyes to his, she was surprised to find there, not murderous intent, but… curiosity.
His full lips worked as he subjected her to an intent study, then he grunted, “Don’t you know it isn’t safe here, woman? That you could get shot?” His inflection was foreign—Russian if she would venture a guess.
Her lips opened, then closed in confusion. “What—what do you mean? Are—aren’t you going to kill me?”
His scowl deepened, and the grip on her arm tightened. “Kill you? Why on earth would I want to kill you?”
Helplessly, she tugged to free herself, but it was as if her hand was caught in a vise. “You shot that woman. I—I saw you.” Abruptly she closed her mouth. It was the worst thing she could have said, she knew. Never tell a murderer you’ve seen him commit the terrible crime. He will want to get rid of the witness. “I mean, I didn’t actually see you…” she tried, her voice trailing off.
He gave her a curt nod. “So it was you who moved Yana. I thought so. Do you know anything about medicine? Perhaps you could take a look?”
The abrupt change this conversation was taking surprised and confused her. “So you didn’t try to… kill her?”
He gave her wrist a tug and started walking back in the direction of the forest, forcing her along. When finally she fell into step beside him, he let go of her arm. Casting her a sideways look, he said in his deep, rumbling voice, “Tell me, why would I want to kill my friend?”