Valentina, Age Sixteen
I let out a loud whoop as Jimmy Butler tears down the court at FXT Arena here in Miami. He goes in for a layup and the crowd goes insane around us.
“This was a really great idea.” I turn to Charly with a smile. “I was afraid it might be a little weird…”
Charly nods and takes a long gulp of her diet Coke. “There’s no reason why other peoples’ mistakes have to get in the way of our friendship.”
“True.” I bite down on my lower lip and glance down at my phone. My older brother Dima told me to call if I need a ride home. And since Dad gave me very specific instructions not to tell him who I’m with, I’ll need to show up alone or else there will be too many questions I can’t answer.
The last thing I want it to get caught in the middle of this drama.
I’m only here tonight because I really like Charly and I want to get to know her better. It may have taken us a while to find each other, but now that we have, I feel like I’m being pulled to her, like she’s a funnel cloud and I’m dancing around on the outskirts of it. Every step toward her tugs at me a little bit more.
But something holds me back. I can’t explain it. I just know deep down I can’t allow myself to get sucked inside.
Maybe it’s because of the tiny twinge of guilt that twists my gut when I think of my mother.
Charly jumps out of her seat with her hands in the air. “Yes! Let’s go, Love!”
I jerk my head toward the court, dragging my mind back to the game. Power forward Kevin Love just scored against the Celtics, tying up the score with only a few seconds to go. Charly stands, a big smile stretched across her lips, blonde curls bouncing over her shoulders as she claps and cheers on the Heat.
I can’t deny that this situation is beyond weird but it would be wrong of me to turn my back on her, especially after we met purely by accident. Dad wasn’t thrilled when I burst into his office in downtown Miami a couple of months ago and found them together.
It took him some time to warm to this whole idea of us being…friends.
And none of my brothers or sister Tori has a clue.
I asked questions, of course. But since Dad was pretty tight-lipped about the answers, I gave up. He’s a stubborn Russian. I know better than to test his patience.
So I’ve kept his secret, and damn, if it doesn’t eat at my insides every time I lie to my family…especially Mom…when I’m heading out to meet Charly.
Charly is as locked down as Dad. She lets me in a little bit then pushes me away so that I’m dangling at arm’s length. Never asks me anything about my brothers or sister. Only my mom, and every time her name comes up, it makes me break out into a cold sweat. I try to give her short answers for those questions and then change the subject as quickly as possible.
I found out Charly went to college at Vanderbilt University and now she’s got some fancy job at a sports management agency here in Miami. She handles public relations for a lot of the top players, which is why we were able to score these awesome floor seats tonight.
There’s something about her that captivates me but at the same time freaks me the hell out. There’s a push and pull, like a perpetual game of Ping-Pong. I want to figure her out but I hate feeling so darned deceptive about it.
And the reality is that I don’t even know how much time we’ll have together.
It makes me a little sad to think about.
The deafening roar of the crowd rattles my eardrums when Cody Zeller makes a three-pointer from the line, sending the Miami Heat to the playoffs. Players, media, and press rush the court, the fans around us screaming like they’ve just won the lottery.
Charly’s cheeks are flushed deep pink, her green eyes sparkling with excitement. “What an incredible comeback. Come on, all of that excitement just made me super ravenous. Let’s grab something to eat. I know an amazing place for Cuban sandwiches we can hit.”
My mouth waters. Cuban sandwiches. My very favorite food in the whole world. I could seriously live on them. They cover every major food group. The tang of the pickle, the right flavors of thick cut ham and pork shoulder married together with Swiss cheese and spicy brown mustard. A good Cuban sandwich can make me swoon faster than any guy ever could, that’s for sure.
We dodge through crowds of rowdy fans holding up plastic cups full of beer. Some guy hip checks me and his beer sloshes over the side of his cup. It splashes my bare skin, drenching the side of my tank top.
“Oops,” he says with a leering grin. “Can I help ya dry off?”
I glance down at the wet spot covering my right boob, the part that got the brunt of the splash, and then glare at the guy. “Thanks, you’ve done enough.”
Charly grabs my hand and pulls me away from the guy. A quick glance over my shoulder confirms he’s still got his lecherous eyes on me.
I shimmy from the shiver that zips through me.
“What was that about?” Charly looks back at the guy. “He’s cute.”
“Ew. He’s so gross.” I rub my hands up and down my arms as if that’ll protect me from what his mind is definitely doing while he licks his lips and grins at me. “Can we get out of here? He totally gives me the creeps.”
We finally make it out of the arena and I follow Charly as she turns left down a hallway.
“VIP parking,” she says with a wink. “Perks, you know?”
“They’re pretty awesome.” But an unsettled feeling swirls through my gut and clenches tight. I peek over my shoulder. We’re alone and still…something taunts my nerves.
“So where is this fabulous place you’re taking me?”
“Don’t get too excited. It’s a hole in the wall. Tuto’s Place. You won’t be impressed by the look of it, trust me. But they have the most amazing food.”
Charly pulls open a large metal door. The sound of my footsteps echoes in the massive and mostly empty space.
I dart my head left and right. “Wow, with all those people here tonight, how did this parking deck clear out so fast?”
“The VIP parking deck is private. You have to be a player, an owner, or know one to get in here.” Charly points to a black Maserati parked in the far corner. “That’s me over there.”
She pauses for a second. “There’s a reason why I asked you to meet me here tonight, Val.”
“Oh, yeah?” I pick up the pace, my leg muscles tensing, pulse throbbing against my throat.
What the heck is wrong with me? Why am I so panicked right now?
“My company is moving me away from Miami. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
I stop, my jaw dropping. “What do you mean?”
Charly shrugs. “They want me to head up the New York office. But I think it’s better this way, better for all of you that I’m gone. Otherwise, it’d be too hard to—”
A loud noise reverberates between the walls and makes me jump. I jerk around, grabbing onto a column to steady myself. A guy with dark-rimmed glasses is crouched on the floor of the garage with a jack. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you. I’m not an expert with this thing and it slipped. My boss is going to be pissed.”
I narrow my eyes at the guy. But his smile is sweet. Self-deprecating, almost. I hesitate for a second then smile back.
Charly flashes a tight smile of her own and grasps my wrist before pulling me next to her.
Screeching tires assault my ears. I flip around. A blacked-out Ford Expedition squeals to a stop. The back and passenger side doors fly open and two guys jump out. Charly swerves around them, holding me against her. A strong hand grips the back of my hair, the barrel of a gun cool against my cheek.
My eyes fly open wide as I catch a glimpse of the guy with the glasses holding it against my face. “Don’t speak. Don’t breathe,” he hisses.
Charley tries to scream when the guys grab her but they smack something against her lips. Her body goes limp in a hot second. At least she fought.
I’ve never been held at gunpoint before. My family is deeply entrenched in the Russian bratva but I’ve always been protected from that world. Until now.
Tears sting my eyes. If I fight, he might kill me.
But if I don’t, I’ll regret it forever. And hell, they may kill me anyway. I struggle against him, taking a chance and elbowing him in the gut. The gun drops from my face and I kick him in the ribs before taking my next step.
Too darn slow.
With a grunt, he pulls me back by my hair. I trip over my feet and crash onto the ground. I cringe, my knees stinging like hell once they’re raked against the concrete. I scream as loud as I possibly can but since we’re the only ones here, nobody makes a move to save me.
He tightens his hold on my hair and shoves me toward the truck. I land against it, my palms stinging from where they slam on the steel door. “You can do this the easy way or the hard way. Fight me and you both die.”
One of the guys who snatched Charly throws me over his shoulder and flings me in the backseat like I weigh no more than a newspaper. I pound my fists and feet against his thick massive body but he doesn’t seem to feel a damn thing.
I land on my ass in the backseat then scramble to the driver’s side door. I jimmy the handle but they must have predicted my next move because the door is locked.
“Let me out of here.” My voice is hoarse from screaming but the pain is nothing compared to what these people are about to do to me, judging from the menacing looks on their faces.
“Don’t fight, Valentina.”
I choke on a gasp then someone behind me pulls me backward. I’m pinned to the leather seat, my heart lodged in my throat. Charly shudders spasms on the seat next to me. Her eyes flutter, a gurgling sound making my gut twist. Foam pools at the corners of her lips.
“Oh my God, what did you do to her?”
The Expedition lurches forward but still, I’m plastered against the seat.
The men mutter to each other in a different language. One yells at the one closes to Charly.
“Help her.” I scream again when a sharp pinch in my upper arm makes me wince. I cry out at the stinging sensation. Then a second later, my body floods with warmth and goes slack. I slide down in the seat, my head lolling to the side where tremors rock Charly’s body.
My arms and legs lay limp on the seat. A few seconds later, everything goes numb, including my fingers and toes. Lights streak across my vision like they’re being stretched like brightly colored taffy. Every breath feels shallow and hollow, like I’m not part of my physical body…like I’m hovering in space, floating in the air.
I turn my head. A man next to Charly stares at me. His eyes are dark, his mouth frowning. I blink hard, struggling to see the black mark on the side of his neck. It looks like a pitchfork with a star over the center prong. The bottom forms a letter. I squint but my vision blurs before I can make it out.
I sink deeper into the seat, my eyelids drooping as I study the man. His light blue eyes glare at me, his lips forming words I struggle to hear.
“Val, I told you to call me. Why did you do this? Why did you let them take you?”
“Dima…I’m sorry…” I manage to whisper the words before his face ripples like a rain puddle. With one last breath, blackness swallows me and I tumble fast and hard into the funnel cloud I’ve been so careful to avoid.