First four chapters of Lost Bastard

Copyright © 2018 by India Kells

All rights reserved

Chapter 1

 

 San Antonio, Texas

 

“Come on Jason; you can do it one more time. And you know we ladies love when you go the extra mile!”

Deva winked at the young man struggling to pull himself up one more time on the bars, his smile turning into a frustrated grimace, his arm muscles and shoulders straining with the effort.

“You’re a slave driver, and I hate you!”

Deva only arched an eyebrow at the half-serious threat and pursed her lips. “I’ve been called worse. Now, do as I say, slave, and use more of your leg to push yourself up. I want you straighter. No more slouching on my watch.”

Sweat pouring from his face, Jason grunted and moved slowly, his body tense as a bow. And as she hoped, he pulled himself to a standing position by himself. Trembling from the effort, and for the very first time, the wounded soldier offered her a beaming smile.

“Fuck yeah! Oh, sorry about that, Deva.”

Having heard far worse language in her life, and as his success with standing for the first time in months bringing the shadow of a smile on his young, stern face, Deva let it slide. She lived for these moments as a physical therapist; fighting through the struggles, the pain, to finally see a sliver of hope in men and women who had lost it. That’s all she needed to keep going, to encourage the patients into her care and help them more than they hoped for in their lives after bouts of tragedy and pain.

Jason, a young Marine, had been severely wounded during a mission five months ago, losing his left leg at the knee, his right one damaged almost beyond repair with several shrapnel pieces embedded into his back, putting pressure on his spinal cord. His prognosis had been bleak, condemning him to a wheelchair. When he had undergone all possible surgeries to stabilize his situation, and no more could be done on that front, he had been moved to the Greenwood Rehabilitation Center where Deva had worked for the last ten years. Upon their arrival, the patients were in pain, inside and out. That was when the true work started. The center didn’t offer miracles or hope, but hard work, and tough love with the goal of offering the patient a chance at a more normal life. Some of those young men and women would never get back to the body and life they once knew, and Deva was well aware of that. It was a mourning period only they could go through. What she wanted to give these wounded souls, through her words and her skills, was a sense that life could be good again. That it was worth living again. Make them fight for it!

Sidestepping behind her patient, she placed her hands on his hips. “Keep straight another thirty seconds, and I’ll give you a break.”

The Marine turned his head slightly in her direction, a wry grin on his face. “If you slide your hands a bit forward, I’ll tough it out for a full minute.”

Deva rolled her eyes behind his back, but she knew that when they started to make lewd remarks if only in jest, it meant that something had shifted in them and they were heading in the right direction. Another part of their humanity was clicking back in its place, like a piece of a puzzle.

“I’m not in charge of rehabilitating that part of your anatomy, sweetie. But I’ll take that minute, though.”

Jason half laughed, half grunted, but true to his word; he stayed standing for a full minute, just as he said. Prepared, Deva discreetly moved the wheelchair with her foot, ready if his arms gave out. But as she suspected, his pride and determination kept him up almost as much as his straining, underused muscles.

When she slowly helped him down into a seated position, the man was grinning like a fool and heaving as if he had run a marathon, sweat staining his t-shirt emblazoned with the Marine Corps logo.

“Excellent job, Jason. And for that, I’ll personally give you a massage. How’s that for a reward?”

Jason tilted his head, giving her a suspicious look as he caught up his breath. “By massage, you mean twisting my body in impossible positions until I cry for mercy?”

“Yes, but I’ll finish up with something softer. If you behave, of course, and endure your torment like a good Marine.”

Jason chuckled and rolled his chair toward the door. “Let me shower first. And then, I’m all yours.”

Shaking her head at his smart mouth, she started cleaning up her workstation. They may all tell her outrageous things, but Deva knew they would never do anything inappropriate. And because of that, she gave them more leeway. In this place, she was in control, and safe.

As she was finishing, Stuart, one of the other therapists, poked his head into her workroom. “Deva, someone on the phone for you. I transferred it to your office. It seemed urgent. Do you want me to finish up here?”

Shaking her head, Deva grabbed a towel on the floor. “No, I’m done. That must be the call from Doctor Humphreys about Jada. I’ve been waiting for him all week. By the way, Jason is getting ready for his stretching session after his shower. If I’m not done with the call, can you get him ready?”

“Sure will. And don’t forget about the five o’clock meeting!”

Deva laughed. “If that meeting involves booze and nachos, I’ll think about it. And if you’re paying, I’ll definitely go.”

Stuart rolled his eyes and whined good-naturedly. “Come on! There will be ten people there; I can’t pay for everyone!”

“You whine, we dine, suck it up, Stuart.”

And biting back her grin, she bypassed her co-worker and pushed the sweaty towel to his chest before heading to her office. Closing the door with her foot, she pushed the blinking red light on her phone.

“Hello, Deva. How’s my Dark Sparrow today?”

Everything in her froze, her mind slipping back ten years. That female voice. The codename. Deva swallowed hard and took the handset, not willing to risk anyone overhearing the conversation.

Wetting her dry lips, she finally answered. “Hello, Beatrice. It’s been a long time since I last heard from you. I almost thought you had forgotten all about me.”

The woman on the other end of the line let out a deep sigh. It was so unlike what Deva remembered about her; it made Deva frown.

“Believe me; I never call any of the people I saved lightly. But you know the deal. I’m only calling in my favor because I need someone with your skill set, and even more so, your knowledge. What about a coffee? You have one last patient to see today if I’m not mistaken. I know you have a small gathering afterward, what about we meet when you are done? At that small coffee shop you like so much. It’s open late, so I’ll be waiting for you there.”

Deva blinked and shook her head. Was there anything that woman didn’t know about her? If she didn’t believe that Beatrice Dante, a woman of mystery and savior extraordinaire, was one good soul, she would be seriously scared.

“Okay, let’s meet there. But I can skip the gathering and…”

“No need, see you later, Deva.”

Slowly putting the handset down, Deva, sat back in her chair, nothing in her body steady anymore. Ten years. It had been ten years since she had last seen Beatrice or had any contact with her since her old life ended and she started a brand new one with her help. For ten years, Deva had worked at pushing bad memories away and had finally stopped looking over her shoulder. But that blessing came with a price, and Deva was very aware of it when she had accepted Beatrice’s deal. One favor. One which could be called in at any time, or even never. Beatrice Dante was the head of an organization dedicated to saving people considered lost causes. And she had been one very lost cause at one point in time.

Deva removed her hair band, letting her wealth of dark brown curls tumble down over her shoulders. She hadn’t been able to cut them off when she disappeared, and instead dyed them a chocolate brown to cover the natural pale blond. Beatrice had offered plastic surgery if she wanted, or to change the blue of her eyes with permanent contact lenses, but she couldn’t. The blond was her father’s and was something she was glad to get rid of, but her eyes were her mother’s. The deep blue could be mistaken for other colors easily, and Deva needed a reminder of something good, soft, and loving in her past when she looked at herself in the mirror. When her mother had been alive, a long time ago. A lifetime away.

This was a different life now, but was she any different? Who she had been had forged her, scarred her, inked her personality, forever. It made her strong enough to fight back, to take another path. There was nothing helpless about her, so why was she shaking? It was only a favor, not the destruction of what she had built for herself. And not even the mighty Beatrice Dante would be able to destroy that. The monsters of her past had made her vow that much, and she intended to fight for what she had built, for the woman she had rebuilt from blood and ashes.

 

Chapter 2

 

 It was closing in on nine p.m. when Deva finally pushed open the door of the Never Late Latte. She had decided against skipping the employee meeting, even though the theme of the night was always fun and drinks rather than any real discussions about patients and projects. Maybe it was her way of clinging to what she had worked so hard for, or maybe she didn’t want to change her routine and raise suspicions. It amazed her how her old habits returned full force after only a single phone call.

The café was quiet at this hour, the familiar indie station crooning in the background. At a table, a couple was talking. A beautiful blond woman and a man with dark hair and beard trimmed short, with stunning gray eyes that settled on her for a brief instant before returning to his companion.

Two customers were doctoring their drinks on a side station. They were familiar faces and café regulars. Deva saw Beatrice sitting in a booth by the windows. Beatrice nodded at her and Deva did the same before making a beeline for the counter. After ordering a black tea, she made her way to the woman to whom she owed her life. Beatrice hadn’t changed much, still slender and willowy, her red hair spiking on her head and the same freckles on her pale face. A warrior fairy. The thought made Deva bite back a smile when she sat on the bench in front of her.

“I’m glad to see you, Deva. Love the hair. It suits you, gives you an edge.”

“Well, the passive blonde Barbie doll was never truly my look, to be honest. You know that.”

Beatrice nodded, swirling her cup of coffee. “Passive, submissive, easy, would never be words I would use to describe you.”

Deva put her hand around her mug, looking at the darkening liquid. “I don’t think my father, or my... family, would agree with you.”

“Only because they never saw the true you. They only saw a young girl that could be used to their advantage, for their own profit.”

Deva pondered on her words for a moment, before looking at Beatrice again. “And if what you say is true, can you explain to me why I’m here? Am I about to be used to your advantage, or profit?”

The calm expression of this dangerous woman changed to one of someone who had been insulted. “I’m not forcing you into anything. I told you that if I helped you to get out, I might need you. Maybe. But if you don’t want to be here, walk away, Deva. You aren’t a slave, and I’m not going to force you into anything. I only thought we had an agreement.”

Deva arched an eyebrow. “You mean, I can continue living the life I have, here in Texas. Just like that?”

Beatrice sighed and leaned on the padded back. “Just like that.”

It would have been so easy to push her mug aside, take her bag and leave this place. But despite everything else, she knew Beatrice wasn’t an enemy. She had been a friend, years ago, when a frightened young girl was desperate to get away, to get free. She may have been young, and somewhat naive, but certainly not stupid. The deal she had made, she was willing to pay. Not because she was coerced, but because of simple gratitude. If not for the woman sitting before her, she may have hanged herself or ended up in an even worse fate.

It was Deva’s turn to lean back and sigh. “And you know I won’t walk out. That’s all bluff.”

“No bluff, I’m not lying.”

Deva ignored her answer. “What I mean is I can’t walk out on you. I owe you. A lot. And I meant it when I agreed to help you if ever you needed me. That agreement still stands today. Here and now.”

For a long time, Beatrice looked at her before nodding. “At the risk of having you bite my head off, that part of you is so like your father.”

Deva’s jaw clenched before forcing herself to relax it again. No need to get angry about things she couldn’t change or simple facts.

“Let’s skip that topic, shall we?”

Beatrice leaned forward once more, her eyes intently on her. “Let’s not. Not totally at least because what I need from you, that favor, is linked to your previous life. More specifically, to your knowledge of that past life.”

Deva rolled her shoulders, trying to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling that had crept on her. Her past always was a topic she carefully avoided thinking about. “And that would be?”

“Keeping an eye on someone. But maybe I’m not the best person to tell you all about it. Do you mind if I introduce you to my friends?”

Deva blinked, and it clicked. “The blonde beauty or the silver-eye hunk?”

Beatrice burst out laughing. “You’re quick. Dangerously so. A trait I always liked about you. Both would like to join us, but it’s the hunk, as you said it, that will give you the information about what we need you to do.”

“And the blonde?”

Something softened in Beatrice’s eye. “A friend, and your direct contact to me. Gabrielle Thorne has worked for Purgatory for a long time, and can support you in any way you wish, even retrieve you if you ever demand it.”

“And Mr. Silver?”

“Lazarus King. He’s a long-time friend, and the one requesting our help. But of all my agents, my contacts or my friends, you are the only one I could think of to really bring an edge, the tipping point we need to succeed.”

Deva turned her head to the couple still ignoring them and shrugged. “Hell. Ask them to come over. The more the fucking merrier.”

Beatrice nodded before sliding out the bench to stand. Deva looked at her as she approached and nodded at the couple. The trio came back, Beatrice sat beside her, the woman named Gabrielle in front of her and the man, Lazarus, at the end. The man was gorgeous in a very dangerous way. From experience, by the way he moved, underneath his black shirt and pants was a well-oiled machine, one who had seen war, on the battlefield, or the streets. The blonde woman smiled, but the way she scanned the area told Deva that she was an operative, a lot like Bea. She was married as per the worn golden ring on her finger. He wasn’t. His mercury eyes were set on her, and she suspected, as a test. Powerful men had a tendency, consciously or not, to test people around them. Instead of avoiding the intensity, she let herself fall into it. It had been her way, a long time ago when confronted with people like him. And what she had discovered was once the first punch in the gut had passed, she could draw the power he exuded for herself, helping her to be steadier, stronger and more unyielding to her opponent in that staring contest.

Someone spoke, and Deva was surprised when the man finally blinked and smiled. The darkness that filled him lifted and there was an incredibly handsome man looking back at her. And when he spoke, the low tone of his voice, or was it his British accent, finished to turn her into jelly. Deva guessed that if he couldn’t get what he wanted with his fists, he could seduce it out of anybody. And that alone intrigued her even more, curiosity inching forward to discover why such a man would be in need of her.

“I like her; she will do perfectly.”

The woman named Gabrielle arched an eyebrow at him before shaking her head and extending a hand to Deva. “I’m Gabrielle Thorne. And this is Lazarus King. And just for standing up to this guy, you have my respect. Especially since you had the self-control not to punch him in the face.”

Lazarus looked offended. “I did nothing to warrant your aggressiveness toward me.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “From the moment I met you, I have refrained from hitting you behind the head with a baseball bat. You are lucky I’m a compassionate woman.”

Baffled, the man crossed his arms. “Compassionate? Remind me when exactly?”

“I saved your ass, didn’t I? Even though you were supposed to protect two of the most important people in my life.”

He almost sputtered his answer. “It was a trap. And I did my best to protect them both. If not for me, they would have died.”

Deva bit her lip to stop herself from smiling. Gabrielle had balls, as it was obvious that the tall man sitting beside her could inflict harm in a heartbeat, but she also suspected that the blonde wasn’t a kitten either.

“Are you married to one another?”

Beatrice snickered at the look of utter outrage on both their faces as they looked at her. It was Gabrielle who answered first.

“Hell no! I would be accused of murder within thirty seconds. I would never marry this stick in the mud.”

Lazarus rubbed his eyes. “As if your husband were truly a catch. But we’re digressing here, and I’m sure Miss Landry prefers to know why we’re here than talk about your marriage to that crazy Navy SEAL.”

“My husband is not crazy, watch your mouth, jerk, or should I say tosser? Isn’t the same thing for you, Brit?”

Before Lazarus could reply, Beatrice raised her hands in appeasement. “I think we should talk about why we are here. And then you kids can settle your feud at recess. Lazarus, can you start?”

Lazarus nodded and reigned himself in as he turned to the business at hand. “I asked Beatrice’s help because I can’t go through the usual channels I’m used to. And she assured me that she can trust you. Can I, Deva Landry? Trust you?”

Gone was the lighthearted banter. Lazarus King was asking a very specific question, and if she failed to answer right, her life would be on the line.

“Yes. You can trust me, Mr. King.”

After gazing a long moment in her eyes, he simply nodded, as if seeing the confirmation that he was desperately looking for.

“Please, call me Oz. Let’s begin.”

 

Chapter 3

 

 Deva closed her bedroom closet door with a flourish; she had finally settled in her new apartment. A nice size one-bedroom on the second floor of an old brick house building on the edge of North Side in Chicago. During her ride there, she could see the quaint neighborhood, a couple of restaurants. And on her way up, her two surprising downstairs neighbors.

Marcus, a thin, bald black man in his mid-forties, with an extravagant attitude, and Miss Lupe, a Hispanic matriarch, closing in on eighty with gnarly fingers and a suspicious glare. Deva smiled at them and used all her experience with snarly soldiers to at least thaw them out a little. During their discussion, she learned that both Marcus and the elderly woman shared the lower floor. Miss Lupe couldn’t use stairs due to severe rheumatism, and Marcus didn’t have the money to rent a place of his own. Not yet anyway from what he had told her. In exchange for a lower rent, he ran errands for Miss Lupe and cooked for her. A strange duo in Deva’s mind, but a useful arrangement for both of them.

As soon as her new neighbors started talking, they immediately bombarded Deva with inquisitive questions. “Why was she here? Where was she working? Did she have a boyfriend?” Most of the questions were easy to answer, as her cover didn’t differ much from reality. She didn’t have a boyfriend, and she had moved here when a physical therapist position had opened. It was different, she needed a change, so she just jumped at the chance. Believable enough story, especially since they wouldn’t dig into her past. And even if they did? There wasn’t anything wrong with wanting to turn your life in a new direction.

And she was saved by Gabrielle who had come over with food. Her new “handler,” as Beatrice called her, was supposed to be her sole contact, and they had agreed that looking as if they were good friends to her new neighbors and coworkers would facilitate the whole situation.

“Do you want to eat? I just bought subs. I didn’t want to heat up anything as your air conditioning isn’t working yet and it’s beginning to feel hot in here.”

Deva stretched and went into her kitchen where Gabrielle was getting two bottles of water from the fridge.

“It’s hot, but it’s only June. Not as stifling as San Antonio, that’s for sure. You just stand there, and sweat is pouring out of you like a river.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Only been there once, nice city, great food. But I was busy working. It would be fun to plan a vacation there. I’ll have to ask Sully and Arthur if they want to go.”

“Sully is your husband?”

The blond woman handed Deva a plate, and they went to the living room. Gabrielle sat on the floor, putting her plate on the coffee table, as she sat cross-legged on the sofa, her plate on her knees, the water bottle by her hip.

“Yeah. The crazy Navy SEAL Oz was referring to. He’s with Arthur, our son, right now. Wow, I didn’t think I would ever say that.” Shaking her head, she took a hearty bite of sandwich. Deva was curious about the blonde woman.

“Why would you say that?”

Gabrielle chewed for a moment before answering. “Well, you wouldn’t believe the last few years of my life even if you had been there. And the last thing I ever thought I’d have was a son. Well, a child. Arthur had been a complete surprise, a blessing, and a total whirlwind in our lives. And I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”

Deva nodded, somehow a little envious of the woman sitting on her living room floor, but her thoughts veered to her previous destiny. If she had chosen to stay, to submit, how many children would she have by now? Other children, other pawns. The thought turned longing into shivers. Better to change the subject.

“Are you returning to them soon?”

Gabrielle nodded as she swallowed another bite. “They are coming here, though. I’ve rented something nearby, and as Sully will be on leave, we’ll act as if we are all here on vacation. Don’t worry; I’ll only be a phone call away. Never hesitate, Deva. I’m here for you.”

Deva forced herself to relax and continue eating. Something must have shown on her face because Gabrielle quickly wiped her hands and scooted toward her. “Hey, hey. I know it must be difficult being in Chicago again, Deva, but don’t worry. Ten years have modified your appearance. Your hair is darker; your face has changed. I’ve seen pictures of you when you were younger, and only people who were very close and very familiar with you would recognize you. And even if your father is still active, he won’t be coming to this neighborhood. He’s always busy and rarely downtown. We have eyes on him if that changes and you’ll be the first one to know. Many of his most prominent men were not in the area ten years ago when you left; they wouldn’t recognize you if they passed you on the street.”

All of what the blond woman at her knees said was true. And even if her father saw her, there was a possibility that he wouldn’t recognize her. If it were the case, it wouldn’t change her mind about helping Beatrice. And the more she was in the city, the more she realized that it was where she needed to be. Even after changing her appearance and moving as far away as possible, she was still looking over her shoulder. And she was tired of it. How could she live the rest of her life with fear gripping at her heart? Maybe Beatrice’s request was a blessing in disguise, a way of truly gaining power over her life. One she longed to seize for years now.

“I know, Gabrielle. And it would be naive of me to think that my past would stay that way forever. Everyone has to face their demons at some stage, right?”

Gabrielle’s face softened as she touched her hand. “You don’t have to shake up the hornets’ nest if you don’t want to, you know? And I wouldn’t recommend it. This is only a one-shot deal, one mission. Stick to it and move on. Want to go over it one more time before I leave?”

She may not agree with Gabrielle, but Deva let it go for now. As she subtly reminded her of what she had to accomplish.

“I go into The Rusty Cage, and I meet with Rusty who is the boss of the gym and waiting for me. I settle in and start working with the MMA fighters he trains. Getting friendly, but not too much to avoid being mistaken for some sort of groupie. I must find a man called Aleksei Voronov, Oz’s brother, and keep an eye on him without raising suspicions. If possible, be friendly. At the same time, try to find if he has rekindled his ties with the Bratva, the Russian mafia, or with Jamieson Finch.”

Gabrielle nodded as she unscrewed her bottle of water and took a sip. “And not putting yourself in danger at any moment. Understood? That’s the most important part of the plan. It gets hot; you get out.”

Deva arched an eyebrow, a smile tugging at her mouth. “That may not be an option. I know firsthand that this deep, dark world is cut-throat. And sometimes, you don’t have much choice but to put yourself on the line to be trusted, to get what you came for. I’ve seen it countless times. One thing I learned as an MC princess is exactly that. My father had dealings with the Russians, the Yakuza, the Puerto Ricans, and so many more, fighting to gain and keep territory. I may have kept silent, but I learned a lot. Motorcycle clubs or MCs might often only be the brawn of it all, but they are a dangerous, vicious bunch. Plan as much as you want, keep safe the best you can, and if they even smell doubt, distrust, or fear on you, they will tear your throat out.”

Gabrielle seemed to consider what she had said and got to her feet. “Well, not on my watch. I don’t fear any of them, and I can tell you that I’ve dealt with twisted minds in my time. And done far worse. From my point of view, they are politicians and businessmen with mean looking guns.”

Deva laughed. “You’re not far off. But I will be careful, within reasonable means and according to the situation I’m thrown in. I have a question though.”

Gabrielle let herself fall back on the couch. “Shoot.”

“That man Lazarus wants to stop, Jamieson Finch? I heard his name back in the day. But why? What’s his link with all this? Lazarus didn’t offer much information.”

“Yeah, I know. And for a good reason. Lazarus, despite his stubborn bearded head, is in a tight spot. But if Beatrice put her trust in your hands, I don’t see why the information should be withheld from you. Jamieson Finch is not only a complete and deadly asshole, but he’s also Lazarus King’s father. The man is not only consumed with power, but he has also sown his seed, breeding bastards, mostly in Chicago and other places, from what I know. Some of them know of their ancestry, others don’t. So far, nothing to be worried about on that front. However, it seems that Finch had kept tabs on King, and decided that his son is becoming a little too powerful for his liking, and he decided to kidnap and kill Oz’s mother. That’s when I met Oz and saved his mother. Finch acted out of retaliation or vengeance, maybe. Or to prove a point. How can we be sure of what that psycho is thinking? That’s the scary part.”

Deva shook her head in disgust. “A monster indeed, but nothing that isn’t found in the underworld.”

“I agree. But it seems that King has an honorable streak. And Finch had crossed a line he should never have crossed. That’s the reason why he asked Beatrice for help. And yours.”

“Because I know this world?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “Not quite. It’s because Finch is expecting King to come himself and confront him, protect his brothers with his own body if need be. He won’t be expecting one of Bea’s Dark Sparrows who can be the beginning of his undoing. The ultimate goal is not only to befriend Lazarus’s brother, Deva, but to know if Finch has already put a collar on him, willingly or not, and to get him out. With our help, of course. Lazarus wants to take his father down, but he’s not going to risk the life of his siblings or yours in doing so. It won’t be easy, Aleksei may only be Lazarus’s half-brother, but you’ll have to deal with a hard-headed man who might not see things our way or want to be helped. Be prepared.”

Deva nodded but didn’t say a word. She was prepared. Had been all her life.

 

Chapter 4

 

 In front of her, skin glistened, and men grunted, as the sound of slapping flesh resonated, it made her heart skip a little, reminding her that she had been alone, willingly, for a long time. Deva had always liked the raw power of a man. Power, as long as it didn’t crush people beneath him. An impossible feat, she knew from experience. Men couldn’t be changed. Power corrupted, whatever the form. But it wouldn’t mean she couldn’t fantasize a little bit, memorize that muscled flesh and sweaty skin for when she was alone in her bed.

Deva dropped her bag near the counter, looking around the gym when someone called her name.

“Deva! You are Deva Landry, right?”

She smiled and turned to the bulky, red-headed man with a wealth of ginger beard, giving her a welcoming grin. “It’s me alright. And you are Rusty Spears I’m guessing?”

“Damn right. Welcome! I’m so happy you could make it. Are you settled? You’ve found a place?”

His hand engulfed her. “Yes, and not too far from here. Maybe I shouldn’t have bought a car after all.”

“Parking’s a pain, but public transportation is okay. Unless it’s late, I’ll pay for a cab to drive you home in that case.”

Deva smiled at the gruff, but chivalrous man. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Oh, I insist. The neighborhood is safe, but I wouldn’t risk you. And I’m so happy you could come and work for me. I saw your credentials and couldn’t believe my luck.”

Deva almost blushed at the sincere compliment. “Well, you’re lucky I needed a change, Rusty.”

“Yeah, but I admire what you did. Taking care of our military, our heroes defending our land, you are one tough lady. We are all grateful.”

The praise surprised her, and emotions clogged her throat making it difficult to answer back. “The honor was all mine. But as I said, I needed a change.”

“First time in Chicago?”

Sticking close to the truth was the best course of action. “No. I was born and raised here. Well, close to here. But when I chose physical therapy, work called in Texas. That was a position I couldn’t refuse, so I moved there ten years ago.”

Rusty nodded. “It takes a strong mind to see people suffering that much and still want to help. You won’t have the same type of challenge here. My fighters can be quite gruff at times. I hope you won’t be put off by them.”

Deva laughed and saw a few male heads turn in her direction. “Believe me, none of them would put me off. I’m from tougher, rougher stock than I appear.”

Rusty seemed to examine her as if to determine if she was bluffing or not. Deva suspected that she wasn’t the first female to work here, and there might be a few horrified ladies behind Rusty’s worried look. “If any of them behave inappropriately, you tell me, and I’ll smack some sense into them. They’ve been told to behave, but some may have to be reminded. Now, let me show you around and then, we’ll go see your treatment space, or whatever you call it.”

As men were working out around them, Rusty described his installations, office, and the various working spaces, each with different torture devices in them. He presented her with fighters and trainers. And in the middle, an impressive octagonal cage. She knew about MMA in ways she didn’t want to remember. As images flooded back, she was careful to keep them in check.

Her gaze wandered over the men training; she had carefully studied each of their files that Gabrielle had provided. Each of them were fighters in their own right, but with links to the underworld in one way or another. Rusty’s gym acted as a neutral ground for all these men of different families and organization to meet and train. It amazed her.

Currently in the cage were two fighters. One of them she recognized from his file. Andrew Brannon. Dark red hair, he was tall with well-defined muscles. He was the rising star at the gym and preparing for an important fight in less than a month. Irish Mafia if she remembered correctly. A good-looking man, but her eyes were drawn to his opponent, no less small, but less bulky, and much darker. Not his skin but in the impressive ink etched all over his body. Tats were common both in the underworld and in the fighting community, but this man had markings all over his front and back, arms, and even his legs. The only reason for so many of them was if he was part of a gang or the mob. There, in front of her, stood Aleksei Voronov.

“I see you are admiring two of my best fighters. Andy, the ginger one, is in the last stage of his training and you will have him in treatment on a regular basis.”

“And the other?”

“Aleksei. He’s training here, but doesn’t have official fights scheduled so far.”

“Official fights?”

Rusty seemed to hesitate before finally changing the subject altogether. “All of my fighters can ask you for treatment. I know you have many specialties, but they can’t just decide to come to you and ask for only a massage. Either I tell you the kind of therapy they need, or you decide depending on the ache, pain, or injury. I trust your judgment and experience. I want them in top shape. They may appear as badasses, but outside of the cage, they tend to avoid being uncomfortable. That’s where you and I need to push them. Sometimes, an achy, untreated muscle can flip a match from winning to losing, if you get my drift.”

“Understood.”

And as she was about to follow Rusty on his tour, a buzzer sounded, indicating the end of the round. Both men in the cage stopped wrestling and started walking in circles, catching their breath. That was when Aleksei turned to her. It was like a blow to her gut. He stood tall, with muscles quivering, skin glistening with sweat, and black hair spiking on his head. It was the familiar silver eyes, that had a feral look to them, that almost made her flinch. His gaze stared straight at her as he moved, assessing her like she was potential prey. Behind the wired enclosure, he looked like a mean predator, one of those big cats she had seen in zoos, waiting for a single opening, a weakness, before leaping to taste blood.

She had seen her share of wild men, but this one was the very first that gripped her gut this way, making it impossible to move or look away. Clenching her teeth, she forced herself to breathe slowly, and not look away first. But when Aleksei came to a standstill before her, his arm stretched on the fencing above his head in a powerful stance; Deva hoped she was far enough away for him not to notice the slight shiver that ran down her spine. He jerked the wire, and she jumped at the reverberating sound. Cursing under her breath, she saw him smile as the buzzer rang once more and he returned to his opponent.

“Deva?”

Rusty looked at her, a question in his eyes, but she forced herself to smile. “Lead on, Rusty. I can’t wait to get my hands on your men and make them suffer.”

And God forbid she wouldn’t spare that Voronov bastard if he ever tried to make her scared of him again. Mission or no mission, she wouldn’t be bullied. Never again!

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