Home » , , , , , » Christmas Tsar (Blood and Thunder 1) by Susan Stephens

Christmas Tsar (Blood and Thunder 1) by Susan Stephens

He noticed the girl right away. At every port, there were managed crew changes, but this one was different from his usual recruits. Young and curious, the leggy girl was not the type of savvy help that generally peopled his yacht. He called his purser aside. “Tell me?”
Christmas Tsar (Blood and Thunder 1)
Christmas Tsar (Blood and Thunder 1) by Susan Stephens
“The girl? She comes with impeccable references and an interesting CV. I sent a file through to you. Bright kid. Scholarship to a top school. Chose the army over university. Selected for Special Ops training, which she completed successfully. When she left the forces, she turned up as a trainee journalist at Hard News.” “An interesting career path.” Alexei’s brow lifted as he turned a level stare on his purser. His man smiled faintly and inclined his head. “I thought she might prove useful in the next part of our expansion.” “We can test her out,” Alexei agreed. “On the practical front, she can help in the kitchen, act as stewardess, and I thought she looked presentable.” More than, Alexei thought as the slender redhead viewed his superyacht in awe before sliding her bulky rucksack from her back in preparation for passing through security prior to boarding. Tiny shorts with frayed edges, cut from a pair of jeans, were the perfect foil for her long legs. Her backside was just the right size for his hands. Her waist was slim. Her breasts were pert, up-tilted, and almost certainly the real deal. A jumble of faded T-shirt and a fringed scarf thrown untidily around her neck completed the picture. She’d look sensational in a red silk dress, split to the waist, or a bikini of his choosing. Better still, naked. “What does she know about us?” he asked as he watched her come aboard. “Nothing more than the usual gossip. I thought it better to use the organic method of induction.” “I’m good with that,” Alexei agreed. “On the practical front, we’re shorthanded, Alexei. If nothing else, she can fulfill her shipboard duties. She’s signed the usual confidentiality agreement, and we can always put her off at the next port.” “I’ll interview her. Bring her up to my study.” “Of course, Alexei.” Saluting as he would have done when they were both in Special Forces, the purser, once a lieutenant in the elite force where Alexei had served as his commanding officer, left the bridge to summon the new recruit. ~o0o~ “Alexei Riga wants to see me?” This opportunity to meet the man who had glowered at her from the screen in London had come much sooner than Amber had expected. She had barely had time to familiarize herself with her new quarters, let alone prepare herself for interview. “Yes, ma’am, and he doesn’t like to be kept waiting.” Her heart was beating in double time as she studied the man in officer’s whites. He looked battle ready rather than like a purser working for a billionaire on his superyacht. “Ma’am?” “Coming.” After dropping her bag on her bunk, she tugged off her scarf, straightened her clothes, and prepared to follow him. Another image stuck in Amber’s mind as they jogged up the companionway leading from the crew quarters in the bowels of the ship to the main part of the yacht, and it wasn’t the comparatively tame image of Alexei Riga she’d seen in London, but the flesh-and-blood man who’d stood watching as she’d boarded. Naked to the waist in cut-offs that left very little to her imagination, with a towel slung around his neck, still gleaming from his swim, Alexei Riga was hot, hard, and assault ready like his yacht. She’d done her homework and knew that Russian Thunder was faster than boats half its size. Boasting a knifelike prow and a rounded hull that made it almost impossible to board, drones and two satellites monitored its every move as well as the movements of other craft within a phenomenal radius. There were cameras and motion detectors on deck, as well as a night-vision system, providing a battalion of eyes. Two helicopters squatted menacingly on the top deck, while a submarine and twin landing boats that were mini superyachts in themselves were housed on one of the lower decks, and the entire floating fiefdom was protected by a missile defense system and bombproof glass. What type of man commanded that? An ineffectual and pretentious billionaire, as suggested by one of Amber’s colleagues? She didn’t think so. Alexei Riga’s superyacht was equipped to serve a small army, which was what she suspected it did. The officer escorting her used iris recognition to open a door leading to a different part of the ship. “Have I done something wrong?” she asked as he held the door to let her through. “Come with me, please.” Mr. Chatty wouldn’t tell her anything, Amber concluded. She was growing nervous at the thought of meeting Alexei Riga face-to-face. She’d never imagined a man who carried such a potent sexual charge, let alone met one in the flesh. She might have other useful skills, but sexual technology wasn’t one of her qualifications, and rumors abounded where the founding member of the Blood and Thunder polo team was concerned. This felt more like a walk to the gallows than to an interview with the elusive owner of the superyacht, Amber thought as she passed more hard-faced crew members, who treated her as if she were invisible. She was escorted into an elevator in the same tense silence and taken to an even higher deck, where the air, to Amber’s overworked imagination, appeared to be scented with an equal mix of wealth and ozone. The honeyed teak of the lower decks gave way to a thick, sound-absorbing carpet, and all the soft furnishings were white. Not yellowing white, or dusty white, or, heaven forefend, grubby white; this was the world of white perfection, the world of order and control. Since when did Russian oligarchs with more money than Croesus interview lowly members of staff? Chills raced up and down her spine as she caught sight of herself in one of the many crystal-framed mirrors, prompting her to change the walk-to-the-gallows metaphor to that of lamb to the slaughter. The next door opened onto an area that lifted her spirits. It was a surprisingly airy salon where Scandinavian minimalism predominated. Vivid acrylics on canvas enlivened the restrained décor with action scenes from polo matches, but even that wasn’t enough to stifle her apprehension as Mr. Chatty led the way to a highly polished door, where he knocked discreetly. “Come…” Don’t even joke, Amber thought as the deeply masculine, faintly accented voice of Alexei Riga took a leisurely ride across her senses. ~o0o~ He glanced up as she walked in. Twenty-four years old, according to her CV. Slender and pale, she had the type of Celtic fragility he’d steered clear of in the past. He preferred his women sophisticated enough to know the score. He reminded himself that she wasn’t here to share his bed but to work, and possibly advance within his organization. He took in the untidy red hair piled up haphazardly on top of her head and the casual outfit. Any resemblance to a woman who had undergone the most intense physical training the army could offer was lost on him. He might have wondered if her CV had been embroidered if it hadn’t come from an impeccable source. “Please sit down.” He indicated a sofa. “I prefer to stand, sir.” As she straightened up and stared directly ahead, he got the first clue that she might be genuine. “At ease. And sit,” he commanded. She perched awkwardly on the edge of a leather chesterfield. She was a beauty, with clear jade-green eyes, and freckled, peachy skin. It was all too easy to imagine her lithe limbs wrapped around him and her lips parted as she panted out her pleasure, but none of that was relevant to him. “Why do you want to see me?” she asked, staring up at him intently. The bluntness of her question took him by surprise. “Speak when I invite you to speak. This is not a pleasure yacht, and you are not a guest.” Walking in front of his desk, he lost no time on pleasantries. “Do you know what I do, Amber Smith?” Her full lips pressed down as she considered this. “Something to do with oil and pipelines—and you play polo with the Blood and Thunder polo team?” “What do you know about the team?” “Not much, but I can ride. I have a horse on the farm where I grew up.” “Why did you leave the farm?” For the first time, she hesitated. “Family differences,” she said at last. Her CV told him she’d lost her father when she was twelve. The man had been covered in glory in the forces and killed in battle trying to save members of his platoon. Her mother had married again, taking her young daughter to live with her second husband on a remote hill farm. Alexei could make what he liked of that. There were no further details available to him. “What brings you to Monte Carlo looking for a job?” “I thought this would be the best place for me to gain the type of experience I need.” At least she was partway honest. He knew the full story. He was testing her. “You can’t come here to gain experience. I only accept fully trained crew. And you’ll wear a uniform in future. I hope you brought something warmer to wear in your downtime? It can be cold in Monaco at this time of year.” “That’s why it’s not so popular with the big yachts around Christmastime,” she observed, frowning. “Obviously, I’m delighted that you’re here,” she added quickly. “Obviously,” he said dryly. She was right in thinking that most of the superyachts followed the sun and would be in the Caribbean or in the southern hemisphere. “So you do have some warm clothes?” “Oh yes. Flannelette pajamas, bed socks, jeans, and a fleece,” she said, widening her eyes into innocent saucers. She was bold enough to be cheeky. Interesting. But she appeared too innocent to fit his usual taste in women. “And you got all that in your knapsack?” he said, playing along. “I did.” Her eyes sparkled with the knowledge that to know she had a knapsack with her, he must have been watching her as she’d boarded. “Does that mean I get to keep the job?” “You get to be on trial.” He pulled away from the desk and straightened up. “And now you’re dismissed.” She stood immediately. “Report for duty at seven o’ clock.” “Tonight?” “Tomorrow morning, and every morning after that.” “Yes, sir.” “You can call me Alexei.” “Yes”—her cheeks blushed red—“Alexei.” He jerked his chin at the door and heard her sigh of relief as she closed it. ~o0o~ Amber’s legs were shaking. And what had she learned, other than the fact that Alexei Riga was a supercharge for her senses? She had never met a man so hard or so cold, not even during all her time in the forces. Having her body respond to him like a virgin awaiting the attention of the world’s most adept tutor in the erotic arts wasn’t helpful when she was here to get a story. Anything more than that was pure fantasy. Mr. Chatty was waiting to take her back to her quarters. For now, she was under guard. She had no doubt that the officer had been tasked with keeping an eye on her. He struck her as efficient, but would he be good enough? She had a few tricks of her own up her sleeve. ~o0o~ Alexei Riga had certainly lived up to his reputation as an enigmatic hardman, Amber concluded once she was back in her cabin. She could confirm that the screens, phones, computers, and assorted technological gizmos in his quarters on board Russian Thunder were better suited to a war room than a billionaire’s study, and when Alexei Riga wore the ubiquitous uniform of blue jeans and black polo top, it suggested a warrior at ease rather than a billionaire too lazy to raid his wardrobe for something more stylish. His tanned, muscular body was a killing machine directed by a man with a steel-trap mind. She couldn’t help but fantasize about that same body delivering pleasure with unequaled skill. And those eyes—arctic ice best described them. Put them in the mix with Alexei Riga’s rugged features and impressive physique, and the complete package suggested the type of sexual energy that Amber’s underused body was only too eager to embrace. Fortunately, she had more sense. Her imagination begged to differ. Chapter Two Fuck, she’d made him hard! Clutching his straining cock as the door closed behind the latest potential recruit, he grimaced and shut his eyes to blank her out. He had work to do tonight, and he could not afford to be distracted by the girl. Half an hour later, the entire Blood and Thunder polo team had assembled on deck. All of them were fabulously wealthy and all of them bound by the same code of honor, which was to clean up the mess that the authorities of various countries had neither the time nor the resources to deal with. Tonight, it was Alexei’s turn to head up the mission. He hailed from the steppes of Russia, where riding a horse was as natural as walking and the fight for survival was real and often vicious. His second in command tonight was Dante Formosa, an Argentinian born in a stable to a Romani mother—a stable Dante now owned, together with an inherited landmass the size of Great Britain. Diego Vidal would be acting as point man. Diego was a fearless warrior from a region of Spain high in the rugged Sierra Nevada, where men were hard, and women were passionate, and their horses were second to none. Last up was Cesar, a cold, distant man, who called no place home, and whose history before they’d come together to play polo was a blank. But it was Cesar who had bought Isla Celeste, an island in the sun that served as their base, and not just for polo. After tonight’s mission, the team would reconvene on the island for debriefing. They went over their tactics one last time. Confident they had every angle covered, they tooled up and headed out. ~o0o~ Amber had no intention of staying in her cabin all night. Nice though it was, with its polished wood and clever design, she needed fresh air, as well as some time away from the ship to think how she was going to get the inside story on Alexei Riga for Dana. He wasn’t exactly the open, friendly type. He was more the archetypical strong and silent type, with a bit of BDSM potential thrown in. This was, of course, only a theory, as her experience was confined to her imagination, but he did love his discipline. Pulling on her jeans, a fleece, and a pair of sneakers, she glanced at the crew instruction folder. There was nothing to say she couldn’t leave the ship, though she didn’t want Mr. Chatty trailing after her. She could eat on board in the crew’s mess, but as she wasn’t on duty until seven o’clock the following morning, she wanted to see what was happening on shore. The trick would be to find a café where she could actually afford to eat. Hard News hadn’t been exactly lavish with expenses, and Monte Carlo wasn’t noted for its cheap eateries, but maybe a sandwich bar would be open. Slipping over the side of the yacht was easy. Getting back again might be a problem, but it was a problem that would wait until later. Climbing onto the pontoon from the ship without getting a dunking in the sea or being spotted by the guards or by one of the many cameras was another challenge, but it was one she relished. She had undergone many similar tests in the army and had proved a tricky adversary for her instructors. It was dark on the side streets of Monte Carlo, apart from the occasional street lamp and a reluctant moon. It was pointless searching the main drag for somewhere she could afford to eat, so she headed up the narrow side streets in search of affordable food, reasoning that workers like her had to eat somewhere. From a trash can? Shocked by the sight of a young girl rifling through a Dumpster behind a pizza restaurant, Amber backed into a doorway to watch. The girl had already made a small pile of discarded boxes containing scraps of half-eaten pizzas, and she was looking for more. Digging out her money, Amber counted the thin wad of notes. She made some swift calculations. She could afford to buy more than one pizza. Walking over to put her proposal to the girl, she was startled when the girl reared back as if terrified of Amber. Wheeling around, the girl looked for somewhere to hide. “Hey—no!” Catching up, Amber tried to explain. “Please don’t be afraid. I’m not going to hurt you. What’s your name?” The girl looked at her warily before deciding to speak. “Celina,” she confided in a whisper. “I was just on my way to buy a pizza, Celina.” Amber mimed eating a pizza as she pointed at the café. Celina obviously spoke some English, but Amber had no idea if she understood enough to realize what Amber intended to do. “I understand you,” Celina explained to her relief. “Will you let me buy you a pizza?” Celina looked as if she’d rather disappear, and said nothing for a while. She was shaking like a rabbit. Rake thin, with long, straggly hair, she was grubby and half-starved. A noise made Amber swing around and stare up. She was shocked to see more women leaning out of an upstairs window. “Your friends?” she asked. Following her glance, Celina grimaced. “We’re all locked in. I managed to escape to find food.” Amber assessed the situation. The house was part of a block with a fire escape running down from the roof. Celina had taken an incredible risk to get out. The only way she could have done so was by edging along a narrow ledge to reach the fire escape, and from there, down to the street. “No! Don’t do that,” Celina exclaimed in panic as Amber cautiously tried the front door. “They’ll hear you.” “They?” “The men.” Celina’s eyes had widened with fright. “The men who brought us here,” she explained, her gaze darting anxiously around the shadows. “We paid them to bring us here,” she admitted in a small voice. “We all answered the same advertisement for well-paying jobs and a chance to better ourselves.” “You don’t have to explain yourself to me,” Amber said, firing up inside on behalf of the women as she tried to work out how best to help them. “The pizza?” Celina pressed softly in an imploring tone. She sounded so desperate, Amber knew she couldn’t refuse, though every second they remained in the open added to the danger of discovery. “You stay here, and I’ll be back as fast as I can,” she promised. “Don’t go anywhere. I’m going to help you.” “Don’t tell anyone,” Celina implored. “You’ll put us all in danger if you tell the authorities.” “But we have to tell someone,” Amber insisted. “Just not yet—we’re all so hungry.” “All right,” Amber agreed. “But throw those boxes of pizza away. You don’t know how long that food’s been rotting in the bin.” There was hunger, and then there was this, Amber thought as Celina reluctantly did as she asked. “Stay back in the shadow of that doorway and wait for me,” she instructed. Amber paid for as many pizzas as she could afford. She’d sort out her finances later. Balancing the boxes in her arms, she backed her way out the door. She looked around for Celina, but there was no one in the doorway, and the window from which the women had been leaning out was closed— Amber exclaimed in fright as a big hand slammed across her mouth, then her survival instincts and training kicked in, and she fought with her elbows, her heels, and her teeth, but the man was too strong for her and started dragging her toward the house. “How thoughtful of you to bring us pizza,” he snarled in an ugly accent. ~o0o~ Alexei and his team spread out silently, taking up position in preparation for the raid. A thirst for danger had always united them, and their goal was simple tonight. There were female captives inside the house, whom they intended to free. And not just free but repatriate, or find them safe havens. Failure wasn’t an option. If they weren’t rescued, the older women would go as domestic slaves, hidden and forgotten in some plutocrat’s mansion, while the younger, prettier women would be washed and groomed and dressed in tiny bikinis before being offered up for auction on the dark web. It was a multimillion-dollar enterprise controlled by a network of men that Alexei and his team had sworn to eliminate. Alexei’s spy at the pizza restaurant had alerted him to this latest cell, which was why Alexei’s yacht was berthed in Monte Carlo at such an unfashionable time of year. He’d just been told through his earpiece that the women had been moved from the locked attic to the cellar. “Because of some young English girl walking into their trap,” his spy on the ground had told him, ending with a brief description of the girl. Amber Smith. He swore viciously. He’d had no report of her leaving the ship, but the description fit her perfectly. “And we didn’t even have to pay for her transport here,” his spy now reported one of the gang members boasting. Fucking idiot! As if they didn’t have enough on their plates tonight without having to rescue Amber. “I got a quick look at her before they dragged her away,” his spy told him. “She’s valuable stock—young and fresh. Even her long red hair is an advantage because it’s so unusual. They’ll put a premium on her when they put her up for sale. When they manhandled her into the house, I heard one of them say, ‘Let’s see how you like the rats in the basement when you join the other sluts,’ which is why I think that’s where the other women are being held.” Alexei’s thirst for justice had just become personal. “Understood,” he murmured. He glanced at the house. Lights were on in the front rooms. He made a gesture to indicate that his team must watch the front door while he slipped around the side. The back of the house was in darkness. He wore protective bands around his fists and was carrying a pack containing the tools he’d need. Keeping his gun cocked and ready, he chose a window to crack. Using a glass cutter and glass suckers, he silently removed the pane and climbed inside. The cellar door was right in front of him. Bolted. No problem. The only hitch he anticipated was that the women would start screaming when he burst in wearing night vision goggles and brandishing a Glock. As always, timing was key. He relied on his team to keep the gang pinned down while he freed the women. He waited for the first round of gunfire, then shot the bolt and plunged into the steaming damp and oppressive darkness. ~o0o~ At the sound of the first shot, the women crowded around Amber started to scream. Shoving them behind her, she told them to crouch low while she stood in front of them, shielding them as best she could. “We don’t know what’s happening yet, but we need to be ready to move,” she impressed on them. “It’s no use screaming and crying. Do you want to die in here?” She could only hope her tone got through to them, and Celina helped her to translate. Amber flinched like the rest when the door burst open and a huge, black-clothed figure burst in. Recovering quickly, she took up position to defend the women. The man reared over her, intimidatingly close. “Amber?” “Alexei!” “Stand down,” he ordered quietly. She obeyed instantly. This was not the time for rebellion. Alexei stared past her, assessing the number and condition of the women. She assessed the quality and type of body armor he was wearing, together with all his state-of-the-art equipment. Black combat gear with night vision goggles over his balaclava told its own story. Away from the plush surroundings of his superyacht, Alexei Riga was a tough, hard-bitten soldier of a type Amber was accustomed to and felt an immediate affinity with. “Are you okay?” He glanced at her once through the slit in his mask. “Yes, sir.” His stare lingered for a millisecond on her face. “I’ll lead the women upstairs, while you take up the rear. Make sure no one gets left behind. We need out of here fast. Someone from the gang will be down here checking inventory at the first possible opportunity.” “Backup?” He nodded. “As soon as I give the signal, my team will draw fire.” He murmured a single word into a hidden mic, and the gunfire intensified overhead. Gun cocked, Alexei went ahead of her, while Amber turned to the women and laid her finger on her lips. She ushered them up the steps and into the room above, where Alexei had barred the door into the main part of the house. All that remained was to hustle the women through the broken window. She recognized the guy from the pizza restaurant waiting outside. They exchanged brief nods of recognition, and then he hurried the women into a van with blacked-out windows and drove them away. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked Alexei. “I’m staying to help clean the place.” She guessed he wasn’t referring to mopping floors. “Then I’m staying too.” “No, you’re not,” he said fiercely. She glared into eyes that held all the warmth of ice chips behind his sinister mask and stood her ground. “I take it you can remember how to handle a gun?” he bit out seeing she had no intention of moving. “Military training? And I’ve grown up handling a gun. I used to shoot on the farm all the time, though unarmed combat’s my preferred method of self-defense.” Reaching down, Alexei pulled a small gun from an ankle holster. “Point and shoot,” he instructed. “Just don’t shoot me. Or yourself,” he added as an afterthought. Alexei worked smoothly with his team to trap the gang in a pincer movement, while Amber watched his back. They made a good team, though she didn’t take her first decent breath until all the gunfire had stopped. “It’s done,” one of Alexei’s colleagues informed him, with the briefest of glances at Amber. “How many of you are there?” she asked when Alexei stood down. He ignored her question. So did his friend. So she answered it for herself. There were four members of Alexei’s team tonight: Alexei, Dante, Diego, and Cesar, otherwise known as the Blood and Thunder polo team. Chapter Three It was only when Alexei leapt into the driver’s seat of the sleek black SUV and tore off his balaclava that she noticed the dark patch on his sleeve. “You’ve been hit.” “Just a scratch.” He took off from the curb at speed. “You can clean it up when we get back to the ship. If your stomach can take it?” “My stomach can handle a graze,” she assured him. It wasn’t tending Alexei’s wound she was worried about, but the prospect of touching him. “You got the standard medical training in the army and a little more besides when you joined Special Ops. Don’t act the fool with me,” he warned. “I’ve read your CV—the authorized version, as well as the bullshit you served up to me.” His mouth seemed crueler and his harsh accent more pronounced as he flashed a glance at her. “When were you going to tell me the truth? Or are you going to deny that you graduated close to the top of your class?” Alexei’s icy stare bored into her. Lifting her chin, she remained true to her training and said nothing. “Do you want the job on my ship or not?” ‘I want it,” she confirmed tensely. “But could you please look where you’re going when you’re driving?” With a humorless laugh, Alexei sped up, taking them on a tour of the principality’s winding streets like a race car driver. “Where are your colleagues?” She checked the wing mirrors for a possible tail. “They can look after themselves,” Alexei said tersely. She braced herself against the dash as he abruptly swung the wheel. “What will happen to those women now?” “They’re safe with the relevant authorities and well cared for. The principality won’t risk anything that might taint its brand. This is a playground for the rich and famous. Imagine how it would look if some of the less worthy citizens found their dirty linen being washed in the public square.” “Are you saying there are people here who would keep slaves like those women?” “What do you think, Ms. Smith? A lot of boats move in and out of marinas all over Europe without anyone asking the right questions. Except for you, Amber Smith,” he observed, “and you ask a lot of questions. I’ll debrief you in more detail when we’re back on board. How did you disembark, by the way, without anyone seeing you?” Smiling faintly, she said nothing. Alexei hummed. “Your take on upping security could be useful.” “It’s all too easy to become complacent,” Amber agreed. “Even the most advanced technology has difficulty keeping pace with the complexities and determination of a human mind.” “You don’t say,” he murmured, sliding her a look. Alexei’s cold stare warned her to be open with him from now on, or she’d be off the ship with nothing to show for her stay, apart from the few scrapes and bruises she’d gotten tonight. But she’d learned enough to know there was a dark world beneath the everyday, and that no country could handle all the action. Alexei Riga, and men like him, took up the slack. He was a fearless vigilante, operating on the fringes of the law. Was that what Dana had been hinting at? Should Amber write about it in her article? Or were her loyalties divided now? She wanted to keep her job, but she didn’t want to jeopardize Alexei’s valuable work. Act in haste, repent at leisure sprang to mind, but she already knew that she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she betrayed Alexei. Keeping her job was going to be harder than she’d thought unless she could come up with something else to write about. He drew up alongside Russian Thunder and sprang down. “Let her through,” he barked over his shoulder, tossing his keys to one of the guards. She jogged up the gangplank in his wake. “Will there be more missions like this one?” Alexei stopped dead in front of her. “Why? Is the adrenaline racing?” he mocked. “Does the danger excite you, Ms. Smith?” “You should see to that wound,” she said, ignoring his jibe. He glanced down to where the pooling blood had painted a darker shade of black on his sleeve, and then indicated that she should follow him. “Medical supplies?” she asked the moment Alexei had closed the door on his study. He shot a glance at the phone on his desk. Crossing the floor, she lifted the receiver and waited for the call to connect. Then she gave some brief instructions. Ignoring the barrage of swearing in Russian behind her, she replaced the receiver in its nest. “Obviously, you’ve got a ship’s doctor,’ she said, turning to face Alexei. “And that wound might need stitching.” “How do you know we have a doctor on board?” he challenged suspiciously. “I’d be pretty amazed if you didn’t. My best guess is that you have a fully stocked pharmacy, an operating theater, and a morgue for icing those unlucky enough to need refrigeration.” Alexei’s face remained stony, but he raised a brow and softened enough to murmur, “Touché. “Stay,” he instructed when she turned for the door. “We’ll talk more when the doctor has finished.” Amber shrugged as if this were fine with her, but her heart was beating like a drum. It was one thing standing up to Alexei and something else when he appeared to enjoy it. His stare might be icy, but it could undress her, pleasure her, and promise her more, all within the space of a split second. He did need stitches. And the doctor was another of the hard-faced crew she’d seen before in passing. She acted as his nurse in silence. He accepted her assistance without comment. Alexei was stoic, as she had expected. He made not a sound as the doctor cleaned and stitched. She cleared away the debris and then showed the doctor to the door. “Thank you, Doctor,” she said politely as he went on his way as silently as he had arrived. “You’ve got your uses,” Alexei observed. “And you don’t flinch at the sight of blood.” “I don’t flinch at anything, apart from injustice.” Alexei’s considering look was long and steady. “I’d like to do more,” she admitted. “I’d like to help the women you helped to save tonight.” “There’s already a program in place.” “And I’d like to be part of it,” she said bluntly. “Our work will never be done. There will always be more gangs like the one we came up against tonight, and more women looking for a better life.” “What do I have to do to join you?” “You? Join us?” Alexei looked at her skeptically. “Do you think it’s that easy?” “You said the gang belonged to a network of criminals?” she pressed undaunted. “Correct.” “Then you need all the help you can get.” Alexei leaned back against one of the snowy-white barstools to regard her sternly. He looked like a dark angel that had alighted briefly on a cloud; a very bad dark angel. She cleared her throat, and attempted to clear the smutty thoughts from her head. “So tonight’s gang will have colleagues who’ll want revenge?” “I’d hate to be out of business,” he said dryly. He reached for two shot glasses and put them on the bar. When he leveled a stare on her face, every lustful thought inside her sprang to attention and saluted. He poured two equal drinks and held one shot glass out. “Vodka—” “Oh no, thank you. I don’t drink spirits.” “That wasn’t a question.” She stared at the glass. “Vodka,” he repeated. “You’re shaking. It will steady your nerves.” She doubted any drink had the power to do that. “Unless you’d prefer hot milk?” Alexei’s mocking remark and the challenge in his eyes were all it took for her to pick up the gauntlet and run with it. She took the glass, careful not to touch his hand. Taking a sip, she almost choked. “Like this,” he said, knocking it back. “Za zda-ró-vye! Cheers!” Alexei slammed his glass down on the bar. “Right now, hot milk sounds great to me,” Amber admitted as she put her still-full glass down next to his. Alexei laughed derisively. “How are you going to join the team when you can’t even drink with us?” “Perhaps one of us should keep a clear head?” she suggested mildly. Judging by Alexei’s expression, it was touch and go as to whether he would fire her or throw her over his knee and spank her, a possibility she found irrationally arousing. “You have heard of mutiny, I presume?” His tone was low and faintly menacing. “And the brig,” Amber confirmed. “Where you could lock me up and throw away the key. But I’d like the opportunity to prove myself first—if that’s okay with you?” “In what way?” Alexei looked interested. “In the gym?” “The gym?” Now he looked amused. “So the little English girl thinks she can handle herself in the gym?” “She knows she can,” Amber said coolly. She’d watched Alexei’s back tonight and had taken full part in the raid. She deserved some respect for that at least. “And it’s English woman,” she emphasized. His eyes narrowed and his lips pressed down as he considered her offer. “Six a.m.—before you start work tomorrow. In my gym, not the crews’. The officer will show you the way.” Amber glanced at the deck beneath her feet as the huge vessel shifted almost imperceptibly. Alexei confirmed her suspicions. “We’re casting off. This is your last chance to change your mind.” “I’ve got no intention of changing my mind.” Picking up the shot glass, she exclaimed, “Za zda-ró-vye!” and knocked it back. Banging her glass down on the bar, she ran for the hills—or the lower deck, at least, making it out of Alexei’s study with seconds to spare before her throat turned into an inferno and her legs gave way. Chapter Four Amber wasn’t a drinker, so the single shot of vodka she’d swigged the previous evening had almost knocked her out. She didn’t remember much about getting to bed but thanked her lucky stars that she’d only had one drink, so the effects had worn off by the next morning. She wanted the chance to warm up in the gym before sparring with Alexei. Exciting though the thought of grappling with him was, she couldn’t pretend she wasn’t apprehensive. She was agile and fast, but Alexei was built like a tank. She stared at her reflection in the mirror above the sink. She had graduated top of her class in self-defense. The thug on shore in Monte Carlo had just gotten lucky. She would rely on her speed. Loading her determination with a double dose of stubborn intent to keep her job on board Russian Thunder, she brushed her hair back and secured it out of the way. ~o0o~ He swam in his lap pool first to loosen up his muscles, and then grabbed a towel, dried off, and strolled to his gym, where he was surprised to find Amber already well into her routine, kicking six bells out of his punch bag. With her fists raised and her feet flying, she was quite something in sweatpants, gloves, and a tiny exercise top. He stood watching her from the doorway as she gave the bag everything she got. She was fast and effective. And as hot as hell. “Don’t let me stop you,” he said when she sensed him watching and paused mid-blow. Wiping her forehead on the back of her arm, she leveled a stare at him. “You’re not stopping me. Shouldn’t you be warming up?” Things had changed between them since last night. She demanded respect now. She got it, and he looked forward to testing her further. “How’s your arm?” she asked as she launched a flurry of kicks and punches at the bag. “I don’t want an unfair advantage.” “You won’t get one,” he assured her. Temptation swung between teaching her a lesson and a primal need that had nothing to do with a workout. He worked methodically through his sets, finding the calm that always filled him when he used his body to the full. “Ready?” he asked her as he toweled down. “If you are,” she said. She had guts. He’d give her that. ~o0o~ Ten seconds in, Amber knew she was in trouble. She might be fast, but Alexei was warp speed. Stripped to the waist with loose-fitting fight shorts slung low on his hips, he was also a dangerous distraction. She couldn’t afford to get caught by one of those swings. He’d kill her if he landed a blow. He parried and deflected her shots as easily as swatting a fly. Her speed was all that saved her, for a while— She yelped with shock as the mat flew up to meet her. Alexei had tripped her. She hadn’t seen that coming. Somehow he got to the mat before her, and she landed on top of him with a grunt. “Since when was playing dirty in your rule book?” she demanded when she could find enough breath to speak. “Lesson one, myshka. In my team, there are no rules.” “Little mouse?” she demanded, outraged, struggling to break free before her body insisted she rub against him. “Did you just call me a little mouse?” “You speak Russian?” “Enough to know when I’m being insulted.” She narrowed her eyes. “I thought you’d read my CV. The unofficial one?” As she scrambled up, Alexei reached out and grabbed her wrist. ‘But you are tiny, myshka.” “Maybe. But I’m no fucking mouse!” Grabbing her towel, she stalked, head high, out of the gym, with Alexei’s laughter following after. ~o0o~ Not knowing if Alexei would throw her off at the next port, Amber decided to make up for her loss of control by working through every single instruction the purser had given to her in half the time expected. She cleaned every one of the guest cabins until they gleamed and made sure they were restocked with necessities. Returning to the spacious galley after taking a shower, she gratefully accepted a giant bowl of spaghetti from one of the chefs. She had just dug her fork in when a familiar voice rang out. “Idling on duty, myshka?” Stifling the urge to upend the bowl of spaghetti on Alexei’s feet, she turned slowly to face him. Everyone else in the kitchen was standing to attention, Amber noticed, while she was still seated with her chin resting on her shoulder. Something about the look in Alexei’s eyes and the faint angling of his chin brought her to her feet like everyone else. His air of command was impossible to ignore. Trying not to be impressed by a sight that made her heart go crazy, she saw he’d showered and changed into snug-fitting jeans and a casual shirt with the sleeves rolled back to display his formidable forearms. She could detect the faint scent of shower gel on him, and his hair was still a little damp. She refused to be intimidated, either by his incredible physique or by the way he moved like a silent big-pawed predator across the galley toward her. She certainly wasn’t impressed by the mocking expression on his hard, ruthless face, or by the freakin’ ridiculous bulge in his jeans. Especially not that. “Hello again,” she said coolly. “My quarters now,” he said, jerking his chin. ~o0o~ “Where are we headed?” she asked the moment Alexei had closed the door on his high-tech study. Her body was still singing from being manhandled by Alexei on the mat, but her brain was functioning clearly enough to know that she had to keep her wits about her. “You’re in no position to question me. Shut your mouth,” he added coldly, “and listen for once. You did a good thing last night. And you put up a reasonable show on the mat this morning. You could be of use to us when we reach the island.” “Are you offering me a job?” “I thought you already had one,” Alexei commented with a lift of his brow. “Only a few unique and special individuals work with us.” “And I don’t qualify?” Amber’s hackles rose. “How can you say that when you don’t know anything about me?” Folding his arms, Alexei stared down at her. “You think I don’t know about you? You think that’s not what I do? How do you think I’ve stayed alive so long? I know everything about you, even down to the fact that you took the job at Hard News, and turned down an offer to join one of the UK’s elite undercover squads because you could see a time coming when you might want to settle down to civilian life.” “But I never planned to work for you.” “Not until you were sent here,” he reminded her. Which was true. Working for Alexei would be full of risk, and not just because of the dangerous missions he undertook. Her heart was at risk too. Unfortunately, the more coolly he behaved toward her, the more of a challenge she found him. Currently, he was right up there in the space marked “Stay away from this man. If you can.” “I do need to deliver my story,” she admitted, “But I can tailor it to suit whatever story you want to put out.” With that statement, she had just declared her loyalty, Amber realized. She felt good about it too. Part of her had wondered if Alexei was just another member of the privileged one percent of society, who lived their lives in an ivory tower, but he had proved to be so much more than that. He used his wealth to help others rather than himself, and because of it, he appealed to her on so much more than just a sexual level. She’d freely admit that she’d fallen for the world he inhabited. She’d always thought of herself as a woman of action but had somehow had got stuck in a low-level reporting job. What could be better than working to change the world for good, as Alexei did, and with a powerful team around her? It would be a culmination of her life’s training and dreams. “If you do come to work for me, I’ll need to know more about you so I can protect those you care about,” Alexei explained. “The first place any gang will strike to try to get at you is at those you love.” “I thought you knew everything about me?” “I need to hear your version of events to be sure nothing was left out of the reports I’ve received.” Amber only wished she could read the reports he’d received and know where he’d got them from, and who had compiled them, but like all the other secrets she suspected Alexei held close to his chest, she guessed she’d never know. “Where would you like me to start?” “Childhood,” he instructed. “Father in the military.” The rush of pain she always felt when she thought about her father silenced her for a few moments. His memory was like a clear bell chiming through all the fug in between. “He was killed on the battlefield, trying to save his comrades.” Pressing her lips together, she lifted her chin. “My mother married again.” This all came out clipped. She didn’t want to relive that part of her past at all—not the mocking she’d suffered at the hands of her stepfather, or his verbal abuse of her father, or the way he’d hit her mother, and worse, when he’d had too much to drink. “Your stepfather abused you?” Alexei guessed. “Are you asking me or telling me?” She fixed Alexei with an unblinking stare. He shrugged. “As I said, I’d like to hear your version of events.” “I spent a lot of time hiding,” she admitted. “When I was older and the army recruitment team moved into the nearest town, it seemed like the right time to follow my dad into the military. I guess you pulled my record, so I won’t elaborate beyond saying that I loved my time in the forces. Further training in Special Ops was mentioned, and I seized the opportunity. Joining the forces was like joining another family for me.” “And your stepfather?” Alexei prompted. “He was forces too, and had never got over the fact that he’d failed advanced training, while I got through. It pissed him off. I pissed him off. He liked to test me when I was home on leave, until one day his test became…shall we say, a little more intimate?” “Did you survive it?” “Clearly, I did.” Amber’s face froze as she remembered. “He got no further than a quick grope. He wouldn’t have got that far if I’d expected him to do something like that while my mother was in the room. I suppose now that was just further proof of his contempt for both of us.” “You had a lucky escape.” She laughed without humor. “You could call it that. My father had insisted I learn judo from the age of five. He said every woman should be able to defend herself, so I kept it up. Even as a young teen, I wanted to honor his memory, and that was something concrete I could do.” ‘You must have loved him very much.” “I adored him,” she said bluntly. “And your stepfather?” “He was an arse. I was a black belt by the time he assaulted me. He thought he could take me on, and he ended up in hospital. My mother took his side and asked me to leave. He beat her to death shortly afterward. So, no,” she said. “You don’t need to worry about me. No one can get at me through those I care about, because there’s no one left.” “Why did you leave the forces?” Alexei frowned. “Why Hard News? Why investigative journalism?” “My mother’s death shattered me. I was determined to see my stepfather brought to justice, and I did. He’ll be locked up for the rest of his life. I started to think about life after the forces. My job at Hard News was suggested by the forces resettlement officer—and not entirely by coincidence, I think now. My training as an investigative journalist was supposed to be all action, which appealed to me enormously, but it turned out to be no action—until I was given this assignment. Maybe this assignment isn’t a coincidence either.” “Maybe you’ll never know.” Alexei’s face remained expressionless. “I think you and I share some similarities,” she said. “You do?” “The same desire to right wrongs and expose evil? I want the chance to keep on doing it.” “So write your stories,” Alexei advised. “You know what they say about the pen being mightier than the sword. It also gives you the excuse to visit places that are closed to a lot of people, where you will see things and experience things that can be helpful to a certain type of organization.” “To your type of organization?” “Amongst others,” he agreed. “So I’m undergoing yet another critical assessment,” she guessed. “And if I’m successful, are you suggesting I continue to investigate and release information that helps you?” “You’re still a long way from that,” he assured her. “So long as we’re on the same side?” It was Amber’s turn to assess Alexei. “You can assume that’s the case,” he confirmed. “You do have one advantage over me.” “Only one?” he pressed. She ignored the faint mocking tone in his voice. “You have the ability to remain detached, and I’m not sure I do.” He raised a brow at her confession, but then his expression hardened again. “I’m detached because I have to be, because anything else can cost lives. If you feel too much, you’ll be a liability to my organization. If you want to stay, that will have to change. One of the first rules of investigative journalism is to keep emotion out of it, surely?” “I’ll try.” “You’ll have to do better than that.” He glanced at the door. “This interview is over. You’re dismissed.” So, had she gotten the job or not? Amber left and closed the door with a soft click. Alexei sent such conflicting messages. His main purpose in life seemed to be unsettling her. To date, he had a hundred percent success rate in that direction. She felt wrung out by his questions, and aroused from nothing more than being close to him. She had to get over her response to him. She could fantasize all she liked about the steely-eyed Russian taking control of her pleasure along with everything else he controlled, but she was wasting her time if she thought she could ignite a spark of genuine interest in those cold, assessing eyes. ~o0o~ When Russian Thunder moored at the first of the Canary Islands, his crew would disembark to spend Christmas Day on shore. That would leave him and Amber alone on board. The day after Christmas, they would sail to Isla Celeste, where she would have to pass the scrutiny of Dante, Diego, and Cesar. He had no doubt that she would, but imagining them finding her as intriguing as he did seriously pissed him off. Cutting Amber from his mind, he spent the rest of the day planning the next polo match on Isla Celeste. Hard, dangerous, and unforgiving, polo was exactly the type of relaxation he needed to take his mind off his work—all of it. The game was both a hobby and an excuse for him and the rest of the Blood and Thunder team to get together with other like-minded individuals. The league table, which the Blood and Thunder team currently headed, was the public face of a private army. Cut Amber from his mind? Seriously? Thoughts of her had plagued him all day, and now he couldn’t sleep. Swinging naked out of bed, he tugged on a pair of jeans. Exiting onto the deck, he leaned over the rail, staring out to sea. And only then realized that he had company. “Alexei—” Amber seemed as shocked to see him as he was to see her. “You got through security again?” “I do seem to be making a habit of it,” she agreed. “And just happened to find yourself outside my suite” Mashing her lips together, she looked more as if she was trying to stop herself laughing than acting guilty. “I was wondering if your arm had healed.” “Were you?” he commented skeptically. “As you can see. It’s healing nicely, thanks to your prompt attention.” “The doctor’s prompt attention,” she countered crisply, taking none of the credit for his care.” “They taught you some useful skills in the army,” he observed. “You too,” she said. She was barefoot in pajamas, with her shining hair cascading around her shoulders like a cloud. She looked young and innocent. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find her clutching a teddy bear. Knowing she was combat trained and far from naïve only added to her allure. “Couldn’t you sleep?” she asked. Her impertinence astounded him, but even in flannelette pajamas, partly concealed by one of the ship’s robes, she looked like the hottest thing on two slender legs. “How did you get past security and onto this deck?” She gave him a reproving look. “Are you questioning my right to fresh air?” “Not at all.” He rested back on the rail. “I’m just curious as to how you slipped past my guards yet again.” “We were chatting, and they were relaxed. I guess they didn’t notice when I turned left instead of right. Don’t blame them,” she added quickly. “Everyone who comes on board is thoroughly checked out.” “They told you this?” “All I’m saying is, your guards have got no reason to suspect the worst of me.” “Unlike me?” he suggested. Her slender shoulders lifted in a shrug. “You suspect everyone.” “With good reason, it seems.” “So, what led you to this job?” she prompted. “Strictly off the record, of course.” “Of course,” he agreed dryly. “Everything I say to a journalist is off the record.” “Unless you give me permission to use what you tell me, then it is,” Amber insisted. “And I’m not solely a journalist, as you very well know, any more than you’re solely a…billionaire?” “I didn’t just find a money tree. I have to work for everything I’ve got.” “I don’t doubt it, but how did you get started?” “Like everyone else, I put one foot in front of the other.” “Yes, but you went halfway around the globe, while the rest of us are marking time. I’m fascinated by how you came so far so fast. What is your backstory, Alexei?” “That’s none of your business,” he snapped, closing down that line of questioning. “You can’t blame me for being curious,” she said. “It’s hard for me to forget how much I’ve told you, and how little, if anything, you’ve told me.” “And that’s how it’s going to stay,” he assured her. Leaning against the ship’s rail, she braced herself to ask the question nagging in her mind. “So no mini-oligarchs or a glamorous wife or even a girlfriend waiting for you?” “I’m surprised you’re interested.” She blushed faintly. “Just mildly curious,” she admitted. “No boyfriend?” he parried. “That’s none of your—” A raised brow was all it took to remind Amber that she hadn’t gotten the job yet. “No one who can keep up with me,” she amended, replacing tension with good humor. They stared at each other. He liked a woman who could stand up to him. Amber certainly could. It appeared she liked him too. A lot. They came together like a clap of thunder. He dragged her close. She grabbed hold of him. He wrestled her away so he could stare her in the eyes. He had to be sure there was no ambiguity in them. He saw what he’d expected. She wanted him. He wanted her. She was aroused and wanted sex as much as he did. “What’s wrong?” Alexei demanded when she went still in his arms. As much as she wanted him, she’d guessed he’d discard her when he was done, and was probably thinking, was that what she wanted? Was she prepared to risk, if not her heart, then at the very least, her self-respect? Gazing heavenward, she huffed out a breath and shook her head. “Billionaire warrior and fledgling reporter?” Angling her chin to stare up at him, she slanted her lips. “Does that sound likely?” “It doesn’t need to,” he ground out. His engines were firing on all cylinders. He wasn’t interested in delay. “Because everything you do is short-term?” she challenged. “Because you should stop putting us in a box,” he argued. “Instead of fixating on billionaire and journalist, why don’t you try Alexei and Amber instead? I think you’ll find that they’re quite a good match.” In spite of herself, coming from Alexei, that thrilled her. “Alexei and Amber?” she repeated. “Just don’t get too fond of it,” he warned. “Don’t worry, I won’t,” she assured him spikily. But it would be hard not to, Amber thought as Alexei pressed his body against hers, until her softness yielded to his hard steel. “That’s good,” he approved, dropping drugging kisses on the side of her neck. Good? She could lose control from his kisses alone. When she whimpered with pleasure, he laughed softly and showed her no mercy at all. Teasing the seam of her lips with his tongue until she parted them for him, he plundered her mouth, tasting and greedily possessing as he mimicked the act they both craved. She groaned softly with need. If she’d been hungry for Alexei before he kissed her, she was ravenous now. And then he ramped up the pressure beyond bearing when he murmured in her ear, “I’m going to kiss you, touch you, and pleasure you, until you come so hard, so many times, I’ll have to carry you to bed because your legs won’t hold you.” “How long have we got?” Exhaling shakily, she smiled against his mouth. Chapter Five “On the bed,” Alexei instructed as he backed her across the stateroom Maintaining eye contact as he pushed the robe from her shoulders, she challenged, “Are you sure you can make time for this?” “Oh, I can make time,” Alexei assured her. Freeing the buttons down the front of her top, he trailed one rough-edged fingertip very lightly between her breasts. “Do you have any idea how hungry you’ve made me?” “Enough to distract you?” she suggested. “For now,” he agreed. “Then, I guess I’ll take now,” she said, trying to sound equally offhand. Amber fired him up like no other woman before her. He’d never met a woman so dismissive, so provocative, or so challenging. His natural male desire to master, tame, and pleasure was eating him alive. And every inch of the way, she threw up a challenge. He liked that. “You just want the act and satisfaction,” she accused him. “Don’t analyze. Just feel,” he advised, running his hands very lightly over her for the pleasure of feeling her tremble beneath his touch. “Are you determined to tease me?” she demanded huskily. “What do you think?” he murmured, kissing his way down her neck. “I think you’re stone here…” She touched his chest over his heart. ‘And what’s the cure for that?” he demanded softly. ‘Turn up the heat?” she suggested. He laughed. “If I’m stone, you’re all yielding curves and needy places. But not in here,” he added, brushing her silky hair back from her face. “In here...” He tapped her head. “You’re as knowing as you are beautiful.” “Oh, am I?” she whispered. “Yes, you are, which is why I know you need this as much as I do.” Her lips pressed down in rueful disapproval. “This is just sex to you, isn’t it?” “What else would it be?” he demanded softly. Amber shook her head. “How can you be so cold?” “How can you allow yourself to reach this level of frustration without wanting to move on?” he reasoned coolly. “Because satisfaction is never a given—not even with the most sophisticated toy,” she retorted, which made him smile. “Is that all I am to you? A sex toy?” And when she shrugged, he said, “You’re no better than me.” “Accepted,” she gasped out when he lightly cupped her breasts. Drowning in her wildflower scent, he rasped his stubble lightly against her neck until she exhaled on a soft cry. He pushed her pajamas pants down and helped her step out of them, and then he backed her up until her legs were pressed hard against the bed. “Don’t you think you’re overdressed, Alexei?” “My clothes can wait. Open your legs,” he commanded softly. “And just stand in front of you, while you…?” “Why not?” he said. She opened her mouth and said nothing, but she did as he asked. Slipping a hand between her thighs, he explained, “Let me do this.” She stood still, listening as he worked her, her breathing speeding up as the pressure began to build. “I can’t—” “You can’t what?” he said quietly. “I can’t stand here and let you do this.” She was clinging to his arms. “Stand up straight,” he insisted. “Let go of me. Don’t touch me. Just concentrate on what I’m doing to you.” “I can’t, I’ll fall over,” she admitted with an edge of hysteria in her voice. “I can’t do this—I can’t hold on—” “Yes, you can,” he said sternly. “And you will. You will take everything I have to give you, and you will not release until I give you permission to do so.” Her body was out of her control. Alexei was in complete charge of her pleasure. That thought alone would have been enough to tip her over the edge, if his steely stare hadn’t been so commanding. She wanted to obey him in this alone. She wanted to feel the pleasure that only he could bring. His skillful touches, rapid little brushes growing firmer all the time, were setting up the sweetest, strongest clenches she’d ever known. Her entire body was awash with sensation. “I’ve got no idea how long I can take this,” she admitted with a healthy dose of pleading in her voice. “You will take it,” he told her evenly, staring into her eyes as he worked her with more intent than ever. “And you will not let go until I tell you to.” She was on the edge, hovering. Alexei kept her there for the longest time. And then, quite suddenly, he pulled his hand away and stopped. “What are you doing?” she demanded. Placing his hands on her shoulders, he dipped his head to stare into her eyes. “Now,” he murmured. “Oh—fuck!” She let go. She had no option with a seismic event beating down on her. She was vaguely aware that she was making a lot of noise as she bucked repeatedly toward Alexei. Her hips were working as if his hands were still on her, and he had to save her from collapsing to the ground. Holding her steady, he kept her in front of him as the wild dance of pleasure continued. “Better now?” he murmured when she was quieter. She came to, to find him holding her safe in his arms. Alexei’s eyes were calm and assessing, with just the faintest suggestion of amusement in them when she groaned. “You fucking brute…” “On the contrary, I am a skilled technician who takes great pride in his work.” “Yeah,” she agreed, “Like I said before, you’re stone cold.” Alexei enjoyed bringing pleasure, but he prided himself on remaining detached. Why was he like that? While he had been pleasuring her so expertly, she had lost touch with reality, but he hadn’t lost touch with anything. Sex was a necessary pastime for Alexei, an essential part of life, like eating and drinking and breathing, but no more than that. Keep emotion out of it? Wasn’t that what she told herself to do? So why was she lifting up her face for his kiss? Tasting him, kissing him, inhaling his scent, and feeling his arms tighten around her was something she knew couldn’t last forever, so why not claim it now? ~o0o~ The intensity of Amber’s response had surprised him. Pressing her down on the bed, he stretched out his length against her. She was so tiny, so passionate, so tender, so vulnerable, and so utterly different from any other woman he’d ever known. “Slowly,” he cautioned when she reached for him. “Pleasure is supposed to be savored.” “Oh,” she exclaimed with disappointment. “Can’t we just glut ourselves instead?” Trying not to laugh was his biggest challenge. He had never associated sex with fun, which made it hard to keep his usual detachment from a woman who refused to acknowledge that sex was a fact of life and simply a function like any other, and who insisted on behaving instead as if it were something so much more. Winding her limbs around his, she snuggled close. “You’re very forward,” he observed. “Must be making up for lost time,” she purred contentedly. “And you’re certainly no lady,” he added, making her laugh as she mapped his erection enthusiastically through the painful constriction of his jeans. “You should take them off,’ she told him, adopting a concerned expression. “You could cut off your blood circulation and do yourself a really serious injury.” “You’re something else,” he said, reaching for his belt buckle. “No. Let me do that,” she insisted, shaking her head. Putting her tiny hand over his, she took her time, turning the tables on him and leaving him in agony. He raised his hips so she could snap his belt from its loops, and then he settled back on the pillows so she could work on his zipper. No woman had ever taken the initiative like this before. It was an experience that both intrigued and frustrated him. “Now, take them off,” she instructed, having eased his zipper down. “You’ll feel so much better when you do.” “Thank you, Nurse,” he murmured dryly. Swinging off the bed, he dumped his jeans. “And built to scale,” she said. “Changed your mind?” He shot her a look. Her lips curved in a smile, and her green eyes danced with laughter. “If anything, I’m only more determined,” she told him. Dragging her close, he brought her beneath him. Driving his mouth down on hers, he kissed her, and kept on kissing her until she was completely in tune with him and completely ready for whatever came next. “What was it you said?” she asked him, mischief glinting in her eyes. “You’re going to make me come so hard, I won’t be able to stand?” “Well, could you?” he asked. “Earlier? That was cheating. You didn’t even touch me—and I was standing up.” “Until you fell down,” he reminded her. “Thanks to you,” she murmured, eyes shining. By now, he was frustrated to the point of pain, but his pleasure would have to wait. He removed what remained of Amber’s clothing: a small thong and her pajama jacket, but then he lost patience. The urge to be skin to hot skin consumed him. “I had thought about binding them,” she said, as he stared at her breasts with frank approval. “Especially when I was working at Hard News, where the men were like excitable puppies.” “And I’m not?” “You’re more of a wolf,” she said. “Which makes it okay?” he queried. “Which makes everything okay,” she told him with a sexy smile. She cried out with pleasure when he chafed her breasts by rubbing his chest against them. He could feel her nipples tightening beneath him and loved that feeling. Wanting more, he increased her arousal with teasing, brushing kisses and the rasp of his stubble against her neck. “I can’t stand this,” she complained in a voice that shook with tension when he paused. “And what are you going to do about it?” He laughed as he stroked her some more. “Try this…” Amber had the satisfaction of hearing Alexei groan when she took him in a firm grip with one hand and clutched his buttocks with the other. “Not yet,” he whispered when she moved her hand steadily up and down. His erection was magnificent. She marveled at its length and girth and at the deliciously smooth domed head that sprang so hungrily against her palm. “It’s perfect, and I need you in my mouth.” “Amber,” Alexei warned, but she ignored him. Her mouth was full. She couldn’t reply. He tasted so good. She laved him with her tongue and then sucked rhythmically for the pure pleasure of feeling him flex against the roof of her mouth. He was so clean and smooth, and so salty at the tip. He was big…huge. The practicalities of inserting this part of Alexei’s body into the hidden part of hers was a process yet to be explored, though her body was already clenching repeatedly in anticipation. Take it slowly was the best advice she could give herself, and so she cupped his balls, loving how smooth and cool they were. She nursed them as she took him deeper into her mouth. His groan of approval told her she’d gotten that right. And then he shifted position so they were top to toe. Parting her legs, he moved between them. His hands cupped her buttocks as he worked. Reciprocal pleasure was pleasure intensified, she discovered, though when he plunged his tongue deep, she almost lost control. “No,” Alexei instructed firmly, raising his head to stare fiercely at her. “You mustn’t—” She could. And she had. And the pleasure more than made up for her rebellion. It was so incredibly, excruciatingly good, with powerful pulses that raged on and on. “Bad,” Alexei scolded when she was ready to listen to him. “I should put you over my knee for disobedience—” She wriggled involuntarily. “Is that what you want?” he asked. He didn’t wait for her to reply. The next moment, her rump was high in the air and Alexei was holding her firmly in place as he delivered a flurry of light, titillating slaps. She came again without waiting for further instruction, and this time she was rewarded by another suggestion. “Would you like to come again?” His tone was so deliciously matter-of-fact. “Please,” she said politely, still with her bottom in the air. Resting over his knees, with her face positioned comfortably against the pillows, she writhed with pleasure as Alexei’s discipline turned to something more. “Come for me, baby,” he murmured, slipping his hand between her legs. She didn’t need telling twice. And then she heard a foil rip. “Let me. Guide my hand. I have to learn,” she reasoned. “You even want to do this?” he asked. “I even want to do everything,” she said, smiling. Just for a split second, Alexei looked at her with real understanding, almost affection, as if he was getting to know her and liked what he found, but then the look vanished as quickly as it had come. And, yes, she was asking to have her heart broken just thinking that way, but how was she supposed to stop feeling, and why couldn’t he start? “What’s so funny?” he asked when she huffed a rueful smile. “You,” she admitted. “You’re so big and hard and ruthless, and yet sometimes you let your caring side slip through.” “Thanks for warning me. I’ll have to be more careful in future.” But the way he lifted a brow and the way his eyes briefly burned with amusement gave her hope. And then he quickly made her forget everything. Nudging her thighs apart, he took his weight on his forearms and moved over her. He teased her with just the tip of his erection, and its weight alone was enough to alarm her. Breath shot out of her as he allowed the tip to catch just a little way inside her, but when he pulled back, the sense of loss she felt was intense. Which was surely what he’d intended, she suspected. “You’re so wet and so tight,” he murmured. “Are you surprised?” Alexei’s answer was to kiss her deeply and catch inside her again, and this time, he didn’t pull back. Taking Amber was a feeling like no other. He was surprised he could feel anything beyond the purely physical, but possessing her was primal and made him feel all sorts of things, chief amongst which was the desire to pleasure her. And to fuck like a madman. It took everything he had to hold back. She was so hot and tight and wet, and so hungry for him. She was clinging to him with fingers turned to steel, begging in words he doubted she ever used, to fuck her harder and faster as she worked her body frantically with his. When he was practically out of his mind with the need for release, she demanded more, turning him on like no woman ever had. They might not have known each other for long, but had fit heaven and hell into that time. “You’re insatiable,” he commented against her lips. “Says you,” she teased him, sounding as pleased as he felt. “That deserves a reprimand, at the very least,” he commented. “I certainly hope so,” she agreed. He brought her on top of him, and when she raised her hips for him, he took the greatest pleasure in rendering her plump buttocks pink, while she writhed against his other hand until she came twice more. “How many times is that?” she asked him. He was tempted to say he’d lost count, but it was easier to start moving again. Arranging her to suit them both, he took her deep and slow, rotating his hips until she forgot the question. Moments later, she was frantic for release. He gave it to her and made sure she enjoyed every second, to the last pulse of pleasure. “What do you think about? To hold on, I mean,” she asked him later. “Seriously? Polo matches mostly—match tactics, and which ponies to use for which chukka.” “Oh.” “You seem disappointed?” “Not at all. It’s just that I need it again,” she admitted. “Polo turns you on?” “Does that please you?” Her eyes were wide and sincere. “That is where we’re heading next,” he reminded her. “The public part of my life is all about polo.” “I’d almost forgotten,” she admitted. Turning in his arms, she stared into his eyes. “Do you like that part of your life best?” “Like it? I love it,” he freely admitted. “You sound very passionate?” “And you can’t stop asking questions, can you? So I’d better distract you,” he teased, stroking her. “Again?” he suggested. “If you’ve got time?” He had all the time in the world for Amber, tonight, at least. Taking hold of him, she settled him inside her and worked him hard. After a while, he changed position, bringing her beneath him so they could both watch. It turned him on to see how aroused that made her. They came together noisily with a huge amount of relief for both of them, but especially for him. “Any longer and I would have fucked you into next week and back,” he admitted as he collapsed on the bed alongside her. Amber pulled a comic face of misery. “Are you trying to say there’s no chance of that now?” He turned his head. “Are you disappointed?” “What do you think?” she said. Reaching out, he traced her cheek with his forefinger. “I think you’re a bad influence on me.” “I’m a bad influence on you?” She laughed softly, contentedly. “It’s you who’s the bad influence. I’m very happy to have to inform you that you’re an extremely bad man.” ~o0o~ When Amber woke the next morning, the first thing on her mind was more of the same. “Can’t you pause long enough for me to say good morning?” Alexei reprimanded when she reached for him. She shook her head. “No.” He laughed, and, pressing her knees back, sank deep. They eventually made it to the shower, where they fucked like rabbits. Shaking his head in mock disapproval when she stopped him getting out, he took her again, buffeting her repeatedly against the cool marble wall until she screamed her release. It was like the first time all over again, judging by her body’s responses. “Better now?” he murmured when she sucked in some much-needed air. “That should get me through the next five minutes.” He laughed and made no objection when she nestled her face against his chest. Fighting off feelings where Alexei was concerned was getting harder all the time. “Do you want to sleep some more?” he asked as he carried her back to bed. “Certainly not,” she said with feeling. “By my watch, it’s exactly seven o’ clock. Amber Smith. Reporting for duty. Sir!” Chapter Six Alexei had a video conference with his colleagues in the Blood and Thunder polo team booked for noon, so Amber and Alexei reluctantly, lingeringly, and loath to stop touching each other, parted company at ten. So now she would shower and change into her crew uniform. And possibly—probably—definitely, think about Alexei all day. Once you’d tasted ice, there was no turning back. Amber swung around to glance one last time through the door as it closed behind her. And breathe. Complete with hard, tanned muscles glistening in the suds, and what looked like a day’s worth of stubble, Alexei was still lolling in his billionaire-sized bath in his billionaire-sized facilities “Plutocrat,” she flung over her shoulder as she let the door swing shut on his marble temple to everything that was way beyond her reach. “Mouth,” he drawled contentedly as the door closed, sinking lower into the water. “Yeah, and don’t you love it,” Amber murmured, smiling as she turned to go. Pausing, she rested back against the door for a few moments to relive some incredible times from some utterly amazing hours. She hadn’t realized she could feel so close to someone or that sex could be so good. She had never dreamed she could experience such a wealth of feeling for anyone. And that was dangerous, she thought as she straightened up. It was so easy to daydream when Alexei was in the frame. He might be amazing in every way, but she had to think of him as a one-off treat, a Christmas bonus. It was just too bad that her heart wanted so much more. ~o0o~ The friends she was starting to make on board were already busy in the galley. There was a lot to prepare when a billionaire yacht owner decided to give his staff the day off. This would all be rich fodder for her article, Amber thought as she gazed around at what appeared to be organized chaos, though everyone seemed to be moving on prepared tracks and at the speed of light. She had already decided that her first article would concentrate on shipboard life, and the next, whatever she could find out about the famous polo team when they reached Isla Celeste. She would never kiss and tell—not that she could say much about Alexei’s private life, because, in spite of how close they’d become, he had very successfully kept her locked out of that part of his life, and what she had discovered would stay between them. Trust was like a green shoot and easily trampled, and she had no intention of doing that. She watched the head chef for a while, wielding his knife like a ninja warrior, and found herself wondering if he was yet another soldier in Alexei’s army. Every man in the galley, now she looked around, could easily be warrior material. Whatever else they were, Alexei’s team was highly professional and hugely loyal to Alexei. It was soon clear how much they respected him, but they liked him and trusted him too. “I can’t believe I’m supposed to be taking over from you for Christmas,” she told the chef, blanching at the sight of the insignia on his jacket that marked him out as a member of the elite Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. “What are you like at speed training a novice, whose specialty is hot pot and cheese on toast?” He reassured her with a grin. “Don’t worry. I’ll leave everything ready for you, with instructions as to how things work around here. And if you get stuck, I know caterers in every port.” “I can’t thank you enough,” she said with a sigh of relief. “How long will it take to reach Isla Celeste once we set sail?” “Are you eager to get there?” Recognizing the voice, she spun around to see Alexei looking stunning in nothing more than a fresh pair of jeans and a black shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He was leaning back against the door watching her with a faintly amused look in his eyes. “We’ll leave most of the crew in the Canary Islands,” he explained, pulling away from the wall. “A skeleton crew will take us the rest of the way to Isla Celeste, our home port.” Alexei paused before adding, “I’m here because I need you on deck right away, Ms. Smith.” Everyone in the kitchen was suddenly too busy to look up. “Of course, sir,” Amber said. “Keep that up,” Alexei murmured as he held the door for her and she walked past him. “You can call me sir, and I might even ask you to salute me next time.” “Don’t push it,” she warned. “You look great in uniform, by the way.” She gave him a look as Alexei stood back at the elevator, allowing her to enter before him. They stood facing each other in silence as the small cabin rose. The tension rose too. It was only when the doors finally opened that Amber realized how on edge she had become. Alexei steered her in front of him onto the deck. “What do you think?” he asked as he turned her to face the view. “Wow,” Amber breathed. The cliffs looming out of the sea as they sailed past were ivory, while the land beyond was emerald green. The sea was a tranquil aquamarine speckled with diamond light, and the sky was a cloudless cobalt blue. “Beautiful, huh?’ Alexei murmured. “You are a master of understatement.” “Late lunch?” he suggested “In my uniform?” “You must be hungry. I know I am.” She loved him even more for the dismissive gesture and the way his lips pressed down, as if whatever she wore was fine by him so long as they were together. I love him? Fantasies were one thing, but believing they were true was a short road to disaster. The beautifully dressed dining table, glittering with silver and crystal, took her mind elsewhere for a while, if only because it reminded her how hungry she was. She hadn’t eaten for hours—and not properly for days. “I’m starving,” she admitted, her mouth watering as she looked at the food. “I’m glad you agree it’s time to eat,” Alexei told her as he held her chair. “It’s important for you to keep your strength up.” The look in his eyes was wicked, and she had to rejig her thoughts quickly when the waiter asked if she would like a glass of water as well as champagne. “Are you comfortable on board?” Alexei asked, confining his questions to the mundane while there was crew about, she thought. “My cabin’s got everything I need,” she confirmed. “It’s very comfortable, thank you.” “I’m pleased to hear it, but you won’t be needing it for the rest of the trip.” A sliver of ice coursed through her. It was time to forget romance and remember she was seated at a table with a ruthless man. Seeing the alarm in her eyes, Alexei laughed and settled back in his chair. “You mustn’t believe everything you read about me.” “I’ve seen you in action, remember?” “You won’t be needing your cabin,” Alexei explained, “because this is now your suite. I hope you like it. This entire deck is your private preserve.” “My…? That’s quite an upgrade from stewardess and occasional chef,” Amber observed, frowning. Alexei shrugged. “Just accept that you passed the audition.” “I beg your pardon?” Ignoring her outrage, he continued smoothly, “The swimming pool over there is yours, and all the staterooms on this part of the deck are yours too. You might want to go and rifle through your dressing room to find something suitable to wear to eat for lunch with a billionaire.” “A chastity belt?” Amber suggested acidly. “I’d only have to waste time unlocking it. And whatever you choose to wear, put on a bikini underneath. I’ve ordered the captain to heave to after lunch so we can go swimming offshore.” “In the sea?” “Unless you’ve perfected a way of swimming on land I don’t know about.” She glanced at the crystal pool. “So boring, don’t you think?” Alexei murmured. ~o0o~ Lunch was delicious, and later in her dressing room Amber found a few choice items of clothing, which she rifled through like a fashionista at a sample sale. Then it occurred to her that some previous girlfriend might have left them behind, and she drew her hands back quickly. A note she’d missed explained everything. Alexei had bought them for her. Dressed in a daring bikini, she plunged into the sea with delight. The swim was so refreshing and so much fun, and Alexei was the best companion ever— And she had to stop right there, Amber told herself firmly. This was not the start of a romance with a man who made her heart sing. This was a steamy affair with no rules, unless she made them. However she felt about Alexei, as far as Alexei was concerned, she was just another notch on his exquisitely fashioned headboard. She was glad she’d thought like that when they got back to the boat and they parted to go to their own quarters, because half an hour later she heard Alexei’s helicopter take off, and he hadn’t even bothered to say good-bye. He hadn’t said anything at all. And why would he? ~o0o~ Russian Thunder was due to dock in the Canary Islands, where it was summer all year round. Amber enjoyed what was loosely called “access all areas” on the vessel, but in actual terms, this referred to the public areas of the ship and her own quarters. A detailed map had been provided to her, along with a provisioning budget equal to the annual GDP of a small country. She would be responsible for ensuring that Alexei’s superyacht was always billionaire-ready, even in his absence, and who knew how long that would be? She had kept herself busy while he’d been away, checking inventory in each of the twelve lavish staterooms, making sure they were superyacht clean and fully stocked with every possible amenity for any guests Alexei might choose to invite on board… Female guests? And if he did invite a woman on board, what business was it of hers? Realistically, she was a stewardess, stand-in chef, and lay-down, as and when required, fuck buddy. There was no point in pretending that he had any serious intentions toward her, and no guarantees when it came to making her part of his team. They moored offshore when they reached the largest of the Canary Islands, and the crew was taken off the ship in rubber ribs with high-powered engines. The head chef was one of the last to leave. “You should take a swim,” he advised as he prepared to disembark. “It’s quite safe here—in every respect,” he added significantly, reminding her of the dangers she’d faced in Monte Carlo. “The waters are safe and clean and quite warm. Make the most of the time to yourself while you can,” he suggested. Why not? She thanked him for leaving everything ready for her and waved him off. It was a beautifully warm day, and the clear blue sea was tempting. She just had to wait for a delivery of some things she had ordered for Christmas, and then she intended to take the chef’s advice. ~o0o~ There were a few rowing boats bobbing about, but apart from that, there was just Amber, the sea, and the warm sun overhead. Rolling over onto her back, she relaxed, floating on the water and allowing her body to be gently buffeted by the waves. The next thing she knew, something touched her, and she was thrashing and choking as she tried to escape— “I didn’t mean to frighten you,” Alexei drawled. “You failed,” she exclaimed, still badly shaken. He caught her close. “What? Are you going to drown me now?” she demanded as she tried to catch her breath. “Could you please announce your arrival next time you want to surprise me in the sea?” “With a fanfare of trumpets?” he suggested, but there was concern in his eyes. “Just let me know when you’re coming back next time, okay?” “You know me better than that Amber, but I missed you,” he admitted before she could take him to task on his first comment. “You shouldn’t be swimming on your own,” he added, drawing her close until she could feel every hot and hard inch of him. Alexei wanted her. Yeah, right. No doubt he’d missed the great sex while he’d been away. There was a yawning gulf between great sex and a lasting relationship, and it would be wrong to mistake one for the other. But as he started teasing her with almost-kisses, his mouth was warm and persuasive, and whispered words in his own language sealed the spell. He tasted so good, so warm, so familiar, and she wanted him. Pressed up close like this, she couldn’t be angry that he’d been away. She could only be pleased that he was back. “Better now?” he murmured, holding her at arm’s length so he could stare into her eyes. She shrugged, playing it cool, but she felt like a Catherine wheel, throwing off sparks of happiness in every direction just because he was back. ~o0o~ However she played it, he’d seen the hurt in Amber’s eyes. She couldn’t understand how he could leave her without a word of explanation. It was simple. He had no ties other than with Dante, Diego, and Cesar, and they were as close as brothers because they shared the dangers of the undercover work. It wasn’t safe for Amber to know where he’d been, or what he’d been doing. “Need to know basis” wasn’t just a glib phrase, it was a lifesaver. He’d been to clear up the contacts of the gang in Monte Carlo to make sure Amber was safe. They’d seen her face. He couldn’t risk any of them coming back for her. He hadn’t been away because he’d wanted to leave her but because he was concerned for her and cared deeply what happened to her, and even that was a warning that this…whatever it was they had between them, had to end. He couldn’t risk her life. He couldn’t be that selfish. “Why are you frowning?” she demanded. “I’m thinking about the very unsuitable things that are happening in my life right now.” “Like me?” she suggested. “Am I unsuitable?” “Hugely,” he said, drawing her close. “It doesn’t seem to put you off.” “It doesn’t,” he admitted, knowing that was the problem. Caring for her had set the clock ticking on their relationship. It would be a cruel indulgence to prolong it beyond Christmas. “Swim with me,” he said, needing a distraction. Nuzzling her hair aside, he kissed her neck. “Where to?” she whispered. “Just as far as that rowboat.” He released her so she could swim at his side. “Hold on to the anchor chain,” he recommended when they reached the small red boat. “You say such romantic things,” she said, starting to laugh. “And only choose bikinis secured by bows,” she scolded when he started to undo them. ‘I would love to claim responsibility for the purchase of this charming garment,” he admitted as he draped it over the side of the rowboat. “But you got someone else to buy it,” she guessed. “And now I know why I have to hold on.” “Don’t worry,” Alexei said with a dry smile. “I’ll keep you safe.” “In that case, I’m minded to forgive you,” she said as she wrapped her limbs around him. “Did you miss me?” “Don’t be silly. I was too busy performing my shipboard duties to even notice that you’d gone.” He hummed. “Are you serious?” Suddenly her answer mattered more than it should. He relaxed when she turned serious. “More than anything,” she admitted as she reached for him. He inhaled sharply as her tiny hands closed around him. “You’re not holding on to the anchor chain,” he scolded. “I only have two hands, and I can’t hold you in one. You’re very big Alexei.” He laughed and kissed her, and then he couldn’t wait any longer and plunged deep. ~o0o~ Sex in the sea wasn’t just possible, it was incredible, Amber discovered, and poignant too, in a way she couldn’t quite identify. Alexei was an amazing lover and she’d missed him, but there was something more between them now, a closeness that hadn’t been there before. There was always part of him that held back, but not today. Today it felt as if he’d missed her as much as she’d missed him. Sex was always incredible with Alexei because he understood her body so well, but this time it seemed to bring them dangerously close. The expression in his eyes was a compelling mix of confidence and concentration, intimacy and concern, as if his entire world had been tuned to pleasing her. “I can’t hold on—” “And why should you?” he murmured. Taking her buttocks in a firm grip, he increased the pace the way she needed him to, working her rhythmically and quickly until she flew past the point of no return. Wailing and bucking as the pleasure waves washed over her, she created a small tsunami all her own as she thrust her hips wildly back and forth to claim a long and powerful release. “Better?” he murmured as she clung to him, groaning softly with contentment. “Getting there,” she teased. “Have you got the strength to swim back to the ship?” “What do you think?” “I think I’ll swim at your side to make sure you’re safe.” Dipping his head, Alexei kissed her again, and then he helped her to put on her bikini. When she was ready, he urged her in front of him. “I’ve got something to show you on the boat.” “Something else?” She turned in the water, smiling, to say this. For a moment, their stares met and held in a complete oneness, and then she splashed him, he laughed, and they swam away. ~o0o~ Alexei lifted her out of the water onto the swim deck of the yacht. “You look like a mermaid,” he remarked as she wrung the water from her hair. “Except for the great legs,” he conceded, thumbing his stubble as he picked up one of the fluffy blue-and-white-striped deck towels to swaddle her in. “What’s this?” she said, feeling something in the folds and picking it out. “It’s just a small gift that caught my eye as I was walking past one of the hawkers in the dock. No expense spared,” he teased as she pulled out the small felt mouse. “For me?” Amber’s face was wreathed in smiles. “You bought this for me?” “It is Christmas.” “I didn’t expect anything.” That was just the point, he thought. And now he felt bad, because anyone would think the small gift had come from Tiffany’s. “I love it,” she assured him, hugging it close. He frowned. “Do you?” “Yes, I do,” she said fiercely. She had that same look again on her face, the look that said I trust you. If nothing else, they would have Christmas together, he determined. “I’m supposed to be making Christmas special for you,” she reminded him, “and now you’re buying me presents?” “One small and very insignificant gift,” he pointed out. “Don’t you dare call Mr. Mouse insignificant.” She clutched it close. “He’ll be spending Christmas with us, as our guest.” “As long as I spend it with you.” Using the towel, he bound her tightly against him. “I love that you’re a cheap date, by the way.” “Because I love Mouse?” “Because you’re you.” He kissed her, and they were instantly on fire for each other, but this time, he held back. “There is something else I want to show you—something I think you’ll like.” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so excited at the thought of sharing his very private life. “What is it?” Amber demanded, staring up at him. Linking fingers with her, he walked to the elevator. There were seven decks on his yacht. Amber’s suite was located on deck three. His was on deck two. He brushed his fingertips across the elevator’s digital controls… “Deck nine?” she exclaimed. “I didn’t even know there was a deck nine…” Seeing everything through Amber’s eyes was like seeing it for the first time, and he was as blown away as she was when the elevator door slid open. Chapter Seven “And I thought I’d seen it all,” Amber breathed as they stepped out of the elevator into the underwater observatory. This was the sort of wonder his money could buy, and he’d never had anyone to share it with. Because they were moored offshore in deep water, the sea life beyond the toughened glass was extraordinary. All shapes and sizes, multicolored and varied, it was an incredible sight. Amber leaned her head against his chest. He looped his arms around her waist. It was one of those rare moments when nothing needed to be said. But of course, it couldn’t last. He couldn’t allow it to last, not with the closeness between them growing all the time. “You can only ever pay a fleeting visit to something that soothes you, can’t you?” she said as he nuzzled her neck and moved away. “I thought it might be time to test the strength of the toughened glass.” “Liar,” she murmured, staring at him with a mix of pity and disappointment on her face at the idyll so quickly lost. “So?” he pressed with an unrepentant hum. She shook her head and gave him a wry smile. “So, I’m totally up for a challenge.” “You can still watch the sea life,” he promised. “Like I won’t be distracted?” she said as he removed her towel and made a start on her bikini. She wanted Alexei so much it hurt, and not just physically. Her feelings had changed toward him, and she didn’t know how to hold them back. Murmuring what she had no doubt were outrageous suggestions in Russian, far too advanced for her sparse understanding of the language, he was steadily backing her toward a viewing bench. He was so sexy and she was so hot for him. But… “No,” she said, holding back at the last minute. “No?” he queried. Stepping out of his swimming shorts, he stood in front of her, utterly beautiful and completely unabashed. And he certainly didn’t need to tell her that there was nowhere else he would rather be. “I want you,” she said softly, wishing this could be enough for her. “I know,” he murmured. “I feel the same.” “So I see.” And then they were smiling into each other’s eyes with the type of understanding that only lovers have, and everything was all right again. He lowered her down to the bench and arranged her legs over the wide spread of his shoulders. She came the moment he touched her. That was how she felt about him. Alexei moved deep to take her completely. Throwing his head back, he lost himself in pleasure, while she was completely possessed by him, body, soul, and mind. What am I doing? Where is this going? Ever sensitive to her smallest change of mood, Alexei forgot about his own pleasure and stopped moving. That made it worse. She wanted this too much. She hadn’t realized how deeply embedded he’d become in her heart. And she knew he shunned close relationships. She knew that, so what was she doing? “Amber?” Searching her eyes, Alexei kissed her, and he kept on kissing her until she relaxed, but inside, she knew. He was like an island. He was like the fabled Isla Celeste, a destination to enjoy for a short time before moving on. That was how she should be thinking about him, but she was having a major fail in that department— “Do I have your full attention, myshka?” She smiled ruefully. “Stop with the mouse.” “Stop with this too?” he queried, moving his hands so they cupped her buttocks. She groaned with pleasure as he slowly rolled his hips from side to side. “You don’t play fair.” “Do you want me to? Why don’t you just let go, when you know you want to?” He knew her too well. It was so easy to do just that—too easy. Alexei took her from one peak to the next and showed no interest in slowing down. He was devoted to her pleasure, and her ecstatic cries rang around the viewing room while the marine life provided a silent spectacle behind them. “Isn’t it your turn?” she asked at last. She didn’t wait for Alexei to reply. She arranged herself on the bench with her hips held high, tempting him. Her reward was his ragged groan of pleasure. Much later when they were still entwined, she teased his lips with hers for the pleasure of watching his hard mouth soften into a smile, and when he kissed her back, there was so much feeling between them, it overwhelmed her. “Tears, myshka?” “Exhaustion,” she lied, brushing off her reaction and the tears with a smile. If she said too much, she’d drive him away, and whatever time they had left, she was going to hang on to it with everything she’d got. “Bed?” he suggested. “Yours or mine?” she asked as they kissed and kept on kissing. “Mine,” Alexei whispered. Should she be quite so happy about that? Wasn’t this slipping deeper into his life everything she’d vowed not to do? But could she stop herself, even had she wanted to? Inhaling deeply, she closed her eyes and knew the answer to that was a definite no. ~o0o~ “Happy Christmas!” she called out as she backed into Alexei’s stateroom with a tray. “What’s this?” he asked, opening one eye. “Room service?” “Excellent,” he murmured, raising himself up in bed to view her dressed in a skimpy robe. Putting the tray down on the side, she sat cross-legged on the bed in front of him. “Presents?” he exclaimed, frowning as he weighed up the contents of the tray. “Only little things,” she explained. “You didn’t tell me you’d bought presents.” “But these don’t count, because they’re only small. Well, aren’t you going to open them? You can’t expect Santa Claus to bring the reindeer all the way out here only for you to ignore his lovely gifts.” “You bought these for me?” “Yes.” She shook the gaudy red stocking. “Take a look.” “Mints?” Alexei’s frown deepened as he brought out the packet of mints. “For your polo ponies? Come on—hurry up.” He hummed as he reached inside again. “Glow corks?” Angling his chin, he stared at her in bemusement. “So you can find your vodka in the dark,” Amber explained. “Excellent.” Nodding, he concealed a smile as he put the glow corks to one side. “I take it they form a set with the light-up ice cubes?” The next thing out of the stocking. “Belt and braces?” Amber agreed solemnly. “Build my own yacht?” Alexei queried, finding it even harder to smother a smile as he brought out the next small gift. “It’s always good to have a spare,” Amber assured him. “And last, but not least…” He delved inside. “The billionaire bath duck,” she announced as he brought it out. “You do love your bath,” she observed, “and this duck is a billionaire by day and a vigilante crime fighter by night, as you can tell from his uniform—” Reaching for her wrist, he caught her close. “You do know I haven’t got you anything else, don’t you?” “Mouse is enough. I don’t want anything else.” “Of course you do,” he argued. “You need a good man—someone who appreciates you and who can give you all the little things you need.” “I don’t need little things,” she assured him with a steady look and an attempt at humor, but there was hurt behind her eyes. The day rolled out like the most perfect Christmas Day, if they could just forget that it was a moment in time and not forever, Amber thought. They swam and they sunbathed and ate all the lovely food the chef had prepared for them, and then they made love as if there was no end in sight and only endless, perfect now. It was suppertime when perfect got tarnished. They had decided to dress for dinner and were loading the trolley in the galley before taking it onto the deck, where the beautifully set dining table was waiting for them. Alexei had chosen her dress, a slim column of silver silk. He looked like a film star in exquisitely tailored taupe linen pants and blue shirt. He’d just wheeled the food trolley onto the deck, when he remembered something. “I almost forgot to give you this,” he said as he plunged a hand into his top pocket. Of course her mind went into a spin. What is he going to pull out? For a moment, she was floating, but then she crashed down. The thick wad of banknotes in his hand choked off her exclamation of pleasure. “Your wages,” he explained. For a moment, she couldn’t compute what he was saying. Her wages for what? Alexei frowned when she remained frozen and made no attempt to take the money from him. “You are a crew member on board Russian Thunder, aren’t you?” he pressed. “Yes,” she agreed on a dry throat. “Then, take it,” he insisted. “There’s holiday pay, and whatever else.” His frown deepened when he saw her expression. “You’re being treated exactly the same as all the other crew. I always give them a good Christmas—” She would have preferred him to slap her in the face. It might have woken her up faster. “Of course I’m a member of your crew,” she agreed, battling hurt and humiliation. “Come on, take it,” Alexei insisted impatiently. No chance. She tucked her hands out of sight behind her back. “Don’t be silly, Amber. There’s pride, and then there’s foolishness.” “Well, maybe I am foolish,” she agreed as she backed away from the dining chair Alexei had pulled out for her. “But I don’t want your money, and I’m sure you can find a better use for it.” Thrusting it into her hand, he brought his face close. “What makes you think you’re better than everyone else, Amber?” “Absolutely nothing,” she fired back. “That’s not how I think.” “Then take the money,” he repeated. “You take the money—” And shove it, she wanted to say, but she had a better idea. “Take that money and make sure it gets to the women you saved. Let them have a decent Christmas.” “That’s all taken care of, as I’ve already told you.” “Okay.” Taking the money from him, she laid it at the side of her place setting. “I haven’t earned this and I don’t want it, but there must be something those women need, or something for them in the future going forward.” “Where are you going?” Alexei called after her. “Amber, come back here!” She had started to run. When was she going to get it through her thick skull, that she would never mean more to Alexei than good sex? And she didn’t run back to her luxurious apartment on the upper deck of his superyacht but to her staff cabin in the bowels of the ship. ~o0o~ Would he ever understand women? He could guarantee a man would take the money, thank him, and that would be the end of it. But a woman? Oh no. A woman had to analyze and emote and suspect, and do all those things while looking as if he’d just insulted her. He had only wanted to pay Amber the money he owed her—a fair wage in his world—for putting up with him, if nothing else. He guessed the salary for a cub reporter at Hard News would be derisory, if they paid her at all. Maybe that had something to do with her outrage. But was it enough to make her run from him? Amber had never run from anything in her life, as far as he could tell, so what was she running from now? Descending to the lower deck, he noticed the lack of natural lighting and lousy air-con. There was no excuse. Cruise ships had virtual vistas on the inside cabins and air-con that worked. When was the last time he’d been down here? He hammered on the door of her cabin. “Amber, let me in.” “Go away.” “I’m not going anywhere,” he assured her. “Then, you can settle in for the night.” He rested his brow against the door. “You don’t mean that.” “Try me.” He could kick the door in— And piss her off even more? He slid down the door and sat with his back resting against the smooth, cool wood, in a narrow corridor he must have been in once, if only when he inspected the ship when he first bought it. Now it could do with a refit. “Amber! I need you to open that door.” She’d be the one to organize a refit. Fuck it, she was probably the only one who could organize his life. “Amber!” “Go away,” she repeated angrily. “Let me in, or I’ll take the door from its hinges.” “You’d use violence?” she exclaimed. “I was thinking a screwdriver?” There was a long silence, and then she opened the door. He felt wretched to see she’d been crying. Her hair was a mess, and her dress was rumpled. She looked adorable. “Can I come in?” “Better if I come out,” she snapped tensely. “There isn’t room in here for two of us.” “So I see,” he agreed, peering inside. “Looks as if we’ve got a major refit due down here. Maybe you could handle that for me?” “Me?” She looked at him suspiciously. “If that’s your way of saying sorry—” “That’s my way of saying if you feel you haven’t done enough to earn that money, I’m sure we can sort that out. I didn’t mean to offend you.” Somehow, he was inside the cabin, and there were only inches to spare between him, the bed, and the door, and with Amber in the mix, that was really tight. “Alexei! No.” She glared at him when he slipped the dress straps from her shoulders. “Positively no?” She narrowed her eyes, but she didn’t move, and her eyes were darkening a little more with every passing second. “You know I can’t,” she said. “Can’t what?” he asked, backing away. “Can’t resist you—fuck it!” she hissed on a thwarted breath. He laughed with relief. “There’s nothing wrong with that.” “For you, maybe,” she said as she stepped out of the dress. “This…thing we have is inconvenient for both of us, I know. Unfortunately, I feel the same way about you,” he admitted, “so why fight it?” His mouth tugged in a faint smile as he kissed her, and within moments, her fingers were laced through his hair. “Perhaps if I knew the first thing about you,” Amber said later when they were lying entwined on her far too narrow bunk, “I could understand you better, and be more sympathetic.” “More sympathetic? I’d like to experience that.” “I don’t just mean sex,” she said. “What do you want to know?” She looked at him with surprise. “Seriously?” He kissed her again, tasting her lips, lingering, and loving being close to her. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to let her a little way in. She was in the space-saver position, lying on top of him, with her chin resting on her folded arms. Her gaze was serious as it steadied on his face. “Tell me everything,” she said. He laughed softly. “That’s a lot of talking.” “Okay, so start with your first memory.” He didn’t have to think hard to recall that, because it was still so vivid. “Sitting in a basket saddle on the back of a horse with nothing around me but space. I was alarmed to start with, but my grandfather was riding next to me, talking to me all the time, so it was okay.” “On the steppes of Russia,” she said. Inhaling deeply, she closed her eyes as if trying to picture the scene. “Where were your parents?” “Dead,” he said flatly. “How?” Amber met his warning stare steadily and with determination. “Yes, how?” she repeated. “Rival gangs. My father was a petty criminal.” He paused and exhaled heavily. “When things heated up, my mother smuggled me out of the city and took me to my grandfather’s in the country. But then she went back to my father and paid with her life.” “She must have loved your father very much, and you,” she said. “Much good it did her,” he remembered bitterly. “So that’s why your life of horses and justice is all intertwined?” Her eyes sparked as she fit another piece of the jigsaw into place. “Maybe,” he agreed. He didn’t want to say any more, but she was still curious. “And your grandfather?” she pressed. “Was the most wonderful man—he shaped my life. He was a good man, a widower, but an old man when I was orphaned. That didn’t stop him taking me in and raising me like a son. He worked on my homework each night with me after a long day’s work in the fields, and he lived long enough to see me join the forces. I only wish he’d lived long enough to see the multinational corporation that grew from the oil that was discovered on his land.” “You must have loved him very much.” His face softened briefly, remembering. “I went back when he needed me when oil was discovered. He needed my strength then, not my love.” “Everyone needs love, Alexei.” “Not me, evidently.” “Or perhaps you’re frightened to love, because everyone you loved as a child was taken from you—” “Spare me the amateur psychology.” He moved abruptly, startling her. “I’m a hard man in a hard world, Amber. Don’t try to make me out to be something I’m not.” He should have known she wouldn’t be in the least put off. Rolling over to face him, she rested her chin on the heel of her hand. “Do you still have a home on the steppes?” “I have homes everywhere.” And stayed nowhere for long. “I’d love to see your home on the steppes one day. I know that’s not possible—” A tense silence fell between them, which she broke. “So you live here on Russian Thunder.” “As restless as a Cossack on the plains.” He huffed a humorless laugh. He was always moving. It was the only way he could find peace. The only home he could remember was with his grandfather, and he would never recreate that. “So, these other homes?” she said, perhaps in an attempt to lighten his mood. “Covered in dustsheets, for all I know.” All of them were fully staffed, and all of them neglected by him, though they could be made ready for him at a moment’s notice. “So with all those properties, you’ve got nowhere to call home,” Amber observed, frowning. “I’m not exactly suffering,” he said dryly. “No,” she agreed, and with her keenest observation yet, she said, “You’ve got everything and nothing.” He hummed as he swung into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. “Tell me more about your grandfather,” she begged, coming to sit at his side. “He sounds like a wonderful man.” The pain of loss came flooding back. He shrugged it off and replaced it with anger—anger was always easier to handle than the pain of knowing he couldn’t bring his grandfather back to enjoy what should have been his. “The stress of the growing business killed him—that, and the vultures circling. My grandfather wasn’t equipped for the cutthroat, big-city world of high finance. People thought I was young and no threat, and they could walk over me and take his money.” “I imagine they learned their mistake.” “My grandfather’s training made me strong,” he agreed. “His love saved you. Your mother’s love saved you.” “You don’t know anything about it,” he flared. “You feel you’ve let them down, when nothing could be further from the truth. They’d be so proud of you, Alexei, and what you’re doing with your money—with your life. You do so much good. You just don’t see it.” “I damage people,” he said coldly. She made an impatient gesture. “Wallow in self-pity if you must—never settle down, because, yes, you might fail. Never love again, because you might lose that love. Never risk your heart. Yes. That’s the safest route for you to take.” “You know nothing about me.” “I know this. You’re a good man, but if you can’t see that, there’s no hope for me.” “For you?” “Exactly,” she said. “You can’t even see how I feel about you—because you won’t allow yourself to see.” She had exposed his Achilles’ heel, and she had been merciless about it. It was time for Amber to understand that he wouldn’t change, and that he let no one in. He stood up, and so did she, and she was dressed before him. “Where are you going?” he demanded. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said, opening the door. “You are.” She stood back. “Good night, Alexei.” Chapter Eight It was business as usual the next day. The skeleton crew had returned from their Christmas break. The lines were cast off, and Russian Thunder, bustling with activity, set sail. Encouraged by fair weather and a following wind, they headed for Isla Celeste. Amber was dressed immaculately in her uniform, ready to start her official duties for the day with her hair neatly tied back. There was plenty for her to do, but that didn’t stop her thinking and grieving for Alexei. People probably thought he was the last person on earth to feel sorry for, but she did feel sorry for him because he refused to change. He shunned all affection, she mused as she set out his coffee tray. And who was she to come on board Alexei’s yacht and try to make him fit the mold she thought he should fit? She hadn’t slept last night after throwing him out of her cabin. She hadn’t wasted her time either. She’d propped Mr. Mouse up next to her laptop and had written her first article, which she’d delivered to Hard News this morning before starting work. Part One told the exciting tale of life on board a billionaire’s yacht. It was the sort of thing that fascinated her. She’d write the next installment when they reached Isla Celeste and she was introduced to the other part of Alexei’s life: his life in polo. Whatever she wrote, she would never betray his trust. He’d confided in her, and she valued that. She would perpetuate the myth of a mystery man who had sprung full-formed from the wild steppes of Russia. Any more detail and she might inadvertently put him in danger. Anything more and her heart would be in even more danger than it was already, she thought as she lifted his tray of coffee to take it to him. ~o0o~ He was on the phone when Amber arrived on deck. He’d been lounging at the dining table, making a call too important to break off and look at her when she arrived. He pointed to where he wanted her to put the tray. He sensed Amber’s silent rage as he cut the call and finally looked at her. “Amber…” “Yes, sir?” “I missed you last night.” “Would you like me to pour the coffee, sir?” “No,” he snapped, irritated by her manner. “I would like you to look at me when I speak to you.” “Is that an order, sir?” “Stop this. I don’t know what happened last night, but I do know you’re overreacting again.” “Yes, sir.” “Amber—” “My apologies, sir, but I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong.” He swore viciously in Russian. “You’re about as apologetic as a—” “As a mouse, sir?” Her tone had changed from studiously polite to seriously scathing. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked quietly. “Nothing, sir. Can I get you anything else?” “I’d like Amber back, please.” She finally snapped. “Then don’t shout in my face, don’t order me about, and don’t point when you want something done. For once, try to treat me like a human being with feelings rather than a cold stone god like you. Whether I’m crew or just your latest fuck buddy, I refuse to be subjected to any more of your—” “You refuse?” he cut in mildly. “Don’t start that. I’m not afraid of you, Alexei Riga,” she assured him, balling her hands into fists. “I should hope not,” he agreed. They stared at each other unblinking for a moment. He longed to laugh, to smile, to draw Amber into his arms, and to hell with keeping her at arm’s length for her own good. “Would you like to know who was on the phone?” She shook her head and tightened her lips. “I can’t see that it’s any of my business.” “May I suggest you make it your business? Celina… Do you remember her?” “Of course I remember her,” Amber exclaimed, her face lighting up like the Fourth of July. “I can’t believe you were talking to Celina. How is she?” “All the women are being well cared for. I told her to let them know they could expect Christmas gifts from you.” “But how will I get gifts to them now?” She frowned. “It’s too late for Christmas.” “That’s where you’re wrong,” he was happy to tell her. “Some Russians observe two Christmases. The first on December the twenty-fifth, and the second on January seventh, so there’s plenty of time for your gifts to reach them—and you can leave the delivery to my people. They’ll get the gifts,” he reassured her. “All you have to do is choose them.” “I overreacted,” she admitted, frowning heavily. “I attacked you without listening.” “Equally, I could have covered the mouthpiece and told you who I was talking to.” He shrugged and slanted a smile. “Truce?” he suggested. Amber was still punishing her lip. He stood and smoothed it with his fingertip. “Don’t frown. You’ve got Isla Celeste to look forward to.” “The island,” she murmured. Her face was transfixed as she stared across the sea. “How does it make you feel?” he asked with interest. He could remember his own first sight of Isla Celeste and the excitement that had lit inside him at the thought of what he might find there. ~o0o~ Apart from the fact that she was hopelessly in love with a man who refused to accept that he was capable of giving and receiving love, she felt optimistic. “It would take about a year to tell you how I feel,” she said truthfully. “Better make a start,” Alexei suggested dryly. “I remember a film about a fictional island and a woman singing a siren song to lure people there—don’t worry, I won’t start singing. I wouldn’t want to be locked up.” But she did feel the same tug and a thrill of anticipation as she stared at the now clearly defined volcanic crags and peaks rearing up out of the sea. The island had a lush green heart, and she could see the glint of water running through it. Circled by ivory sand and topped by fluffy white clouds, Isla Celeste looked magical. “Gorgeous,” she murmured. “I can’t wait for us to dock so I can explore. But for now, it’s back to the galley,” she said, remembering the rest of her duties. “Sir?” Alexei reminded her in a low, amused tone. “Or have I been demoted?” “You probably should be,” she agreed. “But…is there anything else I can get you?” She asked this pleasantly. She was done with fantasies, done with getting prickly too. She had no right to judge Alexei. He was right in saying she was crew. That was why she’d been brought on board in the first place. “Anything?” she pressed. He hesitated a moment, and then said, “No, thank you. If you want to get back, there’s nothing stopping you.” Not even you, she thought. ~o0o~ The welcoming committee on the quayside was enough to distract anyone from the scenic panorama, let alone any excitement on board Russian Thunder. There was enough drama on shore to please the sternest critic. Three incredible-looking men were waiting for Alexei in various poses of loose-limbed relaxation. They were instantly recognizable from Blood and Thunder posters. They were all top-flight athletes, and all possessed the same interesting combination of grace and brute strength as Alexei. According to what Amber had read, they’d all had a tough upbringing and had achieved similar levels of success to Alexei. Dante, the Argentinian, was leaning back against a wall, dark glasses propped on top of his head to keep his thick, inky-black Romani locks away from his proud, hard face. He sprang into action the instant Alexei tossed the first mooring line to shore. Diego, the Spaniard, caught the second line. The man standing in the shadows must be Cesar, Amber reasoned. He was always pictured in silhouette, or half-hidden by the rest of the team, so she’d never had clear sight of him, and she couldn’t see him clearly now. A lot of backslapping and intricate handshakes were exchanged as the four team members were reunited. Watching them, she felt totally excluded, which she was. Alexei hadn’t called her to join them. There was no reason why he would. Going belowdecks, she picked up the things she’d need on shore, and then followed the rest of the crew off the superyacht and onto the crew bus. Alexei and his friends had roared off in a brand-new, top-of-the-range SUV convertible. So much for her ability to melt ice, Amber reflected dryly as she settled onto the rigid metal seat at the front of the bus. She got the impression that the upcoming Russian Christmas Alexei had mentioned would be a lot less exciting than the first. ~o0o~ He was going to keep his distance from Amber. Let her get her story, and then let her go home where she was safe. Her lodgings at Cesar’s in the bunkhouse gave him the separation he needed. Seeing her every day had wrought havoc with his good intentions. He would return to Russian Thunder each night to sleep alone. He should have remembered her love of horses. She was in the stable block when he arrived to check his ponies. “Alexei.” Her voice was measured as she turned to face him. She was as calm and quiet as anyone who loved being around animals tended to be. “I’m off-duty. I hope you don’t mind my coming here.” “Not at all.” She was stroking his favorite mare, a notoriously difficult animal that never let anyone close to her but him. “I didn’t expect to find you here,” he admitted, leaning over the stall door. “I didn’t expect to get among such valuable ponies quite so easily,” she said. Her lips pressed down to show what she thought of Cesar’s security measures. “Horses as beautiful as this should never be put at risk,” she added, stroking the gleaming neck of his glossy-coated bay. Resting her cheek against the mare’s noble neck for a moment, she inhaled deeply, as if the scent of warm, vital animal appealed to her as much as it did to him. Scratching beneath the pony’s jaw, which they both knew it would love, she was rewarded with a long contented snuffle. Leaving his horse with a few quiet words and a soothing pat, she came out to join him. “The motion sensors don’t seem to be working, and the cameras are out.” “Correct. The entire system is undergoing its annual maintenance. Cesar is upgrading everything. We’re on the island,” he added, as if that were a cast iron guarantee of security. Unfortunately, he agreed with her. Even a short outage left them dangerously exposed. “I don’t expect anyone ever expects trouble,” she remarked, turning for the door. He caught hold of her arm as she walked away. “Do you have any idea how annoying you can be?” She huffed a laugh and shrugged. He wanted to kiss that stubborn mouth until she begged for more, but since he’d made the very sensible decision to put distance between them, that was off-limits. “I hope I’ll see you at the match tomorrow?” he said instead. “If I’m invited.” Amber held his stare steadily. “Why wouldn’t you be?” “Will you post my ticket under the bunkhouse door?” He gave her a long, considering look. “I’ll get you a special pass. You can hold my stirrup while I mount.” “I could have a forklift standing by…” Her face had remained admirably straight. “And now, if you’ll excuse me—” And even if I won’t, he thought, judging by the look on Amber’s face. “I’ve got things to do—like prepare supper for a team of hungry men,” she elaborated coolly. “I look forward to that,” he murmured as she walked away, hips swaying beneath her clothes. ~o0o~ So now she didn’t have one demanding billionaire to cook for, she had four. Great, Amber thought as she started to find her way around the kitchen. And what was she supposed to do when the meal was cooked? Hit the nonexistent dinner gong to summon them? That problem was solved when the team rolled in while she was still in the throes of cooking one of her famous hot pots—perhaps not the most sophisticated of dishes, but certainly one of the tastiest. And a real man-pleaser, her grandmother used to say. Savory, hot, and filling, what better way to a man’s heart? A stiletto seemed like a pretty good option right now, Amber thought as Alexei, Dante, Diego, and Cesar arranged themselves around the table and stared at her expectantly. “You don’t wash your hands before you sit down to eat?” she inquired. They’d come fresh from the stables and were covered in ten types of shit. She frowned. “Or even take your boots off?” Four sets of ridiculously powerful shoulders lifted in a shrug. Four sets of ridiculously appealing mouths pressed down. Four sets of stunningly gorgeous eyes regarded her as if her opinion was of no interest to them whatsoever. “We just want feeding, okay?” Alexei told her impatiently, turning back to his friends. She raised her voice above theirs. “We need to set some ground rules here…” The men had been talking animatedly and laughing at their private jokes, but as she spoke silence dropped like a safety curtain. “I beg your pardon?” Alexei said, turning to look at her. “I said… I think we need some ground rules here. If you want me to cook for you, you’re going to have to show me some respect—taking your boots off would be a start. Washing your hands before you sit down at the table would benefit us all, since I’ve got no interest in acquiring whatever bugs you’re carrying around.” Four backs turned on her like a wall. Okay. If that was the way they wanted to play it. She’d feed them tonight. She’d worked hard enough to make a nice meal for everyone, but if they behaved this way tomorrow, she would not be quite so accommodating. ~o0o~ The next day, the team trained all day, giving Amber plenty of time to speak to the quartermaster in charge of armaments to arrange a special little surprise for the boys in the event they played up the next evening. When they trooped into supper on time, she began to wonder if she was guilty of overreacting. But no. They had a special little surprise for her, she noticed as they dropped a quantity of expensive tack on the table. There was a rich assortment of saddles and bridles and stirrups and straps and bits, all of which they proceeded to clean. “Are you sure about this?” she asked. “I mean, cleaning your tack on the table where you’re going to eat?” She raised a brow when Alexei turned around. “Don’t you think those noxious-smelling lotions and potions might possibly spoil the flavor of a nice roast chicken dinner?” He turned his back on her, so she went to collect her little surprise. Bringing it back to the table on a plate beneath a cloche, she swept the tack aside and made her offering the centerpiece of the table. Removing the cloche with a flourish, she stood back. “Are you fucking mad?” Alexei exclaimed, leaping for the grenade as everyone else leapt back. Amber couldn’t reply. She’d never seen grown men move so quickly and was laughing too much to answer him. “A dud?” Alexei said softly, examining the grenade more closely. He raised his chin and glared at Amber. “You put a dud on the table?” “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, clutching her sides with laughter. “I’ll ask for a live one next time.” Tossing the grenade up and down in his hand. Alexei fixed her with an icy stare. “Someone will pay for this.” “Well, not your quartermaster, I hope,” Amber said quickly. “Because this was my idea. I talked him into supplying me with the shell of a grenade.” She had to bite back a grin. “It worked, didn’t it? It got your attention.” The other men watched with interest, while Alexei’s stare remained long and hard. “I wasn’t thinking of punishing the quartermaster,” he murmured. Is it wrong to find that incredibly arousing? When Alexei placed the dummy grenade on the table, the men laughed, and before they settled down in their seats again, they not only cleared the table, they wiped the table, and even helped Amber to set the table, which she chalked up as a small but significant victory. ~o0o~ “She’s certainly unusual,” Cesar commented the next day as they were preparing to mount up for the match. “Not at all like the type of woman you usually go for.” “Not shallow and brittle, do you mean?” “And not a drip,” Cesar remarked. “Thanks a lot,” Alexei said dryly. He had been expecting one of his friends to make a comment about Amber and the episode with the grenade, but not Cesar. “Do you mean you like her?” “I mean she appears to be a match for you, Alexei.” “Which is why I have to send her away.” “You’ll regret it,” Cesar remarked as he swung into the saddle. “Maybe,” Alexei agreed. “But, rather that than she lives to regret it.” They rode out four abreast to play a team from mainland Spain. The Agusta brothers were trialing a new eight-goal-handicap player from Scotland, affectionately known on the circuit as Hard Robert. This match between Blood and Thunder and the Agusta team was supposed to be friendly, but no one expected it to be either friendly or easy. Every player at this level played to win. To say they were competitive would be understating it. Knowing this, polo fans had arrived on the island from all over the world. The new security measures had been installed around the pitch first, which now boasted state-of-the-art security, and they were expecting a sell-out crowd. The bleachers were packed as they rode in to deafening cheers, but he noticed Amber right away and relaxed. He’d made sure she got a VIP ticket. She was hanging over the fence at the far end of the field in front of the stables and gave him an additional reason to annihilate the opposition. The ideal would be to find Amber waiting for him at the end of the match—unfortunately, he couldn’t guarantee that. Too bad he’d sworn off complicated red-hot redheads with a fondness for gallows humor. He had tried to keep his distance since they’d arrived on the island, with some vague hope that he could wean them off each other, but thoughts of that shining red hair spread out on his pillows and those pale, slender limbs wrapped around him had kept him awake last night. His threat to punish Amber for her joke with the grenade had acquired countless new scenes in the early hours of this morning, which had played out to an imagined soundtrack of soft moans and whimpers. And now, at the eleventh hour with the match about to start, he decided that with January seventh only days away, one last Christmas with Amber was going to happen, but then he would definitely send her home. ~o0o~ The whistle blew. The match began. Amber clenched her hands tightly. She was in an agony of concern for Alexei. There was no more exciting sight than eight men racing flat-out on galloping horses, mallets swinging at a hard ball that flew like a missile between them, but there was no sight more terrifying either than tons of fiercely competitive, hyped-up horseflesh jockeying for position within a hairsbreadth of collision. She knew Alexei’s riding by reputation only, having never seen him play a match, and was almost over the fence at one point, ready to take on the big Scot playing for the Spanish team when he tried to ride Alexei off the ball. No need, thank goodness, as Alexei’s horse could turn on a sixpence and Alexei rode like a Cossack. Keeping the ball, he raced down the field and scored the first goal. Alexei wasn’t just an expert on horseback, he was the king of the field. He had never looked more powerful or potent to Amber as he steered his horse without appearing to move at all. But then he was an expert at control, she remembered, breathing deeply as she passed a few pleasurable moments reminiscing. But daydreams could easily be shattered, and hers had just been rudely interrupted. She gasped as a collision between Alexei and another player seemed inevitable, and looked away for a moment. When she opened her eyes again, she breathed a sigh of relief to see that Alexei was okay—not only okay, he was in possession of the ball. But then something else caught her attention—a shadow darting inside the stable block. It was a kid, she realized with surprise, pulling back from the fence. A youth she didn’t recognize had slipped inside the door. Walking swiftly, she went to check him out. Chapter Nine Where the fuck is she? “Has anyone seen Amber?” Alexei asked as he scanned the crowd gathering for the after-match party at Cesar’s. He was becoming increasingly concerned. He could understand Amber wanting to leave before the match ended to come here to check the final preparations for the party, as she was arranging caterers for the event, but where had she got to? “You didn’t ask her to join us as your guest?” Dante showed his disapproval with a shake of his head. “Don’t you think she deserves some recognition after everything she does for us? Look at this spread…” “You could have asked her just as easily,” he countered blackly. Dante huffed. “I’d like to see your face if I tried. I did see her go into the stable while we were changing ponies during chukkas.” “Why didn’t you say so?” Alexei exclaimed. “Did you see her come out?” He stared at his teammates, but they all shook their heads. He remembered Amber’s comments about security and his own feelings. He didn’t pause to examine those thoughts, he just ran. He arrived at the stables in time to find Amber exiting through the open barn door with a prisoner under guard. “Don’t underestimate the hired help,” she said, smiling grimly as she pushed the mortified youth ahead of her. “How did you—?” “How did I hear him? Trick him? Throw him to the ground and tie him up?” She shrugged. “Really? You didn’t undergo the same training I did in Special Ops?” As several of his security guards came to take the youth into custody, she explained, “I knew you’d be busy with the match, so I called security—congratulations on scoring the winning goal, by the way. The guards told me. They said you were heroic.” She pulled a comic face. As they led the youth away, Alexei gave her a considering look. “You did well.” “You don’t say,” she murmured. The warning not to patronize her rang out loud and clear. “So, who was he? Did you find out? And how did he breach our defenses?” “Well, breaching the defenses here doesn’t take too much skill, since there aren’t any. And he’s no one—except to his mother, whom I called. He’s a keen rider who wanted to see the world’s top ponies in real life. But,” she added significantly, “he could just as easily have been a scout for a gang of horse thieves.” “And you’re sure of his identity, how?” he asked, needing proof before he could call off the hounds. “I checked with his school, his mother, and with the police on the mainland. He plays polo in junior league. He slipped onto your security-approved ferry under the guise of being an additional groom who’d been recruited last minute. He landed on the island and mingled with the crowd. He almost got away with it, but I had a feeling that something might happen, so I went to check the horses.” “Lucky you did,” he conceded. “Nowhere is ever completely secure, Alexei. He wasn’t doing any harm, so, yes, we were lucky this time.” She started back toward the stables. “But now we know what is and isn’t possible, we need to tighten up security both ends—here and the mainland, to make sure this never happens again.” He caught up with her. “We?” “Yes. We,” she insisted. “I keep telling you, who’s better qualified to join your group than me? Everything you do, including your work with horses, is all well within my sphere of expertise.” “You? Join us?” He laughed. “You’re deluding yourself, Amber.” “Am I?” she challenged stonily. “I thought you were offering me a job before.” “With the horses,” Alexei agreed. “The work we do outside of polo is far too dangerous.” “For someone trained in Special Ops?” “You are not getting involved in this,” he stated firmly. “I’m already involved, Alexei.” “Not unless I say you are.” “And what would it take for you to do that?” “That’s not going to happen.” “How about we discuss it afterwards,” she suggested, coming to a halt outside the stable block. “Afterwards?” He frowned. “After what?” “You know that feeling you get right after a particularly satisfying victory?’ Easing onto one hip, he rested a fist next to her face on the barn door. “I’m sure if I’ve forgotten, you’ll remind me.” Sliding the bolt free, she backed her way into the heavily shadowed silence of the stables. Reaching for his hands, she drew him with her. Their faces were close—far too close for his determination to distance himself from Amber to count for a flying fuck. She was right about victory sending his testosterone levels into orbit. Nuzzling Amber’s face was exquisite torture. Her scent, the soft noises she made, all of it drove him insane. He breathed her in and teased her with almost-kisses. He held back as long as he could, while she drew him deeper into the barn to where hay motes were drifting above a pile of clean bedding. “Multitasking again?” he murmured when she let go of his hand to start undoing the buttons down her shirt. “Something I’m getting good at,” she agreed, leading him on. “How’s your plan to avoid me going so far, Alexei?” “My plan?” Her look told him not to mess with her. “Not so well,” he admitted, curving a smile. ~o0o~ Sex with a tousle-haired, hunky polo player fresh from the game in grubby breeches—if this was the last time they made love, she’d make it count. “I need you to hold me.” Alexei’s eyes darkened as she took off her shirt and then her bra. “I need to feel you hot and hard against me.” “I need a shower.” “No. You’re perfect as you are,” she argued. Stepping forward, she pulled his black team shirt with the bloodred initials of the team embroidered on the breast pocket out of his breeches and slipped her hands underneath. Closing her eyes, she explored. He was hot from the game and hard from the constant exercise. He was big and he was tall, and powerful beyond belief. And she wanted him. It was like a madness clawing inside her. Standing on tiptoes, she drew his shirt over his head. Alexei had to dip his head, or she wouldn’t have been able to reach. She stood back and stared at him half-naked. He was magnificent. His wound had almost healed now. It was just a faint ridge beneath her fingers. He was everything she had ever dreamed a man should be, but so much more. And his breeches fit so snugly, she could see exactly how much he wanted her. “That must be uncomfortable,” she remarked dryly. “It is,” he assured her. “Why don’t I help you?” She reached for the fastening on his breeches. His cock sprang free, proud and glistening. “You go commando in a match? Isn’t that dangerous?” She had imagined that, like other sportsmen, he’d wear a box or some other form of protection. “I have to feel the horse responding beneath me,” he explained. “I want as little as possible to come between me and my ponies, so they know what I need from them.” She felt exactly the same way. Sinking to her knees in front of him, she drew him deep into her mouth. He tasted so good, so familiar. She traced the thrusting length of him with her tongue, and then brought him deeper into her mouth. He was too big for her to close her mouth around him, but she could taste him, lave him, and suck him until he groaned. “You’re mine,” she said then, looking up. Alexei replied by swinging her into his arms and dropping her on the deep bed of hay. “Clothes off,” he commanded softly. She turned her back on him and took her time. She couldn’t resist flaunting her buttocks, neatly displayed in a flimsy lace thong. Dropping down at her side, Alexei appreciatively stroked the curve of her bottom. The delicacy of his touch drove her crazy. Needing so much more, she arched her back. “Beautiful,” he murmured. “But very naughty,” she said. “Don’t I know it,” he agreed. Still with her back turned to him, she parted her legs a little more. Dipping down low enough to rest her cheek against the hay, she made sure that Alexei’s view of how hungry he’d made her couldn’t be better. “Greedy must wait,” he murmured. “Not this time, Alexei.” “Are you disobeying me?” “I certainly am.” She arched her back a little more. Removing her thong in one easy action, Alexei captured her buttocks in a firm grip and chastised her exactly as she’d hoped he would. “You are so deliciously plump in all the right places,” he commented huskily as he dropped kisses on the glowing swell of her bottom. “And now so very pink as well.” There was no finesse now and none needed. They both had the same goal in mind and worked with the same need to reach climax, and when it came, it was so powerful, they were lost to pleasure for the longest time. Amber was sitting up, clinging to Alexei as their hips worked furiously together, and no sooner was that peak conquered than they chased each other over the next. “I don’t think we’re going to make the party,” Amber commented much, much later. “Do you want to?” Alexei enquired, but as he was kissing and nibbling the back of her neck in a way that made her arch her back again as much as she could for him, she couldn’t really make a sensible reply. “Will you be missed?” was the best she could come up with. “Do you care?” he demanded softly. “I’m only concerned about you and the part you played in the match. Won’t people want to congratulate you? Shouldn’t you be there with your team?” “Just once more, then,” he suggested. She shared an intimate smile. “At least.” He watched Amber interacting with his team and with their guests. What the hell? She was easier with them than he was. She was easier with everyone than he was, including the British ambassador, who was a crusty old man and irritable at the best of times with everyone, but not with Amber, it seemed. The after-match party was being held on the grand terrace of Cesar’s glorious home overlooking the beach and was packed with the great and the good. Amber had exceeded her brief to arrange caterers for the party and was introducing people and laughing with them easily as she checked that everyone had everything they needed. She was the consummate hostess. She had it all down, even to approaching the band to make a request. His heart banged in his chest when she turned to look at him. The band had just struck up a slow, moody love song. I will never forget how you kissed me… He got a horrible feeling she was saying good-bye to him with a song, and had to tell himself not to be so ridiculous. She wouldn’t leave him. Why would she? They had a second Christmas to look forward to just around the corner on January the seventh. What a fucking stupid thought. What did Christmas or any other day matter if Amber was leaving him? She wouldn’t leave him. She couldn’t— Could she? He was only aware of Amber on the crowded dance floor. Having fixed her gaze on his, she drew him in until they were standing toe to toe. He took her in a light hold, as if she were a dream that might dissolve too soon. I think I love you. He played around with the phrase in his head as he dropped lingering kisses on her shining, fragrant hair. And he still had the nagging feeling that this couldn’t last. Even when he had reassured himself that there was no way off the island, except by boat, helicopter, or private jet, none of which Amber had access to, he couldn’t shake it. She had no reason to leave, he told himself firmly, and if she did want to go, he’d take her. Tears burned behind Amber’s eyes as the words of the song she’d chosen tore another strip off her heart. Being in Alexei’s arms felt so right, so good, but she couldn’t build a future on a dance or on fabulous sex. Nor could she work alongside Alexei, wanting him as she did, body, heart, and soul, when he resolutely pushed her away. Even with his teammates, there came a tipping point when Alexei got back on his ship and sailed to some new destination without them, so what chance did she have? Enjoy this dance, she mused, because tomorrow doesn’t come with guarantees. And, look on the bright side, Amber reflected, beating off dejection at the thought of turning her back on her dreams and Alexei. It wasn’t every party where she could hitch a lift back to London on a private jet, which was what the British ambassador had offered her. Chapter Ten She had slipped away while he was rehashing the match with the team. He’d been distracted longer than he had intended, as the Spanish opposition had joined them to organize a rematch. Pride demanded that the Spaniards got their chance for revenge. It had ended up with eight men facing each other like boxers before a fight. Unflinching, unblinking, radiating pure aggression, until the moment the details were ironed out, when the tension vanished completely and they were all the best of friends again. It was only then he realized that Amber had left the party. Deciding there was only one place she could be, he checked the stable, but she wasn’t there. “She’s leaving,” one of the stable lads told him. “Leaving?” Leaving where? Leaving the island? Impossible. Leaving him? Entirely possible. He couldn’t even defend his behavior. They had danced as if they were the only two people left in the world and then he’d casually walked off to join his teammates. He ran to the bunkhouse and was relieved to find the light on. He went to the room that had been allocated to Amber and walked straight in. She was bent over her rucksack, which she was packing on the bed. His sudden entrance made her jump. “When were you going to tell me?” he demanded. “When will you learn to knock?” Straightening up, she regarded him steadily. “Come off it, Amber,” he flared impatiently. “What’s going on?” “That’s what I wondered earlier this evening, when you joined your friends and forgot about me.” “I didn’t forget about you. I had team matters to discuss.” “Team matters that I was excluded from.” She nodded. “I get that. I also get that each time you and I are close, you find an excuse to pull away. I don’t want that anymore, Alexei.” “Which means what?” “I’m leaving you,” she said quietly. He frowned. “How will you leave island?” Her mouth curved in a rueful smile. “Trust you to dive straight into the practicalities, Alexei.” “Well, they are fairly vital unless you plan to swim home.” “Yes, they are,” she agreed, “But that’s my point. It didn’t occur to you to say, ‘You’re leaving me?’ and to sound as if you cared. You can’t understand how I feel because you won’t allow yourself to feel anything. If you think about me at all, it’s as little more than a convenience that you pick up or drop whenever it suits you.” “That’s not true.” “Maybe you don’t feel that way, but that’s how you act.” They were facing each other across Amber’s narrow bed, and the tension was greater than between him and his Spanish counterpart. “What can I do to make this right? If you want to leave the island, you only have to ask, and I’ll take you.” “You still don’t get it, do you? I’m my own woman. I might be insignificant in your world, but I don’t need to be shepherded around by the billionaire like a little woman who’s incapable of acting for herself. I might not have much, but I have my self-respect and a good life back in London, as well as a place I call home, which is more than you have, or will ever have, if you don’t change.” Her words stung him. “I’ll leave you to calm down, and we’ll talk in the morning.” “I won’t be here in the morning. I’m leaving the island, and I’m leaving you. Not that I was ever with you, in any real sense—you wouldn’t let me.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “No. I don’t think you do,” Amber agreed. “I don’t think you have the slightest idea what it takes to build and nurture a relationship.” “That’s where you’re wrong,” he fired back as an image of his grandfather flashed into his mind. “I know exactly what it takes.” “Hard work, loyalty, trust, and constant devotion,” she said. “The same that your grandfather gave to you. When you think back to how hard he worked to raise you, and how selfless he was, and how tired he must have been, you know what a huge commitment love is. You’re frightened to risk it, because it might not work for you, so you vent your anger and frustration on the polo field instead—when you’re not working flat-out on your business responsibilities or saving souls with your private army. What about you, Alexei? What about your happy Christmas? Why don’t you just put those spinning plates down for a few minutes and work out what you want. I’ll tell you this—all your money and power can’t buy what your grandfather gave you. Only you can do that, but first you have to risk your heart, and I’m not sure you’re prepared to do that.” She glanced at the door. “And now, if you don’t mind, I have a plane to catch.” “What do you mean, a plane to catch?” He stared at Amber’s few belongings strewn across the bed. She was taking nothing from her new wardrobe, he noticed. “I don’t have a flight plan filed,” he pointed out, in case she thought he could just jump in the jet and take her home. “And none of my colleagues is planning to leave tonight, as far as I’m aware.” “The ambassador has a pressing engagement in London, and he’s not only leaving tonight, but he’s offered me a lift home.” She smiled a little sadly. “I’ve never had friends in high places before.” She didn’t need him. The realization hit him like a truck. It unsettled him. He turned for the door. “I’ll leave you then—” “You were never with me, Alexei,” Amber said quietly. ~o0o~ Opening the door onto a slightly damp bed-sit on a freezing-cold morning in the middle of a London winter came as quite a shock after the balmy climate on Isla Celeste, but it was home, and Amber would soon make it warm and welcoming. It was good to be back among things she loved, though the loneliness in her heart was a big black hole she doubted she could ever fill. Leaving Alexei had been the hardest thing she’d ever done, but there was no point fooling herself that he would change. He’d have to want to change before that could happen. Taking a deep breath, she took a moment to appreciate all the things that made up a home, her home—playbills and photographs, small gifts from friends, and quirky items she hadn’t been able to pass by from the street market, like the sad monkey and the gaudy parrot. Mr. Mouse would fit right in. Then there were the tapestries she’d hand-stitched and made into cushions, and throws she’d knitted from all the colors of the rainbow. She should have come here first instead of nursing a series of lukewarm breakfast coffees in the local café. She knew now that she’d been delaying the moment when she had to step back into her old life, leaving Alexei behind for good. Sliding her knapsack from her shoulders, she switched on the three-bar electric fire and raised the blind on the front window to peer out. “Great. Now I get to see the beautiful weather,” she murmured ruefully. The London sleet was sheeting down. It had turned the busy street into a monochrome image that was a million miles from the Christmas-card depictions of London with their sparkling snow and cheery robins. Blowing on her hands, she wished the ancient fire would hurry up and warm the room, but the chill inside her went a lot deeper than a cold room. It had taken up permanent residence in her heart. Supplies! There was no point sitting around moping. But first… “Okay, Mouse. You’re home. Welcome—” She turned full circle and decided to put the mouse Alexei had given her on the windowsill where he would be the first thing she’d see each day when she came home. Next she needed some London armor to protect her from the cold. Reaching inside the battered wardrobe she’d rescued from a skip, she pulled out her sludge-green parka. The shabby jacket had seen better days and had been sitting neglected in the cold for so long, it was like shrugging on an ice jacket, but critically, it had a hood. She had intended to leave the post until she got back. There was a stack of mail, most of which was destined to go straight into the recycling bin, but one thick envelope caught her eye. It was from Hard News. Perching on the bed, she opened it. And blinked. It was an offer in response to the success of her article, for her to work as a reporter-at-large, traveling the world to find stories. She sat back to think what this meant. She wouldn’t be tied down anywhere and could maybe afford a proper apartment with a separate bedroom. The accompanying letter informed her that as her article about life on board Russian Thunder had been so well received, another article about the world’s hottest polo team would be appreciated by return. That might be a bit of a problem, Amber reflected as she put the letter back inside the envelope. ~o0o~ This was it? He checked the address again. The paint on the front door of Amber’s house was peeling. There was no garden. The entrance opened directly onto the busy main road… Da. This was definitely it. With a shake of his head, he huffed a surprised laugh to see the small felt mouse sitting in the front window. At least she hadn’t tossed his gift in the trash. Pulling up his collar, he left the black Lamborghini and wove his way through the steady flow of pedestrians. The area she lived in had energy and a real personality. Very Amber, he thought. The lights were off at her address, so he guessed she was out shopping for essentials. He’d passed the local shops as he drove by at a crawl in the busy London traffic. All the shops were open and busy, most of them still boasting Christmas decorations, as if the upbeat neighborhood was in no rush to say good-bye to the happy holiday season. He could only hope Amber was in the same sort of mood. The bell over the corner shop door chimed a cheery welcome as Amber hurried inside, exclaiming with pleasure as an effective heating system embraced her. “Amber! We’ve missed you!” Cindi, the woman who owned the corner shop, exclaimed. “Welcome back!” “It’s good to be back.” And it was. She’d enjoyed this same welcome all the way down the street. But this wasn’t so great, Amber thought as she stood in front of the counter trying to decide what to eat from the wide selection of meals for one. “Amber?” Cindi looked at her shrewdly. “Whatever you decide to take, take a packet of these as well,” Cindi insisted, pushing a box of chocolate biscuits into Amber’s hands. “My belated Christmas gift to you—I overbought,” she explained with a shrug when Amber tried to refuse and wanted to pay for them. “There’s nothing like a bit of chocolate to ease a heartache.” “That obvious?” Amber asked ruefully. Cindi smiled wryly. “Flashing neon sign?” Leaving Cindi’s, she went to the florist. They still had glittery leaves and red berries left over from Christmas, she’d noticed when she’d walked past. The florist had closed early. Oh well. She’d have trouble carrying anything more, Amber told herself, turning for home. It was a cold night, and she walked briskly back to her flat and was glad to see her front door as the driving sleet started to find its way down a rip at the back of her hood. Lowering her bag to the step, she put her key in the lock—and nearly died of shock when the door swung open. “Alexei!” “Sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” Amber tried to catch her breath. “What are you doing here? How did you get in? Okay—” Holding up her hand like a traffic cop, she sucked in a steadying breath. “You have a jet. Your name works miracles. A flight plan to London’s no problem for you. And then…” She tried her hardest not to scream with outrage and didn’t quite make it. “You broke into my home?” Alexei remained perfectly composed. “The lock didn’t take much ingenuity,” he admitted as she walked past him. “You had no right,” she flared. “Correct,” he agreed. “But I needed to see you, to make things right between us.” She shook her head, still trying to get over the fact that he was there and taking up all the available space—and looking more than gorgeous—big and strong and tanned, and ridiculously sexy in his heavy winter clothes, and as fiercely determined as she’d ever seen him. Most people would quail beneath that laser stare, Amber decided, lifting her chin determinedly. Not a chance she would. “And you bought out the florist, I see?” She surveyed the riot of floral exuberance that took up every spare inch of her room, exotic flowers in fantastic displays: bird of paradise, protea, and sunflowers, all imported, she was sure, at this time of year, and all strikingly fabulous. There were peonies and lavender roses in romantic posies secured with jute laces, and, of course, seasonal displays of poinsettia, orchids, and white Christmas roses. Her expression as she stared at them and then looked at him brought a mock rueful expression to Alexei’s face. “You don’t like them?” She loved them, but wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of saying so. “Apologies if you’re allergic.” “I’m not allergic. So, what are you doing here, Alexei?” She was so tense, she wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d shattered into tiny pieces as she waited for him to speak. No answer to a question had ever mattered more. “No, don’t touch me,” she insisted when he reached out. She wouldn’t be able to think straight if he did. Backing away, she succeeded only in stumbling over the end of her sofa bed, forcing Alexei to perform a flying tackle to save her. To his credit, once he’d steadied her, he dropped his hands to his side and let her go. “I would have thought my reasons for being here are obvious?” “To you, maybe—” Emotion threatened to overwhelm her, but she couldn’t fold now. Lifting her chin, she gave it to him straight. “You can’t just walk back into my life as if nothing’s happened. I can’t do this again—” “Yes, you can,” he insisted. “You’ve never been a quitter.” “But I shouldn’t have to fight so hard, and, frankly, I don’t want to.” “You’re right,” he agreed. “I’ve been a bastard. But with your help, I intend to change.” Taking the single step necessary, he pulled her into his arms. “You have to do this again—we have to do this again, and we have to get it right this time. Give us a chance, Amber. I know I messed up, and I get that there aren’t any guarantees, but without you, my life is meaningless. I couldn’t even last a day without you.” “Is this your pride talking? I left you, so now you have to be the one to walk away?” “You’re so wrong,” he insisted. “This isn’t a polo match. This is forever.” Forever? Did he have to raise a brow, slant those lips, and let the smile in his eyes do the talking for him? “You’ve got as little reason to trust as I have,” Alexei told her, “but in the end, we both want the same thing, which is to trust and be trusted; to love and be loved. You have to take the same first step I do, if you want that.” She wanted to believe him. “What do you want me to say?” “That you love me would be a start. Then move on to Happy New Year, followed swiftly by Happy Christmas, because tomorrow is another Christmas Day.” “The seventh of January,” she whispered. “I love you, Amber. You tore my heart out of my chest and took it with you. I had to come here to get it back.” “You love me?” she repeated, staring into Alexei’s eyes. “Forever—if that’s long enough for you? And I know you don’t want to live on a boat. I get that.” “It’s very nice for a holiday,” she said politely. Alexei laughed out loud, and it was the most glorious sound she’d ever heard. “Very nice,” he agreed, his steel-gray eyes dancing with warmth and laughter. “But now—” He looked around. “I can see you’re a homemaker, and I’m doubly determined to win your heart by showing you all the raw material I can give you to work on.” “Your houses.” “My houses,” he confirmed. She couldn’t pretend her heart didn’t rush with excitement at that thought. “A homemaker?” She glanced around. She supposed it was true. Her bed-sit was tiny and modest, but it was warm and comfy and safe, and full of all the things she loved, but for Alexei to see that meant a lot. “Could you do the same for me?” he asked. “If you want to build a home like this, you’ll have to share the work, but I can tell you what to do—” “That sounds about right,” he agreed, grabbing her close. “So, what’s your answer?” “What’s the question?” “Provocative woman! Will you marry me, Amber Smith?” “I love you. Happy New Year!” She smiled. “Merry Christmas. And…yes, I will marry you, Alexei Riga.” “If only to save me from myself?” Alexei suggested dryly. “There is that,” she said wryly. “But I think we’ve saved each other.” Swinging her off her feet, Alexei kissed her, and the end became the beginning as they started all over again. Chapter Eleven “Project number one,” Alexei announced, opening pale beech double doors leading onto the most fabulous penthouse on top of an iconic building in London. He owned the entire building. Of course he did. Amber’s head was still spinning. They’d spent the night and most of that morning making love in her bed-sit, which, Alexei had assured her, was a lot more comfortable than his grandfather’s traditional yurt, the portable round tent covered with woven tapestries and animal skins they had used when they were inspecting herds of animals on the steppes. She wasn’t entirely sure whether to be flattered or not by that comparison, but she got his drift, and they had certainly raised the temperature of the room. The penthouse had been designed and equipped by a professional interior designer—a good one—and it was practical, comfortable, and luxurious. “But this is beautiful,” she exclaimed, staring around. ‘From your description of your sterile homes, I had an image of Colditz in my mind.” Alexei laughed. “I’m glad you like it. You can see the Shard and St. Paul’s Cathedral from the balcony, where you’ll find a lap pool and a fire pit for cool evenings. There are numerous individual local shops around here too, as well as theaters and concert halls just around the corner. There’s a cinema room behind that door, that looks like the interior of a particularly luxurious cave—” “And a Christmas tree in the hallway,” she said, cutting straight to the heart of the matter. “You had the penthouse dressed for Christmas,” she said, her eyes glowing with warmth. “ You knew you’d get me here, didn’t you?” He shrugged. “I thought I might.” They entered a glorious entertaining room with double-height, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the River Thames, where there was another Christmas tree, even bigger than the first. “It’s amazing what you can do with a single phone call,” Alexei confessed, clearly having difficulty hiding a grin. “It’s amazing what you can do with a single phone call,” Amber argued, exclaiming with happiness as Alexei swung her into his arms. “And a whole army of Christmas mice,” he pointed out, turning her to face a shelf where they’d been arranged in family groups. “Do you like it? Your opinion matters to me.” “I love it. Not sure if we’re going to need pest control for the mice, but it feels like a privilege to be in such a beautiful home.” “It isn’t a home yet,” Alexei argued. “It’s nothing more than a two-dimensional magazine shoot without your energy. Could you change it, warm it, give it your own special touch—maybe make it your headquarters in London? There’s quite a big office in the back, so it wouldn’t intrude on the main living area.” Amber held up her hand. What do you mean, my headquarters?” “I want you to be part of our organization—I know nothing less would satisfy you. I also want you to organize my life—our lives. You can have all the help you need. That goes without saying.” “Live here?” “While we’re in London. As I mentioned, I do have several other properties across the world for you to work on.” “One property at a time, please!” She laughed, a little incredulously. “I can’t take this in.” “But you do like this apartment?” “It would be hard not to,” Amber admitted, “but I don’t need a place as big, or as fabulous as this.” “But we do,” Alexei insisted. “Won’t you allow me to give it to you?” “What?” “It would make me very happy,” Alexei admitted. “It would make my Christmas very happy if you would accept this apartment as a gift.” “A…” She tried to speak, but no words would come out. “I take it that’s a yes,” he said. “Don’t look so shocked. We’ll need to hold fund-raisers to get the great and the good involved in our various projects, and while I’d love to tell you that the great and good would be just as happy assembling in my grandfather’s yurt, I think you’d be more inclined to believe me if I suggest we entertain here. We can have a cozy home somewhere else. Well? What do you say? Will you join me in the biggest adventure of your life? Will you help me in my fight? Will you be more than my wife and my love, will you work with me?” Amber laughed. “You certainly know the way to a girl’s heart. At one time, men like you would say, marry me and you’ll never have to work another day in your life.” “And you’d accept that?” “What do you think?” “I think you’d walk out that door, and I’d never get an interior designer free of charge.” They lay entwined on the sofa in front of a weirdly designed cutting-edge open fire. Perhaps she would take a hands-on approach to the design aspects of Alexei’s properties, Amber concluded as they gazed out over London, spread like an improbably fantastic wall hanging behind the fire. “I feel bad that I haven’t got you a gift,” she murmured, snuggling into Alexei’s chest. “You underestimate your powers of attraction,” he assured her. With only the fairy lights on the Christmas tree and the state-of-the-art concealed lighting to cast a soft glow on Alexei’s naked skin, he had never looked more beautiful. “You,” she said, propping herself up so she could stare into his eyes, “are a very bad man.” “And you,” he countered huskily, “haven’t even scratched the surface yet.” When he turned her beneath him and sank satisfyingly deep, she was tempted to believe him. They made it to bed eventually—to yet another room with the most fantastic view of London, as well as the stars and the moon overhead, casting a soft glow like a convenient lantern. Before that, they had trialed the huge marble bathroom, where surfaces were firm and cool and stable, the water was at a perfect temperature, and Alexei’s stamina was infinite. “I’ve got two things for you now,” Alexei told her as he carried her to bed. “First this,” he said after setting her down. “But this is beautiful,” Amber breathed as she took in the intricate painting of a polo player and his horse on the small enameled box. There was a girl in the painting, sitting on the fence with her face turned toward the polo player. “These enameled boxes are traditional Christmas gifts in the part of Russia where my grandfather lived,” Alexei explained. “I commissioned it in the hope that you wouldn’t be sitting on the fence by the time I gave it to you.” She laughed and shook her head. “You took quite a chance.” “The first of many,” Alexei agreed, turning serious. “I think you should look inside the box.” She lifted the lid. “Two keys?” She frowned as she pulled them out. “The first is for this penthouse,” Alexei explained. “It’s my gift to you. And the second is for a property I’m buying in your old neighborhood. The owner very kindly allowed me to have a key cut before we sign the contract.” “I don’t understand.” “While I was waiting for you, I identified a building in your old neighborhood that I thought would make an excellent women’s refuge. I’m guessing you’d like to run it, and the best way to do that is if you own it outright. You can campaign, write articles, join us on missions—though I’m not so keen on that last—” “All or nothing,” Amber insisted firmly. “Then, let it be everything,” Alexei said, throwing up his hands in complete surrender. “Welcome to the Blood and Thunder team. You are hereby inducted into the hardest, fastest, most successful team on the face of the earth.” Taking the box from her hands, he took Amber on the ride of her life. Epilogue There was no reason why the hardman of Russia couldn’t have a romantic wedding. In fact, Alexei had insisted on a romantic ceremony when Amber had suggested they could just as easily hold the ceremony at a registry office in the heart of London. When the sun rose on another beautiful day in Isla Celeste, she knew he was right. She had insisted on riding to her wedding on the difficult mare she had befriended on her first visit to the island. Maybe it took one stand-up female to understand another, Amber thought as she mounted sidesaddle and rode out to meet the man she loved. The number of guests that had gathered on the shore surprised her. Alexei was waiting barefoot in the sand in a pale linen suit, beneath an archway of chamomiles specially imported from Russia. The fat white daisies with their golden hearts echoed the simplicity of their outfits. Amber had chosen to wear a slim-fitting dress in the flimsiest of fabrics that clung to her like a second skin. In the palest ivory, it set off her vibrant red hair, which she’d left loose as per Alexei’s request. The slim column of silk had floating panels in the skirt that lifted and flew behind her as she cantered down the shoreline to where Alexei was waiting to help her down from the horse. They kept their guests waiting a good few moments while Amber slid into his arms and they whispered their own love messages to each other and kissed. “For us, for the future, and for all the Christmases to come,” Alexei murmured, staring into her eyes. “For love,” Amber replied. “And because I need a challenge going forward.” Their mouths touched as they laughed. “I’ve got another surprise for you,” Alexei informed her. “You remember Celina?” “Of course,” Amber exclaimed, whirling around to follow Alexei’s glance. “Meet your bridesmaids.” Amber hugged Celina first. The young girl looked so much better than the last time she’d seen her. She was rosy-cheeked, with gleaming, waist-length black hair, and the pretty ankle-length bridesmaid’s dress in ice-blue lace really suited her. “Next I’d like to introduce you to Rose, our latest recruit.” “Irish,” Rose announced, her black eyes sparkling with laughter. “With brothers.” She grimaced. “And I take a job here, where the island is overrun by fierce feens—men,” she explained to Amber, pulling a comic face as she tweaked her pale blue dress into some sort of order. “There are far too many men here.” “Apologies, Rose. I can only hope you’ll tame one of them.” “One of them? No thank you. None of them would suit me.” Rose huffed good-humoredly as she shot a warning glance at the tall Argentinian, Dante. “We haven’t made the best of starts,” she confided in Amber. “Well, come and have a chat with me if you have any trouble with him—” “Trouble?” Rose exclaimed. “We’d better postpone the wedding and have that chat now.” “I’ll do what I can,” Amber promised as both girls laughed. “And I’m very pleased to meet you, Rose.” “Likewise,” Rose said, standing back so the next bridesmaid could step forward. “Mica. Our Krav Maga specialist,” Alexei announced as he introduced the statuesque blonde with a no-nonsense urchin cut. “Mica.” Amber felt as if she was being given a shrewd assessment, but for some reason, she liked the tall, slender blonde on sight. “I look forward to knowing you better,” Mica said warmly. “Me too,” Amber agreed. “And we mustn’t forget your maid of honor,” Alexei said, drawing a woman out of the crowd. Amber’s mouth dropped open. “Dana?” “You didn’t think you could escape your deadline quite so easily, did you? Or to put it another way, you’ve got the something new.” She glanced at Alexei. “You’ve got the something borrowed.” She angled her head toward the skittish mare. “And now you’ve got the girls in blue. So I guess that leaves me—the something old?” “But you’ve still got it,” Amber whispered. “Just no one to use it on,” Dana lamented. “Stick with me, kid,” Rose cut in, shooting a challenging look at Dante, who was looking as stony-faced as only a member of the Blood and Thunder team could, prior to being reconstructed by a strong woman. “I’ll find us both a man, if we have to swim to the next island.” And on that promising note, Alexei led Amber forward to stand in front of the minister who would bind them together for life. “For my lovely wife,” Alexei said as he placed a diamond-studded band on Amber’s finger. “For the husband who will ensure I’m never short of stories to tell,” she teased him, smiling as she placed the simple platinum band Alexei had requested on his wedding finger. “Stories to tell our children, I hope you mean?” Alexei suggested. “You guessed?” Instinctively, Amber touched her still-flat stomach. She hadn’t even confirmed the pregnancy yet. “I hoped,” Alexei repeated as he drew Amber into his arms for a kiss.

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