Read an Excerpt
It’s strange to be surrounded by a sea of people and still be lonely. I walk the campus path to class, hugging my iPad close to my chest, a backpack slung over one shoulder. I’m dressed in a dark gray sweater and jeans, my hair’s pulled into a nondescript ponytail, and I’m roughly the same age of everyone else attending school, give or take a few years.
But I don’t blend. I don’t think I even know how.
Maybe it’s because I’ve killed a man? Maybe it’s because the love of my life is an ex-mafiya assassin? Maybe it’s because the last year has given me more life experience than a lot of these people will ever have, but I’m still considered the “sheltered” one?
Who knows. Whatever it is, I feel like the square peg in a class full of round holes.
I duck into my Financial Management class, and as I do, there’s a row of women at the front I recognize from a class last semester. They’re taking the accounting block of classes, like me, because I want to learn how to manage Nick’s money and help him make more of it the legal way. They’re smiling and laughing, but when they see me, they get quiet. I see their expressions freeze over and they don’t make eye contact.
And so, even though there’s an empty seat next to them, I move to the back of the class. I try not to let it bother me.
I really thought it would be easier to make friends. I really did. But outside of my fiancé, Nick, whom I love and adore with all my heart; my father; and my old roommate, Regan, I’m alone.
Last semester, things were going fine. I enjoyed my classes and socialized with people. But then we got word that Daniel’s sister Naomi had been stolen out from under his nose while he and Regan were accompanying her. Rumors of a Bratva takeover started trickling through Nick’s networks. And my Nick? He is utterly cautious when it comes to my safety. So instead of letting me go to class on my own, he insisted on walking me to class and waiting at the door for me as each class finished.
I think that’s when the ostracism started. People started to look at me weird. Girls that I used to eat lunch with no longer go to the dining hall when I do. Maybe Nick inadvertently said something to someone. Maybe just seeing my big Ukrainian with the tattoo-covered neck and the designs crisscrossing his hands screamed danger.
Whatever it was, the women in my classes steer clear of me.
I can’t blame Nick. He wants to keep me safe, and I love him for it. After my kidnapping last year by Yuri and Vasily, I don’t mind his hovering. It makes me feel secure, even if it chases away any chance of friendship with “regular” people.
As I swipe my iPad and open the text to the class’s lesson, I tell myself that these things don’t matter. That the approval of my peers does not matter to me. I have Nick, and that should be everything.
But in some ways, not having any girlfriends to chat with makes me feel as if I am still that isolated young woman living in a boarded-up house with my father. I had no friends then, either. And funnily enough, I thought that friends and life would come easily once I escaped his house. And while Nick blazed his way into my life like a comet and paved a path for me, I still struggle with everyday things.
Like small talk. I never realized how much of a favor my friend Regan did me when she took me under her wing. But now Regan’s in Texas and I’m having to figure things out on my own.
The class fills up as we wait for the professor’s lecture to begin. There are two unfamiliar girls a row ahead of me discussing something called Real Housewives. I think it’s a TV show, based off of their conversation, but Nick and I don’t watch a lot of TV. There are so many other things to do with our time, like fix up the old apartment building, or go to the zoo, or take walks together . . . or simply make love. TV falls somewhere far down that list.
Still, I make a note on the margins of my notepad to check it out. Maybe I can watch a few episodes over the weekend and return to class armed with knowledge and a way to break into their huddled conversation.
Even as I think it, I scratch the words out. I can watch a few episodes . . . and then what? Introduce them to my assassin fiancé? Invite them over for dinner to the large, empty apartment building that Nick and I purchased and that no one else lives in yet except for my father? But could they please let me run a background check first?
I sigh and concentrate on my finance class instead.
If I cannot make friends, I can at least have knowledge.
My next class occurs after lunch. Even though Nick would prefer that I remain in class until he comes to escort me home, we’ve compromised. I won’t eat anywhere but in the crowded lunchroom, where I can be surrounded by people. It doesn’t matter that I brown-bag my lunch every day; there is safety in numbers. But I hate lunch. I hate that when I choose a table, I’m always the only one seated there.
I’ve tried sitting with other people, but I get nervous and end up staring mutely at them as I gobble my sandwich, which only makes everyone uncomfortable. To look like I’m busy, I text Nick a few hearts to let him know I’m thinking about him.
You are my heart, Daisy, he texts back immediately.
I smile and touch the art I had tattooed over my breastbone for Christmas. It’s a drawing of a heart and his name in Cyrillic, and it’s as dark and elegant as my lover. I love it, and Nick loves to see it on my skin. I think it touched him more than when I proposed to him, which is funny to think about. A ring is an outward sign that you belong to someone, but the hidden tattoo under my clothes is just for him, and ten times more intimate. I smile and text him back. What are you drawing today?
A very fat man, Nick sends back. He is sweating profusely. His balls look like shriveled meatballs.
I giggle on my peanut butter and jelly. Nick is taking art classes, and he alternately loves—and hates—his Drawing from Life Models class. Nick enjoys drawing interesting people, not pretty ones, so this man should be right up his alley. But the sweat, I imagine, is difficult to capture. Have fun, I text back. Dinner tonight is meatballs!
Now my cock is shriveled at the thought. I must go, love. Duty calls.
XO, I send, since I cannot kiss him.
I wish I could be more like Nick. Nick doesn’t want or need friends. He looks at me strangely when I say the girls in class don’t like me. What can they possibly not like?, he asks. I cried over it once, but only once, because it distressed Nick so. To him, problems are solved at the business end of a gun, and if he can’t help me, it hurts him. So I hide this.
I text Regan a little, but it’s clear from her slow responses that she’s busy. She’s helping Daniel with the stalls at the Hays ranch. I can’t imagine Regan doing manual labor, but she says she loves it and it helps calm her mind. If that’s the case, I’m all for it.
I’m relieved when I’ve wasted enough time fooling with my phone to go to my next class. Principles of Architecture is a labor of love. It has absolutely nothing to do with my degree plan, but when my advisor suggested fine arts courses, I gravitated toward this one. Learning about the differences in Greek columns and how ancient civilizations created load-bearing walls is pretty dry stuff to Nick, but I’m fascinated. Maybe someday I could design new buildings, buildings with both safety and beauty in mind.
This class is primarily first-year students, and I’m older than all of them, which makes me feel a bit silly. Luckily, I find the coursework so interesting that I don’t mind being older than the others. I’m also one of only two women in the class. The other is a girl with pale blond hair who’s even quieter than I am. Like a wraith, she slips in and out of class. I don’t think anyone realizes she’s present except for me, because I am on the hunt for friends.
Through chance, she gets to class and slides into the empty seat next to me.
I should take this opportunity. I need to say something witty. Maybe about the rainy weather? Or what about today’s subject? According to the syllabus, we’ll be talking about the ancient Romans and their use of concrete as a building material. So I look over at her, smile brightly, and what comes out of my mouth is, “Rain and concrete today!”
She gives me a startled look and shrinks down into her seat.
I probably deserved that. I hunch down in my own seat and stare miserably at the front of the lecture hall. Rain and concrete? Really, Daisy?
The class passes miserably slowly, and even my interest on the subject can’t save things. When class is over, I take my time gathering my things and pretend to study my notes intently. Everyone files out ahead of me, and I’m the last one out the door.
When I exit into the hall, Nick is waiting for me.
My Nick is beautiful, but he’s utterly foreign to the bland students of Minnesota U. Even though he is wearing a long-sleeved shirt with a polo collar, I can see the tattoos on his neck of the knife, the spiderweb. His hands are covered with Cyrillic writing, and if his arms were exposed, they would be covered with even more tattoos. They tell a bloodthirsty history, and anyone in Europe, I am told, would give him wide berth at the sight of them. Here in the middle of nowhere, America, they simply think he is odd. Maybe a gang member. And his beautiful pale eyes light up at the sight of me.
My spirits are down, but I manage a smile for him and tilt my face up for a kiss. Nick pulls me in close and his mouth brushes over mine, and his touch never fails to send a shiver down my spine. I love this man. I would kill for him.
I have killed for him.
“You look tired, milaya moya,” he tells me as he wraps an arm around my waist. “Long day?”
“Just a lot of homework,” I tell him, and lean in to inhale his scent. I never get tired of anything Nick. Ever. I could bask in his attention all day. Even his presence here is like a balm to me. “How was your class?”
“Good,” he tells me. His classes are always “good.” Later, he might show me his artwork, but not here.
When we get outside, Nick immediately pulls out an umbrella and holds it over me. I try to take it from him, but he insists on holding it. “Are you not mine to care for?” he says, a smile on his mouth.
It’s on the tip of my tongue to tease him back, when I notice a huddled group under the building awning, hiding from the rain. It’s Joanne and Maggie, two girls I was friendly with last semester. They see me with Nick and immediately start whispering, even as he holds the umbrella over me like I’m some sort of princess.
I want to make a silly joke about it. About how Nick is a sweetheart and just an over-protective fiancé with reasons for worrying about my safety.
But the words stick like glue in my throat, and I remain silent as we head to the parking lot and Nick’s car.
After dinner, Nick and I work on our homework together. Normally we also try to do a bit of handiwork around the apartment, but I plead a reprieve tonight, feigning a headache. I don’t have it in me to grout tile or paint walls or hold screwdrivers while Nick cusses at the wiring.
Instead, we snuggle on the couch, and Nick traces the lines of my hand with his fingers. He’s got such long, strong fingers that I could study them for hours. They’re the hands of an artist and an assassin, and it’s a fascinating dichotomy to me. He is so many things, and I am just weird Daisy. Weird, useless Daisy.
I make a frustrated sound in my throat.
Lazily, Nick looks over at me, his expression full of contentment. “Hmm?”
“Nick, do you think I’m weird? Be honest.”
“Weird?” I cup her beautiful face in my hands. There is nothing strange about her other than that she loves me. That is the true oddity. “You are beautiful and unique blossom, and every morning that I awake and you are slumbering in my arms, I am astonished anew by my good fortune. You are antithesis of weird.”
I press my lips upon her before she can respond. When she opens her mouth, my tongue sweeps in and I swallow her protests. Does she not know how precious she is? In this world of cynicism and indifference, her bright interest and joy in all things is a rare and glorious thing. Another woman would not have welcomed me into her heart.
Yes, there are those who look upon me with sexual intent. They see my strong body, my tattoos, and believe that I can deliver to them an experience that they have not yet encountered. But few of those who gaze at me with lust in their eyes would love me as my own sacred Daisy.
I have many marks on my body. There are temporary ones that I wish were etched into my skin with a laser. Those are the ones made by the hand of my Daisy. The small crescent gouges, bite marks, and scratches are treasured signs of her possession of me. I wear these with pride. If anyone should ask about the bruise on my neck, I would smugly reply it is the brand of my woman.
The permanent ones I regret.
Once I reveled in the fear generated by the sight of the crude needle and homemade ink tattoos on my hands, my neck, and my arms. For so long I had lived by the motto inscribed on my chest. Death is a mercy.
There are those in this world who need killing, and many died at my hands. I told them—and myself—that the ending of their life was a benevolent act.
My life is different now and, as I can see by the unhappy face beside me, it is the same for Daisy. Her distress is palpable. I could give it shape with a pencil and chalk. Like all my paintings, it would be dark with hard edges.
My advisor at our school remarks that I need more variance in my images. I cannot, he criticizes, express only one emotion.
He is wrong if he believes I have only one. I am racing along the spectrum of ebullience to misery which, I have perceived from my short studies, is the emotional archetype of every successful artist throughout history. Maudlin sentiment followed by rages of passion are common traits in the greats.
It is merely that I am new to these responses. Before Daisy, I was detached. It was out of necessity and then habit. When one killed for a living, not knowing who the next mark would be, creating connections to others was unwise.
It has taken me a while to recognize that the heat generated by one text from Daisy is pleasure rather than apprehension. That my art is one-dimensional is unfortunate, but perhaps moroseness will be the signature of a Nikolai Andrushko work.
No, Nick Anders.
I am now Nick Anders, not the child ubitsya who was trained by the warrior of the Petrovich Bratva nor the killer who hired out to eliminate threats and avenge wrongs. I no longer view life down the scope of my rifle, identifying target after target.
I am Nick Anders, engaged lover of Daisy Miller, and aspiring artist. According to the university brochures, at the age of twenty-five, I am a nontraditional student. What it means, however, is that I care more about my classes than most of the other students. From my observation, college courses are merely the time one spends between drinking and doing drugs and having sex with strangers.
The art students find me attractive, yet Daisy’s friends—her classmates—are frightened of me and by extension of her. We have had no parties and no friends have visited, and I can see by the pained light of Daisy’s eyes that she tries to hide from me that this is problematic.
I part her blouse, unbuttoning the fastenings swiftly.
“No,” I whisper reverently against her soft and delicate skin. The pulse at her neck flutters wildly. I press a kiss there as well. “You are not strange or weird. Maybe different because you find joy in the things that others overlook, but never odd. And if others would judge you, then they are not fit to walk in the dust left by your shoes or drink your piss.”
She chokes at my crudity and pushes me off. “I don’t think anyone should have to drink my piss, Nick.”
Shrugging, I rub my thumbs over the planes of her collarbones. Every part of Daisy’s body is beautiful to me from the bumps on her knuckles to her dimpled thighs. I want to drown in the lushness of her body. “To some it would be a reward.”
“That’s never going to happen,” she warns with a laugh.
“Then let me drink from your cunt and I will be satisfied.”
Daisy groans. “Nick, what am I going to do with you?”
“Allow me to love you. That is all I ask.” I am begging but unashamedly, for there is nothing that exists in my world that is more important than to serve her.
“I do.” She sighs and draws me to her. “Always.”
I pick her up and carry her to the bedroom. Together we remove her blouse and pants along with my clothes until we are flesh to flesh. We lie facing each other on the bed, and I trace her generous curves with my hand. Later tonight, when she is sated and her eyes are slumberous from her orgasm, I will sketch her and try to capture her essence. I am never successful, for she is otherworldly in her beauty—at least in my eyes, and mine are the only ones that matter.
She came to me an innocent and much of it still remains despite the fact that I have ravished her repeatedly. She is knowledgeable in all the right areas, I conclude.
“Tell me, kotehok, what is this weirdness you speak of.”
Her hands are mapping the muscles and sinew of my chest. My body was as much a weapon as my gun or knife, so it is hard. We are a study of contrasts—my angular planes against her bountiful curves. It is as it should be. I still hone my body with running and martial arts because Daisy finds so much delight in my hardness. And while our lives are not in constant danger, I want to be able to protect her from any harm.
“I can’t seem to make friends with my classmates. I’m older than some but not that much older. And I look different. It’s not just my clothes, but there’s something about me that must set them off.” She exhales heavily and rolls onto her back.
I try not to notice that the exhale pushes her tits up or that her movement causes an enticing jiggle in her form. My cock notes these actions, however, and readies itself for a bout of play. Tucking it away would probably bring more attention to my inappropriate erection. I shift slightly so it is not pushing its insistent wet head into her hip. She does need something more from me than my penis, although I do not know what I can give to her.
If the threat were external, I could easily exterminate it. Those girls who giggle behind their hands could be dust in seconds. Yet, I know that is not the response Daisy needs or wants.
“You are different,” I admit. “So am I. We will never be the carefree youths we see about the campus. The dark hand of loss and suffering have shaped us into creatures who cannot be ordinary, as much as you may long for that. However, your irrepressible joy in life feeds me in a way that bread and water cannot. And Regan too responded to you in a like manner. I think these girls need only to know you better. To know you is to love you.”
Her head turns and the smile is chasing away the clouds of discontentment. That small signal of approval makes the blood surge through me like a tidal wave.
“You are completely biased, you know that right? I think sex has brainwashed you.”
“If that is true, then I welcome it. I would never want to be right headed if my world view did not have you at its center. Come kotenok, let me love you as a man should love his woman.”
With feline grace, she stretches provocatively against the sheets. Her nude frame is a decadent vision in the low light of our room and the black as sin sheets. “If it will make you feel better, I submit to your attentions.”
“If we were in Russia, you would call me Kolya,” I murmur against her breast. Her dusky nipple hardens under my breath even before I can wet her skin with my tongue and mouth. Anticipation of the pleasure I will bring to her is already igniting a fire deep within.
“Kolya,” she repeats huskily. “Make love to me.”
“I thought you would never ask.”
My tongue laps a lazy path from one peak to the other, working each taut bud of skin into a hard point. She arches beneath me, pushing the lush flesh deeper into my mouth. I oblige her unspoken command and suck harder, the sides of my cheeks hollowing out as I devour her sensitive skin.