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4 ½ years later ...
"Ouch! I'm not a pin cushion!" April wobbled on her stilettos catching her balance on the overturned crate she stood on in the middle of the empty bar. At ten o'clock in the morning on a Monday, the stark house lights and the glare of the sun streaking through the open double doors muted the club's sparkle. Glitter looked more like an abruptly abandoned sorority house than the home of the self-proclaimed: Most classy and fabulous drag show in Key West!
"Hold still, Mama." Crouched in front of April, Juan pulled the fabric together forcing her to stand still. April was his favorite mannequin to work on whenever he decided to alter the staff uniforms. Mainly because no one else wanted to do to it and she owed him for four years of free babysitting, which she would never be able to repay. Today, he was piecing together the Oktoberfest uniform for the wait staff. He was aiming for trampy German beer maid, a look both the female and male servers would squeeze themselves into, regardless of gender, for the month of October.
"I am holding still." April grabbed his hard shoulder to steady herself and inadvertently crinkled the notes for her mid-term exam.
Juan shot her skeptical look from beneath the fake eyelashes that accentuated his dark, hooded eyes. His alter ego "Juanita Bonita" was put away for the day, so he was wigless and makeup free except for the lashes. He wore his artfully mussed dark hair trimmed short on the sides and gelled. He'd traded the slinky sequined gown he'd worn the night before for a designer navy polo shirt and snug blue jeans. A lean and handsome man with amazing bone structure, Juan was just as attractive in drag as he was out of it.
"How much longer are you gonna be? I have to study." She smoothed the crinkled paper and held it up in front of her. "And I can't forget to swing by the bookstore on the way home to pick up the weekend's cash sales and deposit them in the bank or Molly will give me heck."
Juan tugged on the bodice, trying to straighten it. "Why don't you quit the bookstore? You say you make better money waiting tables here in season, and the hours are better for you."
"I can't quit." April took a deep breath but could only fill her lungs part way. "After all Molly's done for me, I can't let her down. Especially now, when she's expecting twins."
Juan clucked his tongue. "Somebody needs to tell that woman her vajayjay isn't a clown car."
"Stop. I'm happy for Molly and Anders. They're so much in love. I envy them."
Juan pulled the bodice tighter before he continued pinning. The boning inside the fabric pinched her torso and pushed her boobs up and out making them seem even bigger than they already were. "You've lost weight, mama. You need to eat a sandwich."
"Who has time to eat?" April focused on the list of Hospitality Law terms. Force Majeure ... a common clause in contracts freeing both parties from liability in the event of an extraordinary event —
"I'm serious," Juan said around the pin he stuck in his mouth. Removing it, he pinned another fold of fabric. "You look like stick with tits."
"I do not. I have hips!" Force Majeure ... she tried again.
"Barely." He leaned back, surveying his work.
"Juan's right." Carly glanced up from her laptop screen. "From this angle, you look like a vine juggling a pair of cantaloupes." Carly sat at a table near the bar in casual drag wearing a lavender satin blouse and white capris. Unlike Juan, who dressed in drag as a hobby and for work, Carly was a trans woman. The long, light brown hair she'd twisted up in a messy bun was her real hair, though she wore wigs when she performed. With a masculine boned face and a strapping body that was solid six-foot-tall in flats, she made a more striking than beautiful woman, but she owned it.
Juan giggled. "Grapes on a twig."
"Balloons on a string.
"Me during my Dolly Parton phase." Juan staggered backward as he pretended to cup a pair of very large imaginary breasts.
"Stop it!" April slapped him with her exam notes. "I get it. I'll eat something when I get home." She held onto Juan's forearm as she carefully stepped off the crate.
He looped an arm around her waist and hauled her against his chest so they were nose to nose. She was always wowed by how disarmingly handsome he was, especially when she saw him up close like this. "I'm sorry, Mama. It's just you're the thinnest I've ever seen you. Are you taking care of yourself?"
The concern on his face made her heart squeeze. "I'm trying. I'm just a little stressed with school and work and taking care of Archie. He's a little ball of energy these days, you know?"
Juan lowered his softly accented voice to a soothing timbre. "You are superwoman, you know that? You can get through this. You are so close to finishing school, your dream is almost a reality."
She wasn't so sure about the superwoman part, but he was right. She was less than two months away from graduating and hopefully starting a career in hotel management. She was on the road to one day owning her very own B&B. That was her dream, but what really kept her going was Archie. She wanted to give him a great life and start saving for his college fund. She couldn't do that on a retail manager's salary or waitress' tips. She needed a better paying job.
Swallowing the lump of emotion in her throat, she kissed Juan's cheek. "Thank you for always believing in me."
"He's right," Carly said. "If you need anything from us ... money, time off, child care, you just whistle, you hear?"
"I will. I promise. I love you guys." She didn't know what she'd do without them. She owed them just as much as she owed Molly and Anders for helping her with Archie while she used scholarships and the little bit of money she brought with her to put herself through a four-year online college degree program.
"We love you too, mama." Juan kissed her forehead.
She and Juan turned toward the source of the question. Three men blocked the open front doors. The fair-haired man in front was half the size of the other two and impeccably dressed in a designer, cream linen suit.
A warm, friendly smile lit his face as he stepped away from his companions. "Carly, darling, there you are," he said in a posh British accent. "I was worried I'd ring you up, and you wouldn't be here."
The two men standing behind him were intimidating in different ways. The black man on the left was huge and muscular. His pink fedora and plaid pink suit didn't detract from his menacing glare. The man on the right had long, Eastern European features and a wiry build, but his pale blue eyes were chilling.
When the man in the pink fedora closed the front doors blocking out the sun and potential witnesses on the street, the colored drained from Carly's face. She retreated a step and bumped the edge of the table. "What are you doing here, Terrance?" Terrance's grin widened. "I think you know the answer to that."
"I told you, I don't have the money."
April sent a questioning glance to Juan.
He shook his head and shrugged.
Terrance's cordiality vanished. "Unfortunately, that's not what I want to hear."
"What are they talking about, Carly?" Juan said. "What money?"
"It's nothing." Carly waved it off. "Leave them out of this, Terrance."
"Unfortunately, I can't do that." He made the slightest gesture with his head and waited. When nothing happened, he turned around and motioned to the man in the pink fedora. "Pascale, I gave you the nod." He demonstrated. "You see that?" He showed him again. "That's the nod. That's your cue, remember?"
"Oh, right." Pascale tugged on his sleeves before starting across the room.
April and Juan stood there dumfounded as they watched Pascale come toward them and grab Juan from behind putting him in a choke hold.
Carly stomped her foot. "This is nonsense, Terrance. We had an agreement, and you're reneging on it."
"It's out of my hands now, love. My new employer wants the debt paid in full by the end of the week."
Terrance turned to the European. "Sergey, the nod was intended for you as well."
Sergey's frosty blue gaze turned to toward him.
Terrance blanched and fidgeted with his cane. "Uh, if you wouldn't mind?"
Sergey stared at him for moment as if he was reluctant to follow orders. When he started toward April, she realized she could have run and hid by the time he reached her, but it just didn't occur to her until it was too late. He grabbed her from behind. Looping a steely arm around her waist, he hauled her against him. When something cold and sharp touched her throat, it took her a moment to realize it was a knife.
Carly fanned herself with her hand and slumped against the table. "Please don't hurt them," she said weakly. "I'll figure something out."
"Now that's more like it. Nobody gets injured, if you pay up."
Carly's face turned a sickly shade of white. "A week just isn't enough time, Terrance. It's been a slow summer. I can have the money by January. All of it. With interest."
Terrance made his way behind the bar and selected a bottle of vodka from the display. "That's not good enough. My employer wants it by Saturday or bones will be broken. Every month you don't deliver, the payment goes up 25% and will keep doubling every month after that until the debt is paid in full."
"Twenty-Five percent? That's insane," Carly shouted.
The steely arm around April's torso wedged firmly under her breasts. As Sergey bent his head to sniff her neck, the blade of his knife pressed against her throat. Fear and nausea curdled her insides. Hot dogs. His breath smelled like stale beer and hot dogs.
Juan emitted a choking sound as he struggled to break free.
"Stop it!" Carly shouted. "You're hurting him!"
Twisting off the cap, Terrance sniffed the Vodka and winced at the fumes before pouring a shot into a short glass. "Pascale, let the man breathe."
Juan gasped, sucking in air, as the grip around his neck loosened. "What did you do, Carly? Did you borrow money from these turds?"
Carly's eyes flared. "Please shut up. You're going to get us all killed."
"I'm going to get us killed? How much money do you owe them?"
"Fifty-thousand dollars." She covered her face with her hands.
April gasped. That was an enormous sum, and Carly and Juan definitely did not have that kind of cash lying around.
Juan muttered a curse. "We'll get you the money, but not by the end of the week. That's impossible. Give us to the end of October."
Terrance moved forward until he was standing a foot away from Juan. "You have lovely skin, you know that?" He stroked his knuckles along Juan's smooth jaw. Juan didn't move a muscle. Neither did Carly, though the glare on her face suggested she wanted to lunge herself at Terrance and scratch his eyes out. "You're lucky you've caught me in a generous mood. I'll give you ten days with no added interest but not a minute more. I can only stall my employer for so long. If you don't have the money by then, Pascale and Sergey will be back." He cupped Juan's chin. "It would be a damn shame to scar this lovely face."
Juan tugged away from Terrance's hand and glared at him.
Terrance chuckled and then twirled his finger in the air as he turned for the door. Pascale shoved Juan away and followed. Sergey was reluctant to let go of April. He nuzzled her neck and purred with pleasure. Panic fluttered in her breast as she struggled to pull away from him but felt like bird trapped in the claws of a panther.
Sergey chuckled low in his throat and released her. She stumbled and caught herself on the back of a chair.
Pascale waited for Terrance and Sergey to exit before he followed them out and slammed the door closed.
After a moment of stunned silence, Juan spun around. "Are you crazy, Carly? Were you so hard up for cash you had to borrow money from the fricken' Gay Mafia? What the hell were you thinking?"
Tears streamed down Carly's face as she sank into the nearest chair.
April had never seen her strong, confident friend this distraught, and it broke her heart. She went to her and knelt by her feet. "How can I help?"
Carly shook her head. "There's nothing you can do. Somebody took over the organization and acquired my loan. He wants the balance paid in full because I was late with a few payments."
"Like Molly says, you can't get blood from a stone." April squeezed her hand.
"What did you need the money for in the first place?" Juan threw his arms up in the air and paced away from them. When he reached the hostess stand, he stopped and came back.
"I lied about getting an inheritance from my dead uncle." Carly bowed her head. "I went to Terrance, and he gave me the money I needed to buy Glitter. I'd planned to pay it back in two years, but I never realized how expensive it was to start a new business. The payments were manageable until we hit a slump and I got a little behind. I'm so sorry, Juan. I shouldn't have lied to you. I put you both in danger today. This is all my fault. You shouldn't be dragged into this. I'll fix it. Somehow, I'll —" Her face crumpled again, and she couldn't go on.
Juan's shoulder's slumped. "Don't cry. We'll fix it, querida. I'll help you. We're in this together." He knelt beside April and they all held hands.
Carly smiled past her tears. "But fifty-thousand dollars? Who has that kind of cash?"
"Anders and Molly," April said, then shook her head. "But I can't ask them. I'm sorry. They've done too much for me already, and I don't want to worry Molly. Her doctor said she can't have any stress or she could lose the babies."
"I understand." Carly cupped her face. "We'll think of something else."
Juan snorted. "Like we know someone with 50K in their back pocket." An idea struck him and he cocked an eyebrow at April.
"Carly and I don't know anyone with that kind of dough, but you do."
April shook her head. "I can't ask Greenlee. She just got engaged. And she doesn't have that kind of money lying around anyway."
"Not that little rich bitch, the other little rich bitch you know."
April couldn't think of who he meant. She shook her head. "Who are you talking about?"
"The littlest, bitchiest man in town. Your father."CHAPTER 2
A thin layer of frost crunched beneath Jonas Ostergaard's boots as he made his way down the sidewalk. The street was deserted, but then it was two o'clock in the morning on a weeknight and he was on the outskirts of Novosibirsk. The third largest city in Russia, it was the cultural and industrial center of Siberia, but even the best cities on the planet had a seedier side. Several blocks of gray stone tenement buildings lined up like good soldiers in the shadow of the neighborhood nuclear power plant. When the wind shifted, the emissions from its towering smoke stacks would coat the district in a white haze. It was a clear, frigid night, however, and the only puffs of smoke came from Jonas' breath when he exhaled.
After spending the last five years dismembering the most prolific human trafficking circuit in Eastern Europe one cell at a time, Jonas' mission would be complete in a matter of days. He and his British counterpart Julian Marco had tracked the elusive king pin Misha Volkov all over Russia to his current location. How ironic they'd corner the trafficker doing the innocuous task of visiting his daughter at college. There was something fundamentally wrong with a man who would make a living hurting innocent women and children despite having daughters of his own. Three to be exact. Twenty-year-old Nadia Volkov, who attended Novosibirsk State University, was his youngest.
Jonas was growing itchy to move in on Misha, but he had orders to stand down until backup arrived. Both the US and the UK agencies wanted to take Volkov alive. The problem was, he didn't stay in one place for very long, and if they lost him this time, there was no guarantee they'd find him again.
The past five years had flown by, it seemed, but then Jonas had been a man on a mission. A mission to forget the job he'd left behind unfinished as he focused on the task in front of him. The Russians had a saying: For a mad dog, seven miles is not a long detour. And that's how he'd approached this job, like a mad dog, rabid to rid the world of a grade-A scum bag.
Taking the steps to the vacant apartment building he'd rented for the week for less than the cost of a first-class plane ticket home, he noticed light filtering through the drapes in the third-floor window.
It was Julian's turn to stake out Volkov's hotel. What the hell was he doing back at home base?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Passion Punch"
Copyright © 2019 Tricia Leedom.
Excerpted by permission of Firefly Hill Press.
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