Over-the-Rhine during the holiday season held a cheery, urban appeal that drew Ian in. He was already in this little neighborhood frequently because it held some of his favorite unique stores, but the holiday season beckoned him, even when he didn’t have time to window-shop. He loved the crowded buildings that featured different nineteenth-century architecture, loved that people decorated their bikes with Christmas lights, and he enjoyed quite a few of the restaurants tucked into the old structures.
After parking his Volt, he strolled up 14th Street toward Vine where he was meeting Andrei at a sushi bar. He tossed his favorite brown wool scarf around his neck, tugged on the matching beanie, and strode down the sidewalk, weaving through the evening crowds.
OTR was busy for a Tuesday night, but the various weathermen had started warning that a major snow storm was moving into the area despite the fact that it wasn’t yet December. Ian had a feeling that many people were trying to enjoy some time out and about before they were potentially snowed in for a few days.
Not that Cincinnati was prone to blizzards, but occasionally the tri-state area would get hit with a good blast, shutting down roads and closing schools. And no one wanted to get stuck inside when it was prime time to get Christmas shopping done and attend holiday parties.
Even now, snow fell in soft flakes, giving the historic district more of a nostalgic atmosphere. He stopped and lifted his face to feel the tiny stings as they melted on his cheeks.
He’d been working too many long hours, and this was the first night he’d taken off since Thanksgiving. Spending it with Andrei was a no-brainer considering how down the man had been lately. Thinking of the reason why, Ian pulled out his cell phone to see if Lucas had texted him back from earlier. Sure enough, he had. Lucas always responded, but all his answers lately had been nothing more than terse, short sentences. This text held just one word.
Ian had point-blank asked if he would be home soon.
Lucas was running—something Ian was not used to when it came to his friend. Lucas Vallois was the ultimate family man, even though he’d never seen himself that way. But Ian knew he was the force that held their group together, so his long trip overseas had left all his friends feeling off for the holiday. Off and sad, and Ian was still pissed about it.
But then, they were all reeling from what had happened just before the holiday. The culprits behind the fires that had razed some of Lucas’s businesses as well as some of Rowe’s clients turned out to be more of Boris Jagger’s damaged victims. They’d planned to help those kids get home, not turn them in—despite the damage to property and even the death of one of Rowe’s bodyguards. But it had been too late. Lucas couldn’t deal with the knowledge that his actions against Chris Green had brought on the death of their friend, and Rowe’s wife, Melissa. He’d taken off—supposedly to work, but Ian knew better.
Ian’s sleep issues had been out of control as well. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the twins’ murder and suicide over and over, so he went out of his way to avoid sleeping. Unfortunately, when he finally gave in, he never knew where he was going to end up.
Snow was the only one who’d caught him in the act, calling him a “sleep crawler.” He didn’t walk around like normal sleepwalkers. No, he scuttled around his house like some kind of animal. Ian couldn’t contemplate what kind of messed up inner psyche he had to have to spend his unconscious time creeping around on all fours.
That morning, he’d awakened downstairs in his guest bathroom, curled up on the floor—the door shut. Just knowing he’d hit those stairs while asleep scared the crap out of him. But it made him sad that he’d once again awakened in a safe, contained spot. The last time he’d been in the laundry room. That was the only thing Ian had managed to figure out after doing this for years: he was looking for somewhere safe.
It pissed him off that he had no control over the problem. Luckily, it only happened when his stress levels were through the roof. Like now.
His phone rang, and Andrei’s image popped up on the screen. It was actually a picture of Lucas and Andrei he’d snapped at Rialto one night. They had been looking at each other like each was responsible for the other’s air. He sighed, angry with Lucas all over again, then answered. “I’m almost there. Sorry I’m running late.”
“No problem. I thought I’d go ahead and order your drink. What do you want?”
“Beer is fine. See what they have of the local brews. I’m in the mood to try something new.”
Andrei huffed a soft laugh that was nowhere near his usual carefree sound. “Ian, how am I supposed to know which ones you’ve tried?”
“Guess.” He chuckled and pulled his coat tighter against the wind that suddenly swept down the street. The temperature that had been bearable all day was developing more of a bite now that the sun was setting. Luckily, the buildings blocked the worst of the wind. “I should be there in like two minutes anyway.”
“I’m in the back.”
Ian hung up. As he was slipping his phone into his pocket, he happened to glance up, spotting a black sedan stopping in front of a restaurant on Vine. He could easily see over the top of the car to the man who stepped from the passenger side.
The world around him came to a standstill as Ian’s heart began slamming against his ribs, knocking the air from his lungs. In the first few years after his escape, he’d been afraid of this happening, but he’d known most of Boris Jagger’s habits and had avoided the places he knew the man frequented. The crime boss had too many enemies to wander in and out of just anywhere in the city.
Yet here he was in Over-the-Rhine.
Ian wasn’t close enough to see his face full-on, but that was one big frame he would never forget no matter how hard he tried. And even though the black hair on the man’s head and in his closely trimmed beard contained more gray, Ian recognized him easily. Recognized the way he moved as he shut the car door—controlled and eerily graceful—the way he tilted his head to talk to one of the two bodyguards on either side of him. His profile was to Ian and as he turned Ian’s way, he saw that Jagger was still handsome. In fact, handsome didn’t cover it.
The older man was still, unfortunately, almost preternaturally stunning.
And he was a complete monster.
What Cincinnati’s notorious underworld boss was doing on this street wasn’t a mystery now that Ian had spotted the restaurant he stood in front of. It was known for its fried chicken. Jagger worked out like a fiend to keep his strong, muscular build, but southern fried food had always been his biggest weakness.
Ian had cooked those dishes so often, a person couldn’t pay him to eat them now.
Jagger suddenly looked his direction, and Ian lowered his head and ducked into the arched doorway of a pretzel place. He stayed there, breathing hard, hoping he had on enough outerwear to have disguised himself. Hoping that move to the side had come off naturally.
He waited for what felt like forever, not even pulling out his phone when Andrei’s ringtone came again. When he finally got up the nerve to look around the wall, the sedan was gone and Jagger was no longer in front of the restaurant. But Ian didn’t want to pass it, so he walked back the way he’d come, planning to take the long way around to meet Andrei.
The whole night was ruined. His good mood evaporated like the snowflakes on his skin. It was the first time he’d seen Jagger in person in years and it made him sick. That face had cropped up on the news often during the last year, but it had been nine years since he’d been this close to him.
His stomach burned like he’d swallowed corroding acid, and pain beat a hard tattoo in his temples. His hands shook. The cold and snow that had felt crisp and refreshing now had him shivering. He was too damn upset to stay at the sushi bar, knowing it was that close to the place Jagger was enjoying his chicken, so when he finally reached the front of the restaurant, Ian planned to talk Andrei into going somewhere else. He hated to do it, but there was no doubt in his mind that Andrei would understand.
Kimura was a small restaurant with a red brick front and bright blue curtains framing the large picture window. It was one of the most popular restaurants in OTR, and had been since it opened more than two years ago. But why was no one milling about outside the place, waiting for a table? There was always a line to get in.
Before he could get his answer, a hand slapped over his mouth and a heavy arm wrapped around him from behind. It was like being clubbed across the chest by a tire iron.
He was dragged down 14th Street, the hard soles of his shoes knocking against the broken chunks of the sidewalk. Panic hit hard and fast, tangling up all his thoughts. Construction in the immediate area had created plenty of dark, empty places to take him. Places where he could disappear and no one would ever know.
Ian got his chance to fight back when whoever pulled him tried to tug him behind some parked cars, his arm loosening just enough as he attempted to modify his hold. Ian slammed his head back into his assailant’s chest, winning enough space to wiggle loose. He turned to find the man—one of Jagger’s bodyguards—who was easily the size of Sven, one of Rowe’s bodyguards. Ian, at a slimmer five nine, would have to keep his wits about him.
Shoving off the bastard, he tried to pull completely free, but he wasn’t ready for the punch that came at him. He lifted one arm to block, but the man’s heavy arm came at him too hard and fast. It slammed his cheek and he staggered back, frantically trying to remember all the self-defense classes Rowe had forced on him as pain exploded through his face.
He blinked the stars from his vision. Swinging blindly, his fist clipped the man’s jaw; pain lanced through his knuckles.
“Stupid little fucker,” the guy growled. “I’m supposed to bring you to him. Fuck that.” Big hands wrapped around his neck, closing off the air passage.
Ian froze. This man was going to kill him. Right there, in the street. His fingers tightened, pulling him farther into the shadows. Breaking free of the blinding terror, Ian let instinct take over. All of Rowe’s classes kicked in, directing his movements.
He brought around his left hand and slammed it down over the guy’s elbow while at the same time, he stabbed two fingers hard into the notch at the bottom of his neck. The combination of pain and force broke his attacker’s hold on his throat.
Swearing loudly, the thug swung again, but Ian was better prepared. He ducked under his arm, swimming in close. Tucking his right arm to his body, he delivered a brutal shovel hook to the man’s floating rib. As he bent forward, sucking in harsh, pained gasps of air, Ian caught the back of the man’s head, forcing him down as he brought his knee up, slamming it into his nose. Ian’s stomach twisted at the feel of crunching bone.
The guy went down with a grunt. Ian hesitated for a breath, shocked that the same moves that Rowe and Andrei had been pounding into his head for months had actually worked. Feeling a hysterical laugh bubble, Ian turned to escape the dark alley, but he was too slow.
A big hand came out and grabbed his ankle, tripping him. Ian hit the cold cement hard, his knee cracking painfully, but he rolled to his feet and stood, adrenaline and fear keeping the worst of the pain at bay.
One look at Jagger’s bodyguard and he knew it had gone too far. Fury filled beady, dark eyes, and blood poured down his splotchy face from his broken nose.
“Hey! What’s going on back here?” Called an unknown male voice as approaching footfalls grew louder.
Ian didn’t hesitate. He slammed his free foot down on the man’s hand, smashing it against the broken pavement, getting him to release his hold on Ian’s ankle.
“Whoa. The smaller dude took him down!”
He looked up to find two men standing a couple of feet away. He didn’t stay to see if the bodyguard would get up or not. For now, he lay there, moaning and bleeding. “Just leave him,” Ian croaked as he backed away fast. “He has a gun.”
“Shit!” They took off and so did Ian. He ran down the street and didn’t stop. He sped past the sushi bar and hoofed it down Vine until he spotted lights from a grocery store. He ducked inside and quickly walked through aisles until he got to the back of the store. He was breathing hard when he called Andrei. And before he could get a word out, the adrenaline crash that hit brought all his fear to the surface. The room narrowed around him, tunneling into a small spot of light. All he could do was stand there, stare out into the store, and try to catch his breath.
“Ian?” Andrei said into the phone. “I thought you were close when you called. Your two minutes and mine are really fucking different measurements of time.”
“I was,” Ian choked out. His throat hurt.
“Something’s wrong.” It wasn’t a question and from the sounds in the background, Andrei was now on the move. He heard him talking to someone about the bill, but he could hardly focus as he strained to right his vision. The asshole could have followed him.
“Tell me where you are.” Andrei’s voice was calm yet demanding as the noises around him increased. “I’m outside. Are you close by?”
“I’m okay,” he finally got out.
“You’re not okay. You sound like Bea Arthur after gargling glass.”
“You know who Bea Arthur is?” Ian felt the band of shock ease from around his neck. He took a deep breath and straightened. “I’m okay. I’m really okay.” Realization began to set in. “I took down a guy twice my size. Holy shit, I owe Rowe a huge thank-you. It worked. I took him down.”
“What guy?” Andrei was breathing harder now and obviously running. “Dammit, Ian, where are you?”
“I’m close. Grocery store on Vine, south of the sushi place.”
“Shit, I was running the wrong direction.” He panted into the phone, a horn sounding in the background.
“Hell, Andrei, don’t get hit by a car. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound so dramatic and lose it after calling you, but I really am fine.” He leaned against the wall behind him and grimaced down at the torn knee of his favorite jeans. “I can’t wait to tell Rowe those classes he forced on me worked.” All he heard were shoes slapping concrete fast and when the running sounds changed and grew closer, he saw Andrei. He closed his eyes and slumped, a sigh of relief falling out of his mouth as he ended the call and shoved his phone back into his pocket.
When Andrei touched his chin, he opened his eyes.
“You got hit. Your cheek is already bruising. Were you mugged? And holy shit!” He turned Ian’s head and winced when he lightly touched his neck. “Someone fucking tried to strangle you? Where did this happen?”
“Down 14th near the restaurant. Not a mugger. Jagger.”
Andrei’s normally golden skin went pale. “Jagger did this?”
“Saw Jagger outside a restaurant. Guess he saw me too. Sent one of his goons after me.” Ian winced when pain shot through his throat. “Wow, that asshole did a number on my neck. But I took him down. You should have seen it.”
He frowned as he played back the bastard’s words in his head. “Grabbing me and taking me to talk to Jagger, I get, but that man tried to kill me.” He lifted a hand, saw it was shaking, and shoved it into his hair. “Oh damn. I lost my beanie. I loved that beanie. One of my waitresses made it for me.”
Andrei closed his eyes and wrapped Ian in a hug. “Shit. Oh shit. You could have been…fuck, Ian.” He tightened his arms. “We need to call the police. You can identify the man, right?”
“Yeah. I think.” As the seconds ticked by between the attack and the escape, the details of the man grew hazy, but he knew he’d always recall the beady dark eyes, the jagged scar that stretched across his sloping forehead. “It was dark in that notch between buildings, but I got a good look at him. Big guy. Bigger than Sven, even.”
Andrei tugged him back against his chest. “You could have been killed. You said Rowe’s training kicked in? I’m so fucking glad you took those classes.”
“Me, too,” Ian said into Andrei’s coat, his voice muffled. Andrei smelled like Lucas’s penthouse and that gave him so much comfort, he felt his eyes tearing up. He quickly blinked them away. “I did that throat thing. You know, with the fingers? Worked like a charm. I screwed up at first. Panicked.”
Andrei pulled away, knelt and looked at his knee. “This needs to be cleaned up.”
“Let’s just call the police.”
Andrei nodded. “Come on, let’s see if he’s still there or at the restaurant. I’ll call on the way. Then I’m calling Rowe.”
Ian knew better than to argue. All of his friends would be down here in the next half hour. He didn’t mind. They loved him, and he wouldn’t trade their overprotective, alpha asses for the world. He even wished Lucas would be among them.
“Wait,” Ian said, as an idea came to him. He tugged Andrei to a stop and held out his phone. “Can you get a good shot of my neck? I’m gonna do something really, really bad. You might want to look away after you take the picture.”
Andrei frowned but did as asked and handed it back. “What are you going to do with that?”
“Get someone home who should have never left.”
Andrei’s expression went flat, his dark eyes and elegant features smoothing out as understanding kicked in. “Yeah, Ian, that’s a shitty idea. Kind of cruel, really. I might be impressed.”
“Yeah, well, after years with the guys, I’ve learned from the experts.”
“He’s going to lose it.”
“I don’t want to hurt him more, but he needs to come home so we can take care of him. So he can take care of you.” And with that, Ian sent the image of red fingerprints all over his neck to Lucas without an explanation.
Then he turned his phone off.