He’s cute…for a human.
Peter’s got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to find a treasure that will set him up for life, if he can survive. He’s not going to let the fact he’s being watched stop him from following his quest to its rich ending.
Only his shadow isn’t so easy to lose.
Nora’s been relegated to babysitting a human. A cute one with a charming smile and a nice butt who has no idea what she is. Or what she’ll do to protect the Pride’s secrets. If only her inner feline would stop encouraging her to nibble on his tender parts.
Peter crept from the guest bed he’d scammed for the night.
Yes, scammed. As part of his plan, he’d ensured his car had broken down outside the door of an old house in Suzdal, Russia. He’d only briefly glanced at the architecture, still gorgeous despite the shabby exterior. Peeling paint, the paneling a fading gray, with the wood rotting in some places. Pity. It was probably a showpiece in its day.READ MORE
The lady who answered the door appeared younger than expected for a woman approaching eighty. Visible still amidst the few wrinkles was beauty in the fine parchment skin, a long neck, and pure white hair pinned atop her head, a few tendrils curling loose. She wore a white blouse buttoned to her neck and a long, navy-hued skirt.
She greeted him in Russian, her voice holding a slight quaver as she asked him who he was.
“I’m Peter.” He kept his last name to himself.
A torrent of Russian followed. Since his understanding of the language didn’t go much further than asking for booze or food, he spoke in English. “Please. Can you help me? I have a flat tire.” He gestured to his vehicle pulled over the curb. The front wheel was visibly in need of major aid on account he’d nailed a screw into it, pulled it back and forth a few times, then driven on it until it got the point.
The old lady eyed him, his car, and then said in very accented English, “You need a tire. We will call the garage. Come inside.” She welcomed him into her home, hands spatting him over, as if she had to touch him. She offered him a bright smile with many white teeth and said, “I am Irina. Irina Koznetsov.”
He almost thanked her for confirming it. He’d only gotten the briefest of information before coming to Irina’s house. “Hi, Irina.” He held her hand and smiled. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
She patted his hand. “Thank you. I don’t get to enjoy American boys often.”
The odd phrasing threw him, but he chalked it up to a language thing. “Are you married?” he asked.
Irina tittered. “Was. They’re dead.”
“Meaning you’re swinging and single.” He winked, knowing how to pour on the charm.
The old lady grinned even wider. Fuck, she had some big teeth.
“You have girlfriend?” she asked.
“Haven’t been lucky enough to find the one yet.” He waxed eloquent, and Irina ate it up.
She fetched him some cookies and then what he thought was coffee with a bite. Too strong for what he wanted to do.
When she left for a minute, he poured some out.
Irina returned, carrying more food. Pure sugar decadence on a plate. As he orgasmed through whatever the fuck magic she put in it, Irina chattered some more. Told him she had a few children but the only family she saw regularly was her granddaughter, Svetlana.
“I really should be calling the garage,” he said before she tried to talk him into a date with Svetlana.
“The car is already gone.” Irina waved her hand. “I call my friend.
Well, that put a crimp in his plan. “Gone where?”
“To the garage. He fix it. You get in the morning.”
“Morning. Wow.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I don’t suppose you know of a hotel nearby?”
“No worries. I’ll find one.” He went to leave, but Irina stopped him.
“You stay. I have bed,” she offered.
“I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Stay. Stay. Drink. Eat.” She pushed food and that noxious liquid at him.
He couldn’t drink it, so he kept dumping it. Hopefully she wouldn’t notice the wet spot he was creating as it poured it in between the couch cushions.
He fake-yawned before she could give him another glass.
“Bedtime!” she announced, clapping her hands. “Follow.” She went toward the kitchen rather than the second floor where he knew the bedrooms were.
Was there a second staircase?
His phone beeped. He pulled it out to see yet another text from his sister, checking on him. He’d reply when he had time. He had the phone in hand when he entered the kitchen.
Irina stood by a door with stairs going down. “You follow,” she said then frowned. “Who you call?”
He waggled the phone. “It’s my sister. She keeps track of me.”
“She know you here?”
There was something in the way she said that raised the hair on his neck. It gave him the chills. Which was crazy. As if she could hurt him. Still…
“Yeah, my sister and I are close. She knows everything that happens to me. We talk all the time.” Not entirely true. She clung. He strove for space.
The old lady muttered something before shutting the door. She moved past him back out of the kitchen.
“Bedtime. You tired.”
“Yes, tired.” He was also confused but happy to see them going upstairs instead of down into the basement. Never liked those. Hadn’t for a long time. Cold. Dank. Musty, nasty places.
Irina showed him to a room, masculine in feel with dark furniture and fabrics. She shut the door, still muttering, and he almost fist-pumped. He was in.
So easy. A different man might have felt bad about conning an old lady.
He was not that man. He paced as he waited. Almost nine o’clock. When would she go to sleep?
He heard the most subtle of creaks and moved to the door. Pressed his ear on it. Could have sworn he heard heavy breathing. The skin on his body pimpled.
Then came steps as if someone walked away.
It was then he realized he held his breath. Now, it was just after midnight—more than two hours since he’d last heard a creak—when he emerged from under the sheets, fully dressed. He’d scouted where he needed to go early on in the evening, after the call to the garage but before she brought out like the seventh dessert. All he’d had to say was, “This house is magnificent. I don’t suppose you could give me the tour and history?”
With obvious pride, Irina showed off her home, painting a picture that helped him see past the cracks in the plaster, the worn floors, and the dust in the corners. The grandeur still peeked from rooms with mismatched pieces.
It was Irina who pointed to a clean spot on the floor. “I own big—big—klavesin.” She resorted to Russian.
He didn’t know the word but could guess given the bench with music sheets on it left behind. A piano or harpsichord, he ‘d guess. “What happened to it?”
“Sold to fix roof.” She glared at the ceiling.
He could only hope she’d not sold what he’d come looking for.
But he feared for nothing. He saw the key the moment she opened the door on the second floor to her sewing room, packed into a turret, with a comfortable rocking chair by the window, a basket of yarn beside it. A sewing machine, almost buried by bolts of fabric, some of it sun faded and dusty, sat under a window. The wrought iron key hung from an obviously handmade chandelier, the key just one of many mismatched items dangling, like the ornate fork and an etched goblet.
“What an interesting piece of art.”
She saw him looking. “It’s garbage.”
Had she ever heard the adage one person’s junk was another’s treasure?
“This is the kind of thing my sister would love. I don’t suppose you’d sell it?” Peter tried to do it the right way. The honest way.
“No.” Irina shook her head. “Babushka make me.”
He could have pressed the point to see if that sentimentality had a price, but it was easier to creep from his bed after midnight to steal it. Irina would never notice one key gone from that monster lamp shade, but just in case, he’d brought a close replica. After all, the job came with sketches of what he was supposed to look for. If he swapped it right, no one would ever know the difference.
Did he have any qualms about stealing from the old lady? Not many. His sister thought he was a good guy. And he was. For her.
But this key was special. It could set him up for life, and when that happened, he’d make sure Irina got a portion of it. Maybe he’d have her house fixed. Hire her some help. Get a shrink to absolve him and blame his actions on his childhood.
The good deeds he could do with that key justified his entering the sewing room. Reaching on tiptoe, he could grasp the key, but unhooking it proved impossible. He needed a few more inches. He eyed the footstool, but the spindly legs were for resting feet not the full weight of a man.
The sewing machine table appeared heavy, leaving him only one choice. He moved the rocking chair and, with careful maneuvering that included him hovering in a squat, ended up on the seat.
It wobbled, and he held out his arms to balance then straightened fully so that he could manipulate the wire holding the key in place. It truly was a testament to recycling. The metal rim was made of old coat hangers bent and twisted into a frame from which dangled the oddest collection of stuff on metal filament.
The key wasn’t the only thing that caught his eye. As he happened to glance out the window, he could have sworn he saw the brief flicker as of someone lighting a cigarette. Could be someone out for a walk.
Still, he shouldn’t dawdle. His fingers protested the tough metal. The filament took some time to untangle, but he freed the heavier than expected key, the coldness of it sending a shiver through him.
He ignored a feeling of foreboding and put it into his pocket even as he wondered at his next move. Leave in the night or stay for breakfast?
Given the hearty dinner Irina fed him, he almost drooled as he wondered what he could expect for the first meal of the day. Surely better than he could get on the way back to the city.
His tummy decided it. He’d leave in the morning.
Now for the next step, a precaution if you will. Fake key to take its place. He’d actually had two fabricated. The second one was hidden in his apartment, ready to hand over to the people who hired him.
Don’t feel bad. They weren’t good people.
The fake key went up, a closer replica than expected given he’d had the 3D printer make it off images that didn’t show all the parts. The new ornament looked seamless.
Before he could climb down from the rocking chair, he glanced out the window again. The cigarette smoker was gone. Just him and his trespasses out and about.
His bad luck too.
There was a reason he’d gone to prison in the past, because somehow, so many of his best-laid plans failed for stupid reasons. In this case? The rocking chair gave only a single warning creak before it collapsed. As in, splintered into pieces. He thudded to the floor.
There was nothing quiet about it. The grimace stayed on his face the entire time he stood silent in the debris, listening. He didn’t hear the old lady coming to look, but she was sure to notice the next time she came into the sewing room. Staying the rest of the night suddenly didn’t seem like the best option.
A sense of urgency filled him. He exited the sewing room and moved into the hall. His door was at the far end; however, the one to the old lady’s suite was ajar. It had been closed when he came up the hall.
Oh shit. Was she up? Had she already called the cops? He couldn’t tell if she was in her room or downstairs. Could be she went for a glass of warm milk. Personally, he’d never used that nasty white shit to help him sleep. Give him a joint any day.
Inanity helped him focus. Stealthy mice had nothing on him as he eased up the hall, darting into his room only long enough to grab his knapsack. It was when he was about to leave, he saw the tiger.
He blinked. Opened his eyes wide.
Fuck me, a tiger.
Where had it come from? He’d not seen any signs Irina owned a pet.
“Grrr.” The rumbling growl of warning didn’t bode well, nor did the raised hackles on the feline’s back.
Peter backed toward the window, a mental catalogue of the house reminding him of the peaked porch roof outside his room then a short drop to the ground. But opening the window meant putting his back to a tiger.
Doing nothing got his face eaten.
He whirled and tugged. The old wooden pane didn’t budge. Instinct more than anything had him throwing himself sideways. Just in time too!
The tiger soared past and hit the window hard then slumped to the floor, lying there, barely moving as if groggy.
He didn’t waste that rare bit of good luck. He raced for the hall and down the stairs, no longer caring who he woke. Not with a tiger on the loose.
Out the door he went, and he was down two steps before it occurred to him to whirl and close it. After all, tigers couldn’t open doors. But Irina could.
To his surprise, his car was parked in the driveway. The garage must have delivered it earlier than expected. His strides to reach it felt like a mile as he kept expecting something striped to pounce. He fumbled with his keys. Glass shattered, and a roar split the night.
Holy fuck. Peter slammed into his car and started it. The automated features turned on the headlights. He hit the brake and had shifted it into drive when he saw it.
Animal eyes with that weird glow reflected in the bright beams. The tiger stalked toward him, snarling. Close enough he could see the gray in the fur. The stiffness of its pace.
An old tiger doing right by its owner.
Dammit. He’d always had a soft spot for big felines, which was why he didn’t run it over but swerved and headed in the other direction.
He would later regret that choice.