A Sydney Rye Mystery
Book #13

I can’t escape the vulnerability of motherhood.
The rage fueling me since my brother’s murder is no longer powerful enough to carry me forward. I want to create a simple life in the Spanish countryside and prepare for motherhood. For the sake of the life growing inside me, I must forge ahead without Robert’s help, Mulberry’s devotion, or my own anger determining my path. 
The criminal cartel seeking to destroy Joyful Justice plans to crumble the foundation of the vigilante network by killing me. 
But I’m dangerous prey – more deadly than ever

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Chapter One


Blood. It’s blood. The dark stain circling Sydney is blood.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I grab my phone, unlock it, navigate to favorites, and touch Mulberry's name without even fully registering the thought.

It rings. How am I going to explain knowing Sydney Rye needs help?

I’m thousands of miles away, stationed on a private island in the middle of the fucking Pacific. And yet—

“Hello?” Mulberry's voice, gravelly with sleep, cuts through my thoughts.

“Sydney is bleeding.”

My phone beeps. I’m getting another call.

“What?” Mulberry's voice clears as sheets rustle in the background.

A dog barks. I focus on the monitor with the live feed of Sydney's room. Blue is up and going wild. Shit.

I didn't even need to call. The dogs would have alerted Mulberry. Foolish. Careless. Shit.

“What’s going on, Dan?”

I don’t answer.

The door between Mulberry and Sydney's rooms flies open—I watch it on the screen and hear the hinges swoosh over the phone line. Reaching out, I slide my finger along the stylus bar to raise the volume. Mulberry stumbles into Sydney's room, unsteady on just his one leg.

She didn't lock the door. That isn’t like her. Except it was Mulberry on the other side. A subtle invitation?

“Fuck!” Mulberry’s voice echoes between the phone and computer speakers. He lunges toward the bed.

Sydney lies on her back, a dark stain spreading around her hips. Mulberry drops the phone when he grabs her shoulders. 

I swivel to a different monitor and bring up Mulberry's phone screen. I dial 911. Someone has to. I can always be counted on to do what needs doing. Overstepping saves lives.

“What's your emergency?” the Miami 911 operator asks.

I clench my fist on the glass surface of my desk. Answer her, you asshole. Mulberry doesn’t follow my mental command. Fine. I take full control of the phone. “My wife is pregnant and bleeding. We’re at the airport Marriott, room 523,” I say, my voice even and clear. I say it like it's my baby. Like it's my life. Not something I’m watching on a screen. My eyes flick back to the live feed of her room. “I can't wake her.”

Dear Jesus. Mulberry sits on the edge of the bed, face tear streaked.

Sydney isn’t moving.

She isn’t moving.

Don't let her die.



“It's time to wake up, Joy.” James smiles at me, his hand warm in mine.

“Wake up?” I ask. He nods. “Wait.” Tears thicken my voice. “This isn't real?”

He shrugs, eyes sad. “It is, but you're sleeping. And now you have to wake up.” James smiles; it's subtle, not like the grins he used to offer so freely. There is a film of sorrow around him now. We didn't understand the price of joy or it's fleeting nature.

“I'm so sorry you're dead,” I say. The words are like glass in my throat, leaving behind a thirst that a million gallons of water will never quench.

His smile widens, and he reaches up to swipe a tear from my cheek. “Me too, me too….”

I awaken from the dream in a wash of confusion. Blue's nose is wet against my hand. Mulberry looms over me, his fingers digging into my shoulders. “Get off.” I raise my arms to push him away. They are heavy… too heavy.

I'm cold.

This is shock.

“Sydney!” Mulberry is yelling.

“What?” My mouth is full of cotton, that raging thirst still there.

“You're bleeding.”

He swings his arm down to indicate my lower half. I struggle to lift my head. There’s a red stain around my hips. The baby.

Panic seizes my chest. “Mulberry,” I eke out.

He’s holding his phone now. “She's awake,” he says. “She's lost a lot of blood.”

Blue whines softly next to me, and I meet his eyes. “I'm okay,” I promise him, my speech slurred. I must have lost a lot of blood. My eyes slip closed, and the darkness takes me again. But this time, I'm alone. James is gone.

Really gone.

Sharp pain strikes through my chest like a lightning bolt, and I hear the sizzle of the electric current, feel it writhe through me. Love will destroy us if we let it.






They take Sydney out on a stretcher. Mulberry has the presence of mind to close the hotel room door, locking the dogs inside. He forgets to grab Sydney's phone, computer, and bag. That won't blind me though. 

Blue sniffs at the bloody sheets before herding his puppies into Mulberry's room through the still-open connecting door.

I watch Mulberry's text scroll across the screen—he’s letting Anita know they are on the way to the hospital. I use my app on Anita's phone to turn on the cameras and microphone. Her face fills one box and her rumpled sheets the other.

Dark brown eyes flanked by thick black lashes read the text. Her lips part, and the wrinkle she gets between her brows when she's upset appears. Anita clamps her teeth down on her bottom lip, worrying it as she responds to Mulberry's text. I'll meet you at the hospital.

His phone is in his pocket, but the siren wails through the speakers. I'm leaving the sound up in case the paramedics say anything important.

Anita takes her phone with her into the bathroom and puts it on the counter so that one camera darkens and the other shows the light fixture and mirror.

I silence Anita's phone and turn away from the screen, offering her some privacy. On a different monitor, I shoot Anita a quick text to remind her to take Sydney her phone and computer—I'm sure she’ll want it. I'm being thoughtful.

My phone chimes to remind me I have a message. My mom. I glance at the transcription. Hi honey, just calling to check in. Call me back when you can. I know how busy you are, so don't feel any pressure. There is something kind of (unintelligible) so call.

The siren turns off, and there is motion in Mulberry's pocket. Anita throws her phone into her bag. I turn up the volume on Mulberry's device, straining to make out what is being said. I grab my headphones and slip them on.

Sorry, Mom, you'll have to wait.


“She's going to be fine, sir.”

My eyes are glued shut, but it's bright out there.

“What about the baby?” Mulberry's voice—edged with anxiety—asks.

“We'll know soon.”

I want to speak, but I can't. I want to scream, but I have no voice. I want to sit up, run out of there, be away from all of this… but I can't move.

I hear James's voice. Relax, everything is okay. Rest.

And I slip back into darkness.



“Hey.” Mulberry leans over the bed, his face coming into view. “You're awake.”

I blink. He turns and grabs a cup of water, offering me the straw. I suck, my head feeling light and my body weak. The water slips down, soothing my burning thirst.

Lying back against the pillows, I close my eyes. “The baby?” I ask.

“It's fine,” Mulberry says. Relief hits me like a ray of sunlight bursting through cloud cover. “Hold on, I'll get the doctor.”

He leaves, and I cradle my stomach, gratitude welling inside me. Tears burn my eyes, and I let them flow, don't even try to stop their slow march down my cheeks.

Mulberry comes back with a doctor. “This is Dr. Hope,” Mulberry introduces the tall, graying man. The doctor smiles like he's heard everything one might say about an OBGYN named Hope so there is no need to add to the repertoire. Mulberry returns to the chair next to my bed, and I rub at my eyes, pulling myself together.

“The baby is fine for now, ” Dr Hope says from the end of the bed. “You've had a subchorionic hemorrhage, so we need to take some precautions.”

Mulberry squeezes my hand so hard I wince and pull away. He looks at me and then down at our hands. “Sorry,” he mumbles and lets go.

“I'd like to keep you overnight, and then bed rest for the next few weeks while we keep an eye on this.”

“Can we move her out of the city?” Mulberry asks.

Dr. Hope nods slowly. “Yes, she should be fine to leave the hospital tomorrow, just no carrying any heavy bags. Did you lose your home in the storm?” His brow furrows as he references the hurricane that recently tore through Miami, leaving it devastated.

“Yes,” Mulberry lies easily. We didn’t have a home here. The only thing we share is a fraught history and the new life growing inside of me. “What does bed rest mean exactly, like how much movement?”

“She doesn't need a bedpan or anything but restrict movement as much as possible.”

Mulberry nods, mulling this over with a furrowed brow. “So, she should get a wheelchair at the airport. And she should stay still. But a couch is okay?”

“Yes, that's fine.”

“I'm right here,” I point out. Mulberry turns to me, all male confusion. “You two are talking about me like I'm not here.” I switch focus to the doctor. “What is a subchorionic hemorrhage?”

He clears his throat. “A hemorrhage that forms between the placenta and uterine wall. You had a medium-size hemorrhage. Lots of women go on to have healthy pregnancies, but the blood loss is frightening for the patient.”

“Why didn't she wake up?” Mulberry asks. “It took a lot to get her to come to.”

“Again,” I say, my voice tight, “I'm right here.”

“Sorry.” Mulberry sighs. “I'm upset.”

“That doesn't give you the right to stop treating me like a person.”

His lips thin, and color raises into his cheeks. “I'm worried about you. I am very aware you are a person.”

“Good. Feel free to use my name.”

A tight smile tugs at his lips, and he raises one brow. Which name? his expression questions. I return my attention to the doctor who seems used to couples squabbling. “Why bed rest?” I ask.

Mulberry stiffens next to me. Dr. Hope cocks his head, surprised that I'm questioning his prescription. “We want to avoid this happening again.”

“Are the hemorrhages caused by movement?”

“We don't fully know what causes them, but rest is important during the early months of pregnancy.”

“Exercise is almost always a good thing,” I say.

“Are you really arguing with him?” Mulberry asks, his voice growing louder.

I glare at him, and his eyes narrow to mere slits of anger and frustration. “It's my body.”

“It's our baby.”

I may punch him in front of the doctor. I don't want to, but I might have to. “I'll let you two discuss,” Dr. Hope says, removing himself from the room posthaste. Smart man.

“I will go insane sitting around for months, Mulberry; you know that.”

“I guess you'll have to dig deep.”

I bark out a laugh, and the tension around his eyes lessens. He reaches out for my hand, and I let him take it.

I take a deep breath. “Here’s the deal. I'm going to do my own research. But from everything I know about my body, being still isn't good for it.”

“Maybe this is its way of saying it wants you to slow down.” Mulberry drops his gaze to our linked hands. “Your body may need something different than it ever needed before.”

Hold up. What are we talking about?

He looks up at me. Yellow bands of color radiated from his pupils, carving a path through the green irises. I drop my gaze. He wants things I can't give him.

The door opens, and a nurse enters. “Hello, Tara,” she says, using my alias. “I'm Maud. I'll be your nurse for the next twelve hours. How are you feeling?” She walks up to the machine next to me and checks the IV.

“Fine,” I say.

She looks at her watch and then across to Mulberry. “Visiting hours are over in fifteen minutes. Just a heads-up.”

“I'm her husband,” Mulberry says.

The nurse shakes her head. “Not according to my paperwork, honey.” She smiles but isn't falling for anything.

“We're engaged,” he says. Damn, he's good at lying. When did he get so good at that? Maybe always and I just never noticed.

“Don't lie to me,” the nurse says, not falling for any of it. “I've got five kids.”

“Five?” I sputter out.

She pats my hand. “It gets easier,” she says before returning her attention to Mulberry. “Tara needs to rest, and while you two might be having a baby, it seems you're also having some disagreements.” Mulberry's cheeks brighten. Oh my God, she’s making him blush. This woman is my hero. “So get ready to hit the road, son.”

With that she leaves the room. I’m grinning. “I'll be back first thing in the morning,” Mulberry promises. “I'll take care of the dogs; you don't need to worry about them.”


He stands, looking down at me. I tilt my chin to maintain eye contact. “You scared me.” His words hit me right in the chest.

“I'm sorry.”

He nods then turns toward the door but pauses when he reaches it, refocusing on me. “I'll see you tomorrow.”

I nod.

He opens the door and leaves. I reach for my phone, grateful that Anita thought to bring it for me. Time to turn to Dr. Google….


Chapter Two



A unicorn stands with its head bent, the mythical creature's horn directing the viewers’ focus to a gangly foal at her feet. Mountains in gold and green rise up behind the new mother. Intricate flowers, each petal shimmering in pale pink, create a border around the central image of the tapestry.

I cross my arms. “$23,257,” I offer, a specific and final amount.

The salesman doesn't respond immediately; he wants more. Doesn't everybody? But my voice leaves no room for bargaining. We've gone back and forth over several cups of tea—the mint scents the air, along with the wool rugs. Fiber dust motes drift in the shafts of sunlight that filter through the stained skylights.

One of my first regular clients, a rug salesman's wife, liked to get fucked on her husband's stock. The scent of this showroom brings the sweet perfume of her to my nose, reminding me that I, too, was once stock to be bargained over and sold.

The dealer and I have reached the end of negotiation. He must decide: should he sell to me or wait for another offer?

A low thud vibrates through the room. Someone in the market dropped something heavy. And though only a few feet separate us from the busy passageways beyond, the tapestries on the walls and rugs layered on the floor keep the sales room suspended in near silence.

“That is a good deal,” Petra says, her heels quiet on the rugs as she moves across the room.

She stares at me with an intensity that sends shivers down my spine. Now that Petra no longer pays me, it's as if her gaze has become that much more riveting. She has me, yet her longing grows. 

Petra has never claimed to love me. And while I spent a brief moment in my youth thinking I loved her, my heart is my own again. It sits to the left of my spine and beats with the will of a warrior, the tenacity of a street dog, and the ice-cold certainty of a vigilante. It is mine, and so it shall remain. It is the only sure way to survive.

“You drive a hard bargain,” the salesman says.

“You have no idea,” Petra purrs, circling behind me and running a hand up my spine. Her nails scratch through the layers of coat, sports jacket, and shirt to leave a trail of heat. “He is very hard.”

I suppress a laugh as Petra stalks to the salesman. “Leave us,” she says.

The merchant glances at me, and I keep my face unreadable. He looks back at Petra—whose back is to me so I can't see her expression—but it makes the man leave his own shop. 

Petra stands in a band of sunlight. The black knee-length cashmere coat absorbs the light, but the sheer stockings reflect it. Her green eyes, catlike in shape and temperament, smile.

Petra is good at smiling with just her eyes. The stern line of those luscious lips—painted harlot red—tighten my stomach. “I want you,” she says, her voice even. The woman never plays coy, never acts shy.

I let a smile twitch across my lips.

“I don't want much.” She takes a step toward me, showing the flash of red from the bottom of her black pump that matches her lips. “Just a kiss.”

Her lip trembles as if she is afraid I'll refuse her, and she bites down on it with white teeth, her eyes turning soft. But not pleading. She won't beg… yet.

Petra needs to be on the absolute edge to beg.

I glance at my watch—a gold Rolex gifted to me by another client—and then back to the rugs. I could have her there in six minutes, but to do it right, to really make her scream, would take seventeen.

I only have fifteen. I’ll make it work.

I always make it work. I’ll have Petra on a lovely vintage Oushak rug and, before we leave, I’ll have the tapestry too.


Petra's arm rests in the crook of mine as we leave the restaurant. A fine mist thickens the air and sparkles in the streetlight's glow. A cool breeze blasts down the street, and Petra grips my arm, her hair whipping around her shoulders.

 We make our way to the Paris Hotel—one of the oldest and grandest in Istanbul. We’ve come to see Yusuf Polat, who keeps a suite here. The doorman bows to us as he opens the door.

Water shimmers in Petra's chestnut hair like dew in a spiderweb. She smiles at a bellboy, and he blushes. Poor thing.

“Good evening,” the front desk attendant greets us. “We are expecting you, please.” She waves a graceful arm to another bellboy. “Mustafa will show you up.” Mustafa bows and takes us up in the elevator.

To think there was a time when people could not operate elevators on their own. During that period, people of my skin color would not have been welcome in this hotel unless as an employee. Now I enter as an honored guest. We shall see if I make it out with such auspicious reverence.




Yusuf reminds me of the Star Wars character, Jabba the Hutt. Except the beautiful young woman attending him is not held by a literal chain around her neck but rather the invisible economic bonds of class, birth, and sex.

I watched Return of The Jedi mostly naked in a British tourist's hotel room, the curtains drawn tight against the bright beach sun trying to blast into the dark, intimate world we'd created. Marigold. Lovely in her fifties, she told me I was beautiful enough to be on film. Her skin smelled of sunscreen and the hotel's jasmine-scented soap. She ate her toast dry with black coffee and laughed easily. Marigold remained a client for years.

A weight swings from my heart at the memory of that day, of her, of the me I used to be. When I see a young woman forced into the same profession, flashes of my past work life evoke a mix of nostalgia and relief. I chose to sell my body to climb out of poverty. I held on to my dignity, creating a strong and thriving identity that still serves me today.

This girl, with her sallow skin, dark circles, and slumped shoulders, teeters on the edge of total destruction. If the drugs don't swallow her, then that viscous inner voice will tear her to pieces. Princess Leia knew she didn't belong in chains. This girl looks as if she believes she was born to wear them.

I inhale slowly through my nose, taking my gaze from the ornamental whore to the beast of a man sitting on the love seat beside her. His pudgy fingers, decorated with fat gold rings, dig into her thin thigh hard enough to leave fresh bruises. They will match the ones on her arms that she's covered in makeup but still shine through.

“Petra.” Yusuf smiles broadly and stands. His silk Versace shirt, patterned with gold lengths of twining rope, gapes open to his stomach—tan, hairy, and shiny, as if he is sweating or had just rubbed on oil.

Petra shrugs out of her coat, and one of Yusuf's guards, a mountain of a man in a sharkskin suit, steps forward to help her. Mountain's diminutive counterpart—the physical opposite but wearing the same suit with its bulging sidearm—stands just behind us with his hands loose at his side. Ready to kill.

Yusuf takes Petra's hand, and they kiss cheeks. Petra turns to me. “This is my partner, Lenox Gold,” Petra says. I bow my head as Mountain moves behind me, a silent request for my overcoat.

I slip it off my shoulders and let the man take it, acting as though the weight of it, the extra layer between me and the scum in this room, wasn't a slight comfort. Yusuf holds out his hand, and I meet it with my own, placing a subtle smile on my lips and bringing a light of vague interest into my eyes, ignoring the slick feel of him.

The best whores are the best actors.

“Please,” Yusuf says, “what can I get you to drink?”

“Red wine,” Petra says. I nod that I'll have the same.

Yusuf waves a hand at Tiny, and he stalks to a bar, his suit glinting with each step. Yusuf returns to his seat, not bothering to introduce the woman next to him. She doesn’t meet our eyes, just stares down at her hands lying limp against her bare thighs. The dress she's wearing is black and clingy as a bathing suit.

“Sit,” Yusuf invites, gesturing to the two armchairs that face the love seat. I wait for Petra to settle into the gaudy gold and red thing before taking my place beside her.

“Chivalrous,” Yusuf comments. “Did you learn that as a gigolo?”

He says it as if to elicit shame. Sorry to disappoint, Jabba. “My mother always taught me to respect women, treat them with delicacy, while also recognizing their incredible strength. They are creators, after all, Yusuf. We merely provide the seed.”

“But without the seed, a plant cannot grow.”

“Without the soil and sun, it will never survive.” I smile.

Yusuf barks out a laugh. “I like him.” He flings an arm around the nameless creator next to him.

Mountain hands us our wine, and Yusuf's grin slowly fades. “I like you.” He says it to me this time instead of addressing Petra. “But I don't like you coming into my city and doing what you're doing.”

“Yusuf.” Petra uses that purr of hers, the one that raises the hairs on men's arms… and other parts as well. “I've worked in this city for a decade, and you never had a problem with me before. I still pay my dues.”

He blinks slowly, the fat around his eyes tightening as he stares at her. “Ian is very upset about his brothers.” Murdering a man's family does often upset them.

“Business.” Petra shrugs. “You understand.” She raises one brow, as though they share knowledge of past deeds done.

“What you're doing isn't business. It's charity.”

My voice catches in my throat, holding it in, not letting my own beliefs and emotions into this moment. Yusuf runs this city’s underworld, and if we want to survive not just tonight but the years ahead, we either have to negotiate with him… or end him.

“Yusuf,” Petra uses his name again. “Charity?” She shakes her head. “Happy whores make happy customers. Also, better working conditions allow us to have a higher level of entertainment. And—” She sips her wine. “—keeps Joyful Justice off our backs.”

Yusuf sucks at his teeth. “I don't like it.” He frowns. “You used to work with the McCain brothers. Now you turn on them.” The lines around his mouth deepen. “You start letting girls out of contracts.” The girl next to him flicks her gaze up to Petra just for a second, but Yusuf senses it. His hand grips her shoulder, and she curls deeper into herself. She won't be safe anywhere until this man is dead.

“You worked with Omer for many years,” Petra says, her voice light but edged with warning. “And that did not stop you from moving up.”

Yusuf shifts in his seat, leaning further back, feigning a relaxed and powerful pose, but the man does not like having his inglorious past put in front of his face. Petra, be careful. A puppy will let you rub its nose in its mistakes, but a full-grown pit bull will not.

“You have higher ambitions then?” Yusuf asks, the warning in his tone absolute—do not answer wrong, or I will kill you now.

Mountain and Tiny are still behind us. They have not moved, but they don't have far to go for their weapons.

“I only wish to make the most money that I can with the least amount of hassle,” Petra answers. “As always.”

Yusuf shifts his gaze to me. “And what about you, Lenox Gold? Do you have ambitions?”

“Of course. I am a man.”

Yusuf bares his teeth in a grin. “What do you want?”

“I wish to create a profitable business and healthy work environment for my employees.”

Yusuf coughs a derisive laugh, his belly shaking from the sound. “Employees.” He sits forward, putting his elbows on his knees. “Call them what they are, Mr. Gold. They are whores.” He says the word as if it is a wine he wants to fully get the taste of, swirling it around in his mouth, enjoying the subtle flavors. I offer him a friendly smile. His eyes narrow. “You don't like women?”

I allow a flash of a grin, a hint of my true wolfish nature to peek from behind the blinds. He will trust a man who likes to fuck because he believes that none of us can control our inner beast. What men like Yusuf never learn is that leashing the beast heightens its appetite and pleasure.

“I enjoy consensual sex with women,” I answer, cool as a sunset cocktail on the bow of a yacht. “Very much so.” My voice drops an octave to a velvety, dark place that every sensual being knows and desires.

Yusuf laughs. “Consensual. You are very modern, aren't you, Mr. Gold?” He grips the girl's leg again but maintains eye contact with me, daring me to challenge him. To see which of our wolves can tear out the other’s throat first.

I sip my wine, my expression once again that gentle friendliness that has served me so well. Yusuf shifts his attention to Petra again. “I will need a higher royalty,” he announces. “You're hurting business all over the city, starting to get whores talking about rights.” He says rights like it's a foul-tasting oyster he has to spit out or risk infection.

“But, Yusuf,” Petra keeps her voice friendly, “we already pay you 10 percent. With overhead, you leave us so little,” she pouts.

“What do I care?” Yusuf drops the words like stones into the bottom of a well—deep, big plops. At least we know there is water down there.

“You see no reason to care,” I mirror his language.

“That's right. Your business margins are not my problem.”

“Not your problem.”

He nods, enjoying the mirroring. So many men do. I wait in silence, knowing he’ll speak again. “I don't like what you are doing or the way you are doing it.”

“Our methods are not to your liking.”

He nods, agreeing with me… himself. “It does not make sense to treat them so well.”

“Why should we treat them so well?” I smile gently. I hear you. That's all anyone wants… to be heard. Understood. Empathized with. If you give a man empathy, you earn his soul. The devil is so good at bargaining because he knows what his victims truly want. The key to any good negotiation is to find out what your counterpart wants, empathize with them, then show them how giving you what you want can better fulfill their needs.

“Exactly! Letting whores out of their contracts, that looks bad for all of us.”

“Bad for everyone.”

His nostrils flare. “It riles up the workers.”

“Riles up the workers.”

“Makes them think they are important and can stand against us.”

“Gives them a false sense of importance.”

“That's right!” Yusuf glances at the girl next to him. “Take Anna here.” The girl flinches as if someone might actually take her. “She's a good girl. But what if she worked at one of your places?  Would you treat her right, keep her in her place? Or let her cry and beg off?”

I nod slowly. “It seems like you want to make sure that your business practices won't be undermined by the changes we've implemented.”

“Right!” I wait, letting time slip by, letting silence work its magic. “Giving into Joyful Justice is no way to defeat them.”

“We can't defeat Joyful Justice by giving into them.”

His mouth spreads into a cat-who-ate-the-canary smile. “You've got it.” He glances at Petra. “Your man here knows what he's talking about.”

Petra sips her wine and offers a friendly smile. We just want to find a way to live together in this crazy world. “It seems like you want to destroy Joyful Justice,” Petra says.

“Of course I do.” His eyes narrow. “Don't you?”

I shrug. “They have backed off since the McCain brothers left Petra's organization.”

Yusuf laughs. “You are a slick one, aren't you, Lenox Gold?”

“You seem to think I'm trying to trick you.”

“No.” His brow furrows as his ego rebels.

“Sorry.” I raise my free hand. “I just said it seemed that way. I must have misread the situation.”

“That's right. You did.” He calms.

“It looks like what you want isn't a bigger percentage of our business but for your business to remain the same. You want the status quo to be maintained.”

“What if I want both?” He leans back again, putting a fat arm around Anna.

“You want us to return to standardized practices and give you a larger percentage?”

“That sounds good to me.”

“Our business is a problem for you.”

“It's a problem. Giving into Joyful Justice's demands is dangerous and shortsighted.”

“Dangerous and shortsighted,” I mirror.

“Exactly! Next thing you know, they’ll be demanding that we shut down altogether.”

“It seems like you're concerned about future problems with Joyful Justice.”

He leans forward then, faster than a man of his girth should be able to move. “I don't worry, Mr. Gold. I prepare.”

I nod, using my imagination to try to slip into his skin. If I was Yusuf, ran illegal trade in Istanbul and environs…. “You are always prepared.”

“Yes, always.” A bead of sweat slips from his hairline down the side of his face. “So you will give me my 20 percent and stop letting whores out of agreements. Then maybe, maybe, I will let you continue to work in my city.”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Ask a calibrated question when a demand is made.

He raises both brows. “Not my problem.”

“There are other services in the city that have rules similar to ours.”

“High-end escort services. That is very different.”

“How is it different?”

His nostrils flare again, and he shakes his head. “I'm done with this conversation.”

“What if we could help with Joyful Justice?”

He raises his brows, a sneaky smile cresting his lips. “I have that in hand. You don't need to worry about them.”

“We will need to think about all this,” Petra says, standing. “Thank you for your time.”

“Come back with your new percentage, or don't come back,” Yusuf warns, also standing. Anna and I are the only two still sitting. Our eyes meet for a brief moment, but hers dart away quickly.

“How much for her?” I ask, cursing myself but knowing I can't leave without her.

“Who?” Yusuf sounds genuinely confused.

I look up at him. “Anna.”

He glances at her. Yusuf shakes his head. “She's not for sale.”

I smile. “Yusuf, everyone has a price.”

He likes that—the idea that people and morals can be bought and sold. “Make me an offer.”

I stay seated, letting him feel bigger than me. “$1,000.” I start with a low, round number.

He snorts and turns away, pacing toward his armed guards. “Not even close,” he throws over his shoulder.

“What if I promise to treat her ‘right'?”

Petra catches my eye but gives nothing away. She won't undermine me in front of Yusuf, but her heart does not bleed like mine. This is foolish.

I stand and join Petra. Yusuf looms behind the love seat, his hands on Anna's shoulders. She stares glassy-eyed at her lap. “She is one of my favorites,” Yusuf says. “Never knew a man before me.”

“You are lucky,” I say.

“I am powerful, and I take what I want.”

“Yes,” I agree. “Very powerful.”

He straightens, relinquishing the girl. “I will give her to you, a gift.” He smiles. “A thank-you for the increase in profit sharing and return to normalcy at your establishments.”

“Thank you,” Petra says before I can speak. “Come,” she says to Anna. The girl looks up at Petra, her eyes wide with astonishment and fear. She doesn’t trust this turn of events. None of us do.


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