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USA Today Bestselling authors Maggie Ryan and Alta Hensley join forces again to bring you the second novel in this action-packed, romantic suspense trilogy full of bad boys and the women who love them.
Dark... seductive... promise
Stryder Steele, along with his two brothers and father, lives by one code: Help all in need. Even if it means saving those who walk among the most sinister criminals in the world. Known as The Black Stallions, their mission is simple – provide rescue and safety to the innocents drawn into the evil depths of the underground.
Zoya Morozova has been kidnapped and prepared to be sold at an underground human auction in Moscow. Being sold to the highest bidder, she has no idea her life is about to change when her new Master is the dark and mysterious Stryder Steele.
Bad boy Stryder remembers the pain of being unable to save another but he’ll put his life on the line to save this beautiful Russian farm girl. When he buys Zoya with the purpose of rescuing her, he has no idea that she may have the power to rescue him, as well.
On their return to The Black Stallion Ranch, and with the help of Zoya and the knowledge of the human sex trade she has, can the Steeles put together the pieces in time to save all the innocent women who have been sold to the monsters of the underground, or will they lose to the mastermind of it all?
Publisher's Note: This book contains graphic sex and BDSM elements.
*** Currently available exclusively at Amazon ***
Stryder Steele pulled the collar of his wool jacket tighter around his neck. He blew into his hands, hoping the warmth of his breath would help combat the numbness setting in. The biting wind gusting off the Moskva River could freeze a man if he weren’t careful. He’d known Moscow would be cold, but this was fucking ridiculous. He wanted to kill whoever thought it best to have his brother, Anson, and him wait on the Moskvoretskaya Embankment by a damn statue of some Russian political figure from history. Sure, he would do whatever it took for the secret hand-off of a crucial invitation needed for their mission, but the fact remained that they could have just as easily done this in some heated bar, drinking vodka with the locals.
“My balls are going to freeze off. My Texas blood can’t deal with this shit,” Anson said as he shoved his hands into his jacket pockets. “Are you sure this guy is going to show?”
“I don’t know. He should have been here by now. Maybe he got scared or someone got word of this.”
Stryder shook his head. “He’ll be here.”
“And you’re positive this guy has two invitations to Vasily Poplov’s auction?” Anson asked, each word accompanied by a white puff of cold air as he spoke.
“That’s what he said,” Stryder snapped. He was trying his best not to grow impatient with his brother, but when it came to missions, Stryder preferred to work alone. Hell, when it came to anything, he preferred to be alone.
He enjoyed working with his brothers and his father as a whole, but when he took the lead on a job, it was his and his alone. His family knew and respected that was how he operated, but Anson had insisted on coming on this operation. After attempting to annihilate every member of the Nazar family, Vasily Poplov had quickly become the most hated name in the Steele family. There wasn’t a single person on The Black Stallion Ranch back home who didn’t want to see this asshole pay for the crimes he’d committed.
“I don’t know, man,” Anson said with skepticism in his eyes. “I wish you would have told me more about this mystery person. How is he able to get two extra invitations to an underground sex slave auction?”
Stryder scanned the people passing by, noticing they didn’t seem as cold as he and his brother were, and said, “He’s just a bad man, who hangs out with bad people.”
Anson huffed. “And you just happen to know this man how?”
Stryder looked at his brother and smirked. “Because I’m a bad man who knows how to kill bad people.” He gave a playful wink to his brother just because he knew it would irritate him.
“You’re a real dick head sometimes, you know that? Remind me to never go on a fucking mission with you again.” Anson turned away, his classic way of silently declaring he was done with the conversation.
Stryder held in a laugh. The truth of the matter was, that if there were anyone he would want to be standing freezing his ass off with, it would be Anson. Stryder trusted him with his life. His brother was smart. Really goddamn smart. Stryder might fight his way out of danger with brawn, skill, or just plain shooting someone between the eyes, but Anson would take a far more logical approach to resolving a situation, and not always go into a risky setting with guns blazing. Whereas Stryder had three scars on his body from old bullet wounds, proving that he didn’t always think before he acted. A weakness of his, but he’d never tell his family that, or he’d never hear the end of it. Whether Stryder wanted to admit it or not, Anson and he would make a good team taking down this sex trafficking ring and making Vasily Poplov pay.
Right now, the duty rested fully on his and Anson’s shoulders. Both his brother Maddox and their father were busy back at the family ranch, caring for the women they loved. Sure, they would both be here in a second if needed, but Stryder knew he had this under control. It wouldn’t be long until he and his brother would be back in Texas, out of freezing Russia, taking care of the horses, and eating Jennie’s hippie-granola food. Just as he liked it… well, the hippie-granola food part might be stretching it a bit much.
Scanning the crowd once again, he noticed a man with a grey fedora hat standing across the street, staring at them. With a slight nod of his head, Stryder acknowledged that he was indeed who this man was looking for. Quickly, the man ran across the street, dodging the traffic zooming by. Stryder’s heart skipped a beat when the man came within a fraction of an inch of being clipped by a black Mercedes. Wouldn’t that just be the fucking cherry on top of the frozen sundae he was about to turn into? Fortunately, his contact walked up to Stryder and acted like he bumped into him while handing off an envelope at the same time. Perhaps the near accident had affected his contact more than he’d thought, as the exchange wasn’t graceful in the slightest. Stryder smirked at the lack of skill this delivery person had, but regardless, it didn’t matter. Stryder had the envelope with the invitations, and the not-so-discreet messenger had scurried off into the crowd of other people.
Phase one of the operation: Complete.
“It’s about time. Can we get out of the damn cold now?” Anson asked with a smile, clearly happy that they finally had what they needed for tonight’s auction.
Stryder shoved the envelope into his pocket and gave a quick look around to see if anyone seemed to have noticed or cared. “Yeah, there’s a bar around the corner. Let’s go there and read what we have,” he answered as they made haste to leave the biting cold.
Walking into the bar was like a slap to the face. The warm air hit their numb bodies like a wave of heat from the Sahara. Stryder couldn’t tell if it was the fact that the bar had the temperature up too high, or the fact that outside was butt fucking cold. Shedding his coat as he walked to a two-man table in the corner of the room, he quickly scanned the area and felt comfortable enough that Anson and he would be fine discussing something of such a delicate nature as the invite. The only patrons in the bar were three old men, half drunk, and none of them even bothered to look up when the door opened. Each of them sat on old stools that looked as if all the stuffing had oozed out the sides. The wooden counter they all slumped over had clearly seen better days considering how worn and battered it appeared to be. Cigarettes hung from the lips of all three men, and from the smell of the room, many packs had already been smoked. The bartender seemed to be unenthusiastic, and was busy watching a small television hanging over the edge of the bar. It didn’t appear that whatever they were watching on the screen was overly interesting, but all the patrons—including the bartender—didn’t seem to care to do anything else.
Taking his seat, Stryder called out to the bartender, “Two vodkas, please.”
Anson shot him a dirty look. “We’re working—”
“Don’t,” Stryder warned, pointing his index finger for emphasis. “I do things my way, brother.” He smiled when Anson sat down and simply rolled his eyes. Yup, that was just about the amount of respect he’d expected. “Add some chips or something too, will ya?” Stryder added as he pulled out the envelope. He watched for a moment to see if the bartender even understood him since he’d asked for everything in English, but when the man started to grab glasses behind the bar, Stryder knew he had.
“Nice dive you brought us to.” Anson leaned forward. “And you should have asked in Russian. Not every ryamochnayas welcomes Americans.”
Stryder sighed, wanting to roll his eyes as well. Though he could understand a great deal of the Russian language, he knew he had a tendency to mutilate the foreign words if he attempted to speak them. But it didn’t surprise him at all to hear that his brainy brother not only knew the Russian term for a bar, but that he pronounced it flawlessly. “Vodka is vodka. Universal.”
“I’m serious. We don’t need to draw attention to ourselves.”
“Would you rather go back outside?” Stryder asked as he leaned back in his chair and casually crossed his arms. With a smile and light chuckle, he added, “You should see your face. Your nose is bright red, and your cheeks aren’t far from it. If we put a hat and beard on you, you could be jolly St. Nick.” Poor guy. No matter how good looking the man was, Anson was cursed with his fair complexion. His skin tone gave away a lot, often telegraphing whether he was too cold, too hot, had too much to drink, or was embarrassed. Luckily for Stryder, his own darker, Latin complexion concealed a lot of things. And his dark brown eyes made him very hard to read, or for anyone to truly take a peek into his soul. At least his heritage could be good for something.
“Yeb tvoye,” Anson said, trying his best to conceal his smile.
Now that he understood easily. Curse words were often the first things learned in any foreign language. Stryder laughed loudly, enjoying that he and Anson could always have the brotherly banter even when about to partake in a dark and dangerous secret operation. It did help lighten the mood, and Stryder knew that if he were here alone, his demeanor and behavior would be completely different. Maybe he preferred having Anson with him… but he didn’t have to tell his brother that.
The bartender came over with three glasses, a bottle of chilled vodka under his arm, and a bowl of something Stryder couldn’t quite make out. “What is that? I asked for chips.”
“Pickled cucumbers,” the bartender answered in an extremely thick Russian accent, opening the bottle of vodka and pouring it into the tiny, goblet-like shot glasses.
Stryder scowled at the bowl’s contents. “Is that all you have?”
“It’s good,” he said. “See? Like this.” He picked up his glass, grabbed a pickle with the other hand and waited for both Stryder and Anson to do the same.
Stryder smiled at Anson and shrugged, knowing Anson didn’t like drinking on a mission, but one shot wouldn’t kill them. “When in Rome…” He stood up, as did Anson, purely as a sign of respect to the gracious bartender.
The bartender extended his glass forward and waited until the brothers did as well. “To dark, to light, to death, to life. May we all be free to choose.” He knocked back the shot, then bit into the pickle. “Like we do in Russia.”
Both Anson and Stryder followed suit and took one big drink of the cold liquid that burned all the way down. Biting into the pickled cucumber wasn’t exactly what Stryder had in mind for a snack, but it actually did taste really good chasing down the vodka.
“Thank you, my friend,” Stryder said as he patted the bartender’s back. “I do enjoy learning the local customs. Especially when there is vodka involved.”
“Another?” the bartender asked.
“Not now,” Anson answered for them. He glared at Stryder before continuing, “We have some things we need to discuss first.”
Stryder would have never allowed that to happen if he had intended to drink another, but he wanted to keep a clear and level head just as much as his brother. He just liked making him sweat. “Maybe later, my friend.” Both he and Anson sat as the bartender left to return to serve his comatose patrons and stare once more at the television.
“Can we get back to work please? Open the envelope,” Anson said.
Just as anxious as his brother, Stryder opened the manila envelope and pulled out two smaller white ones, sealed with wax. “Classy,” he said as he broke the seal on one with his finger, pulling out the small invite. The details were embossed in gold lettering. The first half was in Russian, and if Stryder really wanted to concentrate, he would have been able to translate it. But he didn’t have to since an English version was directly underneath it. It read:
The State Tretyakov Gallery
Stryder passed the invite to Anson. “You gotta love Poplov’s flare for theatrics.”
Anson read the invitation and then looked at his watch. “Theatrics or not, this works for our benefit. Just in case word has spread about us and our appearance, being in this disguise will help us blend in with everyone else.”
“True,” Stryder agreed. “Where the fuck are we going to find black masks in the middle of Moscow?”
“Exactly because this is Moscow. Theatrics is commonplace here. I bet we don’t have to look further than the hotel gift shop to find masks. And we brought the suits expecting that the event would be formal.”
Stryder reached for his phone and sent a text to his father.
Tonight at 10:30
The State Tretyakov Gallery
Need the layout within the next hour or so.
Any more info on attendees?
Stryder and Anson wouldn’t go into the building until they knew where each door led to, the location of all exits, and every exact detail of that gallery that could possibly save their lives. It was bad enough that they wouldn’t know everyone who would be attending.
“No doubt they will have security searching us before we enter. So, once we go in, we are on our own. I don’t want us to risk anything by trying to take pictures,” Anson said.
Stryder nodded in agreement and then gave his brother a big smile. “Well, lucky for us, you my brother, have a photographic memory. I have no doubt you will be able to remember every little detail.”
Anson huffed. “I’m not sure I would call it photographic memory. I call it paying attention.”
Whatever Anson wanted to call it, Stryder knew his brother would remember every single important component and would be able to relay it back to everyone at the ranch. “It’s going to make things more difficult for us though,” Stryder said, contemplating the possibilities. “We won’t be able to identify who bids on the women. Their masks will keep their faces hidden just as it will do for us. It won’t be as simple as we think to track all the buyers down and rescue those poor women from their captors.”
“We don’t know the women are being forced to do this against their wills,” Anson reminded him.
“There are no women who would willingly allow a fucking man to sell their bodies for them,” Stryder snapped.
Anson put both of his hands up, signaling he meant no harm. “All I’m saying is that we don’t know the stories behind why the women are involved. Each one could have their own reason. It may not be as sinister as you think.”
“It’s fucking dark as hell! Even if these women aren’t shackled to a chain or being beaten into submission, they are being constrained by some form of evil. Something has a hold over them that is keeping them prisoner.”
Anson nodded. “Yes, and that evil is Vasily Poplov. He’s a sick bastard.”
A ding on Stryder’s phone broke the rage that was bubbling up inside him. Looking down, he read the text from his father out loud:
Maddox is pulling blueprints up now of the gallery. We will send a link soon.
We haven’t been able to confirm the guest list.
Vasily has made damn sure this auction is top secret.
Be careful. Don’t do anything rash. Just get intel.
We will deal with saving the women after the fact back here at the ranch.
This is not the time to try to save the day. It will only get the two of you killed.
“Pops knows you well,” Anson said with a chuckle.
“If Vasily is there…”
“If Vasily is there, we will do nothing,” Anson finished the sentence for him. “We are only using this opportunity to gather intel to bring the man down.”
“He deserves his dick shot off.” Stryder was seeing red at the thought of Vasily Poplov selling women off like cattle.
“This isn’t an assassination mission.”
Stryder remained silent.
Anson leaned forward and studied Stryder before asking, “Are you going to be able to put your personal feelings and demons aside to do this tonight?”
Stryder shot back in his seat as if Anson had slapped him in the face. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“You know what I mean.” Anson paused and lowered his voice. “You can’t let your history play a part in tonight. Are you going to be able to stay objective? No emotion?”
Flashes of Stryder’s mother flooded from the depths of his memory.
Men pulling her down the cobblestone alleys of Rosario, pushing her up against the stone walls, yanking up her layers of clothing, and taking what they thought belonged to them simply because they had paid for it.
Him as a little boy, helpless, afraid…
“Stryder?” Anson asked, snapping Stryder from his dark thoughts.
“Yes. No emotion.”
“Are you sure? Can you keep to the plan?”
Stryder stared directly into Anson’s eyes. “I’m sure. I’ve got this. We go in and bid on one girl. We bring her back to The Black Stallion Ranch to find out what she knows to help us locate the other trafficked women and bring Vasily down. I’ve got it. I know the plan.”
“We won’t be able to save them all,” Anson said, his tone indicating how sad he thought that fact was. “I think that’s going to be hard for you.”
“And it won’t for you?”
“Of course it will be. Hell, I think tonight is going to be one of the hardest things you and I have ever done. We will have to just stand there and watch as terrified women get sold to some fucking ruthless men. But I’m prepared to do it. I just want to make sure you really get a hold of your personal feelings. I don’t want you going all Rambo in there and trying to save the day.” Anson paused and then added, “We’ll die if you do.”
His brother was right. Stryder knew it would be brutal to stand there among the filth of humanity as they all bid on and bought women with no care in the world. Not one of the assholes possessed a moral compass to see how anything could be wrong with buying a sex slave.
“No Rambo. No emotion. I promise.” Stryder leaned forward and added, “But I get to choose the girl we buy.” He already knew who she would be. He’d known it the moment her photo had appeared on the monitor in the operations center at the ranch. Her eyes had captured him in the pictures, and if he couldn’t save all the women, he would at least be able to save one.
Anson nodded in agreement. “We have two hours to find black masks.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out some Russian currency, and laid some rubles down on the table for the drinks. “Let’s get busy. Looks like we have an auction to attend.”