Series: Sinners of Saint #5
Release Date: May 6, 2018
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Roman 'Bane' Protsenko
Naked surfer. Habitual pothead. A con, a liar, a thief and a fraud.
Last I heard, he was extorting the rich and screwing their wives for a living.
Which is why I’m more than a little surprised to find him at my threshold, looking for my friendship, my services, and most puzzling of all—looking humbled.
Thing is, I’m on a boycott. Literally—I cut boys from my life. Permanently.
Problem is, Bane is not a boy, he is all man, and I’m falling, crashing, drowning in his sweet, perfect lies.
Hot as hell, cold as ice.
I wasn’t aware of her existence until a fat, juicy deal landed in my lap.
She’s a part of it, a little plaything to kill some time.
She is collateral, a means to an end, and a side-bonus for striking a deal with her oil tycoon stepdad.
More than anything, Jesse Carter is a tough nut to crack.
Little does she know, I have the teeth for it.
A godless thief.
My reputation was a big wave that I rode, one that swallowed everyone around me, drowning every attempt to fuck with what’s mine.
I’d been known as a stoner, but power was my real drug of choice. Money meant nothing. It was tangible, and therefore easy to lose. See, to me, people were a game. One I’d always known how to win.
Move the rooks around.
Change the queen when necessary.
Guard the king at all fucking times.
I was never distracted, never deterred, and never jealous.
So, imagine my surprise when I found myself being all three at once.
It was a siren with coal black hair who robbed me of riding the biggest wave I’d seen that summer. Of my precious attention. Of my goddamn breath.
She glided from the ocean to the beach like nightfall.
I crouched down, straddling my surfboard, gawking.
Edie and Beck stopped beside me, floating on their boards in my periphery.
“This one’s taken by Emery Wallace,” Edie had warned. Thief.
“This one’s the hottest masterpiece in town.” Beck had chuckled. Con.
“More importantly, she only dates rich bastards.” Liar.
I had all the ingredients to pull her in.
Her body was a patch of fresh snow. White, fair, like the sun shone through her, never quite soaking in. Her skin defied nature, her ass defied my sanity, but it was the words on her back that made my logic rebel.
It wasn’t her curves or the way she swayed her hips like a dangling, poisonous apple that warranted my reaction to her.
It was that tattoo I had noticed when she swam close to me earlier, the words trickling down the nape of her neck and back in a straight arrow.
My Whole Life Has Been Pledged to This Meeting with You
I only knew one person who went gaga over the Russian poet, and, like the famous Alexander, he was currently six feet under.
My friends began to paddle back to shore. I couldn’t move. It felt like my balls were ten tons heavy. I didn’t believe in love at first sight. Lust, maybe, but even that wasn’t the word I was looking for. No. This girl fucking intrigued me.
“What’s her name?” I snatched Beck’s ankle, yanking him back to me. Edie stopped pedaling and looked back, her gaze ping-ponging between us.
“Doesn’t matter, bro.”
“What’s. Her. Name?” I repeated through a locked jaw.
“Dude, she’s, like, way young.”
“I will not repeat myself a third time.”
Beck’s throat bobbed with a swallow. He knew damn well that I didn’t mess around. If she was legal—it was on.
Jesse Carter was going to be mine before she even knew me.
Before I even knew her.
Before her life turned upside down and her fate rewrote itself with her blood.
So here was the truth that even my lying ass wouldn’t admit later on in our story—I wanted her before.
Before she became business.
Before the truth caged her in.
Before the secrets gushed out.
I never did get to surf that day.
My surfboard broke.
Should have known it was an omen.
My heart was going to be next in line.
And for a small chick, she did one hell of a fucking job obliterating it.
The moon was full that night.
It was chuckle-worthy, if not completely tacky. What a freaking cliché, right? A pregnant, fat, ghostly-white moon sparkling in triumph, shining over the night that carved my destiny, my identity, my stomach, with deep, gleaming gashes.
I stared at it, so still and tranquil. Beautiful things were often so useless.
Don’t just hang there. Call the cops. Call an ambulance. Save me.
I wondered if I was going to die. If so, how long would it take Pam to notice my absence? How long before Darren would assure her I’d always been troubled? ‘Thweet,’ he’d console with his lisp, ‘But troubled.’ How long before she’d agree with him? How long before the Kit Kat on Dad’s tombstone melted under the punishing sun?
“What a shame. Such a good kid,” they’d mourn. Nothing like a dead teenager to make the entire community come together. Especially in the town of Todos Santos, where tragedies only happened in the newspapers and CNN. Oh, yes. This would give them something to talk about. A forbidden and delicious tale about the fall from grace of the current It Girl.
Realization trickled into me like a leaking faucet. Emery, Henry, and Nolan wouldn’t even get a slap on the wrist. Community service? In my dreams. The public embarrassment in the form of scowls and cancelled invitations to the country club’s events next year was reserved for me. I was the outsider. The mortal idiot who mixed with the blue-blooded royals of Todos Santos.
They’d get away with it, I knew. They’d go to college and attend parties. They would graduate and throw their stupid hats in the stupid air. They’d get married, and have babies, and reunions, and take annual skiing trips with their friends. And they’d live. God, they’d live. It was maddening to think that their heritage and money would buy their way out of justice. Because whether anyone bothered to scrape me off the road with or without a pulse tonight, I knew that I was dead. Dead in all the places that mattered.
For a passing moment, I was still the old Jesse. I tried to look at the flip side of things. The weather was nice for February. Not too hot, not too cold. Whatever desert heat clung onto my flesh was diluted by the chill of the asphalt underneath me. A lot of victims bounced back. I could go to college abroad. Darren was an expert at throwing money at problems and making them go away. I could reinvent myself. Forget it ever happened. Didn’t they use hypnosis to suppress things like that? I could ask Mayra, the shrink my parents had sent me to ever since I’d started having nightmares. Science was limitless. Case in point: my forty-year-old mom looked twenty-three thanks to Botox.
Little stones dug at my bare back. My pink lacy bra and panties were lying torn somewhere beside me, and even though my groin was numb, I felt something slithering down my thigh. Blood? Semen? Didn’t really matter at this point.
Steadfast, I blinked back at the constellation, hung high in the inky sky like a chandelier, sneering at my heartbreakingly mortal existence.
I needed to try to get up. Call for help. Save myself. But the prospect of trying to move and failing was far more paralyzing than the pain. My legs felt frozen, my hipbones crushed.
Sirens wailed in the distance.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Often, I’d see my dad on the other side, like his face was permanently inked to my eyelids. That’s where he lived now. In my dreams. More vivid than the woman he’d left behind. Pam always faded to the sidelines of my story, more occupied with writing her own plot.
The sirens got closer. Louder. My heart scurried to my stomach, curling like a battered puppy.
A few more minutes, and you’ll become a piece of gossip. A cautionary tale.
The old Jesse would cry. She would scream and tell the police everything. Act normal, given the abnormal circumstances. The old Jesse would declare vengeance and do the right thing. The feminist thing. She wouldn’t let them get away with it.
The old Jesse would feel.
The ambulance sputtered at the curb, close enough for the heat to roll off the tires and the scalded rubber to stick to my nostrils. Somehow, knowing they’d called for help was even more infuriating than being left for dead, like they knew they were untouchable even after doing this to me. A stretcher opened beside me. I recited the last words I heard before they’d left me in the alleyway, a lone tear free-falling down my cheek.
My Whole Life Has Been Pledged to This Meeting with You
“And what a meeting it was, whore. You gave a good fight.” Nolan kicked my ribs.
I’d inked this sentence thinking Emery was the man I’d been waiting for. Now the back of my neck burned. I wanted to tear the flesh off my neck and dump it right next to my ruined clothes.
With agonizing effort, I moved my left arm to cover my chest, my right arm dragging across my bare stomach, hiding what they’d carved onto my torso like I was a Halloween pumpkin. They’d made me watch as they did it. Held my jaw in their clean, smooth hands, my neck bending unnaturally to accommodate the awkward position. A punishment for my discreditable sin.
The word shone like a neon billboard on my skin for the whole world to see, and to judge, and to laugh, the letters bleeding red into my pink designer skirt.
The old Jesse would explain, and bargain, and argue.
The old Jesse would try to save face.
The old Jesse was dead.
I suppose at the end of the day I really didn’t give a shit.
Not about people, and not about the whole popularity contest rich people were so neck-deep in because they didn’t have the usual pain-in-the-ass problems of paying bills and functioning as responsible adults.
I was the beach bum, the stoner, the dopehead—and the drug dealer on probation. I wasn’t Mr. Popular, but people feared me enough to stay out of my way. It wasn’t a conscious choice to become a crook. My mom was not rich, and my dad was never in the picture, so I had to do what I had to do to survive in the richest town in California, and have a little more than basic cable and frozen meals for lunch.
Then there was the whole pro surfing gig I got into when I was fifteen. That cost a pretty penny, too. It was also the only thing I cared about, beyond my mom. I otherwise found myself pretty apathetic toward life. So that’s how I ended up dealing drugs early on. Pot, mainly. It was easier than you’d think. Buy burner phones at Walmart. One for suppliers. One for clients. Change them often. Never deal with people you don’t know. Never talk about your shit. Stay nice and positive. I’d paid my way through my surfing journey and high school doing it, with the exception of pickpocketing every now and then when I’d needed a new surfboard. I tended to abuse mine.
This was how I got by until the probation, anyway, but then I figured out the whole jail gig was not really for me and had to expand my business. That was around five years ago, but I never thought I’d be sitting here, in front of the most formidable dude in Todos Santos, conducting…well, business. Legitimate business, at that.
“About your nickname.” Baron Spencer, dubbed Vicious by everyone who was unfortunate enough to know him, smirked. He poured four fingers of Macallan into two glasses, staring at the golden liquid with the kind of admiration people usually reserve for their kids.
I came all the way from Todos Santos to Los Angeles to meet Spencer at his office. It made zero logistical sense. We lived ten minutes from one another. But if there was one thing I’d learned about rich assholes, it was that they liked the act. The whole enchilada. This was not a social call, so we needed to meet at his workplace, where I’d see how big his corner office was, how fuckable his secretary was, and how expensive his whiskey was.
Truth was, I couldn’t care less if we were meeting on Mars, as long as I got what I’d come here for. I crossed my ankles under his desk, my unlaced boots knocking against one another, and ignored the drink he slid across his chrome desk toward me. I preferred vodka. I also preferred not to get shitfaced before climbing on my Harley. Unlike Mr. Spencer, I didn’t have a personal driver to chauffeur me around like a legless prick. But first things first. He’d asked a question.
“My nickname?” I stroked my beard thoughtfully.
He gave me a curt don’t-fuck-with-me nod. “Bane is awfully similar to Vicious, wouldn’t you agree?”
No, I wouldn’t, dipshit.
“Weren’t you the creator of the game Defy?” I pushed my chair off the floor, tipping it back on two legs and chewing on my cinnamon gum loudly. I should probably explain: Defy was an old school tradition at All Saints High, where students challenged other students to a fistfight. This clusterfuck was founded by the HotHoles, four kids who ruled the school like it belonged to their parents. Ironically, it sort of did. Baron Spencer’s ancestors built half the town, including the high school, and Jaime Followhill’s mom had been the principal up until six years ago.
Vicious angled his chin down, inspecting me. Dickwad had the kind of smirk that would make women moan his name even when he was on another continent. He was happily married to Emilia LeBlanc-Spencer and strictly off the market. Shame they rocked the happily-in-love vibe. Married women were a favorite flavor of mine. They never asked for more than a dirty fuck.
“Well, you got the name Vicious for starting the game. I got the name Bane for killing it.” I produced a joint from my pocket. I figured Vicious smoked in his office, because his workspace bled into an open patio, and there were more ashtrays than pens on the desk. Not a job for Sherlock, apparently.
I told Spencer about the first time I was invited for a fight in my freshman year. How I hadn’t known the rules, because I’d been too busy finding creative ways to pay for my backpack and tuition to get all the ins and outs of All Saints High. How I’d broken a lunch tray on a guy’s head when he got in my face. How he’d suffered from a concussion and been saddled with the nickname SpongeBob FlatHead. How, two weeks later, he’d ambushed me outside of school, armed with six senior jocks and three baseball bats. How I’d beaten the crap out of them, too, and broken the bats for good measure. Then I told him about the trouble we’d all gotten into. The pussies whined that I’d fought too hard and hadn’t followed the rules. The name “Bane” stuck because the principal, Mrs. Followhill, accidentally pressed her elbow to the loudspeaker when she discussed my behavior with a counselor, calling me the “bane of her existence.”
Principal Followhill took the opportunity to kill the tradition her son, Jaime, had helped make.
It didn’t help that a month prior to the cafeteria incident, a private school in Washington had a Columbine 2.0 massacre on their hands. Everybody was scared of rich kids. But then, I’d be the first one to admit everyone was even more scared of me.
Call me a people-pleaser, but I’d provided them with good reasons to steer clear.
They’d given me a nickname, and I’d become it, lived it, and breathed it.
Way I looked at it, I was a Russian immigrant bastard living in one of the richest towns in the States. I never stood a chance to fit in in the first place. So, what was really the harm in standing out?
Vicious relaxed into his leather seat, his grin unwavering. He didn’t care that I’d killed Defy. I doubted if he cared much about anything. He was richer than God, married to one of the most beautiful women in our zip code, and a doting father. He won the battle, the war, and conquered every obstacle that had stood in his way. He had nothing to prove and reeked of contentment.
He was smug, but I was hungry. Hunger was dangerous.
“All right, Bane. Why are you here?”
“I’d like your investment,” I said, taking a hit from the joint and passing it to him. He barely moved his head in a no gesture, but his smirk widened an inch, morphing into a patronizing smile. “Easy there. We’re not friends, kid. Barely even acquaintances.”
I fanned smoke through my nostrils in a long, white stream.
“As you know, they’re bulldozing the old hotel on the edge of Tobago Beach. The acres will be available for commercial use, and the general idea is to open a shopping center there. There’s an auction at the end of the year. All the external companies who are planning to bid don’t know what they’re dealing with. They don’t know Todos Santos’ social fabric or the local contractors. I do. I’m offering you twenty-five percent equity for a six-million-dollar investment on a surfing park there consisting of a surfing school, surfing shops, a food court, and some touristy bullshit stores. The acquisition of the land and demolition costs will fall solely on me, so consider this my one and final offer.”
I was going to lose a lot of money in that deal, but I needed to attach Vicious’ name to my proposal. Stapling Spencer’s name to my bid would sweeten it in the eyes of the county. As you might imagine, I didn’t have the best reputation.
“I already own a mall in Todos Santos.” Vicious emptied his whiskey glass and slammed it against the desk, staring at the Los Angeles landscape through the open patio windows. “The only mall in Todos Santos, to be exact. Why would I help build another one?”
“You own a high-end shopping center. Prada, Armani, Chanel, and their ilk. The type of shit teenagers and tourists can’t afford. I’m building a surfing park. It’s like apples and oranges.”
“There’ll still be stores there.”
“Yeah, surfing-related stores. Beach stores. I’m not your competition.”
Vicious poured himself a second glass, his eyes hard on the liquid. “Every person with a pulse is my competition. Yours, too. Never forget that.”
I let smoke crawl out of my mouth upward, trying a different tactic. “Fine. Maybe the surf park will bite into your shit. If you can’t beat them, join them, right?”
“Who said I can’t beat you?” Vicious crossed his legs at the ankles on top of his desk. I stared at the clean soles of his shoes. He had no idea who he was dealing with. Sure, he knew about me. It was hard not to, at this point. At twenty-five, I owned the most successful coffee shop in Todos Santos—Café Diem. I had recently purchased an inn on the outskirts of town. I was in the process of gutting it and making it a boutique hotel. In addition, I charged protection money from every store and shop on the promenade and split it with my friend Hale Rourke fifty-fifty. It sounded like a lot, but really, I was spending more than I was earning on both places, and for all intents and purposes, I was still the same broke bastard. I just had more shit under my name to take care of.
My rise to power was slow, steady, and unstoppable. My mother’s family was affluent, but just enough to send us to the States when I was a toddler and leave us to fend for ourselves. Every penny I made was through pot-dealing, extortion, and fucking the wrong women for the right price. Sometimes the men, if I was really hard on cash. Every connection I’d made to get ahead in the game was through a string of illicit, short-term affairs and sexual favors. This left me with a less than squeaky-clean reputation, which was fine by me. I wasn’t here to run for office.
“I have to admit, Mr. Protsenko, I’m inclined to say no.”
“And from where, pray tell, does your inclination stem?”
“Your reputation precedes you.”
“Enlighten me as to what it says.”
He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, cocking his head sideways, his eyes a blazing ice storm. “That you’re a con artist, a bad egg—the kind that gives you food poisoning—and a goddamn thief.”
There was no point to disputing those facts. Call me a Renaissance man, but I checked every single fucking box on that list.
“For all I know, you may plan to use this place to launder money.” His jaw ticked in annoyance. I wasn’t planning to, but dude was definitely sharp.
“Nah, too risky. Money laundering is an art.” I blew out another plume of thick smoke.
“It is also a federal offense.”
“Can I ask you something?” I tapped the ash into the glass of whiskey he’d served me, showing him exactly what I thought about his sixty thousand dollar spirit. He arched a sardonic eyebrow, waiting for me to continue.
“Why did you invite me here if you knew you were going to say no? I’m one of the main runners for buying the lot. That’s public knowledge. You knew I wasn’t coming here to admire your pretty eyes.”
Vicious tapped his chin with his laced index fingers, his lower lip poking out. “What’s wrong with my eyes?”
“For one thing, they’re not attached to someone with a pussy and a rack.”
“According to the rumors, you don’t limit yourself to one gender. Either way, I wanted to see for myself.”
“See what?” I ignored his dig. Homophobia was beneath me. Besides, he wanted to get a rise out of me. It wasn’t my first or last rodeo with a pompous prick. I always came out on top (all puns intended).
“What my successor looks like.”
“Your successor? Color me confused, blushing, and deafened by my ringing bullshit radar.” I smirked, scratching my face with my middle finger.
We were polar opposites. A single-parented, middle-class spawn sitting across from a trust fund baby. I had a blond man-bun, enough tattoos to cover the better half of North America, and today’s attire consisted of a Primitive shirt, black cargo pants, and muddy boots. He was wrapped head-to-toe in Brioni, with sleek black hair and porcelain white skin. He looked like a Michelin-starred steak, and I looked like a greasy drive-thru cheeseburger. Didn’t bother me one bit. I loved cheeseburgers. Most people would opt for a McGreasy double cheeseburger over a tiny piece of tartar.
Vicious stretched in his seat. “You do understand that I cannot, in good conscience, help you build a shopping center—focused around surfing or otherwise—in Todos Santos? You’ll nibble at my business.” He ignored my question, and I didn’t like it. I dropped the joint into the whiskey glass and got up to my feet.
He stared up at me. Serene, sincere, and utterly blasé. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not rooting for you, Bane. I’m just not going to equip you for the war you’re planning to enter. Because I’ll also have an army in this battle. Whoever is opening a shopping center there is going to bite into my shit, and when people bite into my shit, I devour what’s theirs, too.”
I scratched my beard, allowing it to sink. Of course Vicious and his like didn’t care for me. He was at the top. I was getting there. Squashing me was survival instinct.
Spencer looked down, jotting something in a golden notepad with the logo of Fiscal Heights Holdings, his company’s name. “But here’s someone who could help you. He’s been trying to lay down roots in Todos Santos for years now. He needs to build a rep here, and is getting pretty desperate. He might not have the street cred, but he’s got a clean name and the Benjamins.” He glided the note across the black and gold chrome desk, and I reached for it with my inked, callused fingers.
Darren Morgansen, followed by a phone number.
“Oil money.” He smoothed his tie over his dress shirt. “Even more important—he’ll actually hear you out, unlike the vast majority of businessmen in this town.”
He was right, and that irritated me.
“Why are you helping me?” I asked. I liked Baron Spencer. He was my first choice of business partner when I’d decided to make a bid on those acres. I knew other rich, influential people in this town, but no one was quite as ruthless as he was.
“I’m merely giving you a head start. It makes things interesting, and I like the element of surprise,” he said, twirling his wedding band on his finger. “Open this surf park, Bane. I dare you. It’d be nice to finally meet my match.”
Before I left his office building, I made it a point to take a shit in the restroom and tuck a few of the fancy Fiscal Heights Holdings pens into my pocket, just for funsies. Oh, and I might have fucked his secretary, Sue. She emailed me the contact details of all the service providers working for her boss’ mall. They’d become handy when I opened the surf park. The one that was supposed to rid me of the bullshit and pay for my mom’s mortgage.
Baron Spencer thought he was going to war with me.
He was about to find out that I was the war.
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