* * *
I woke to the sounds of the city, a breeze wafting over me. The bed beside me was empty. Night had fallen long ago. I sat up slowly, stiff and sore. My heart ached. I didn’t even get that moment of forgetting, the split-second illusion that everything was okay. I wanted that moment; I needed it. I glanced at the balcony, saw Roth sitting in one of the chairs, feet up on the railing, still shirtless in a pair of blue jeans, barefoot. I stood up, stretched the kinks out of my back and neck. I was still wearing the same clothes I’d been wearing in Alexandria, despite several days of travel. It didn’t matter, though. Not then. Not in that moment.
I smelled him as I approached him, the Scotch on his breath. He peered up at me as I slid between the back of his chair and the wall, and took the seat beside him. He had the bottle in one hand, a rocks glass in the other, a bucket of melting ice on the table, along with a second glass, empty and clean. I took the empty glass, clinked four cubes of ice into it, and pried the glass from Roth’s hand, poured until it was nearly overflowing.
I took a sip, hissed and winced at the burn, then took another sip, which went down more smoothly. A third sip morphed the burn into a warming glow. We sat drinking Scotch in silence, in the relative darkness of night, Manhattan ever wakeful and busy and endless around us.
The bottle was three-fourths gone, and I suspected he’d been out here drinking most of the night. I didn’t know what time it was, and I didn’t care.
“’M a little sloshed, I’m afraid.” His voice was slurred, a low stumbling growl from beside me. “A lot, actually. Probably couldn’t stand up even if I tried.”
“That’s okay.” I took another long sip. “I might join you.”
He took a drink, ice clinking and clattering. He twisted his head sloppily to gaze at me. “Why are you still here?” He enunciated his words very carefully, precisely, his accent bleeding through more strongly than ever.
“Because I love you. I chose you. Remember? You brought me here. You made me yours. And then you told me your secret. And even knowing that you killed my father, I still chose you. I couldn’t stay away then, and I can’t stay away now. I won’t. Not just can’t, Roth. Won’t. I won’t abandon you, especially not now. How could I claim to love you if I walked away now? You need me, now more than ever.”
“Never needed anyone before. Not anyone. Father kicked me out, disowned me. And damn him, I survived. Nearly didn’t, a few times. Nearly got myself killed more than once. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing when I started running guns for Vitaly. I got into that by accident, you should know.” He glanced at me, blinked blearily. “I never intended to get into that. I started out like I told you, buying fishing boats and real estate, that sort of thing. And then I was out for drinks with a man who was rumored to have several apartment blocks in Moscow for sale. We were in…Kiev? Maybe Kiev. And he—this man, he asked me if I wanted to make a quick and easy ten grand. Well, of course, who doesn’t? And when he said all I’d have to do was take a suitcase from Kiev to Istanbul, I knew it was no good. But I’d just had a sale fall through, a big one. And I owed money. I’d borrowed, so I owed. I needed that ten grand. So I did it.”
Roth took another long drink, emptying his glass, then set the tumbler down on the table between us.
“I met Gina two weeks later,” he continued. “In Athens. She took me home to her apartment. I remember standing outside the door of her flat in Athens, wondering what I was getting into. I’d seen the craziness in her eyes already. You couldn’t miss it, even then. Two drinks together, and I knew she was dangerous. But I went into her apartment with her anyway. Later, after we’d fucked, she lay beside me and looked at me. I remember what she said. I remember it verbatim. ‘You know, Val, now that you’ve fucked me, you can’t ever leave me. I won’t let you.’”
He blinked and lifted his hand to his mouth as if he’d forgotten that’d put down his now-empty cup.
“Gina, she was fucked up in head, in the things she wanted us to do. In bed, I mean. I’m quite honestly too drunk to be tactful right now, so I’m sorry. She wanted to tie me up. She wanted to blindfold me and do all sorts of nasty shit. Not really true BDSM, just…she demanded total control. Wanted total subservience from me, sexually and otherwise.” He ducked his head, staring at his knees. “I went along with a lot of what she wanted. Most of it. I drew the line at a few things. She got off on pain. Giving, and receiving. I’d let her hurt me, but I wouldn’t hurt her. I wouldn’t let her peg me. She went mental when I said no to that. I gave her control, though. I let her have it. It killed me, deep down. I hated it. Hated her more with every day that passed.
“Every time I did what she wanted, it was because I was afraid of her, afraid of her father. Not of her physically, but of of her unpredictability. Like, if I didn’t do what she wanted, I went to sleep nervous. I could wake up hogtied. I did once, actually. Went to bed after an argument and woke up hogtied. Slipped me a mickey in my drink, but I was already drunk and angry and didn’t feel it. Woke up tied hand and foot, hands to feet behind my back. She left me like that for hours. Because I wouldn’t…god, so filthy to think of now, but she wanted me to felch her. I wouldn’t. Fuck no, I wouldn’t. Bad enough argument, I worried I’d just never wake up. She’d slit my throat in my sleep.” He shot a sidelong glance at me. “Does my need for control make sense now, love?”
I thought of the times he’d given me control sexually, let me do what I wanted to him. Now, hearing this story, it made so much more sense. Made the trust he’d shown me that much more heady. I could only nod, trying to hold back emotion. “Yeah. It makes a lot of sense. Makes me love you even more for letting me have control the way you have.”
He nodded. “That was hard. That day in the shower? You remember that? What you did with your finger? I always, always drew the line at that. Letting her do that kind of thing to me. I never would. It was just…my personal line. And she hated it. It made her so, so angry every time. But I let you do that. I gave that to you. Because…I knew you. I understood you. I knew you wouldn’t hurt me, wouldn’t embarrass me. Wouldn’t demand something you didn’t think I’d mind giving.”
“Never, baby. I love you. I love you so much.”
“I know.” He watched me empty my glass and pour another. “Catching up quick, aren’t you, love?” In all the time I’d known him, he’d never sounded so English. I’d heard him sound formal, almost stuffy, precise, arch and crisp. I’d heard him sound gruff and harsh and vulgar. But this? This was a side of Valentine that I never knew existed.