Stripped

Black Opals, Book 1
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They exist only in shadow. An elite team of deadly operatives created to satisfy increasing international
threats. Their world is the dark underground, where sin and pleasure dominate and lies are second nature.
To those who cross them, they are professional killers. Within the CIA, they are the rare Black Opals...


Stripped -- Tori. St. Claire

Berkley HEAT
ISBN: 978-0425246771
Release Date: January 3, 2012

Reviews
"There is an immediate feeling of 'better than your everyday romance', and when you dig in you know St Claire is articulate, creative, and seemingly accomplished far beyond her experience."
~ Seductive Musings
"Highly addictive, Stripped is hands-down a must read for romantic suspense and erotic romance fans this year!"
~ Reading Between the Wines
"Tori St. Claire creates sexual awareness that is off the scale. From a smoldering look to a stirring touch to uninhibited responses, Brandon and Natalya demonstrate their desire for the other in numerous ways."
~ Sensual Reads
"I am so happy to say that it was one of those books I just couldn't put down...The chemistry between the two characters is electrifying."
~ Bitten by Paranormal Romance
"Tori St. Claire's Stripped gives us an outstanding book filled with mystery, deceit, and hot action both on the floor and in the bed..."
~ Affair de Coeur
"A well-done, erotic, suspenseful book, and I'm so happy to hear there will be another Black Opals story next summer."
~ Smexy Books
"Stripped is not only a suspenseful story, but it's a very erotic one as well. The chemistry and sexual tension between Brandon and Natalya are so intense."
~ USA Today Books, Happily Ever After
"For fans of romantic suspense, this is a must read. Natalya and Brandon will have you fanning yourself during some of their scenes together, but those scenes are at first full of desire that lead into a lot of emotion for the couple."
~ Happily Ever After Reviews
"This book is a scorchingly hot romantic suspense!! This was my first book by this author and it left me wanting more!"
~ Under the Covers
"Stripped is a brilliantly written book that is full of twists and turns and keeps you guessing right until the very end."
~ Blogcritics.org
"The attraction between Brandon and Natalya is hot, hard, and steamy, with neither one being able to deny what they feel for one another."
~ Nightowl Romance Reviews

Chapter One

Moscow, Russia

The woman Natalya Trubachev would escort to hell lay beneath a halo of murky light, trembling in fear. Her long blonde hair was clumped in an unruly mass of tangles around her slender shoulders. Her clothes were hardly decent, let alone useful covering against the cold cement floor. She shivered, proving the point.

Natalya shivered with her. This part was the worst. Three years of soothing the women should have made her immune. At one time, she had been disconnected from them. But now, each pale face, each quivering lip, curled her stomach and left her questioning things she didn’t dare consider. Things like her purpose. The state of her soul. Like why she’d ever become a Black Opal, an elite, deadly, and highly undocumented CIA operative.

Beyond the reinforced square pane of glass, the blonde shivered again. She tucked her hands between her knees and curled her shoulders.

Natalya braced an open palm on the soundproof door and pushed it open. Soon you won’t remember. Well, she’d remember, but she wouldn’t care. Not once the barbiturates invaded the woman’s veins and she woke up in Dubai. By then, a prisoner to her tranquilized state, she’d already be dependent on daily heroin injections. She’d agree to anything as long as she got her fix.

Natalya dismissed unwelcome visions of that illicit place of sin and opulence and rolled a syringe against her palm. She’s just a job. One step closer. No different from any other job Natalya had performed in any other place under any other cover. Problem was, this one Natalya knew well. She knew them all. That’s why she was here. She’d gained their trust, used it against them, and led them straight to hell.

All for the sake of national security. Only nowadays, it felt more like for the sake of Dmitri Gavrikov’s sick pleasure than any act of protecting the United States. God, she had to get out of here. Had to get this job over with before she lost her mind and her ability to function as a Black Opal. Three years in one place was too long.

At the sound of Natalya’s heels against the hard floor, the blonde turned her head. Hope filled her wide blue eyes. “Natalya?” Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “Pomogite mne.”

Help me. Natalya tightened her fingers around the syringe she held. If only she could.

Blocking unwanted emotion, she found a confident smile. She walked with more purpose. Flawless Russian tumbled off her lips along with a light laugh. “Help you, Tatiana? Don’t be silly. There’s not a soul here who’d hurt you.”

Not here. No one would dare mar Tatiana’s porcelain skin with bruises. That would mean delivering damaged goods to Sheikh Amir in Dubai. Natalya refused to think about what would happen to Tatiana there. But the sheikh’s wealthy clients wouldn’t be at all pleased to find their treasures waiting in silk-clad beds and covered with purple welts.

She knelt at Tatiana’s side and helped her upright. “I’m sorry Alexei scared you. Didn’t he tell you I’d be back to keep you company before your big date?”

Tatiana wiped a dust-streaked hand across her cheek as she shook her head. “He said nothing.”

Rolling her eyes, Natalya let out another false laugh. “Men.” She gave Tatiana’s arm a gentle pinch. “Well, he was supposed to. Now I guess we’ll have to get you to a shower before the party starts. You can’t very well dance covered in dirt—even if you are taking off your clothes.” With a conspiratorial wink, she grinned.

A sigh of relief escaped Tatiana’s pale lips, and a hesitant smile drifted over her mouth. “I’m still entertaining the businessmen tonight? I’ll need something to wear.”

“Of course. I’ve got the perfect thing in mind. In a couple hours, they’ll walk out of here with their cocks harder than they’ve ever thought possible and their money stuffed in your thong.”

Tatiana wrinkled her nose with an amused giggle. “It’s how it always is, no? Show a bit of skin, twist your hips just so, and they eat out of your palm.”

Literally, as Natalya had witnessed from behind the stage at Dmitri’s many strip clubs throughout Moscow—where Tatiana and the other women had all come from. They were chosen for their exceptional beauty and their equally exceptional ability to seduce through dance.

She hoisted Tatiana to her feet. “Let’s get you cleaned up. We don’t have much time.”

Tatiana’s grateful gaze found Natalya’s. “Thank you. I was afraid you’d told me stories.”

Guilt punched Natalya in the gut. She forced her smile to widen over a threatening grimace. Following ingrained routine, she wrapped her arms around the woman’s dirty shoulders and gave Tatiana a hug.

As waif-thin arms slipped around Natalya’s waist to return the affectionate gesture, Natalya turned her wrist and pressed the needle into Tatiana’s jugular. As she pushed the barbiturate into her bloodstream, Tatiana jerked back. Cornflower blue eyes filled with shock. Pale pink lips parted with a question that would never escape. Then she slumped forward, her slight weight barely rocking Natalya.

With a heavy sigh, Natalya eased her onto the floor. She dropped the syringe and turned to the door, where Dmitri waited with a proud smile. In his hand, he held a box of chocolate-covered cherries.

Natalya startled. Dmitri wasn’t supposed to be back until tomorrow night.

He spread his arms in welcome. “Moya lyubov´.

My love.

Natalya’s smile brightened as a shadow crossed over her soul, chilling her from the inside out. She hurried across the small space between them, accepted the box of candy, and threw herself into his arms. He clasped her against his hard chest. Broad palms slid up the back of her cashmere sweater. Warm, soft lips found hers, but though the stroke of his tongue was ardent, no heat crept into her veins. It never had. What he was, what he believed in, turned his handsome face and well-maintained body into a cold, lifeless statue. He was every bit as soulless too.

He dropped his hands to her waist and leaned back to look at her. His soft brown eyes sparkled with genuine affection. If Dmitri Gavrikov, merciless leader of the Solntsevskaya Bratva, had ever cared for anything, or anyone, it most assuredly was her.

He pushed her hair away from her face. “Did you miss me?”

“Yes.” She wriggled closer. “It’s miserable when you go away.”

“It was necessary.” He brushed his mouth against the top of her head as he caught her by the hand.

It always was. Someone needed to learn a lesson. A buyer demanded his time. A seller offered the right price on black-market arms. Dmitri always had a necessary reason for leaving. And in his wake, would always be a body. No one would ever find it, but someone forfeited their life when Dmitri’s meetings required more than an hour or two to complete.

This time he’d been gone almost a week. Tomorrow, she’d get a full report from her partner, Sergei. Maybe he’d had luck. Maybe he’d finally made the connection that would allow them to shut this whole ring down. The drugs, the arms . . .

Natalya glanced over her shoulder as Dmitri pulled the door shut on Tatiana’s unconscious form.

The human trafficking.

“I bring news, czarina.”

“Oh?” Natalya followed at his side while he led her down the hall to their bedroom. Inside, she set the chocolates on a marble-topped table.

“We’re going to marry in America. Las Vegas.” He released her hand and moved to the brass-embellished liquor cabinet. Glass tinkled as he pulled down two snifters along with his favorite Armagnac. Though his hands poured steadily, fury gave his voice a sharp edge. “The idiots who work for me can’t seem to keep from killing our precious American cargo. I need you to handle the girls—you do such a wonderful job here. The trail of bodies is causing Yakov problems.”

Natalya’s heart skipped a beat. Yakov. One of the contacts in America she couldn’t identify. His codename symbolized his duty—the one who took Dmitri’s place. He worked with Iskatel´, codename for the finder. Like she did with the girls in Moscow, Yakov and Iskatel´ hand-selected the best strippers Vegas had to offer and shipped them overseas to satisfy the appetites of powerful men hungry for a bit of classy, American pussy—or what they could delude themselves into believing was classy. Now Dmitri intended to send her right into Yakov’s nest? She stifled a smile.

“Must I leave?” Dipping her chin, she looked up through her eyelashes. “You’ve just returned.”

Dmitri turned with her glass extended in offering. His gaze roved appreciatively over her body. Desire sparked in his eyes. Dark and intense, his was a look meant to leave her wet and wanting. On any other woman it might have worked.

Boldly holding his gaze, Natalya accepted the oaken-flavored drink. “I hate the idea of another night alone.”

“Ah, czarina, I do not deserve you.” His hand settled on her hip, his thumb stroking the flesh beneath her sweater’s short hem. He lowered his voice to an intimate whisper. “Forgive me.” A sultry smile crossed his mouth. “Tonight I’ll make up for the time away. In two weeks, I’ll give you all I possess when I give you my name.” He tugged at her waist, urging her hips into his. Firm, hard arousal pressed against her abdomen. “You will forgive me, won’t you?”

Natalya teased with a slow roll of her hips. “It might take some convincing.”

Chuckling, Dmitri released her. He nodded at her dresser. “Wear the green for me tonight?”

She hated the green. Maybe because he liked it too much. Maybe because it made her eyes stand out unnaturally and that drove Dmitri to abandon. Whatever the case, she hated the green. But for him, for her duty to her country and the hope that somehow, by sacrificing every last damn moral she possessed, those women would find freedom, she’d not refuse.

Leaning forward, she dusted her lips over his. “Tell me more while I undress.” Before his hand could catch and hold her close, she twisted out of his reach and went to the small table that held her jewelry box. She plucked off one gold hoop earring. “I’m to do the same things I do here? Befriend them and lead them to . . . ?” Who, Dmitri?

“To Yakov, yes.” The bed creaked as he reclined against the pillows.

Through the mirror, she watched as he stretched out his muscular legs and braced his arms behind his head. Damn. Yakov again. What the hell was the man’s name?

“Iskatel´ has already chosen the next girl.”

“Oh?” Natalya took off the matching earring and dropped both into the case. Reaching behind her, she pulled her pistol from the waist of her fitted skirt and laid it on the tabletop.

“Yes. You’ll be working at Fantasia, next door to the St. Petersburg casino. My contacts there are creating a position for you as we speak. Your first project is Katerina Slater.”

Natalya’s hand froze over the Sig’s matte black barrel. Her throat inched closed. She’d misheard him. Kate wasn’t stripping. She had a little boy to raise. She wouldn’t expose him to that kind of lifestyle.

Aware Dmitri watched through the mirror, Natalya forced a casual smile. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you, love.”

“Katerina Slater. I hear she’s commanding Fantasia’s stage.” His low chuckle rasped through the room. “You should bond easily. She’s an Ivanov, of all ironies. Born in an Old Believer Russian village in Alaska. Her parents immigrated from St. Petersburg. You can tell her about Mother Russia.”

Kate! By God, she hadn’t heard him wrong.

It took every bit of Natalya’s willpower to pull her hand away from the Sig and reach behind her neck to unfasten her pearl necklace. As she laid it in the jewelry box, she willed her hands not to shake. Though they cooperated, her stomach rebelled with a vicious upside-downsideways twist.

There were only so many wrongs she could commit in the name of US Intelligence. Turning her fraternal twin into a rich bastard’s heroin-addicted whore wasn’t one of them. She’d put a bullet between Dmitri’s eyes and willfully blow her cover before she’d risk a single hair on Kate’s head.

With a sugary-sweet smile, Natalia pulled her sweater over her head and caught Dmitri’s smoldering gaze. “When do I leave, darling?”

* * * *

As Natalya approached the bed, the sway of her full pert breasts obliterated all thoughts of whether she wore green or blue or even purple. Need launched through Dmitri. All he could think about was how good she would feel around him. How nothing in this world compared to how she felt in his arms. He rose to his knees, interrupting her path to her dresser for the negligee he’d requested. One hand latched onto her narrow wrist. One tug brought her to her knees on the bed.

“Tomorrow. You leave tomorrow.” He caught her hair in his hand, tugged her mouth to his, and drank from the softness of her full lips. The slide of her tongue against his was enough to strip a man to the bone. A shudder rolled through his body, the week he’d spent away from her a torture unto itself.

The sudden violent need to possess her completely had him dragging her closer. With his free hand he cupped her bottom, urged her hips hard against his erection, and let out a hoarse groan. What he would give to indulge in all the things he really wanted to do to her—his belt would serve nicely tonight. Latch it around her wrists, fasten those delightful hands to the headboard, and take her from behind—ride her hard into oblivion. Thrust inside her glorious ass where she would be even tighter. Ah, fucking heaven.

But Natalya didn’t know the meaning of submit, and Dmitri had witnessed her expertise with her gun one too many times to push. Though he trusted her implicitly, a tiny, almost insignificant part of his soul feared what might happen if his beautiful fiancée lost control.

Instead of following through with his fantasies, he tore his mouth from hers to stare into her eyes. "Tonight, though, I will make sure you cannot help but miss me.”

Indeed, he would take her so many times that when she boarded the plane tomorrow, she could still smell him on her skin.

Her shiver unraveled him. Unable to form any conscious thought beyond how desperately he needed the feel of her, how he yearned for this closeness they alone shared, he withdrew and kicked free of his trousers. Her soft laughter danced over his skin, pleasantly scraping raw nerve endings as she aided in the removal of his shirt.

He gave in to a smile. How he had missed fucking her. Missed the love that radiated through the pressure of her hands. “Tell me what you want, czarina.”

“You,” she murmured.

For this he could deal with the idiots who failed him. For this he would tolerate the fact her duties required her to flirt a line of seduction to make the contacts she would require in America. This singular moment, where the two of them knew no greater paradise than the pleasure of their bodies, was more priceless to Dmitri than any wealth, any power. Struck by momentary tenderness, he lifted up to brush his lips against hers. “Moya lyubov´,” he whispered.

Yes, love her—the only woman he had ever loved. For that matter, the only thing. What he would do without her, he didn’t know. She made the duties he must carry out possible, and the next few days apart, after so many already past, would be impossible. Yet it was necessary. She alone could teach Iskatel´ how to smoothly make the women subservient. But if Iskatel´ didn’t cooperate with Natalya, or Iskatel´’s ineptitude put her in harm’s way, Iskatel´ would join the murdered women in the grave.

For Natalya, Dmitri would kill even his own Bratva family.

He sealed his lips to hers and reclined into the pillows, taking her with him.

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