BEHIND THE LENS (Behind the Lives #3) is due to be published July the 30th,
so I thought I’d give you chapter 1 as a teaser.
Kara pressed the gate’s intercom buzzer once again, wondering whether Craven was purposely tormenting her. She’d been sitting in her car for over ten minutes, waiting for the seven foot wrought-iron gate to open sesame, and going over all the possibilities why she’d been ordered to come to her boss’s estate at such short notice.
1) He wanted payment. She owed Craven thirty grand, a debt she’d accrued from borrowing money to send back to her family in Croatia.
2) He wanted sex, although he’d always gone to the studio for that, which he’d stopped doing eight months ago, right before marrying.
3) He had another video surveillance job, the type that required her becoming an attractive man’s girlfriend, then secretly installing cameras in their bedroom, the sex tapes becoming entertainment for wealthy clients who were members of an exclusive porn club.
Her hands shook as she pressed the buzzer again, praying it wasn’t number one, although she had a feeling it was, the warning she’d received a few days ago still colouring her ribs with a patchwork of bruises.
A deep voice rumbled through the intercom, making her jump. “Sorry for keeping you waiting,” the man said. “Please drive through.”
Kara looked up as the gates opened soundlessly, assessing whether it was too late to take off. She exhaled loudly, knowing she couldn’t run, because the bastard would hurt her family, his connections stretching across the world to Croatia.
She drove through the gates, steering her old sedan under a willow canopy, their drooping leaves waving her by as though she was driving to her own funeral. Beyond the trees, a tennis court, stables and an equestrian field broke up the manicured lawns, while straight ahead a white two-storey mansion stood proud on the horizon. She’d always felt like she was on a film set when she visited Craven, because his home looked like a larger version of Scarlett O’Hara’s house from Gone with the Wind, something that Kara had watched over and over again as a teenager. It was just one of the many American films that had helped her learn English, although her Croatian accent still remained strong, her time in New Zealand having little or no affect on it.
Kara turned right at the end of the driveway, and parked next to an old Rolls Royce. She got out of her car and pulled down her leopard-print work dress, which had ridden up to her backside. Once decent, or at least semi-decent, the tight little number far from business attire, she headed for the entrance, her stilettos click-clacking across the concrete, announcing her arrival. The front door opened before she reached it, revealing Talia, an old workmate and the boss’s wife. Dressed in a pale-yellow sundress and with a blonde halo of hair, the woman looked the picture perfect housewife, her angelic face adding to the illusion. But Kara knew better, her first memory of Talia still seared in her mind. Naked and kneeling under a table, Talia had been blowing men for fifty dollars a load as they played poker.
“The devil was once an angel,” Kara said, voicing her thoughts, something she had a bad habit of doing.
“I could never understand you, and I’m not referring to your accent,” Talia said, tucking her hair behind her ears, which was probably to show off the sparkling earrings adorning them, something that Talia would’ve stolen in the past to own, her fingers always too free with things that didn’t belong to her—men included.
“Can’t change a prostitutka no matter what she wears,” Kara added.
“Did you just call me a prostitute?”
Kara smiled. “No, it’s Croatian for angel.”
“You’re a liar,” Talia snapped. “And unlike you, I don’t sell my body anymore.”
“Craven is more of a client to you than a husband,” Kara indicated to Talia’s earrings, then to the Rolls Royce parked next to a black Maserati, “and those are part of your payment.”
Talia glared at Kara. “Jealousy fits you tighter than that slip of a dress, which tells me that you’re still shopping at Whores ’R’ Us.”
Kara tugged the hem down.
Talia crossed her arms over her chest. “You better not be here to fuck my husband or Saul. You can do the others, but those two are off limits.”
Kara let go of her dress. “You have a thing for Saul?”
Talia spun around and walked inside, confirming what Kara had asked. Kara followed the woman, impressed as usual as she stepped into the grand entrance. The interior had been upgraded since she’d last been here, the new chandelier above her head grander, along with the plush red carpet on the staircase, reminding her of something from a 1930s stage set, polished and primped to perfection.
Talia indicated for Kara to follow her down a passageway, their heels clacking across the marble floor like castanets. “If you value your life,” Talia said, stopping in front of the last room, “keep your acid tongue to yourself, and do whatever Nigel asks without answering back.” She then left like she couldn’t get away fast enough, Kara wishing that she could do the same.
Sending a quick prayer up to God, Kara kissed the rosary tattoo wrapped around her right forearm and hand, then pushed open the door to Nigel Craven’s sanctum. The room was elegant: white walls, red curtains and carpets, along with an old painting of hounds and their gun-wielding owners. Behind a large mahogany desk, Talia’s husband was sitting staring at a computer, his fingers doing a tap dance across its keyboard. Kara said hello, but Craven continued typing without lifting his head. She stood there awkwardly, waiting for him to finish whatever he was doing. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally looked up. Fifty-something with a bald spot and spectacles, Talia’s husband gave the appearance of a mild-mannered accountant. He got to his feet, his wicked smile saying he was anything but. He walked around the desk and hugged Kara like she was a long lost daughter, someone he cared for and wouldn’t hurt, but she knew better, the man always reminding her of the saying: A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“How are you today, my dear?” Craven said, pulling back to give her a good peruse.
“I’m fine th-thank you, Nigel,” Kara answered, fear making her trip over her tongue.
Craven indicated for Kara to take a seat, then returned to his own. “You’re probably wondering why you’re here?” he said, loosening his tie. He was impeccably dressed, his crisp white button-down shirt and tailored pants perfectly fitting his slim physique. She knew he was all wiry muscle underneath, much stronger than he looked, a body that didn’t match his ordinary face, his smile the only thing betraying his sinister nature.
Painting on a smile, she unzipped the front of her dress, getting the required reaction, Craven’s eyes instantly going to her greatest assets and giving her hope that she could pull through this meeting without bodily harm. “I know why you would call someone like me in,” she said, unclipping her bra at the front.
His smile widened, like he could eat her whole. “I didn’t bring you here for my entertainment, although I must say, you’re looking quite tempting today, my dear.”
“Tempting is good, da?” she replied, the Croatian word for yes slipping out, or what many people had called Serbo-Croatian before the war had split Yugoslavia apart, making her childhood a living hell, her old home in Bosnia long destroyed. Kara refrained from going to that place in her mind, where she’d watched her father and older sister herded into a line and shot down.
“Yes, tempting is very good,” Craven said, ogling her naked breasts, “which is why my men haven’t taken away your looks, because you have proven a very useful woman—up until now, that is.”
She pushed her breasts together. “But I’m still useful, and will do anything to pay back the money I owe you.”
He looked up at her face. “DDs are not the currency I’m after, so put your clothes back on.”
“Are you sure about that?” she said, easing back in the chair and parting her legs, her crotchless panties showing him everything on offer.
“Yes!” he shouted, making her jolt. “And don’t make me say it again.”
She quickly clipped her bra back together. “Please forgive me, I didn’t mean to offend, and the only reason I couldn’t pay on time was b-because I had to send money to my mother.”
“I don’t care why you couldn’t pay, just that you haven’t.”
“But I will pay, I promise, all I need is a little more time.”
“You shouldn’t have interrupted me, I wasn’t finished speaking.”
“I’m not interested in your apologies, nor the money you owe me; instead I brought you here to say that I’m quite happy to wipe your debt.”
Kara stopped zipping up her dress, his words taking her by surprise. “Truly?”
“Yes, but I want one little thing in return.”
Kara’s hopes came crashing down. She was stupid for believing the wolf for even a second, because Craven never did anything for free and nothing was ever “little” with him.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked, willing herself to look at this as a reprieve, not her funeral.
He smiled wickedly, his eyes amused. “I want you to do Dante Rata.”
Kara stared at him, the name stunning her. Although it had reached her ears, she couldn’t process that it had been uttered. “Did you say Dante?” she finally asked, rolling the name around on her tongue, tasting it like she wanted to taste the man himself. Dante had been the only man she’d ever fallen in love with, but he belonged to her past, someone she never thought she would be allowed to see again.
“Yes,” Craven answered, looking pleased with himself. “I’m finally granting your wish: I’m allowing you to go back to him.”
“But why? You’ve never allowed me to return to past surveillance jobs before, and you said you’d kill my family if I went anywhere near him.”
“No harm will come to your family, and you’re the only person who can do this job.”
“Then what do you want me to do with him?” or to him, because, God, she would do so much.
“I want you to become his girlfriend again.”
“I would love to,” intensely, “but I highly doubt he’d take me back after what I said to him.”
“Yes, I saw that video,” he said, his smile widening. “From memory you called him a prostitute and said some other rather nasty things. His reaction was most entertaining. He destroyed his room right after you left, tore it apart to the point that his brothers and cousin had to restrain him. He totally broke down, sobbed like a baby.”
Kara stared at him in shock, his words slashing her heart to threads. She hadn’t considered what Dante might have gone through after she’d walked out, was too caught up with her own sorrow at being ordered to leave him. And she’d been told by Craven’s whores that he’d moved on from her like she’d meant nothing, taking another woman into his bed within days, then another and another, his exploits now legendary.
“Are you crying?” Craven asked.
She scrubbed at her eyes. “How do you expect me to be his girlfriend again after what I said to him?” You heartless bastard! She wanted to slit his throat, to shoot him in the head, to kick him in the nuts, to totally and utterly destroy him like he’d done to her.
“You’re a talented woman, Kara,” Craven said, “so I’m sure you’ll win him back.”
“But for how long? Because I can’t face it if you make me leave him again.”
“If you achieve what I want, you can have him for however long you want.”
“Which is forever.”
Craven laughed. “Okay, forever it is. So, will you accept?”
“Da. But why do you want me back with him?”
“The Ratas are leaving my employ and moving away, which will lose me considerable revenue, their monetary offer to cut ties a pittance in comparison. I found out today that their cousin lied to them about why they are tied to me: That he owes me three-hundred thousand dollars—”
“He doesn’t?” Kara said, remembering the reason Dante had given her for why the Ratas sold drugs: that they were paying off their cousin’s debt, something that never seemed to diminish, Dante’s gambling habit exacerbating the problem.
“Oh, Hunter does owe me, but only fifty grand, which he could pay back easily if he sold his house, but I’m not interested in obtaining that money, if anything, I wrote it off a long time ago, Hunter’s loyalty to me more than enough payment, especially since he did time on my behalf.”
“Did you tell Ash and Dante this?”
“No. I allowed then to believe Hunter’s exaggeration.”
“But you can’t take their money, it’ll ruin them, and you don’t need it.”
Craven smiled at her. “There’s no need to get worked up, because I have no intention of taking it. I only allowed them to believe I would, but that’s because I need to stall. They have to sell their home before they can pay me, and selling property doesn’t happen overnight and especially not in their rundown neighbourhood. And since they’ve agreed to work for me until it’s sold, I have time for you to change their minds, which you will do through Dante. But if you fail in doing that, then as a backup I need you to stay with them, Dante in particular so we can continue to film him, because that boy has no idea how much money he’s worth.”
“Why don’t you just threaten them, like the last time Dante’s brother tried to quit? Ash caved in quick after you kidnapped his child.”
“Threats won’t work this time,” Craven said. “Ash has changed. He wasn’t the same person when he came to see me today. Normally he’s controlled, but when I tried to talk him out of quitting, he started ranting at me that if I didn’t take the money he would shoot me. Shoot me! I’m the one who threatens, not a lowly drug runner, but I’m a logical man, so I agreed to it, although he deserved a bullet through his head for what he said.”
Kara frowned, not understanding any of this. “Then why didn’t you? I’ve heard you’ve killed people for less.”
“Haven’t you been listening? The Ratas are worth more money to me alive than dead—or more specifically Dante is, and I don’t think he would appreciate me ordering a hit on his brother, because after today, he would know it was me. Normally, I wouldn’t allow people to leave my employ, but in the Ratas’ case, I will make an exception just as long as you make sure we can continue filming Dante, and if you succeed, your debt will be wiped clean and your family will be safe.”
“I still don’t think Dante will let me back into his life, but I will certainly try.”
“Beautiful,” Craven drawled, using the word as a name. “He will let you back in, it’s just a matter of whether you can change from being a charity case to a lover.”
“What do you mean by a charity case?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.” Craven pressed a buzzer on his desk. “Please come to my office, Saul,” he said into the intercom.
A few seconds later, Craven’s right-hand man entered the room, an extremely attractive Samoan packed with muscle. Saul’s impressive frame towered over Kara, his dark face unhappy, the only expression she’d ever seen him have. One of Craven’s henchmen stepped out from behind Saul, the leather-skinned sadist who’d beaten her up for not paying on time.
Kara’s terrified gaze flicked back to Craven. “Why is he here?”
Craven opened a desk drawer. “Big Mack needs to do a bit of work on your face, and once he’s finished you will go to the Ratas and tell them your fictional husband beat you up,” he said, referring to Dante believing she was married.
Kara pushed out of her chair. “You can’t do this to me!”
Craven removed a knife from the drawer, which he held out for Mack to take. “And to spice things up, if you fail completely in your task, Big Mack will carve your face up like he did to Cindy, which means you’ll be working under tables again.”
“I will succeed, I’ll get Dante, I will,” Kara babbled.
“Good girl. Now go get your makeup done without causing problems.” He smiled, the expression a mixture of wickedness and amusement, then he redirected his gaze to his right-hand man. “Saul, tell that new guard I want him full-time.”
Saul nodded, then pushed Kara through the doorway, herding her down the passage and outside, with the sadist following. Her heels sunk into the manicured lawn as she was directed past the swimming pool and through a cluster of trees, which hid a quaint stone cottage. Saul unlocked the door, then shoved her inside, making Kara trip over her heels and crash to the hardwood floor. She let out a yelp as her knees took most of the impact, but flung herself around before the rest of the pain could register, knowing that she had little time to defend herself. Mack pushed past Saul, the goon licking the knife Craven had given him.
Kara grabbed a stiletto and scrambled to her feet, kicking the other one off. “Stay back or I’ll put this through your eye!”
Mack pointed the knife at her, making Kara back up into the couch. “I don’t have any intention of cutting your pretty face,” he said, “but you better put down that stiletto or Saul will shoot it out of your hand.”
“No! I still have bruises because of you! That’s enough to convince Dante!”
Mack leered at her. “Then unzip your dress and lemme be the judge.”
“No! You stay away from me!”
“You don’t have to make this harder than it is.”
“The only thing that’s hard is your small dick, you sadist freak! You get off on hurting people, but I won’t let you touch me again!”
“I say Saul’s tool begs to differ...” He stepped aside, causing Kara to inhale sharply at the sight of Saul’s gun pointed at her, “...and if you give us too much trouble—”
“I won’t, just put that thing away,” she said, dropping the stiletto.
Mack’s leer widened. “Now drop the dress.”
“Mack,” Saul said, in a warning tone, “do what you’re paid for and not what you have to pay for.”
“Cock-blocking bastard,” Mack grumbled, pocketing the knife.
“Look,” Kara said, unzipping her dress enough to display her ribs, now willing to do anything to prove that he didn’t need to hurt her, “I’ve got enough bruises, you can just let me go to Dante like this.”
“They’ve faded,” Mack said, his eyes running down her body, then back up to her face, a self-satisfied smirk replacing his leer. “Plus, you’ve got no bruises on your face.”
A jagged breath left Kara’s lips, knowing he was going to attack her no matter what, and that she couldn’t do a thing about it, Saul’s gun stopping her from defending herself. But instead of screaming and yelling at him, like she wanted to, she lifted her chin, determined to take the punches the same way her sister and father took the bullets: Standing strong and proud. Mack shook his head, clearly amused, then before she could flinch, his fist barrelled into her cheek, knocking her onto the couch. Stunned, she lay over it, the pain not fully registering, although she could feel it like a heartbeat throbbing beneath her skin. Mack grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head around, making her cry out. Another punch slammed into her face, this one splitting her lip, then he raised his fist again.
“That’s enough, Mack!” Saul hollered.
Mack dropped Kara to the floor. His eyes glazed over as he climbed onto her, his pupils dilated as if he was high. Kara covered her face, expecting more punches to rain down on her. Mack batted her hands away, then grabbed her by the ears and yanked her head back, banging it against the floor. “Why aren’t you crying, bitch?” he said, glaring down at her like she’d affronted him. “I hit you hard.”
Although it hurt every pore in her face, she smiled up at him, feeling her lip split more. “Because I am grateful to you.”
“Why?” he asked, looking confused.
“For getting me Dante back.” She spat in his face, his next punch taking away her consciousness—but not her dreams.
To be continued...