Strong Enough


Chapter One

DEREK

Her name was Carolyn, and she was damn near perfect.

“Thank you very much for dinner,” she said as I pulled up in front of her house. “I had a great time tonight, as usual,”

Beautiful. Sweet. Intelligent. Twenty-nine years old. Divorced from her high school sweetheart, no children, but wanted them in the future. Taught college algebra. Loved to travel. Volunteered for Unicef. Ran marathons.

“Me too.” I put the Range Rover in park. “Let me walk you to the door. Stay right there.”

We’d been on six dates—one coffee, two lunches, and three dinners—and I’d enjoyed every one of them. She was exactly the kind of woman I’d envisioned for myself. Nothing about her turned me off.

The problem? Nothing about her turned me on, either.

She unbuckled her seatbelt and waited for me to walk around and open the passenger door before getting out. I offered her a hand and she took it. “Thank you.”

You’re not trying hard enough.

Keeping her slender hand in mine, I shut the car door and escorted her up the front walk. The June night air was warm and balmy and smelled like orange blossoms. Everything about the evening whispered romance.

“Such a gentleman,” Carolyn teased. “It’s good to know that chivalry isn’t dead.”

“Not at all.” I liked the idea of chivalry, that a man could be governed by a code of conduct based on tradition, honor, and nobility despite being a warrior at heart. That he buried his propensity for violence or his darker urges in order to preserve social morality, or at least the appearance of it. I understood that.

We stepped onto her front porch and she turned to face me. “Would you like to come in for a drink?” Her eyes glittered in the dark as her body swayed closer to mine. “And maybe stop being such a gentleman?” She ran her hands up my chest.

I slid my arms around her waist and pulled her against me, lowering my mouth to hers, praying to feel something. Anything.

But I felt nothing. No quickening pulse, no rush of heat, no stirring in my blood. (Or my pants.)

Shyly, she slipped her tongue between my lips, and I met it with mine, opening wider to deepen the kiss.

Nothing.

Frustrated, I clutched the material of her shirt in one fist and grabbed a handful of her hair with the other, hoping some aggression and resistance was what I needed to get turned on. For me, sex was best when it was a little antagonistic. A little combative. A power play. And it had been so long…

“Ouch!” Carolyn cried.

Immediately I let go of her and stepped back. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

“Yes. I’m fine.” She rubbed the back of her head and laughed nervously. “Don’t be sorry. I’m the one who said the thing about not being a gentleman. It just surprised me.” She softened her voice. “Could we maybe try again? Go a little easier this time?”

What’s the fucking point?

“I’m sorry, Carolyn. I’m a little out of it tonight. Another time?”

“Oh, okay. Sure.” She sounded let down, her eyes dropping to our feet. Then she looked up again. “Are we still on for tomorrow night?”

“Of course.”

She beamed, clearly relieved. “Great. I’ll bring dessert. I’m excited to meet your friends.”

“They’re excited to meet you.”

Her smile widened. “Night.”

“Night.” Shoving my hands in my pockets, I watched her go in and shut the front door.

Fuck.

What the hell was my problem?

* * *

Twenty minutes later, I let myself into the beautiful three-bedroom brick house I’d purchased a few years ago when I’d been about to propose to my then-girlfriend. I thought we’d be married by now. I thought we’d have a family by now. I thought I’d feel complete by now.

None of it had happened.

I turned off all the lights and trudged upstairs, feeling every one of my thirty-six years. In my bathroom, I frowned at my reflection in the mirror, running a hand over my slightly scruffy jaw. Jesus, look at all the gray coming in. For a while, it had only been a couple of spots, but now I was solidly salt-and-pepper. At the temples, too. Was it normal to go gray at this age? And what the hell was with those lines between my eyebrows? Was that from frowning? I quickly relaxed my face, and they mostly disappeared. But not entirely.

Goddamn, I was getting old.

At least I was still in good shape. I slipped my coat off and hung it and my shirt in my closet, tossed my T-shirt into the laundry basket, then stood in front of the full-length mirror on the bathroom door, eyeing myself critically.

No paunch yet. No flab. No “handles” anywhere. My stomach was still hard and flat, my six-pack still lingered, my chest and arms were still muscular. I might not have all the sculpted lines and bulges I’d had ten years ago, but I worked hard to maintain my physique. I liked working out. It made me feel strong and powerful and in control of my body. I commanded it to do something, and it obeyed. Run those miles. Lift that weight. Punch that bag.

Easy.

Same reason I kept my house so immaculate. My family and friends teased me endlessly about what they called my “obsession” with neatness. I didn’t get it—who wouldn’t want to come home to a house where everything was clean and organized? It wasn’t a germ thing; it was just an aversion to chaos and mess. No clutter on the counters, no dirty laundry piled up anywhere, no dishes left in the sink.  And I always knew exactly where a thing was because after I used it, I fucking put it away. What was so weird about that?

I got ready for bed and turned out the light, feeling a little pathetic since it wasn’t even ten o’clock on a Friday night, but telling myself I’d get a good night’s sleep and hit the gym early. I hadn’t even closed my eyes when my phone buzzed on the nightstand. Picking it up, I squinted at the screen in the dark. My sister, Ellen.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me.”

In the background, I could hear muffled bar noise—music, voices, the clanking of plates and glasses. “What’s up?”

“I need a favor.”

Chapter Two

MAXIM

For the first time since jumping on a plane in Moscow, I started to wonder if I’d made a mistake.

It wasn’t like me at all. I tended to make decisions quickly, but afterward I wasn’t the type to agonize over whether I’d made the right one or not. I trusted my gut.

So last week, when my gut told me to stop dreaming about moving to the U.S. and make it happen already, I went with it. Booked a ticket, quit my job, packed a bag.

In hindsight, I probably should have planned it out a little better.

A friend of a friend—some guy named Jake—was supposed to be here at the airport to pick me up, but I’d been standing outside the international terminal at LAX for two hours already, and he still hadn’t shown. I hoped nothing was wrong, but I was starting to think I might have to go to Plan B.

Not that I had a Plan B.

Pretty much everything hinged on Jake. He’d found me an apartment, and I’d already wired him the money for one month’s rent. I hadn’t liked the idea of paying for something without seeing it, but Jake said if I didn’t grab it, somebody else would, and he didn’t know of any other place I could rent that cheap, especially on such short notice. I told him I’d take it and sent the money. I hadn’t asked for the address, though.

That was a mistake.

I checked my phone again, like somehow it might have magically charged itself in my pocket. Still dead. Unfortunately, in my excitement to leave, I’d forgotten to throw my charger into my bag.

Another mistake.

Unable to stand still any longer, I crossed the street and jumped in a taxi.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

Well, fuck.

“Downtown,” I decided, figuring I’d grab some food somewhere, maybe see if I could charge my phone. Hopefully Jake would get in touch in the next couple hours. If he didn’t, I’d have to get a hotel tonight. It would be ridiculously expensive and I didn’t want to waste that kind of money on one night, but I didn’t see any way around it.

It took a long time to get downtown—traffic was terrible. I was nodding off for the third time when the driver spoke.

“What’s the address?” He glanced back at me, and I blinked a few times.

“Uh, no particular address. Any suggestions for a bar or restaurant around here?”

He scratched the top of his head with his thumb. “The Blind Pig is pretty popular.”

“Blind Pig?” I repeated, a little confused. Maybe the words had different meanings than what I thought. My English was pretty good, but far from perfect.

“It’s another name they used for illegal speakeasies during Prohibition.”

“Ah.” Quickly I pulled my notebook from my bag and scribbled that down. I wanted to be a screenwriter, so not only did I have to improve my English, but I needed to learn all those little cultural details that would make a script authentic.

My friends made fun of me for it, but I always carried a notebook with me so I’d have somewhere to take notes and write down all the ideas that came to me at random times during the day or night. I’d learned the hard way that I wouldn’t necessarily remember them later. And since I’d sold my laptop last week to pad my savings a little, a notebook was all I had. As soon as I could afford it, I’d have to get a new computer.

But that would take a while.

A few minutes later, the driver pulled over and switched off the meter. “It’s just up ahead there on the right.”

I thanked him, paid him with some of the cash I’d gotten from the airport ATM, and jumped out. Even though I wasn’t sure where I’d sleep tonight, it was hard not to feel excited as I walked up the street. Before today, I’d only seen places like this on a screen, but this was real. I was actually here. It made me feel invincible, like anything was possible.

A moment later, I pulled open The Blind Pig’s heavy wooden door and stepped inside. The light was low, the atmosphere warm, and the music upbeat. It was crowded, but I managed to find an empty seat at the long wooden bar.

“Hi there.” The bartender smiled at me as I set my bag on the floor. She had dark hair pulled into a ponytail and big brown eyes. “I’m Ellen. What can I get for you?”

“Could I look at a menu, please?”

“Of course.” She brought me a menu and I looked it over, deciding to order the most American thing I could think of.

“I’ll have a burger. And a beer.”

“Great. Can I see your ID?”

“Sure.” I pulled out the travel wallet where I kept all my important documents, handed her my passport, and dropped the wallet back into my bag.

“Russia, huh?” Ellen smiled at me again. “Are you here for work or just visiting?”

“Just visiting.” I didn’t want to jinx myself by announcing my intention to try to stay here for good. Technically, I could only stay for six months on my tourist visa, but I had no intention of using my return flight.

“Having a good time so far?”

“Well, I’ve only been here for about three hours, and I spent two of them waiting for my friend to pick me up from the airport, but he never showed.”

The bartender gave me a sympathetic look. “L.A. traffic can be awful. Have you called him?” She handed my passport back to me, and I tucked it inside my coat pocket.

“I can’t. My phone is dead. And I forgot to pack my charger.” I gave her a smile intended to charm. I wasn’t into women and never intentionally led them on, but I won’t lie, sometimes being attractive to them was helpful. “Do you think anyone has one here I could use?”

It worked—or she was just nice, because she smiled back warmly. “I can check. Let me get you that beer—sounds like you need it. What kind would you like?”

“Corona, please.”

She nodded, and a moment later, she set it in front of me. “This one’s on me. I’ll put your food order in. You’re probably super hungry after that long trip.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

After a long drink from the bottle, I pulled my notebook from my bag again, and a school photo of my eight-year-old sister Liliya fell out from the front pages. She’d given it to me right before I left, and on the back she’d written, To Maxim. Don’t forget about me. Love, Liliya. I set it on the bar as a woman slid onto the empty seat next to me. “Hi there.”

She was about my age and dressed professionally, like maybe she worked in an office, but she was the kind of American blonde I pictured more like a lifeguard on TV or a dancer in a beach movie. Her grin was confident and flirty. American women were so different from Russian.

“Hello,” I said.

She glanced at the photo of Liliya and gasped. “Oh my God, she’s so beautiful! And she looks just like you. Is that your…daughter?” she asked tentatively, wrinkling her nose like she hoped that was not the case.

“No, that’s my little sister. But we do look alike.” Although we had different fathers, Liliya and I both had our mother’s wide blue eyes, dark blond hair, and dimpled chin.

She smiled and held out her hand. “I’m Amy.”

I shook it. “Maxim.”

“Maxim.” She repeated my name as I’d said it, complete with the accent. After giving my palm a suggestive squeeze and holding onto it way too long, she swiveled to face me, crossing her legs in a way that put them on display. “I’ve never seen you here before.”

“I’ve never been here before.”

“I like your accent. Where are you from?” She leaned a little closer to me, so close I could smell her flowery perfume.

“Russia.”

“I was going to guess that!” She looked pleased with herself and slapped me lightly on the leg. “What brings you to L.A.?”

“Just visiting.”

“Traveling alone?” She widened her eyes and batted her lashes.

“Uh, yeah.”

“So you’re single?”

It was strange to me the way Americans asked such personal questions. I’d have to get used to it. “Yes, but…”

“Yes, but what? You don’t like American girls?” she teased.

Evasive words were on the tip of my tongue when a voice spoke up in my head. There’s no reason to hide here.

“Yes, but I’m gay,” I told her, meeting her eyes directly. It was the first time I’d said the words out loud to anyone. I wasn’t ashamed or anything, but growing up where I had, sexuality simply wasn’t talked about, whether you were gay or straight. Clearly, the boundaries here were different.

Amy sighed, centering herself on her chair, her body slouched. “Figures. I knew you were too good looking to be straight.” She picked up her wine glass and took a long, long drink. “Sorry if I bothered you.”

I smiled. “You didn’t. It’s okay.”

“Somehow I always pick out the gay ones. It’s like a curse.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. “Um. I’m sorry?”

She sighed and shook her head. “Anyway, welcome to America. Cheers.” She held up her wine glass. “Hey, how do you say cheers in Russian?”

Na zdorovie.”

She blinked. “Yeah, I’m not gonna attempt it.” But she clinked her glass against my bottle, and we both drank as Ellen appeared with a plate heaped with food—a thick, juicy hamburger and French fries.

My mouth watered. “That looks delicious.”

“It is,” she said confidently. “And I wasn’t able to find a charger yet, but I’m still looking.”

I picked up the notebook, sticking the photo of Liliya back inside the pages, so she could set the plate down in front of me. “Thank you so much. I can’t believe I—”

I stopped speaking and looked down by my feet, where I was reaching around for my bag but felt nothing.

It was gone.

* * *

“Again, I’m so sorry. Nothing like this has ever happened here before.” Ellen leaned over the bar and touched my arm. She was the bar owner and felt personally responsible for the theft—she’d apologized a thousand times, even breaking down in tears. “I feel sick about it.”

“It’s not your fault,” I told her. “It was very crowded. Even I didn’t see it happen, and it was right at my feet.”

The police officer who’d responded to her frantic call had asked everyone in the bar if they’d seen anyone leave with the bag, or anything suspicious at all, but no one had. He’d been nice, but hadn’t seemed too hopeful that my bag would be found.

At least I still had my passport. Thankfully, I’d stuck it in my coat pocket rather than back in my bag after showing it to Ellen. Replacing it in the U.S. would have been a nightmare. My biggest problem was that my wallet had been in my bag, so my cash and my bank card were gone. Now buying a hotel room for tonight wasn’t even an option. Neither was paying for my food and drink, not that I’d gotten to eat anything. And I was starving. But what could I do?

“God, you’re so nice. I feel like any other guy would be freaking out.”

“Wouldn’t do me much good.”

“But what will you do tonight?” Her brown eyes were wide and sad. “Where will you go?”

I shrugged. “I’ll find somewhere.”

Ellen threw her hands in the air, her voice rising in anguish. “How? You don’t even know anyone here! And someone took your wallet, so you have no money!”

“I’ll be okay. Really. I just have to charge my phone so I can find my friend.” I tried to sound more confident than I felt.

A determined look replaced Ellen’s tortured expression. “You know what? I’m going to help you. I believe in fate, and there must be a reason why you came in here tonight and all this happened.”

I shook my head. “I believe in fate too, but this was probably just random bad luck.”

She flattened both palms on the bar. “Nope. Nothing is random. Now it’s getting late, and I can see how exhausted you are, so I’m going to find you a place to stay and charge your phone tonight. And then tomorrow, I’ll help you find your friend.”

“That’s not necessary,” I protested, stifling a yawn.

“Maxim. Look at you. You’re about to fall over, you’re so tired. And my mind is made up.” Ellen nodded once, and her tone told me she wouldn’t be argued with. “I’ll be right back, I just have to make a phone call. You wait here.” She brought me another Corona before disappearing through the kitchen door, leaving me to wonder who on earth she was going to call.

Chapter Three

DEREK

Of course my sister needed a favor. Did she ever call me when she didn’t?

“I’m not fostering another rescue puppy, Ellen. I’m still trying to get the stains out from the last one I took in.”

“It’s not a puppy this time.” She lowered her voice. “It’s a person.”

“A person?” I propped myself up on one elbow. “What kind of person?”

“A Russian person.”

I frowned. “Ellen, what the hell? Is this another one of your friends from circus school?”

“I told you, it’s not circus school. It’s aerial arts class. And anyway, no, he’s not from there. He was a customer whose bag was stolen while he was sitting at the bar tonight.”

“His bag?”

“Like his carry-on bag. He’d literally just gotten off the plane from Moscow a few hours earlier. And the friend who was supposed to pick him up at the airport didn’t show.”

“How’d he end up at the bar?”

“He got in a cab and told the driver to take him someplace downtown. The driver brought him here. It was fate!”

I ignored that. Ellen was always droning on about fate and stars and mystical crap. “And then his bag was stolen?”

“Yes. Right under everyone’s noses while he was sitting at the bar. And no one saw a thing.”

“Yeah, those guys are good. Probably saw him get out of a cab with a bag and pegged him as a tourist. Easy mark. You call the police?”

“Yes. They came and made a report, but they don’t think they’ll find it. And the poor guy was so nice about it. But now he’s stranded here with nothing because someone at my bar stole everything he had. I feel responsible! I have to help him!”

I rolled my eyes. Ellen never saw a stray puppy or wounded bird or kitten up a tree she didn’t want to rescue. She’d been like that all her life. I didn’t fault her for having a big heart, but she had so much going on and so many roommates, somehow I always ended up with random animals at my house until she figured out where to take them.

“First of all, El, it’s not your fault. It could have happened anywhere.”

“But it didn’t. It happened right here.”

I ignored her stubborn tone. “Second, why is he your responsibility? Where’s his friend?”

“He doesn’t know.”

“Can’t he call him?”

“His phone is dead.”

“So charge it.” For fuck’s sake. My sister was thirty. Why did it feel like I was talking to a first grader?

“He forgot his charger in Moscow. And I can’t find one here.”

“Oh, Jesus.” I pinched the bridge of my nose, feeling a headache coming on.

“Please, Derek. It’s only for one night. And you have an extra bedroom and bathroom at your house.”

“What about your house?”

“Come on, I’ve got three roommates. And one of them has her brother visiting, so he’s taking up the couch. You live all alone in that nice big house.”

It probably wasn’t a dig at me, but it sort of felt like one.

“I bet that extra bedroom is all made up already, isn’t it?” Ellen went on. “Clean sheets on the bed, no dust on the furniture, no throw pillows out of place. I bet even the bathroom is sparkling clean and has big, fluffy towels all folded up and ready to go.”

“You know, making fun of me isn’t the best way to get what you want.”

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry. But it’s true, right?”

“It’s true,” I admitted through clenched teeth.

“Then can you please come get him and take him home for the night? Just one night, I promise.”

“Wait a minute, I have to come and get him, too? Are you serious?”

“Well, yes. I can’t just put him in a cab. He doesn’t have any money. And you’re not that far. Please, big brother. Pleeeease? For me?”

I groaned in agony, because I knew the exact face she was making right now. It never failed to pierce my armor.

She laughed. “Thank you. You’re the best.”

“I didn’t say yes.” But I sat up and tossed the covers off.

“I know you. You can’t say no to me.”

Fine. I’ll come get him, and he can stay here tonight. But he better not stain anything.”

“He’s very clean, I promise. But you might have to lend him some pajamas or something.”

I got out of bed and headed for my closet. “Christ, Ellen. Do you want me to tuck him in, too? Sing him a lullaby?”

“What? No! You know you’re a terrible singer. I’d never subject anyone to that.”

Switching on the closet light, I grabbed the jeans and shirt I’d had on earlier. “Remind me how mean you are next time I’m trying to say no to you.”

“No way. But I love you. See you in a few.”

I ended the call, set my phone aside and got dressed. From my dresser drawer I grabbed a clean pair of socks, and sat on the bed to tug them on. Then I turned off the light and went downstairs, where I stepped into one of several pairs of sneakers lined up in the hall near the back door and grabbed my keys from off hook on the wall. For a second, I paused and imagined other shoes lined up there too. A little girl’s sandals. A little boy’s cleats. Or maybe two little pairs of Adidas like their dad’s.

Which was so stupid. Even if I hadn’t fucked it up with my ex and we’d gotten married, we’d probably only have one kid by now, and it wouldn’t even be out of diapers yet.

But still. I’d be a husband. A father. I’d have a family to raise. People who needed me and depended on me and loved me unconditionally, the way I loved them. Was there anything less complicated than the love between parent and child?

Stop it. You’re being ridiculous, and the longer you stand here feeling sorry for yourself, the longer it will be before you’re back in bed.

After checking to make sure I had my phone on me and my wallet in my pocket, I went out the back door and pulled it shut behind me.

On the drive to the bar, I realized I hadn’t double-checked the spare room to make sure it was properly made up, but I wasn’t really worried. I always kept it guest-ready just in case, and the hallway bathroom had been cleaned two days ago. My friends laughed at me for having a cleaning lady come every week, especially the friends who were married with kids, because how could there possibly be any dirt in the house when there was only one person living there, and that person was the most fastidious man on earth? Their houses were always a mess—stuff everywhere, as if someone had turned them upside down and shaken them like snow globes. Actually, Ellen’s house was like that too, and her car—oh my God, the amount of shit in her car was enough to spike my blood pressure every time I rode in it. Sometimes I wondered how we were related. Her entire life was like a bunch of loose ends scattered every which way, and mine was like a nice, neat line.

At a stoplight, I glanced into the back seat of my car, pleased to see absolutely nothing there. Nothing in the passenger seat either, and no old coffee cups or water bottles in the cup holders. No crumbs or napkins or stray French fries. It even smelled good. People who rode in my car said that all the time.

Wasn’t that a good thing? Weren’t you supposed to take good care of your house and your car and other things you’d paid a lot of money for? Ellen had dipped into her trust fund a million times, but I hadn’t touched mine after paying for school. I’d worked hard for everything I owned, and I wanted them to last. Besides that, appearances mattered. People judged you by them.

And what else did I have?

I parked in a downtown structure and made my way to The Blind Pig. A few people were coming out as I was coming in, and I held the door open for them before moving through it.

Ellen spotted me right away. “Hey!” She came around the bar, rushing up to kiss my cheek before grabbing me in a bear hug. “Thanks so much for this. You smell good, by the way.”

“Trying to flatter me?”

“Yes. But it’s also true.” Laughing, she let me go and glanced over her shoulder. “He’s sitting over there at the bar. I feel so bad for him.”

“And what’s your Russian orphan’s name?”

“Maxim Matveev,” she said with a thick accent.

“Wait, does he speak English?” For a moment, I panicked that I was stuck with someone who wouldn’t understand anything I said. My Russian vocabulary was sparse, to say the least. Da. Nyet. Vodka. I also knew perestroika thanks to a college history class, but I thought that might be a little difficult to work into a conversation.

“Yes. Don’t worry, you can tell him to wipe his feet and close the lid and hang up his towel in English, and he’ll totally understand.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Be nice. I think he feels weird about accepting the offer. He keeps trying to tell me this is ridiculous.”

“It is.”

She gave me The Face, and I sighed.

“Come on. Introduce me.”

She took me by the hand and pulled me through the crowd toward the bar.

I saw him first from behind. At least, I thought it was him—he was the only person sitting alone. Light short hair. Slender, muscular build. He sat up tall, his back straight.

Ellen touched his shoulder. “Maxim, this is my brother, Derek.”

He turned to face us, and even in the bar’s dim light, his eyes were a startling shade of blue. He looked younger than I’d expected, and somehow less Russian. I don’t know what I was expecting—Boris Yeltsin, maybe?—but not the tall, trim blond guy who stood up and offered his hand. Not the cobalt eyes. Not the sharp-angled jawline.

I wasn’t expecting him at all.

I wasn’t expecting any of it.

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