Capturing Christmas by Jagger Cole

1

Noelle

Shit!”

I gasp, scrabbling for the railing of the staircase as my heels almost slip out from under me. My fingers curl tight around the frozen metal as my heart leaps in my throat. But I catch myself before I manage to slip onto my butt on the frozen stairs.

“First time in the snow, sweetheart?”

An older guy with a jackass smile and a Bears-logo puff jacket smirks at me.

Yes, kind of.

It’s not literally my first time walking on snow and ice. But this is my first winter in Chicago, and my first winter that hasn’t been spent in Georgia. Also, I’m in heels. On ice. Coming down the L staircase, at night.

Give me a freaking break.

“Just some ice, thanks,” I mutter back.

He keeps grinning at me as his eyes slide over me. I glare back as I pull myself upright and take the last step down the staircase to get away from him.

“Where you goin’ tonight lookin’ all dolled-up like that, sweetheart?”

“Dinner.”

“Yeah? How about you let me take you someplace nice, huh? Unless you already have a date,” he chuckles.

“I do, actually.”

I hear him turn to follow me, so screw it. I whirl and level my eyes at him.

“With the biggest crime Kingpin in the city.”

The guy grins widely. “All the tough guys say that to pretty girls who clearly ain’t from here. What’s his name, sweetheart?” He snickers. “I bet I know his goofy ass—”

“Viktor Komarov?”

The man’s face stills and goes white. I smile widely.

“He’s Russian. Maybe you’ve heard of him?”

“Have a good night, miss,” he says stiffly. The guy whirls and all but sprints up the frozen staircase.

I roll my eyes to myself. I probably shouldn’t go around name dropping “Komarov” like that. But whatever. Extenuating circumstances.

I turn and start to head down the sidewalk towards the restaurant. My name drop is mostly true. I mean, I am about to have dinner with Viktor Komarov, whose not just the most well-known “gangster” in Chicago, he’s the international head of the Kashenko Bratva. I’m not just exactly his date.

My cousin Fiona—aka Mrs. Komarov—is.

Up until a year ago, I barely remembered her. We’d probably played together a few times at the odd family reunion when we were much, much younger. But then the Murray side of the family—that’s her maiden name—started to distance themselves from the Morgans, which would be my side.

I don’t blame them. Her dad was seeking political office. But even aside from that, no one in their right minds, family or not, would want to associate themselves with my family. Not after my dad died in a prison fight while serving a life term on federal drug and murder charges. Not with my junkie mom on a constant rotation of rehab, street corners, jail—rinse, repeat—until she finally disappeared.

After that, it was just me and my older-older brother, Jason.

And Russell.

Damnit.

I can go a long time without his name or his face entering my head. My longest streak is two months. But other times, he slips his way in, like a poison.

I scowl as I shake my head to clear it free of him.

Chicago is a clean start. Once Fiona and I reconnected when she heard I was applying to grad schools up here, she insisted I come visit to catch up. A weekend turned into a week, then two weeks, and then I just made the decision to stay.

Fiona had my meager possessions shipped up here from Georgia—her insistence—and now here I am. Freezing my tits off in my first Chicago winter. But hey, it gets me away from Georgia, and all of my brother’s usual bullshit.

It gets me away from the ghost named Russell who won’t let go of me, even four years after he vanished with my heart without a trace.

Plus, cold aside, I love it up here. Fiona and I have become thick as thieves. And Viktor is just fantastic. I mean, growly, gruff, and, you know, a criminal Kingpin and all. But a wonderful guy. They’re even paying for my insanely upscale apartment—something I balked at. But in exchange—as if it’s remotely a fair exchange—I do the occasional nannying for Fiona and Viktor’s adorable toddler, Sasha.

The ways my life has changed in the last ten or so months still has my head spinning.

I live in a glass tower overlooking all of Chicago. I’m not wincing at the end of the month, wondering if I should spend the last of my budget on rent or groceries. I have family nearby that actually cares about me and isn’t bogged down in their latest self-made drama or brush with the law.

As if on cue, my phone goes with a tell-tale ringtone.

Jason, of course.

I glance at it with a frown. I could pick up. But I already know what it is. My perpetual victim of an older brother—thirty-five to my twenty-three is I’m sure calling in a panic with the latest crisis of his own making.

He’s broke. He’s being “wrongfully”—but most likely accurately—accused of doing drugs at work and needs a character witness. Or worse, urine.

It wouldn’t be the first time that one got asked.

And if it’s not those things, it’ll be something else. His car is broken. Or he’s got the inside track on some “new thing” and needs a load. Or a girl he’s been casually screwing is pregnant. Or maybe not. Who the hell knows.

He’s the only family aside from Fiona I have left. And I do love him. But lord does he make it hard sometimes.

I’m not dipping my toes into the latest Jason bullshit tonight, though. Tonight is about letting go and enjoying my new life. Fiona and Viktor’s foundation—which helps eradicate child trafficking around the world—just scored a major victory with some legislation it helped draft that’s going before the European Union. So we’re out at Chicago’s best restaurant to celebrate.

As I rush down the sidewalk, a snowflake hits the tip of my nose.

Damnit.

There are triggers I go out of my way to avoid. The smell of Irish Spring soap, or of engine oil, for instance. The sound of motorcycles does it sometimes, too. Led Zeppelin or Metallica? Yeah, that’s out too.

I call these Russell-triggers. And when they squeeze, they squeeze hard.

The snowflake hitting my nose is an unexpected one, but it still hits with a bang. I freeze, my chest constricting as I squeeze my eyes tightly closed.

Russell James was both the boy your mother wishes you’d date and the one she warns you about. Charming, but shadowed in darkness. A knight, but one with dark, stained armor, not shining stuff.

Trouble and temptation rolled up into one sinfully delicious package.

He lived across the street from my brother and I. Jason’s best friend, and at times, our lifeline. There were some really tough years in there after dad was long gone and mom finally ghosted us for the last time, when Russell helped us survive. Legally, Jason became my guardian due to my age.

But it was Russell who actually watched over me. It was a blessing. And my curse.

Twelve years older, tall, built like a superhero, and gorgeous. I was doomed from the second I started noticing boys like that. Because I didn’t notice boys.

I only noticed Russell.

The whitish blond hair—extra extra blond from the autoimmune disorder that messed with the melanin in his hair. The chiseled action-hero jaw. The bulging muscles while he worked on a car engine in the open bay of his garage—that my bedroom looked directly at. The crooked, charming and yet dangerous grin.

Needless to say, Russell was my first crush. My first obsession, and the first man I ever wanted like that.

Then, one night, one time, he was my first time.

And then he was gone.

That was four goddamn years ago, and dumb crap like motorcycle engines, certain soap brands, and snowflakes still send me into an emotional tailspin.

Angrily, I shake it off as best I can. Screw the triggers and screw Russell. I’m not letting him ruin tonight.

I bluster on, until I see the neon of the restaurant marquee. Outside, a guy in a Santa suit is dinging a bell looking for donations. I can’t help but reach into my bag and toss some in.

I’ve been hungrier than hungry before. I can’t not put money in jars or buckets like these.

I only glance at the Santa in passing, but I want to roll my eyes. I mean, good on him for collecting for a great cause. But maybe at least try and stuff the suit to look like an actual Santa? This guy looks like Santa went to NFL bootcamp for a few years. But at least the white beard looks real.

The doorman at the restaurant door opens it though, so I pull away from buff-Santa and step inside. Instantly, I spot Fiona and Sasha off to the side.

Yikes. World War Toddler is in full offensive. I rush over just as Sasha starts to completely lose it.

“Hi!” My cousin beams through her stricken face when she sees me.

“What can I do?”

She sighs heavily. “Oh, don’t sweat it. I’ve got this. I’m going to take him home.”

I frown. “No, c’mon, let me. This is your and Vik’s night.”

She smiles at me. “And I’m so glad you’re here. But really, I’ve got this. Lory is going to meet us back at the penthouse and watch him once he’s down. But when he’s like this?” We both turn to look sympathetically at a clearly way over-tired Sasha sobbing against Fiona’s leg.

Oh, I get it. This is a mom-only situation. Not even me or his full-time nanny Lory would be able to put him to bed like this.

“I’ll put him down, Lory will stay, and I’ll be back in forty minutes.”

She nods towards a table full of people in the back of the elegant restaurant.

“Go, please. Have a drink for me?” She gives me an overly-frazzled look.

“I’ll do you one better and have one waiting for you when you get back.”

Sasha starts screaming at the top of his lungs.

“Have two waiting for me.”

I grin as she scoops my little cousin up, gives me a quick smile, and rushes him out a side door along with two of her bodyguards. When they’re gone, I turn and head over to the table full of familiar faces. Viktor spots me first and grins.

“There she is.”

I smile as he beckons me into an empty chair next to him—clearly just vacated by his wife.

“Sorry, the L was a mess,” I groan.

He chuckles. “Noelle, would you please just start using the driver who’s number I gave you?”

I blush. “Oh, I…” I shrug. “I don’t need you guys spending money on chauffeured cars for me, Vik.”

“He’s on my payroll,” Viktor chuckles. “I’m literally already spending the money. Just use the car, Noelle. C’mon. For me.” He arches a brow. “It’s got heated seats…”

I laugh. “Well way to bury the lede!”

He chuckles as he waves a waiter over. Wine is set in front of me as I turn to say hi to everyone else who I’ve slowly come to know since basically being adopted into the Komarov family.

Lev—Viktor’s best friend and second in command—and his expecting wife Zoey are sitting across from me. Next to them are Nikolai—Lev’s brother—and his wife who everyone in this restaurant obviously recognizes, since she’s the very famous actress Belle Bardot.

I turn to the other side of me to give a big hug to Viktor’s sister Nina and her toweringly huge husband Kostya. Past them sits Fiona and Vik’s adoptive son Lukas and his wife Lizbet, along with Ilya Volkov with his arm around his girlfriend Tenley Chambers—as in, daughter of Secretary of State Chambers.

I will never not be amused that the nephew to Yuri Volkov, the head of the Volkov Bratva—who unfortunately couldn’t be here tonight—and the daughter of a White House cabinet member are together. But I suppose it’s no stranger than the couple past them—the heavily tattooed and newly crowned Bratva king in his own right Misha Tsavakov, and his wife, Princess Charlotte Bergendem of Luxlordia.

Lukas, Misha, Ilya, and their ladies are all in their final year at Oxford Hills Academy in the UK. But Vik flew them all out for the occasion.

I turn back to Viktor and frown, feeling guilty as I take a sip of luxuriously amazing wine.

“I should go help Fiona.”

He chuckles. “If anyone should go help, it’s me. But when he gets like that?”

Vik makes a stricken face, and I laugh.

“It’s mom or no one, unfortunately.” He smiles. “Even though you know Sasha freaking loves you.”

“Yeah, only because though tears I look just like his mom.”

He laughs heartily. So do I.

I mean I’m not wrong. My mother and Fiona’s were half-sisters with the same redheaded mother. They may have grown up apart and radically different, but those genes are strong. I’ve got the exact same shock of red as Fiona, along with the same blue eyes. Given that we’re also about the same size, I’ve definitely been mistaken for her on more than one hilarious occasion.

Hey carrot-top.

Hey snow-top.

I flinch at the memory, startled by the sudden flash of it. I almost want to look around to see if there’s soap or, bewilderingly, motor oil somewhere. There’s no obvious triggers. But the Russell-flashback to the nicknames we used to call each other when I was young are real.

Two episodes in ten minutes. Yikes. That’s not good.

I clear my throat.

“Would you excuse me?”

Viktor’s brow furrows in worry, but I force a smile.

“I just need to use the restroom.”

I excuse myself and slip quickly to the back of the restaurant. Around a corner, I head down an elegantly and dimly lit hallway lined with doors towards the ladies’ room at the end.

And then suddenly, hands grab me. A shape materializes out of the shadows, taking my breath away before a huge hand clamps over my mouth. I scream, but it’s useless as the huge man yanks me after him through a side door out into the cold.

We’re in an alley, and a black, windowless van is running quietly just outside the door.

My heart lurches into my throat, and I start to scream. I scream over and over, thrashing to get away from my attacker. I kick hard, getting him in the shin just enough for him to roar in pain and pull back from me just a bit. His hand is still clamped over my mouth. But suddenly, I can see him.

My mind tries to process what I’m looking at.

Why is Santa Clause kidnapping me? But then I realize it’s the same Santa from outside the restaurant—the one built like a tank, not a jolly old elf.

But there’s not time to try and figure this out. I just need to get away and scream for help.

I kick again, and again, reaching out and clawing at him. The man snarls and shoves me back against the wall. And then two things happen:

His hand falls from my mouth, and we both stumble into the light from the van headlights. And suddenly, I’m staring at a ghost.

Not just any ghost. My ghost.

I’m staring at Russell James, in a Santa suit, trying to kidnap me.

He stares at me with a mix of confusion, horror, and fierceness that takes my breath away.

You—” he chokes, his brow furrowing. “How… what the fuck, Noelle—”

“Mother. Fucker.”

There’s two things I’ve dreamed about doing if I ever came across Russell again. The first, shamefully, is to kiss him and never ever stop kissing him.

The second is to smack the shit out of him.

My hand hauls back before I can think and makes the decision for me. And I slap him, hard.