It felt good to sweat.
Even better when Marianna Yahnotov knew it was because she had exerted herself in the kickboxing class. She ached in muscles she didn’t know she had as she swiped wetness out of her eyes and reached down to grab the sports bag.
Though she waved to a few of the girls in her class, that was as social as she got.
She glanced at them in an animated huddle and felt a ping of envy.
She once had girlfriends to hang out with, do silly things with like coffee dates, but not anymore.
How crazy she’d forgotten how to make friends.
With her shoulder length black hair knotted in a messy bun, she pushed her arms into a white, faux fur hooded coat, leaving the women only class as unnoticeable as she arrived.
The chilly air of the early November day hit her full in the face.
In Russia, where temperatures regularly plummeted to below 20 degrees, the cooler Colorado days were virtually summer on her face.
It snowed on and off in September. Now it was bitterly cold, and Marianna smiled as she crossed the street to the diner.
Each store front along Main Street was recognizable, now she’d been in Armado Springs as a free woman almost a year.
Free, yet not free because she had no actual legal papers.
And no solution in sight.
Marianna lived under the radar, fearful of everyone’s motives.
It was a town like thousands of others. She could have gone anywhere, but she felt safe here. And that was why she stayed.
Not the only reason.
After picking up a small bag of homemade cheese crackers from the diner, and a flat white coffee, she turned right on the corner, heading for her apartment. A police cruiser car parked outside of the hardware store had her feet stopping quick.
Marianna felt nausea going through her body. The police officer behind the wheel wasn’t even looking at her, he was reading a newspaper and drinking from a to-go cup, and yet she felt the flee instinct take hold.
Turning around, she took the long walk around the block instead.
Only when she was out of sight of the police car did her heart return to a normal pattern.
Marianna didn’t cause waves.
She didn’t get into needless arguments with people in the grocery store over the last pumpkin spice cronut. Nor did she jaywalk or do any other number of infractions that may attract attention. She flew under the radar and was not risking her identity and lack of legal papers to trip her up now.
Sending a wave to the sweet old lady inside the flower shop, before she took the stairs at the side of the building to her apartment. The scent of fresh lemon greeted her as she snicked the three locks behind her and slid the security chain into place.
The four rooms were not all that big, but she loved this apartment, it came fully furnished, which had helped her penniless state at the time. It boasted high ceilings with white panel walls, hardwood floors and offered Marianna security enough that she felt safe each night when she went to bed.
It was thanks to her boss she had both a job and a roof over her head, not questioning why at the time when he offered his help. A despairing woman will take the hand of anyone when she’s drowning.
Marianna waited ever since for him to call in his favor all these months later.
Men expected a woman to pay for their generosity.
That’s how it’s always been in her life.
Nothing came for free.
Pushing that specific man out of her mind, she slid out of her coat, hanging it on a peg by the door, then tossed the bag of crackers on the two-person table in the kitchen.
Lana Del Rey sang when Marianna pressed play on the second-hand stereo, turning it up loud before she headed for a much-needed shower.
Afterward, she finished the coffee and crackers, then she blitzed her already clean apartment because she hated being idle. Having nothing to do meant she focused too much on her unhappiness.
No, that was not altogether right.
She was no longer miserable as she once was.
Despair made a person do reckless things in pursuit of better.
One poor decision after another meant she now lived with the consequences.
It was easy to channel her emotions when she was scrubbing the kitchen tiles.
While her hands plunged in hot soapy water, it was easy to forget the life forced upon her and to dream of the life she wanted.
She was a mother, and no one here knew that.
Her heart ached for the day she would hug and kiss her children again. Until that impossible day came, she worked hard.
She hoped she got decent sleep tonight.
Insomnia and heartbreak made for a very good team.
They were long-term friends to Marianna.
Ah, damn, she’d invited herself to another pity-party. The fourth one this week.
Marianna was not unhappy.
She was just not happy either.
Existing in a place between here and there.
There was a gaping wound in her chest and one she would not make the focus of her day. Not only because she hated being tearful, but it was also the day she got to talk to her babies.
It motivated her to keep working as diligently as she could.
As Lana Del Rey, Marianna’s favorite singer, continued, she dusted the brown coffee table in front of a cream couch, then fixed a small salad to take with her for lunch later. And then she dressed in warm leggings, an oversized blue knitted sweater and comfortable white tennis shoes.
Funny how things change so drastically in a decade.
Marianna was now thirty-one years old.
In her twenties, she’d lived for fashion and the frivolous things she deemed so important. Living her twenties being inseparable with her friends.
Partying, laughing, doing incredibly irresponsible things.
There was very little money, and what she had, she wasted. If only she’d been a little more money savvy, she wouldn’t be in this mess now.
One by one, her friends left their wild lifestyle behind. They got married, had children.
Her village of only five thousand people didn’t offer much career wise.
The hair salon she’d worked at for five years earned her very little.
While she did not get as far as a marriage license, her two babies have always been Marianna’s pure light.
She would never regret her children.
Even if it meant reliving those appalling four months she was dating their father.
Marianna didn’t have hang-ups about her looks or her weight.
She’d always been pretty okay with both.
She wasn’t what you’d call academic. Though, she’d strived to better herself in whatever she was doing. Her goal from the age of sixteen was to learn English, the language of the free world. Lack of funds meant she had to teach herself in whatever way she could. Finding solace and education from books.
No, her flaws were not about vanity or her education.
If only they were.
Seeking adventure and fulfilment was perhaps the biggest mistake of her life.
It would sit inside her dark places forever.
One bad mistake snowballed, and now she was in a country illegally because she was brought by men who promised her a lucrative life.
Lies upon lies.
Used as a commodity, she’d forged on as best as she could.
No woman ever thinks she’ll be that one who gets her life stolen.
Marianna was one of many the Bratva used. She had it marginally better in comparison with some of the other girls who were repeatedly drugged and sold.
Treated like a pet in a cage.
She hated herself for being taken in by lies and assurances.
Unexpected rescue came from a group of bikers. Only when she became lucid from whatever drugs they had forced her to take, she stole clothes from the hospital and sneaked out before the authorities could speak with her.
She’d never looked back.
Within a few short hours, snow dusted the sidewalk as she bundled into her coat and took the short walk five blocks away to Charming Souls gym.
There was a spike to her pulse when she entered the sprawling building. She nodded to the receptionist, Molly, but didn’t stop to chat. Afraid to get close to anyone in fear of what she might tell them. She was there to work hard, not make lifelong connections.
Office management was her job description. But she did a little of everything, including cleaning down the machines when lazy members wouldn’t do it. She restocked vending machines and refilled coffee and juice stations. She made sure the dirty towels were put out for the laundry service to collect at the end of each day.
Keeping busy made sense.
“Yo, Marianna?” She heard, and the fine hairs at the back of her nape stood on end.
The voice was baritone deep. It was a growl, the voice you expect to see belonging to a madman.
But it was her boss when she turned around.
An unsmiling boss.
Wearing blue denim and scuffed biker boots on the bottom half. The top half of Tag was covered by a long-sleeved undershirt, and his Renegade Souls leather vest with the Grim Reaper trademark sewn into the back. She’d looked at that vest many times when avoiding the oceanic blue eyes. She knew it said Colorado Chapter on the front and below that patches read: Sergeant at Arms, and One percenter.
Usually he flashed her a smile.
They were not friends, but not-not friends either.
She’d visited him many times in the hospital when he was badly injured and temporarily blinded during one of his cage fights.
Sometimes he bought her lunch for no reason. Or dropped off groceries with little explanation. It’s only food, Marianna.
It was not only food to her. Nothing came for free.
But her aversion to growing closer to anyone put them in a weird place of boss-employee. Friend-not friend.
She approached, and he jutted his chin for her to follow him into the office.
Her tummy muscles clenched together, whining out a protest to turn around and leave.
She was used to the fight or flee instincts, you could say it kept her alive many times.
Was she in trouble?
Did he discover her secret?
He’d given her no reason to fear him.
The opposite, in fact. He wanted her to trust him.
Tag was the man who carried her from her nightmare.
If she allowed herself to trust anyone here, it would be him.
A year ago she’d been tricked into boarding a boat to the States. And forced into a sex ring. She was no longer that woman.
There was only one way to find out why he looked so sullen.
With her shoulders back, Marianna let Tag usher her into his square office ahead of him.
The bluest eyes she’d ever seen, watching her every step.
Copyright© V. Theia 2020.
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