(c) Renee Rose
OWNED BY THE MAN I BETRAYED
Six years ago, I uttered a lie that changed a man’s life.
My father banished him from his bratva cell. From the country.
Now he’s back to take my inheritance. My life. Not through murder but marriage.
And my own father arranged it.
Maxim thinks he can make me submit to his will. He thinks he gets to call all the shots.
I wanted him once, and he refused me. I won’t fall for him again.
And I don’t plan to cave.
Not even when he makes me tremble with need…
My father’s men say he only has days to live. Maybe only hours. We’re at his home in Moscow—a residence I’ve never been permitted to enter before.
A place I hated from the time I was a little girl.
It means little to me now. Ditto on his approaching death.
I can’t say I love the man. He was a terrible father and a worse partner to my mother. Partner, not husband—no, he couldn’t marry her.
It’s against the bratva code.
She was his kept mistress for thirty years until last week when he informed her she was now the mistress of Vladimir, his right-hand man. That’s right—he literally bestowed his mistress on another man. Like she was some whore he owned. No, worse than a whore—like she was his slave.
She had no choice in the matter.
Like I say, he’s not a nice man, my father.
“Come, Sasha, your father wants to see you,” my mother says in a hushed tone. My once beautiful mother suddenly appears old. She’s pale, her face drawn up and pinched in grief.
Despite it all, she still loves my father deeply.
I follow her into his room. He didn’t want to die in a hospital, so his large bedroom has been converted to one. Medical machines surround him; there are nurses on duty twenty-four/seven. The curtains are open, letting the summer sun in through the large windows.
I flinch. He’s still as formidable as ever, even thin and frail in his crimson striped robe. His face is a deathly grey pallor.
“Come.” He summons me to his side. I walk over reluctantly. I may be twenty-three, but something about the man makes me still feel like an errant child. He takes my hand, and I have to work not to shudder at the feel of his dry, bony fingers holding mine.
“Sasha, I will provide for you,” he says. Coughs.
Providing for us was the only good thing he did for me and my mother. I should be grateful. We’ve lived in luxury for our whole lives. I even got to attend the college of my choice in the United States—University of Southern California, where I studied acting. But of course, he summoned me back the moment I graduated.
And I came because he holds the purse-strings.
If he leaves me enough money in his will, I plan to go back to America to pursue my dreams.
“Your husband arrives today.”
I don’t even understand his words at first. I blink. Look over my shoulder at my mother. “Excuse me?” Surely I heard that wrong.
“The man who will marry you. To protect you and manage your financial interests.”
I draw my hand back. “I’m sorry, what?”
Anger flickers on my father’s face, and my body instantly responds with trembling. No matter how much I try not to care, I’m still the little girl just dying to please him, to win his love. To make him see me and give me attention this time.
Of course, I never show it. I’ve played the rebellious teenager with him for a long time now. I toss my hair for emphasis. “I am not marrying anybody.”
He points a finger at me. “You will do what I tell you to do and be grateful I have found a way to protect and provide for you from the grave.” A little spittle flies from his mouth.
My stomach churns. It’s too disturbing to see death hammering his body and not to be affected, but I don’t want to care. I want to just hate him through it all.
I do hate him.
“Who?” I demand. “Who am I to marry?”
A tap sounds on the door, and my father nods, like he’s satisfied. Vladimir enters. “Maxim has arrived.”
I lose my breath like I’ve been punched in the stomach.
Surely not? What kind of sick, twisted plan of my father’s is this?
Maxim, the charming, powerful former protege of my father? The one I had exiled with my lies?
Maxim comes in, and I back away from my father toward the shadowed corner where my mother stands, hovering, wringing her hands. “You knew about this,” I accuse.
Tears swim in her eyes. I’m glad because they help me swallow my own.
“Maxim.” My father holds out his hand to him.
Maxim glances in our direction, and I make a move to leave, but my mother grabs my arm and keeps me in place. Vladimir, who also stepped into the room, shifts in front of the door like he’s blocking it. Like he’s a prison guard.
Nothing shows on Maxim’s handsome face. Just the sight of him after six years makes my heart pound. He wears the same inscrutable mask I remember. Surely he hates me after what I did. He clasps my father’s hand, going down on one knee beside the bed. “Papa.”
Papa. That’s what they call my father because he’s their leader. In a way, I supposed he was like a father to Maxim, who I recall ran away from an orphanage at age fourteen. Probably a better father to him than he ever was to me, his real flesh and blood.
“At last, you’ve come,” my father rasps, laying his free hand on Maxim’s shoulder like a priest giving a benediction. “I have a dying request, Maxim.”
“What is it?” Maxim’s voice is low and respectful. Watching them, you’d never know my father banished Maxim, not only from his side but from this country.
“You have followed the Code of Thieves?”
“You have not taken a wife or family?”
“Good. You will break it now to marry Sasha,” my father says.
Even though I half-expect it, the words still hit me like a tidal wave, crashing over me, washing me in panic.
Maxim’s broad shoulders and back are to me, so I can’t see his face, but he must be as horrified as I am.
He slowly rises from his kneeling position, slides his hands in his pockets and waits, not offering a response.
“I will leave my interest in all the oil wells to Sasha, only so long as she is married to you. You will manage her financial interests and protect her from threats. If she dies before she bears children, the interest transfers to Vladimir, who is charged with leading the Moscow cell and caring for Galina, her mother.”
“You’re selling me,” I choke from the corner.
He is—just like he sold my mother.
“Silence!” My father throws up a hand in my direction, not even deigning to look my way.
Maxim turns, though. He gives me a long, considering look, probably reminding himself how I ruined his life. He could have Vladimir’s place at the helm of the bratva now if it hadn’t been for me.
I press my lips together, so he won’t see them tremble.
“She is not a virgin,” my father says, like he’s apologizing for delivering flawed goods.
I want to puke.
“She had a wild period out of my control when she went to college in America. But then, you are used to American women, no?”
Still, Maxim says nothing.
“You will do this for me,” my father says. It’s not a question, it’s an order, but he watches Maxim’s face intently, looking for clues. “Take her back to Chicago with you. Keep her out of the fray—protected and safe. Enjoy her money.”
Maxim scrubs a hand over his face.
“You can punish her for the lie she told about you. No hard feelings, eh? You’ve done well for yourself in America. I hear Ravil lives like a king, and you enjoy the benefits.”
I go still, hearing that my father knew I lied.
“And if I die first?” Maxim asks, all business. This is a transaction. My father’s offering a dowry for my hand. “Who holds the interest in trust for Sasha?”
“Vladimir,” my father says.
Maxim gives his head a small shake. Vladimir’s in the room, but Maxim doesn’t look his way. “Make it Ravil,” he says. Ravil is the boss of the Chicago branch of bratva and Maxim’s boss since his banishment.
My father considers, then looks at Vladimir. “Make the change,” he orders. “And send in the clerk.”
Vladimir immediately leaves the room.
“You will do this for me,” my father repeats, looking at Maxim.
Maxim bows his head. “I will.”
“Do not disrespect my name by disrespecting my daughter.”
“Never,” Maxim says immediately. He turns again and studies me. Something flutters in my low belly at his dark gaze. If my father has his way, I will belong to this man. He will control me completely. My entire destiny is in his hands.
But I’m not going to lie down and play the submissive, doting, always available mistress my mother did.
I’m going to fight back.
There’s no way I would refuse Igor his dying wish—or order, as the case may be. But this one is a fucking doozy.
I have to marry Sasha, his mafiya princess brat. The one who ruined my life. Not that I regret leaving Moscow. Igor’s right—life is so much easier in Chicago under Ravil’s rule. I don’t constantly feel like a knife’s about to go into my back the way I did here. But now I will again.
Of course, that’s why he needs me to marry her.
Igor’s oil well interests are worth at least sixty million. And his colleagues are unsavory, at best. We are the brotherhood of thieves, after all. So I have to presume at least thirty men will have their eyes on stealing that fortune in whatever way they can—killing Sasha, killing me, or even taking out the entire Chicago cell.
But I’m the fixer. Like Ravil, a master strategist, I have a reputation for outthinking my opponents. Igor knows his friends and enemies alike will think twice before they try to steal his fortune if it’s in my care.
I take a good look at my unwilling, manipulative bride. She’s even more beautiful than she was at seventeen, when I found her naked in my bed, set on seducing me.
She’s drop-dead gorgeous, like her mother. Long, thick red hair. High cheekbones, porcelain skin. She has bright blue eyes and Cupid’s bow lips. Her narrowed gaze is filled with hurt and rage.
Blyat. I will have my hands full with her.
Vladimir returns with the papers and a nervous-looking government official—I presume a clerk from the Department of Public Services. Someone probably paid or threatened him into making this a house-call instead of us going there.
If it were anyone besides Igor, I would demand to review his will to make sure the agreement is really as he states. But it’s Igor, the man who literally saved my life, took me under his wing, and made me the man I am today. I’m not going to insult him. If his dying demand is that I marry his daughter, I’ll do it.
Then again, Vladimir could be trying to fuck my bride out of her money, which is exactly the reason Igor inserted me into this mess. I keep my voice low and respectful. “Do you wish me to review it first, Papa?”
He considers me for a moment, then nods, so I take the sheaf of papers and skim through as quickly as I can. There are provisions for Galina, but all through Vladimir. Other than the oil interest, Igor’s only legitimate business holdings, everything else goes to Vladimir, with strict provisions that he provides monthly allowance and protection to Galina.
The oil interest goes in a trust to Sasha, with me as trustee. We must remain married, or we forfeit the wells, and they go to Vladimir, or in his absence, Galina. If she dies first, Vladimir becomes the trustee. If I die first, Ravil. I nod and hand the papers to Igor to sign.
The clerk clears his throat and shifts on his feet.
“We’re ready,” I tell him.
Galina propels an angry Sasha forward to stand beside me. “This isn’t happening,” she complains in English, perhaps so her father won’t understand. She’s lucky she speaks it, or her new life would be even harder.
“Do you have rings to exchange?” the sweating clerk asks me.
“No.” I shake my head.
Igor takes a platinum ring from his pinky finger. He’s worn it for as long as I’ve known him. I remember him saying things to me like, “I, too, started with nothing, Maxim, and now I wear platinum rings.”
His hand shakes when he hands it to me. His breathing is labored.
Galina notices and dashes to his side. “Are you all right, my love? Do you need more morphine?”
“Go on.” Igor gives an impatient wave to the clerk. “Marry them.”
The clerk swallows and launches into a brief ring exchange. I put Igor’s ring on Sasha’s finger and tell the clerk to skip it when he comes to her ring for me.
“I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride.”
I face Sasha, but she turns away, so I drop a kiss on her cheek. “It is done,” I say to Igor.
“A-after you sign the certificate,” the clerk stammers.
I snatch the pen from his hand and scrawl a quick semblance of my signature on the paper then hand the pen to Sasha.
Her fingers won’t form around the pen. She looks up at me, rebellion swirling in those ocean blue eyes. As if either of us could stop this ball that’s clearly been rolling long before we stepped in this room today.
“Sign it,” Igor snaps. Or attempts to snap. It comes out as more of an angry wheeze.
Galina’s mouth tightens. “Do it, Sasha.”
Sasha grips the elegant fountain pen, the muscles around her jaw tightening as she signs the certificate.
The clerk signs it and nods at Vladimir. “It’s complete. I’ll have it filed in an hour.” His hands tremble as he puts the certificate back in a folder, which he holds to his chest.
“Good. Bring the copies here, and you’ll receive the rest of your payment.”
The clerk exits like the room is on fire, and we all turn to Igor, whose breath has turned to a gasping.
“Get him morphine!” Galina barks at Vladimir, who calls in a nurse.
It’s all too much to absorb. Igor dying. My sudden marriage. My bitter bride.
“Sasha,” Igor pants. He’s restless in the bed, thrashing his legs under the covers like he can’t breathe. Or is in pain. His lips are turning blue. “Come.”
When she doesn’t move, I place a gentle hand at her lower back and propel her forward to his side. The nurse dribbles a dropper of medicine in his mouth. He reaches for his daughter’s hand.
“Sasha,” he says again.
“What is it?” I hear the tears in Sasha’s voice. Anger, too.
“Trust…Maxim,” he tells her.
Goosebumps race across my skin, up and down my arms and legs. On the back of my neck. Igor’s fears for her life may be more substantial than I initially guessed. Or he’s afraid Sasha will bolt.
He takes a short breath. Then nothing.
“Igor!” Galina cries.
“Papa?” Alarm rings out in Sasha’s voice.
Igor breathes again.
“Oh!” Galina heaves a sigh.
But it was his last breath. His body twitches as the life goes out of it.
For the first time, Galina looks at me. “He waited to die until you got here,” she says, but it’s an accusation not a compliment.
I waited too long to come. I dodged his calls, not wanting to find out what it was he wanted to give me before he died.
I was afraid it would be his position as head of the Moscow bratva. Or some other high up position. I thought he was calling me back to service.
Never in a million years would I have guessed it was to wed his daughter.
“May the earth be soft for him,” I murmur the traditional Russian saying then turn and walk out.
I don’t have time to grieve the loss of a man who already threw me out of his life six years ago. I need to figure out how to keep his stubborn daughter safe when she has no desire to be attached to me.