On the second floor balcony, I looked at the gardens below. Red and yellow roses in full bloom scented the air with sweetness and sorrow. My mother loved her roses. Loved them so much, she dove from this exact spot into them. If I closed my eyes, I could still see her lifeless body in the midst of their beauty.
My father’s Italian loafers tapped across the tile entry floor downstairs, the sound echoing through the grand foyer. The massive front door slammed behind him. Russian spewed from his mouth like a dam let loose after a storm. Little did he know, the storm was just beginning. I was a tempest in training, and my rage and hurt swirled around me like a hurricane—like a class three storm building to a disastrous five.
I raced from the room I’d been forbidden to enter since my mother died seventeen years ago. I’d only recently found the key hidden in the soil of a nearby potted plant. Our housekeeper Darya stared straight at me one day while she buried it in the dirt.
“Your father doesn’t want you inside her room.” She looked over her shoulder to make sure no one was watching or listening. “I don’t think a child should be kept from her mother, living or dead, and this room is all that’s left of her.” She raised her finger to her lips in a silent “shh.”
With my shoes in my hand, I tiptoed down the hallway. I’d barely made it to my bedroom door when he bellowed, “Katya, come meet your future husband.”
“I’ll be right there,” I called in my sweetest voice while I slid on my heels and belted a knife to my thigh.
If I could help it, Sergei Volkov would never be my husband. His reputation preceded him. Said to be handsome but deadly, he was the kind of man no one considered lightly. Why my father had chosen him, I couldn’t say. Maybe he hadn’t, and the Russian mafia placed Sergei here. Even though my father ran the business in Las Vegas, the Bratva ran him.
Was Sergei my punishment for not getting Alex Wilde to the altar? Something told me the punishment wasn’t meant for me, but my father. In the end, I’d pay the price for his failures. I was a girl and had no value except in trade. On the felt of a poker table, I’d be the hundred-dollar chip. My worth was little, unless I could be played to increase the odds of winning the long game.
There was no doubt the homeland sent Sergei, which meant the Russian Brotherhood wasn’t pleased with how my father ran things in Sin City. How could they be? He’d lost his alliance with the Wildes when Alex married Faye. Add to that the death of Dima, his second in command, and my brother going to prison, and it didn’t paint a picture of a man capable of running anything.
Sergei had come to Las Vegas to gamble, and I was the initial wager. My father offered me up like a complementary room at a high-end casino.
My stilettos click-clacked across the marble floor. I chanced a glance over the iron railing to see if my future handler was visible. There he stood, no less than six feet tall, with shoulders so broad, he must have had to walk through the door sideways. Happy to have this one moment to take him in without notice, I cataloged everything I could about him. If Shrek and Dwayne Johnson had a baby, I was certain he’d look like Sergei. Shrek’s build, Dwayne’s looks. While I liked big, imposing men, this man scared the hell out of me. Dressed all in black from his perfectly pressed dress shirt to his wingtip leather shoes, he portrayed the villain well.
I recognized evil when I saw it. It was always in the eyes. Eyes that held no life. Showed no joy. Never delivered an ounce of compassion. I’d lived under the power and control of my father for nearly twenty-five years, and now my leash would be transferred to a man known for cruelty.
When my mother was alive, things were different. Her love softened our hard life. She was sunshine and happiness and joy, but for the last seventeen years, I’d lived in the shadow of darkness. I both hated and loved my mother for what she did, but I could never understand how a woman with two children could be so selfish to take her life and leave us here to fend for ourselves. Now I understood. Death was the lesser of two evils. My shaking hand gripped the wrought iron rail as I descended the stairs. My inner child wept for the life I could have had, and the life I’d have to live.
Midway down the staircase, Sergei lifted his head. His stone cold expression gave nothing away. His onyx eyes took me in from head to toe as if he was taking inventory.
At the bottom of the staircase, I stood and waited for the formal introduction. My father walked to me. With his hand at my back, he pushed me forward. In my four-inch heels, I stumbled and would have fallen to the unforgiving floor if Sergei hadn’t gripped my elbow to steady me.
“This is Katya, your fiancée.” His words sounded harsh like a dog’s rabid bark.
I wanted to tell Sergei if he turned around and left right now, he’d be able to avoid the marriage, but I knew the man in front of me wasn’t here for me. I looked around the house—a mansion, really. Over twelve thousand square feet of pretentious luxury. No, Sergei was here for this. I was simply the price of entry.
He leaned in and kissed my cheek. “Ti takaya krasivaya.”
“Thank you.” Though his words said I was beautiful, nothing warmed the ice in his eyes.
“In my house, we speak Russian,” my father warned me.
Sergei wrapped his arm around my shoulders and pulled me to his side. “My future bride is wise to speak English. We are in America, are we not?” He looked at my father. “Yuri, you speak what you want, but Katya and I will speak English.”
If I weren’t so afraid of getting my face slapped, I would have laughed. Here was a man who came to be my father’s second in command, but he acted like he was the king and my father the pawn.
In perfect English, my fiancé said, “Let’s get better acquainted, shall we?” He turned from my father and walked me out the front door. I waited for my father to say something about Sergei’s disrespect. We hadn’t been given permission to leave, but only silence followed us.
Once we were down the stairs and safely on the path leading to the pool and the gardens, I asked, “Do you think it’s wise to poke the bear?”
“What does this poke the bear mean?”
“You might not want to antagonize my father. He’s not a nice man.”
Sergei laughed. “You think I am?” He raised a brow—a perfectly groomed brow. Odd for a man who probably ate small children for breakfast, and devoured teenagers for lunch. “I’m not here to make friends with your father.”
“You will work for him.”
“We’ll see.” Sergei chuckled. It was a warm rumbling sound that at any other time would have been comforting, but it wasn’t. Sergei had an agenda. He came to America for something, but it wasn’t to marry me. “Now show me our home.”
The way he said “our home” confirmed Sergei would never be anyone’s second.
We walked through the gardens to the pool house. While my Manolos looked great on my feet, they weren’t designed for long walks. They were sitting shoes. The kind of girl wore when she tucked her feet to the side so the slit in her dress led the eyes from the pair of do-me heels to the lacy edge of her thigh-high stockings.
We took a seat at the umbrella-covered table, and I did just that. I shifted the hem of my purple dress, but Sergei’s eyes never left my face. While the side slit showed an obscene amount of skin, he didn't seem to notice, or care. Nope, Sergei had no interest in me.
While I didn’t care to marry the man, I wanted him to want me. The art of seduction was my only superpower. If I could get Sergei to want me, I, at least, had some control in my marriage. If not, I might as well jump from the balcony now.
“I believe honesty is the best path forward in a marriage, don’t you?” he asked.
While my head nodded, inside I laughed. Honesty got you killed, but so did lying. There was no right answer. The difference came to choice. Honesty would kill you faster. Lying was like a poisonous insect that kept biting until its venom ran so deep inside, you’d never recover.
Never let your right hand know what your left hand is doing, my mother used to say. Living with my father made her the best of liars. Who knew while she smiled and organized my eighth birthday party, she was planning her death?
If Sergei wanted honesty, I’d give it to him; at least my misery would be over quickly when he reached over and snapped my neck.
I sat up ruler straight and steeled my shoulders. I was a Petrenko, and while that didn’t say much about my integrity, it said a lot about my strength. A girl couldn’t live with a devil for too long and not become strong. “I don’t want to marry you.”
He raised his hand. I prepared for the blow, but instead, he cupped my cheek and smiled at me. “Nor do I, you.” He looked me up and down. “While you are attractive, you are not my type.”
“Why marry me at all?”
He dropped his hand and sat back in the seat. He appeared not to have a worry in the world. “It gets me closer to the prize.”
In front of me was a sprawling estate. A resort style pool—waterfall included. It was over the top. Add valet parking and a doorman, and no one would be able to say this wasn’t a five–star hotel. We had a full staff that included everything from a lawn boy to a chef.
“You want this?” I pointed toward the pool, the gardens, and the house. A spiral of smoke rose from the master suite deck. There was no way Yuri Petrenko wasn’t watching. “You’ll have to kill him first.”
Sergei stood and offered me his hand. “Perhaps. I’m leaving my options open.” He turned his back to my father and bent over like he’d kiss me, but he didn’t. “It would be wise to leave yours open as well.”
Love, hate, and loyalty warred within me. Did I tell my father Sergei might kill him? Did he deserve fair warning? None was given to Vincent Wilde before he was shot dead on the sidewalk outside of Old Money Casino. That was how this whole mess started. My father couldn’t be happy with what he had. He wanted more, and he went after it without any thought to the consequences.
Thoughts of Old Money brought back memories of Matt. As the middle son of the recently deceased leader of the Italian mob, and the younger brother of the man I was supposed to marry, he was the first person to help me without expectation. Soon I’d have to tell him the truth. He spent three years in prison because I put him there.
“Where did you go in your head, little one?” Sergei brushed a wisp of hair from my face. How funny that his soft touch would no doubt be able to crush my skull with a single squeeze.
“Just wondering what my life will become. What’s expected of me in this marriage?”
We walked toward the house. “You will give me a son. After that, I don’t care what you do. Just be discreet.”
His words stopped me. “You would allow me a lover?”
“Give me what I want, and I will give you the world.”
“What if I wanted your heart?” I didn’t. I could never love a man like Sergei. His focus was on money and power. Love was like a unicorn. Everyone searched for it, but it often remained elusive.
“The only way you’ll get my heart is if you carve it out with that knife strapped to your thigh.”
I ran my hand along the skirt of my dress. “How did you know?”
“It was a guess, but it pleases me.”
Did it please him that I protected myself or that I felt I had to? “Trust doesn’t come easy for me.”
“It shouldn’t.” He pressed his lips to my forehead. “Trust no one.”
“Not even you?”
“Especially not me.”
I can’t say he didn’t warn me. Sergei Volkov was clear about his intentions. He came here to win. When it was all said and done, he’d have it all. He’d own this house, own the Petrenko businesses, and he’d own me.
There was nothing I could do about any of it except take a header off the balcony, but I wasn’t my mother, and I refused to be so weak as to let a man decide for me. There had to be a way out of this. I’d figure it out if it was the last thing I did.
On the cobblestones beneath my father’s balcony, Sergei turned to me. “We will work out the details, but for now let’s seal it with a kiss.”
Dread raced through me. How I thought I’d get through a marriage to a man they called the Bull, I had no idea. When I looked up and saw my father looking at us with hate in his eyes, I decided to give him the show he expected. He created this situation, and we’d both have to deal with the consequences. There was the devil I knew on the balcony, and the devil I was supposed to marry. At this point, I had no idea who would be worse.
Sergei’s lips pressed against mine. The kiss was all wrong. There was no passion. There was no desire, but I faked it because that’s what I did best. I opened my mouth to him. When his tongue touched mine, I held back the bile that rose to my throat. My eyes closed, and I pictured Matt Wilde. This would be our first passionate encounter, and he wasn’t present. I wondered as I deepened the kiss and ran my hands up my fiancé's back to his crew cut hair if he knew in my mind I wasn’t kissing him. Sergei’s lips were merely a convenience. In my head and in my heart, Matt was with me.