My mother taught me to equate love with pain—and who could blame her? In her world such an emotion brought only heartbreak and deception. Never could she have imagined a different reality.
One where a man capable of imprisoning his woman in hell could also create her haven…
A reality where their children frolic on an expansive lawn, safely insulated from a world that would destroy them. Perhaps Marnie could never envision the potential such a creature has to love. Most wouldn’t.
He expresses it differently—like his own twisted dialect of a universal language. One I’ve struggled to become fluent in, though through him, I’ve learned my own code to his soul…
A twisted array of emotions that solely belong to a monster who hurt me in more ways than I can fathom. Both physically and mentally. I should despise him, even now as he stands tall with his back to me, observing two small figures running circles at his discretion.
One, a lanky girl with streaming blond hair, chases a smaller, giggling boy with brilliant blue eyes. Their laughter casts a spell, capable of transforming the stone manor looming behind us. It’s a home rather than a prison.
“Faster,” Mischa barks, but a genuine, rumbling laugh erases any authority from the command. He adjusts his muscular arms over something held within them, straining a pair of faded fatigues. With his hair contained by a loose ponytail, he resembles a soldier more than ever. “You must show your brother how it is done,” he tells them. “I think he is a bit too eager to learn.” He turns, revealing the squirming figure he’s fighting to hold. “Don’t tell me you want to go back to Mama already?”
Sighing, I reach out, my lips parting in a tired smile. “Bring him here.”
Mischa bounces the baby on his hip and comes to collapse onto the bench beside me. Tiny hands immediately grasp at my arm until I reach for him in return.
“So spoiled, Ivan.” Mischa scoffs disgust even as he playfully ruffles his son’s thin thatch of blond hair. “How can you lead the mafia if you are a slave to your Mama’s kisses?” The fact that he has to feign the disgust in his tone makes a smile tug at the corner of my mouth.
“Easy,” I say, pressing my lips against a delicate cheek. “My Ivan won’t grow up to lead the mafia.” He squirms and I savor the feel of him in arms and every soft cooing sound he makes. “He will be an artist instead. Or a doctor. Or a painter.” I punctuate every potential choice with another kiss, each one provoking an infantile giggle. “The choice will be his alone.”
“Will it?” Mischa grunts, crossing his arms, but there’s a softness to his jaw that he can’t disguise as he continues his vigilant appraisal of the other two children still running in circles at his command. “Mouse, don’t let him gain on you! Keep going, Eli.”
“It’s not like you don’t already have two out of three who worship you,” I point out, snuggling Ivan against my chest. “Let me have this one.”
“Ah, but there will be another,” Mischa says, eyeing my belly. “That one must be a girl, and this time the name shall be Mischa.”
“Or Aljona,” I softly counter. “I’ve been considering it. It’s a beautiful name.”
He pauses, his expression pained for so brief a second I’m sure I imagined it. Shaking his head, he sighs. “It is. We will negotiate. Mouse!” He waves the girl over. “Take this one.” He eases Ivan from my grasp and hands him to the girl. “And the other one.” He nods toward Eli running toward us in her wake. “Take them inside.”
“You’re distracted today,” he tells me, once the children have left. “I can see the wheels in your brain turning. Little Rose, something has you worried.”
“You’re taking over the mafia again, aren’t you,” I whisper. It’s the fear that has kept me up at night. The secrets he’s gone out of his way to disguise. That’s the terrifying part—he’s gone out of his way to hide this from me. “I’m not stupid, Mischa,” I croak. “I know what you and Vanya have been arguing about when you think I’m not listening.”
Mischa wants to reclaim the empire Sergei Vasilev, my uncle, tore apart.
“I know you’re not.” He sighs, crossing his arms over his chest. His bulk takes up nearly half of the bench, encroaching on my fragile space. “If anything, you see too damn much. I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure.”
“Sure of what?” I counter.
“Sure that I can know what is best for this family. We can remain in our happy little world, pretending the rest of it doesn’t exist—but it does. I thought having a family would change me, Rose. Make me a better fucking man—like Vanya… But it hasn’t.” He shakes his head, clenching his hands into fists he rests over his knees. “Not in the way I thought. I’m not softer. I…” Gritted teeth constrict his words turning them into missiles. “I won’t risk losing you. Losing them. If that means I have to become the most feared fucker on the planet I will. If that means I have to fight to get the mafia under my control, I will. If that means I have to crush them all beneath my goddamn fist, I will. The Winthorps had their war, but their ending will not be mine. I won’t let you be taken under my fucking nose, or Mouse or Eli or Ivan. I won’t watch you burn…”
It’s more than newfound fatherhood driving the passion in his voice, I suspect. It’s anger. Rage. Guilt. Those twisted emotions that have become a part of him, ingrained in his soul. Mischa Stepanov is many things, but at his core he’s human, resistant to change.
“It scares me when you talk like this,” I admit, smoothing my hands along the skirt of my dress. It’s a pale pink cotton, plain without any of the frills my sister Briar preferred. “When… Sometimes I worry you crave the violence. That happiness isn’t enough for you—”
“No,” he starts, but I shake my head.
“And it scares me because I feel the same way.”
And that’s the chilling part of it all. The day Ivan was born, the moment I looked upon his face…
I knew then that I would gladly kill anyone who dared harm him. More than a mother bear’s boast. It’s a feeling I’ve never felt, not even in those dark, twisted early days with Eli.
Even at Mischa’s mercy.
Ferocity. I can dream for Ivan, and Mouse, and Eli—but I refuse to let those dreams rob me of the knowledge I know in my soul: nothing comes without a price. Dreams are built on the backs of blood and heartache and death.
In this world, there are no such things as havens or sanctuaries. There are beautifully crafted prisons with golden bars designed to keep the monsters out, and the precious doves within.
My children are doves. No one will ever harm them.
Even if it means burning the world down around them to keep them safe.
Turning to Mischa, I observe the panes of his face. Worn lines betray his age, adding a softness to his stern features. And a wisdom impossible to overlook.
“I’m not as naive as I pretend,” I say, stroking my hand along his cheek. He allows the contact, leaning into the tips of my fingers. “I’m no longer that scared, stupid woman you stole from Robert Winthorp. I know the price of ignorance.”
“So what are you saying?” he wonders, capturing my hand, holding it in place against his skin.
“I’m saying that I understand. I will always be at your side. And whatever you do…I know it is best for our family. I understand that. I will not take this for granted.”
“Good,” he says gruffly, pulling me into his arms. “Because I expect at least ten children to protect.”
I force a laugh. “Will you bear them? Because I doubt I will.”
“Oh?” He draws me in close, swiping his lips over mine. They linger for a second until he says, “Then I suppose we practice until then.”
Read the Series!
Kidnapped, Ellen must do whatever it takes to survive her cruel mafia captor, Mischa. Will he break her— or will she outsmart him?
WHEN HATE BECOMES OBSESSION…
Mistaken for her beautiful half-sister, Ellen Winthorp is taken captive by a madman who declares that she will be his “fifteen”: the fifteenth victim of a vicious mafia blood feud. Armed with only her instincts, Ellen must resist her captor for as long as she can—which is easier said than done the more she’s exposed to the complex man beneath the beast.
Because Mischa Stepanov isn’t a mindless monster—he’s a wolf, and she’s the unwitting doe caught in his midst.
Unraveling the torment of his past may be her only hope of salvation…
Or the secrets uncovered may destroy them both.
WHEN OBSESSION BECOMES DESIRE…
Ellen Winthorp has no choice but to rely on the protection of Mischa Stepanov—the vicious mafia leader who captured and disfigured her. But the more she learns about him, the deeper she falls into a world of violence, deception and intrigue where danger lurks around every corner.
As long as she plays by his rules, Mischa seems content to drip-feed her information about her family and the secrets shrouding her past.
But her innocent questions may lead to devastating answers…
WHEN DESIRE BECOMES DEVOTION…
As the secrets surrounding the Winthorp and Mafiya war come to light, Ellen and Mischa are forced to trust each other or risk losing themselves to the turmoil.
But war comes with a terrible cost…
And as new enemies and old lies begin to crawl from the wreckage, they must find a way to break the cycle…
Or let the violence consume them, once and for all.