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Cursing, I attempt to swipe my room key through the reader while juggling an armful of shopping bags. Finally, success! I kick open the door and hop inside, only to scream as my eyes settle over a figure glowering in the center of the sprawling suite.
“I told you six,” Vadim snaps. He’s already dressed in a sleek ebony suit, tailored to perfection. His dark curls conform to his skull, slightly mussed. Capping off the look is a blood-red tie that betrays a hint of the daring nature I’ve come to suspect he regularly suppresses. “We’re going to be late…”
He trails off when he notices the army of bags at my disposal.
“Hear me out,” I plead, holding up my hands in a gesture of surrender. “I couldn’t decide what to wear. And then traffic was hell. And…” I fish through my bags and brandish a luxuriously wrapped package in triumph. “I got your brother a gift. And his wife, if he has one.” I wield a second gift in my opposite hand and smile as sweetly as I physically can.
“He has a fiancée,” Vadim grunts, still surly.
So I resort to plan B and start to shimmy out of my dress. “Don’t hate me until you see the options,” I say in a rush. “Option one—” I snatch a garment from a black bag betraying the name of a designer I used to worship back when I had the lack of brains and excess funds to spend on clothing. A deep shade of navy, the slim-fitting cocktail dress sets off the red in my hair and conforms to my shape. Sexy, but modestly so.
“No,” Vadim says, observing me with a frown. “It is a party, not a church service.”
“Ah.” So maybe life with Jim is harder to shake than I thought? No matter. Skipping to another bag, I dig out my second option.
“No,” he growls before I can even pull it on: a black, moderately more revealing mini dress.
“Okay. Big guns, then. Now when you said sexy, I hope you meant…stripper. Because that is this dress.” I reach for my final option, and his eyes narrow thoughtfully. When it isn’t meant with instant rejection, I tug it on, wrenching the tiny frock down over my hips.
It’s a ruby red, not-safe-for-work-fuck-me dress in Jessica Rabbit scarlet with her flair for the daring. A bold, plunging neckline reveals the globes of both my breasts, and the view extends almost to my navel. The back is equally low cut, but given the quality of the fabric, it’s admittedly more high-class escort than stripper.
“This will do,” Vadim says. He lunges forward and grabs my wrist, dragging me from the room before I can even get my bearings.
“We’re late,” he growls. He must not have been kidding about things being tense between him and his brother. I only manage to slip on my heels and grab the two presents before I find myself tugged into the elevator, dragged from the hotel, and promptly shoved within a scarlet sports car waiting out front.
Vadim takes the wheel, still scowling.
I feel drawn to tap his shoulder once, my frown apologetic. “I’m sorry,” I say as he pulls into traffic. “I’m terrible with time management. Jim—I mean… Some people used to say I’d miss the rapture because I’d just have to go back and grab the perfect tube of lipstick to wear through the holy gates.”
He doesn’t laugh.
I try another tack. “Do you live here in Fair Haven?”
Still no answer.
Sighing, I sit back in my seat and wring my fingers together. “If you’re angry with me, you might as well just yell about it. Otherwise, I’ll talk and talk to fill the silence. I can’t stand it to be honest. I would rather be boiled alive than—”
“So it wasn’t the wine that made you so talkative.” His tone is so cutting I wince.
“Touché, Mr. Gorgoshev. I… Are you okay?”
He’s shivering, his body vibrating over the seat. His teeth chatter, but his eyes are narrowed and focused.
I fumble with the dials on the console until the heat kicks on.
“Maybe I should check for a fever—”
“I’d prefer it if you stopped talking, please,” he says, still devastatingly polite.
I fall silent, stung for reasons I can’t name. For all of his surliness, I hate the fact that I might have disappointed him.
It isn’t long before we pull up before what I assume is the entrance to a private stretch of property along a waterfront, just beyond the city limits. Without a word of warning to me, Vadim strikes the button that lowers the window on his end.
“I was invited,” he says, but his voice is sharper than the low, delicious hum I’m used to. It’s cold, and the contrast has me sitting straighter in my seat. He’s speaking to a man who came seemingly from nowhere, dressed in black to blend in with the shadowed surroundings. An earpiece is attached to his left ear, which he fingers while murmuring something too softly for me to make out. Then he nods us forward.
“You can go.”
A smug, icy expression dominates Vadim’s features, exaggerating the harsher lines of his face and diminishing the softness. I’m tempted to try probing him again—something more than my tardiness has to be bothering him—but then I spy the structure looming before us at the end of a long driveway, and I promptly lose my train of thought.
“Holy crap, it’s beautiful,” I murmur.
The house is far from the gaudy, showy properties I grew up in and among. The architecture alone conveys wealth, but subtly. Warm light emanating from within highlights the stone base with rustic accents of wood and beautiful, arched windows displaying a snippet of the home’s interior where several people mill about a wide, spacious room.
Excitement sneaks in, nibbling away at any lingering doubt. While navigating a surly millionaire—sorry, supposed billionaire—is a new experience, if there’s one thing I know, it’s parties. Juggling the presents in both hands, I watch Vadim exit the car, and I let loose a relieved sigh as he crosses to my end and opens the door for me.
“I’ll be good, I promise,” I tell him with a smile.
But he isn’t even looking in my direction. He eyes the house up ahead as though it’s a battlefield. One he’s willing to dominate at all costs.
A shiver of unease runs through me as I follow him, finding my balance in my new—and higher—stilettos. A paved stone path leads to a wide porch at the front of the house. We’ve barely managed to mount the first step when the door flies open so brutally it slams into the wall and ricochets off with a sound like a gunshot.
Startled, I jump and nearly trip off the steps entirely, but Vadim’s hand captures my hip, righting my balance.
“You dare come here?” a man demands, his voice heavily accented and booming like thunder. I have to crane my neck back to take him in; he’s so tall. So huge. A wall of muscle he nearly consumes the entire doorway, barely leaving space for the startled people standing behind him. He radiates fury, his expression so cold I’m instantly chilled and find myself inching closer to Vadim.
Not that he’s a beacon of warmth at the moment—he’s trembling even more than before.
“Let him in, Maxim,” a softer, less stern voice commands from within the house. A British accent plays with the speaker’s pronunciation, making every word sound stern yet polite. “Tell me, is causing a scene really worth it? Now? Here?”
Maxim, presumably the big man, finally stands aside. Light from inside the house spills out, illuminating the long blond hair streaming down his shoulders. Angular features craft a handsome, if stern, face, and his eyes are so dark they seem to feed on the shadows.
“If it breaks the tension, I invited him,” the British speaker insists. A dark-haired man steps forward, wearing a gunmetal gray suit. He’s alluringly handsome, but something in his gaze makes me look away rather than ogle. Wolves are pretty too, but even I know better than to make eye contact with one.
“Come, Dima,” he adds. “I’m sure you came here only to celebrate with us.”
I know a warning not to piss on the couch when I hear it. Usually, said warnings are directed toward me. Be good, Tiffy. Don’t fuck this up, Tiffy. Just be fucking normal, Tiffany!
“I’ll try to be on my very best behavior,” Vadim simpers. The shift in his personality is even more palpable now. I glance over to find his eyes flashing, ignited with that mischievous gleam times a million.
Uh, oh. A part of me warns. What the hell have I stepped into?
All I can do is follow all three men into the house where I quickly realize that: one, it’s just as beautiful as the outside. Two, if sexy was the dress code, then I’m the only person who got the memo.
In addition to the three men, two women linger on the outskirts of a massive, open floor plan living room. Both wear modest and yet fashionable black gowns presumably tailored to their individual preferences. A slender brunette wears hers slightly short, but with a conservative neckline while a striking blond models a somewhat longer design with fashionable sleeves. Though, strangely, she looks just as uncomfortable as I feel being here, her large eyes darting between all three men.
It doesn’t take me long to realize what might be guiding their fashion choices: the presence of children. Small ones. Bigger ones. At least six in total stand scattered throughout the room. A little boy with huge brown eyes takes one look at me and scampers over to a small girl with long sandy hair. “You can see her boobies,” he stage-whispers to her.
And I feel slapped. Used. My entire body tenses up with the realization that he urged me to dress this way on purpose. To cause a scene. Prove a point. It’s happened before: being the girl who arrives to a party braless in a thin white tee shirt because she was stupid enough to fall for the “it’s a charity wet tee-shirt contest,” line.
Humiliation washes over me in crippling, searing waves, and all I want to do is sink into the floor and die. Old Tiffy would have. She would have crumbled to pieces and run from this room in tears. She would have berated herself for being so stupid. So weak. She would be an easy target.
But I’m not her anymore.
Reigning in the shame takes all of five seconds. I jut my chin into the air, square my shoulders, and plaster a charming grin on my face the likes of which would make my mother proud.
“Oh gosh, I am so sorry,” I declare, laughing politely. Haha, silly me. “Poor Vadim tried to warn me that this dress might be a bit much, but I didn’t pay him any mind.” I turn to him and playfully slap him on the forearm—hard. If he notices the hostility, his expression doesn’t show it. “If it isn’t too much trouble, could I borrow a jacket or a shawl?”
“Here, Miss.” An older gentleman steps forward and shrugs his suit jacket from his shoulders, offering it to me.
I shimmy into it, balancing my gifts. I can sense Vadim watching me from the corner of my eye, the bastard. Smiling harder, I turn the charm up to eleven.
“You must be the brother,” I exclaim, turning to the dark-haired man. It’s a logical guess, considering his hair color, but when I glance at the blond man, I realize my mistake. No two creatures could possess eyes that shade by accident. “My apologies. You are the brother,” I declare, turning to him. Smiling prettily, I extend my gift and force myself to meet his cold, piercing stare. “I’m Tiffany. Thank you so much for inviting us; we picked out something small to show our appreciation.” When he doesn’t take the present, I laugh nervously. Desperate for an escape, I set it down on a nearby end table instead. “And your fiancé must be…” I pivot and spot the two women again. The blond eyes me, her expression unreadable, but the brunette looks as uncomfortable as a deer in the headlights. Bingo.
“You must be the fiancé!” I cross to her and nearly sigh in relief when she accepts the gift.
“I’m Francesca,” she says softly. Her voice lacks an accent, at least, but she’s young. Really young. I do a doubletake of Vadim’s brother, and I have to fight back the inner judgmental voice wondering just how young she truly is.
“Well, I’m so sorry we made a scene,” I say, returning to Vadim’s side. He’s rigid, unmoving even as I grasp his hand and shamelessly dig my nails into the palm of it.
He’ll pay for this later. Oh, he will so pay. But for now, I know it’s better to play my part and bide my time. No one will ever make a fool of me again, out of spite or otherwise.
“So, what are we celebrating?” I ask.
The two brooding men share a look.
“An engagement,” Vadim says before either one can offer up an answer themselves.
“Lovely!” I clap my hands, my smile beaming. “Congratulations!”
I swear everyone flinches.
But I take the awkward tension as a challenge. I will survive this, so help me, God.
Or I will gleefully take Vadim down with me.
Brother of the fiercest crime lord in Fair Haven, Vadim Gorgoshev has survived horrors most men couldn’t imagine in their nightmares—and he’s learned to thrive in the chaos.
But the master of control meets his match when a fiery redhead crosses his path.
Will the obsessive Vadim maintain the upper hand or will the reckless Tiffany turn his world upside down?