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There is a reason why, when most people climb from their rock bottom, they tend to promise themselves some variation of—never again. Never will they reach that low point again, and especially not at the whims of someone else.
Only a fool like me would promptly forget those internal vows the second they fall for a pretty face with a nice wallet. And incredible sex. That’s the hurtful part—in exchange for a few welcomed distractions, Vadim Gorgoshev made me disregard my list.
And I fully deserve the reality bitch-slap coming my way. Ironically, said slap is delivered in the form of a child so beautiful it almost hurts to look at her head-on. With every passing second, I’m reminded of the man standing nearby who manipulated me into this position.
And deep down, I know that I can’t even truly be angry with him.
Not when I’m the idiot who failed myself.
“I’m so glad that you and Magdalene can finally meet in person,” a dark-haired woman standing in the doorway says warmly. I vaguely remember her name as being Ms. Anderson—the subject of one of Vadim’s so-called “business meetings.” Now, her real identity is painfully clear as she places her hand on the girl’s shoulder and urges her forward with a gentle nudge—social worker. “Say hello, Magda,” she prompts.
Magda. A creature so small, her limbs are more delicately shaped than even Vadim’s. Pale skin enhances her frailty—gosh, she really could be a living doll. A doll dressed in hand-me-downs. I recognize the ill-fitting shape of her simple black shirt and gray skirt—an anomaly I file away for later. Looking at her, it’s hard to focus on anything else but the unease setting my face on fire.
A thin headband restrains a mass of wayward curls, but stubborn strands have slipped through anyway to frame her cherub cheeks. Curls every bit as stubborn as her frown. It’s like looking at a mini-Vadim, scowling at the world, mistrustful and calculating. Even of her father, it seems. Her eyes flicker over him, devoid of recognition, and confusion mingles with the anger building beneath my skin.
“Magda…” Vadim’s voice is a rasp that tugs at something inside me, even as fury simmers hot. He takes a step forward and extends his hand only to let it fall when she crosses her arms—deliberately, I suspect. “Welcome,” he grates, letting his hands dangle uselessly at his sides. His eyes dart around the room as if hunting for anything he could direct the conversation to. Lost, he stammers. “Welcome home. I mean, welcome to—”
“It’s okay,” Ms. Anderson says gently, displaying the patience that I assume comes with her profession. “We hope this will be a great home for her, too. Care to show us around?”
“Of course.” Vadim lurches into motion, guiding them through the lower level. Like a sleepwalker, I find myself straggling behind them, watching. Lurking.
It’s selfish—I know it is—but my brain plays a horrible game. It takes the features of that beautiful little girl and taunts me with who her mother might be. What she looks like. Someone so alluring that a man as tormented as Vadim took an interest in her. He was careless with her. He trusted her with his child.
A child whom, as of five minutes ago, I didn’t even know existed.
I stare as they move in a stiff, awkward progression through this clinical, sterile mansion. Magda’s appearance alone creates a stark contrast that makes her absence from Vadim’s life painfully apparent. Nothing from the color scheme to the sleek architecture lends itself to the idea of a child visiting, let alone living here. But does she? I recall one word Ms. Anderson stated, and my perception is turned upside down for a second time—placement. As in adoption?
No one offers up any other explanation. As the small procession makes its way into the kitchen, Ms. Anderson abruptly turns back to the foyer. “I think I’ll step out for a minute,” she says with a small smile. “I’ll grab some paperwork from the car, and you three can use this time to get acquainted.”
She leaves, and “us three” take up various positions across the kitchen like opposing generals in a silent war. Vadim hovers near the dining table, his expression stricken. He can’t seem to take his eyes off her, Magda. She stands by the bar counter, her arms crossed, her eyes suspiciously narrow.
Gosh, seeing the two of them nearly side by side…
It’s breathtaking how identical they look—both in manner and appearance. Simultaneously they embody the two halves of Vadim’s personality I’ve become the most acquainted with. The vulnerable, raw part of him that calls to the empathic part of my soul. And the calculating, vengeful mastermind always one step ahead. With every second ticking by, that selfish, pathetic hurt in my chest digs deeper, biting into my very core.
“Hello, Magda,” Vadim manages to say, once again attempting conversation.
She purses her pink lips in a deliberate show of silence, flicking her gaze throughout the room.
“Are you okay?” Vadim adds, and I do a double take. I’ve never seen him so…off-balance. So out of his element. Helpless, he rakes a hand through his hair, his eyes lacking their calculating cool.
Though Magda seems to possess more than enough for both of them.
“Am I going to live here now?” Her voice is soft, as cold as his can be but lacks any accent. “When I leave the Robinsons?”
“Y-Yes.” Vadim fumbles for a chair and sits on it, facing her. “If that is what you want—”
“So, you are a foster family?” Her eyes shift in my direction, inspecting me from head to toe. In some ways, it’s the most thorough dressing-down I think I’ve been subjected to. With a sigh, she turns her attention back to Vadim and cocks her head. “You don’t look like a foster family.”
“Or more,” Vadim says thickly. “If that is what you—”
“I hope everyone is getting acquainted,” Ms. Anderson declares as she enters the room, a briefcase in tow. “We can go over some of the paperwork, and then Magda, you can visit for as long as you’d like.”
“Can I wait in the car?” Magda asks.
“Already?” Ms. Anderson’s bright smile strains at the edges. “Don’t you want to get to know Mr. Vadim and Ms. Tiffany?”
Magda’s blue eyes flash with a hint of emotion that vanishes before I can identify it. “No.” She neatly clasps her tiny hands and marches into the hall. A second later, the front door slams shut, and Ms. Anderson collapses onto the nearest chair with a heavy sigh.
“I’m sorry. Magdalene is a wonderful little girl—so brilliant. I mean, you don’t know the half. But I won’t deny that she has proven to be…challenging lately, especially for her current foster family. Two years ago, and things were wonderful, but it’s as if since her illness… Well, she decided to go from a sweet, respectful child into—” She seems to remember her current surroundings and breaks off. Clearing her throat, she shuffles through her briefcase and extracts a handful of documents. “Her placement with her current family ends on Monday,” she explains. “They’ve decided to move back to Michigan after the end of the term, though they did request a meeting with you at your earliest convenience. If it’s not too soon, Magda will be ready for placement with you as soon as Tuesday. It is unusual to move so quickly in the process. Still, after the whole teddy bear incident—” she breaks off again and coughs to disguise the action. “Anyway, with the term ending, and Magda’s unique health concerns, it could be a challenge to find a suitable family. Thankfully, I see here that you have passed all of the relevant courses.”
“Health concerns?” I hear myself croak.
“Yes.” Ms. Anderson nods. “She suffers from insulin-dependent diabetes, so she requires a strict dietary regimen and a provider qualified enough to assist with monitoring her sugars regularly. And I’m sure you’re aware of the unfortunate setback last year, so her health is a significant factor in finding the right placement. She is also unusually gifted, as you might have been able to tell. Her intellect can make her interactions with some adults…unnerving. For that reason, she requires a very stimulating education that, coincidentally, one of the schools here in Fair Haven, is able to provide. She even received an anonymous scholarship to cover the costs for the duration of her entire schooling, so you can see why keeping her here would be a priority.”
Vadim says nothing, his gaze distant. Perhaps he’s ruminating over those few key words. Intelligent. Challenging. Unnerving. Or, like me, he’s marveling at the fact that the description of that child could have easily fit him.
“Excuse me,” I blurt, unable to hold back any longer. “Where is her mother? Her birth mother?”
“Her m-mother?” Ms. Anderson blinks and glances at Vadim. “Magdalene was discovered abandoned at the age of five, left right on the steps of an orphanage.” She shakes her head sadly. “We, unfortunately, have no real information on her birth parents. Adoption would be the aim of this placement, as we have already discussed with Mr. Gorgoshev.”
“Of course,” Vadim grates, his gaze averted from me. The wall is back up, and I seethe at that, perhaps irrationally. Maybe it’s selfish to want something more from him now—some shred of emotion to cling to. Regret? Smugness? Something.
“Excuse me.” I turn to the door, moving quickly. “I… I have a horrible headache.”
Only now does a familiar voice call out, “Tiffany…”
I falter despite myself. He has the nerve to sound hoarse. Tortured. I hear his chair move, but I shake my head. “Don’t,” I say firmly as I start for the stairs. “Do not follow me.”
I make my escape into the bedroom, and I don’t stop until I’m barreling into the closet, snatching items from hangers at random. The fact that I own nothing here really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. I selfishly take handfuls of clothing—both his and mine—and shove whatever I can into one of his briefcases. When the case is stuffed to the brim, I take it and march down the stairs. As I descend the final steps, I catch him ushering Ms. Anderson from the door. The second she’s gone, he closes it, his back to me.
“What?” I throw the briefcase at him, and it lands harmlessly at his feet. He doesn’t even flinch. “Get out of my way.”
“What do you want me to say?” he demands, and I stiffen at his tone. The harsh, bitter cadence is a damn near match for Magda’s. Their anger is as chilling as their hostility, erected like an invisible brick wall against anyone who dares approach them.
Even if that person has their heart laid bare.
“What should you say?” I hiss incredulously. “Maybe that you have a daughter!”
He’s silent, his hand on the doorknob. Despite my anger, a tiny bit of unease bites through, making me falter in my descent. Would he really try to keep me here? Trap me here?
To rebel against that very possibility, I force myself down onto the next step. Then another.
“You have a daughter, and you abandoned her,” I add to twist the knife, parroting the word Ms. Anderson had used. “You put her in foster care? So now what? You yank her back out? Is that what you wanted your fake wife for? A decoy to game the system to regain custody of your own child? Answer me! I swear to God—”
“She doesn’t know I exist.”
My shoulders deflate at the raw pain in his tone, and dizzying confusion displaces some of the anger. “So why…”
“I didn’t know she did either until two years ago,” he explains, turning to face me. His eyes trace the floor rather than meet mine directly. He cradles his temples in the palm of his hands, his jaw clenched. “One day, someone went through great lengths to slip me an envelope that contained only the picture of a five-year-old little girl and her location in an orphanage upstate. I only had to see her face, and I knew. Those eyes…” He shakes his head, clearing away the memory. “There was nothing else—no information on who left her or why. I arranged to have our DNA matched, but the results were no surprise. Afterward, I intervened to have her brought here, where she could receive an education. I secured her safety…”
The raw pain in his voice makes me sway, and I grasp for the banister, gripping it so tightly my knuckles whiten. At the same time, I grit my teeth to keep my expression from faltering. “You learned of her years ago, but you let her go into the foster care system?”
He flinches, leaning against the door as if it’s the only thing keeping him upright. “I didn’t know what to do. I… I couldn’t take care of her—not then.” He sounds so earnest about that. His tone, paired with Ena’s vague hints of his mental state, makes me wonder just how unstable he had to be at that point.
It doesn’t take rocket science to come up with the answer—so unhinged, he didn’t trust himself around his own child.
“And her mother?” I descend another step but don’t approach him.
He meets my gaze, and I know whatever he’s about to say is anything but a lie. “I can’t explain that right now. You need to trust me on that.”
But I can’t. There’s something in how his eyes shift, darkening in that way he does when his wall is up. When he’s hiding something. When he’s pushing me away.
“A one-night stand?” I prod. Somehow that possibility stings more than him having a genuine relationship. I couldn’t convince him to let me suck him off during our first meeting, and yet some other woman managed to snag his child in one go.
“No,” he says, confusing me further. “It is…complicated. More than you can imagine.” His jaw clenches in that telltale hallmark of when he’s reflecting on that which haunts him the most—his past. As angry as I am now, I can’t seem to broach that topic.
So, I do the next best thing and march over to my makeshift suitcase. As I stoop for the strap, his voice rings out.
“Why not?” I hiss, placing my hand on my hip instead. “Give me one reason why I should stay? I didn’t sign up for this. You may enjoy treating people like toys, but I won’t serve as your smiling Barbie so you can acquire some poor little girl—”
“I can’t do this alone. I can’t.” His voice is so guttural each word resonates in my bones, sinking deep. “I can’t do this by myself, and I’ve worked too damn hard to secure her placement. I… I need your help. It’s why I wanted to hire…” He grits his teeth, his expression grim with determination. “Stay. I’ll give you whatever you want—”
“I want honesty!” I snap, but my voice rings out hollower than I’m used to. Broken. “I want you to tell me more than the basic, generic damn answers. Tell me the truth!”
“I will,” he counters, raising his tone to match mine. “I will. But you yourself stated that you had a perfect childhood. I was not so lucky. So do not doubt that my sole concern is Magdalene, and I will do whatever it takes to ensure that she is safe with me.”
“Is that a threat?” I try to sound nonchalant—like I’m not afraid. But when he looks as he does now…I am. His eyes blaze, ruthlessly determined.
And not for the first time, I’m forced to reconcile the fact that I have no idea what he’s capable of.
“Stay with me,” he commands, his voice slightly softer. “I cannot risk losing her to some bureaucratic miscalculation. I’ve worked too damn hard… The sacrifices I’ve made for her? You think I’ve betrayed you, fine. But understand that I can’t risk losing her placement. I can’t.”
And he’s begging me to prevent just that from happening.
“Fine.” Overwhelmed, I lift my hands in surrender. “I’ll stay until she’s placed with you—but I’m leaving after that.”
He sighs in relief. “Thank you—”
“But that is all you’re getting out of me,” I say over him, desperate to put distance between us—any petty way I can. “Forget our ‘relationship.’ There isn’t one. And I suggest you find somewhere else to sleep. Don’t touch me. Don’t talk to me. I don’t want anything to do with you.”
“S’il te plaît! Just listen to me…” A groan escapes him, so pained, it stops me right in my tracks. “Tell me what I can do to earn your forgiveness.”
“Nothing!” I snarl. Why am I so angry? I still don’t know. Or maybe I just can’t admit it, even to myself—a stinging pinch in my chest reveals the answer anyway. Jealousy. Jealousy. Jealousy.
It festers on a million different petty observations. Like how he listened to me pine for a child I’ll never have, while hiding his own. A child connected to him in ways I suspect he’s deliberately not revealing—her mother’s identity, for one. Those eyes, he said in that hollow tone reserved only for those who matter most to him, like his horse Zzazza. I only had to see her face, and I knew. Those eyes…
The mere thought of him withholding something from me hurts in ways I can’t explain. Tears spill from my eyes as I whirl to face him, my voice scathing, “I escaped a marriage with one self-centered asshole. I’ll be damned if I’m jumping into another with someone ten times worse, fake or not. Jim didn’t pretend to be anything other than a prick. So, fuck off, Vadim. I suggest you continue your search for a fake fiancée.”
I turn on my heel and leave him there. Storming into the bedroom, I slam the door behind me so fiercely the sound echoes like a gunshot.
Then I sink onto the bed and cry in earnest, like I haven’t in a very, very long time. Shoulders shaking, voice breaking, full-throttle sobs. It’s a pity party, for sure. I can admit that. But it’s surprisingly painful to go from wanting someone so much—despite every last warning sign—to knowing that it’s better to have nothing to do with him.
And yet still craving him all the same.
Hope can be such a bitch.
A desperate divorcee on the hunt for some no-strings kinky fun.
A brooding, sexy billionaire with a penchant for manipulation and mind games…
What could possibly go wrong?
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?
With Vadim’s control stretched to its breaking point, he aims to turn the tables by enacting Tiffany’s wildest fantasies—whether she wants him to or not.
The harder she finds it to resist him, the more she becomes swept into his growing family, forced to reassess her previous boundaries.
But when Vadim’s past comes back to haunt him, the chaos threatens to ignite their budding relationship…
And destroy it for good.
When a ghost from Vadim’s past returns to haunt him, he resorts to his worst instincts—putting his relationship with Tiffany to the test.
With no end to his paranoia in sight, Tiffany is forced to decide once and for all whether to conquer their shared demons together…
Or protect her heart by walking away for good.
Vadim’s books are a new trilogy in the Club XXX world. Vadim’s trilogy can be enjoyed without first reading Maxim’s trilogy or read as a continuation to Maxim’s series.