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Insecurity thrives on doubt—but it doesn’t help when reality reinforces every last one of those petty fears. Like when your new lover’s ex-whatever-she-is-to-him comes back from the proverbial grave. It’s easy to write off the concerns as paranoia at first, until the truth is staring you in the face, and there is no escaping it.
Knowing that Vadim had another woman in his life, no matter how he characterized her, scares me for reasons well beyond the obvious jealousy. Mainly because whenever I dare to picture such a woman…
One small consolation was that the mythical figure I’d conjured up seemed so unrealistic in my head, a part of me was convinced she couldn’t possibly exist. She’s always beyond beautiful—shehad to be in order to become swept within the orbit of someone like him.
But here she is, in the flesh, and my self-deprecating fantasies didn’t even do her justice. Irina. Tall and slender, her long, curling blond hair ends at her waist, and her beautiful features convey poise and confidence—high cheekbones, perfect pouty lips, and a figure to die for.
I self-consciously run my fingers over the skirt of my outfit, trying and failing to maintain my fake smile. My first thought is that she didn’t come dressed to impress her daughter. A tight-fitting navy dress exposes a wealth of cleavage, clinging to her narrow hips, hugging every curve not shrouded by her tailored black jacket. I can’t help but picture her with the man standing before me, their hands entwined…
And they look fucking perfect, despite the fact that Vadim is still wearing a pair of sweats, rumpled from riding.
My only consolation is an entirely selfish realization—she and Magda could be strangers for all the similarities they share. The latter is a damn near carbon copy of her father with his delicate bone structure, for one—even her expressions seem to mirror his. It could be safely assumed that Irina might not be related to her at all, save for their eyes.
Vadim had called it himself—those eyes. Ice-cold blue, their twin gazes tether them together more strongly than any one feature of his. And I hate myself for being so bothered by that fact.
Awkwardly, I linger at the back of the foyer while Vadim blocks the doorway, frozen solid. Some genuine sympathy creeps in, gnawing away at my nerves. For all of my selfish reservations, this woman has one title I can’t deny—a mother. Who am I to blame her for coming to see her child, even if it’s out of the gosh darn blue?
Channeling my own mother, I force a polite smile and try to meet her gaze. “Hello—”
“It’s been a long time,” Irina says softly without looking my way once. Her voice is lilting, tinged with a heavy accent I can’t place—but I’m too distracted by where her gaze is focused to really give a damn. The way she eyes the man standing between us…
There is a word to describe it, I think. That longing, desperate expression.
If my brain weren’t on red alert with dread, I’d be able to come up with the right description. Maybe ownership? That would certainly explain why my cheeks catch fire, and I sense my chin tilt defensively into the air. Stepping forward, I slip my hand into Vadim’s—not jealously. Just… Reassuringly. A silent way to reinforce that I’m here on this battlefield with him.
Because, I sense, this very much is a battle.
Irina herself imparts the first warning shot as her gaze finally settles over me. Only my time with Magda helps me interpret the icy shift in those unsettlingly blue irises. Annoyance.
“I was hoping we could speak in private.” Her gaze lowers to our clasped hands and Vadim’s flex, gripping mine almost to the point of pain—but just as quickly, the tension loosens.
“Tiffany…” From this angle, I can’t see his face. I don’t need to in order to picture his expression. Haunting, dark eyes implicitly closed off. Before I know it, his wall goes up, solid stone against me—and that realization stings. Almost as much as the act of him slipping his hand from mine does. “Why don’t you go for a walk?” he suggests without turning around.
Hurt sears through my chest a split second before my ears perk up, catching the subtle, deliberate inflection in his voice. Walk. In this context, that clearly means something else when paired with how his gaze flicks toward the kitchen—and the tiny, helpless figure still there, oblivious to our visitor’s arrival.
“Okay.” With difficulty, I turn away, sensing Irina enter the house—her presence is that overwhelming. Cloying rose-scented perfume itches my nostrils as her voice taunts me, a low hum.
“I’ve missed you, my Dima,” she tells him in a way that makes my chest constrict. “God, how I’ve missed you…”
Only sheer pride prevents me from turning back to see their reunion unfold. Determined, I make it into the kitchen, and there I spot the true target of my so-called “walk.” Instantly my priorities shift, and I bite back any lingering unease.
“You okay, honey?”
Magda watches me from the very back of the space, her arms crossed, her gaze wary. A tiny pang of panic makes me falter and brace my hand against the nearest counter. Did she see Irina? Hear her? Recognize her? If she has, I doubt even my mother’s skills of social navigation will help me much in this instance…
“Is it the man?” she asks. In response to my raised eyebrow, she adds, “The big, scary man.” Her tone strives to convey bravery. If only her eyes weren’t bug-wide, her jaw clenched.
But at least her assumption is so far off base, I doubt she knows our visitor’s true identity. Though, as for a big, scary man… Maxim? Forcing a smile, I shake my head. “No, honey. Just boring adult business. How about we go for a walk?”
“A walk?” she parrots suspiciously, her arms still crossed.
“Yes. I bet it’s lovely out.” I stroll boldly through the sliding glass door leading to the terrace and promptly feel my plan change on the fly once I realize that it’s pitch-black dark outside.
“So…no walk,” I confess. As my eyes scan the brightly lit terrace, they fall over one promising diversion, however. “What about a swim?”
I have to smirk at the alarm in Magda’s tone. Like father like daughter. Reckless, impulsive decisions aren’t her style.
“Yes,” I say, strutting boldly to the edge of the pool. She lingers back, but I glance over my shoulder to find her watching me with avid interest, bathed in the glow of a few lamps placed strategically throughout the terrace. “You’ve never taken a night swim before?”
Her tiny lips press together, and I can practically see the gears in her brain whirling. Does she trust me enough to divulge whatever bit of information she’s mulling over? Finally, she sighs. “I can’t swim.”
Her voice is so soft, so guarded. I suspect the lacking skill is a sore point for her, and I chalk it up as yet another failure of her last foster family.
“I can teach you,” I suggest, fighting to keep the surprising amount of genuine desire from my voice. I actually want to—though with her birth mother seemingly back in the picture…
Who knows if I’ll get the chance?
Be positive, Tiffy. Forcing yet another grin, I shrug. “I may be too rusty in riding to help you with your pony, but I, my girl, have swum to and fro many a yacht party in the middle of the night.”
I look back again to find her lips twitching, fighting a smile. “What’s a yacht party?”
It’s my turn to be guarded. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
Sighing, Magda wraps her arms around herself and rocks onto her heels. “I’m cold. Can we go back into the house now?”
Shit. Thinking quickly, I skip to the edge of the pool, say a prayer for this beautiful Chanel ensemble, and then I dive in. The water is a shock to the system, but nowhere near as cold as it could be—as I kick, I recall something Vadim said about it being heated. The second I break the surface, I’m faced with a tiny figure leaning eagerly over the edge of the pool.
With her wide-eyed, gleeful expression, I barely recognize the same surly little girl.
“You are going to get into so much trouble,” she declares, sounding ecstatic at the prospect.
As I let my brain toy with what my potential punishments may be—at the hands of my handsome punisher, of course—I feel myself more than matching her excitement.
“God, I hope so.”
“You’re all wet,” she adds more sternly. “And your clothes are all ruined. You’ll probably catch a cold. I bet you’ll get in big trouble too.”
My lips twitch into a gleeful smile at the prospect of a disciplinarian Vadim. That is, if he isn’t with Irina right now, bending her over the desk in his office, overcome with lust at her return. My gaze drifts to the house as I picture it…
There goes my smile. To hide my worried expression, I lean back, kicking my legs in an easy backstroke.
“Trouble? I laugh in the face of trouble! And what about you, little Miss? Don’t tell me you’re afraid?”
“I’m not!” She frowns and inches ever closer to the edge of the pool. As she eyes the water, her expression wavers in such a childlike display of hesitation that my heart swells at the adorableness of it all.
“Chicken?” I ask her playfully.
“I can’t swim,” she insists, sounding irritated at having to announce her weakness to the world a second time. So prideful, just like her father.
“I’ll catch you,” I suggest, swimming toward her. “I promise. Keep your feet together. Jump straight down—just whatever you do, don’t panic. I’ve got you.”
Her eyes narrow, her lips pursed in a damn near carbon copy of one of her father’s wary expressions. “Promise?”
I stick out my pinky, deadly serious. “I promise.”
Her eyes blaze as if she wants more than anything to deny that. Prove me wrong. So young, but so mistrustful already. I’m sure she’ll refuse and go storming back into the house when she steps back, smoothing her hands over her beautiful new outfit.
“I’ll always have your back,” I tell her. “You can trust me.”
She shoots me a fearful glance—glimpsed without her trademark mini-wall—and before I even have the chance to mull over the implications, she jumps into the pool. I lunge forward, slipping my arms around her the second I sense her start to flail. She claws at my arms, her tiny nails biting in, but I can tell that she’s trying hard not to panic, even as she sputters at the air, her expression shocked.
“See?” Gently, I kick my legs, sending us further out into the water. “There’s nothing to it.”
She eyes me skeptically, her teeth chattering. But when I shift to let her kick on her own, she does, clinging to my arms as I steer her into the shallower end.
“Good job! It’s not so bad, is it?” I praise as she paddles with all her might to stay afloat.
Her tiny lips twitch. Fighting a smile? A frown? In the end, an impishly self-satisfied grin shapes her mouth for just a second. I let her practice for a few more laps before bringing her to the end of the pool. The second she can touch down with her own feet, she lets me go, but her mouth is stretched wide. Definitely a smile this time.
“You’ll teach me more?” she asks, barely managing to disguise her eagerness. “So, I can swim by myself?”
I nod and then playfully flick my wrist splashing her. “You’ve got it—”
“What on earth is going on here?”
We whip around to find Vadim standing at the opposite end of the pool, his arms crossed, the picture of playful discipline. I feel my toes curl, and my heart drop in the same conflicting motion. One might never guess that, seconds ago, he had to deal with a literal demon from his past. Staying in the pool feels preferable to confronting whatever reality might await inside the house.
His disarming smirk gives me no clue, only unnerving me further. “Whose idea was this?”
“She did it!” Magda scuttles from the water, waddling to his side as her sodden clothing clings to her tiny frame. Crossing her arms, she copies his posture, eyeing me disapprovingly. “I told her not to.”
“And you were right,” Vadim agrees, his tone ringing with authority. “Ena will kill me if you two track water throughout the house.” His smile lessens the impact of that statement, however. Gone is the darkness I feel I should see in his gaze, and my unease nibbles deeper. Is Irina still here, lying in wait to meet her daughter?
Have they reconciled about her custody, already?
I try my damn hardest to make eye contact with Vadim as I swim to his corner, but his attention is fixated firmly on his daughter.
“What am I going to do with you?” He raises his hand to her, only to falter partway. Then something in his gaze hardens with resolve, and he tentatively ruffles one of her damp braids. Remarkably, she doesn’t cringe from him—a fact that makes his dark eyes soften with such gentleness I bite back a groan. “You’re soaked,” he tells her, some real concern slipping into his teasing murmur. “Let’s hope you don’t catch a cold, oui?”
“Yeah,” Magda says, wrinkling her button nose.
A teensy bit of guilt dampens my enthusiasm as I climb from the pool and rise to my feet. “Maybe you should grab us some towels? That way we won’t make too much of a mess—”
“But I’m little,” Magda says, shifting toward Vadim conspiratorially. She tugs on his pant leg like a queen commanding a servant. “You can pick me up, and I won’t drip like she will.”
The little minx. She’s so intent on her apparent victory that she doesn’t seem to notice she gave him permission to touch her. Permission he accepts with a strained look of awe so potent my heart aches.
“Right you are.” He shrugs off his sweatshirt and drapes it over her before lifting her gingerly into his arms. She eyes me smugly from her new height, and I can’t resist seizing a chunk of her hair as I come up beside them, giving it a tug.
She swats me off, and I finally meet Vadim’s gaze from over her head. Only for him to turn away. “Let’s head inside,” he says.
I follow them into the house without complaint, and I’m relieved—yet unnerved—to find the lower level seemingly empty. Even Ena isn’t lurking in view. Neither is a breathtaking blond with more of a claim to this budding family than I have.
But as we cross the foyer, Magda stiffens, clinging to Vadim to the point that he has to adjust her grip around his neck to keep her from accidentally choking him.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, his expression drawn with concern.
She doesn’t answer. Her eyes worriedly scan the corners of the foyer, her nostrils flaring. Out of fear of Maxim?
“No one’s here, sweetheart,” I say, stroking through her damp hair. As the words leave my mouth, however, I realize that I’m not even sure of that fact.
“That’s right,” Vadim insists, his tone hard. “No one.”
He forges onward upstairs and pauses only to grab a towel for me from a hall closet before carrying Magda straight into her room. As he ushers her into the bathtub, it’s as if his entire demeanor changes without him seeming to realize it. His voice deepens, soothing but stern as he urges her to wait while he runs the water until it’s warm enough.
While I slip into her closet and procure a nightgown, he scours her bedroom for anything out of place and then turns back her blankets. By the time she emerges from the bath, bundled in a robe, he descends on her with an army of towels and patiently dries every last curl.
I’m completely enthralled. Like a shameless voyeur, I find myself leaning against the doorway to the closet, as he grabs her brush and diligently tackles her hair, braiding it with a skill that leaves me both awed and seething with jealousy. To think that only a few days ago, he’d been worried about failing her. As it turns out, he’s damn good at this dad thing.
When Magda huddles beneath her blankets, freshly dressed and pampered, he starts to pull away.
“Wait!” She tugs at his hand until he stills. Then she scans her room with laser focus. Spotting her doll, Biphany, on the nightstand, she grabs it, tucking it under her arm. Vadim seems to read his cue and stoops to lift something else from the floor—two halves of a decapitated teddy bear.
Magda sighs with relief and eagerly grasps for the torn pieces.
“We should fix him, non?” Vadim suggests as he sits on the side of her bed.
Magda nods solemnly even as she crushes the deflated bear to her chest, damaged or not.
“He needs advanced surgery,” she decides, eyeing It’s head with a weary sigh. “Multiple stitches. A stuffing transfusion… You’ll do it?” She looks so wary as she phrases the question, almost as if she’s afraid he’ll refuse.
And Vadim, well aware of the gravity of the task, nods with the demeanor of a world-renowned surgeon. “Of course. It will be a grueling surgery,” he explains, stroking a bit of the bear’s ivory fur. “But I’m sure that if he is a good lad, he’ll come through. Maybe with a present to mark his bravery.”
“Good.” Magda closes her eyes, snuggling beneath her blankets. Within seconds, she’s already drifting off.
Quietly, Vadim and I escape her room, shutting off the light and closing the door behind us. Once we reach the bedroom, however, Mommy and Daddy lose the “E for everyone” rating.
My thoughts instantly shift to Irina, and a question about her is already on the tip of my tongue when I sense Vadim come up behind me.
“Merde.” He grabs me, wrenching up my sodden dress and cups me directly between my legs. The desperation with which he does so tempers the answering lust sparking to life inside my belly. He’s more possessive than sensual, yanking me around so swiftly I have to clutch his shoulders just to stay upright. His mouth finds my throat, lips parting, teeth latching with a searing nip that makes me gasp.
Lust ignites my blood like liquid fire—so potent that I almost forget the world-shattering event at the forefront. Almost.
“Irina,” I rasp as he strokes me, applying devious pressure to my clit, enhancing the placement of my piercing. Holy crap. I nearly lose my train of thought, and then I realize as his eyes hungrily watch me bite down a moan—that’s what he wants.
To distract me.
“Tell me what happened.” With difficultly, I break away from him, backing up to put distance between us. My body hums, craving him, but I force myself to deny the desire and meet his gaze with what I hope passes for a stern expression. “Tell me. What did she want? Is she still holding up the adoption?”
He turns away, putting his back to me. A heavy sigh betrays the exhaustion he hid so well in front of Magda—and the alarming instability that has become his hallmark. How he rakes his hands through his hair. Trembles with emotion. Gets that hard, low note in his voice I’ve come to associate with some impulsive gesture—like tying me up. Twice.
“I will tell you everything,” he swears, his shoulders hunched, body radiating tension. “If, you tell me something first…”
My breath catches as I advance a step toward him. “Anything.”
“Tell me that you’ll marry me.” He whirls around, fixing me with the full intensity of his gaze, and I stagger backward. His eyes are so damn dark, so fucking earnest and determined all at once. My throat dampens, my body pulsating even as alarm bells go off at the back of my mind.
Only as he starts to advance do I fully register what he said. “Vadim—”
“Tomorrow,” he interjects as he continues to approach, backing me into a corner. Within a heartbeat, I’m trapped, forced to crane my neck just to take him in. “I already have the paperwork drawn up. Together, we will file for joint custody over Magdalene—”
“Slow down!” I place my hand on his chest, my voice breaking.
“You will adopt her,” he continues as if I’d never spoken. “My lawyer has already set plans in motion to expedite the request. All I need is your signature. I have a judge on my payroll, ready to validate them—”
“Wait!” I feel like I’m spinning, forced to brace myself against the wall just to gain some semblance of stability. “Tell me what happened. What did Irina—”
“Fuck Irina!” His voice booms, startling me with the ferocity. The vitriol. The…fear. Too late, he seems to realize his mistake. His eyes dart to the door, his head cocked to listen for any hint of Magda stirring.
While he’s distracted, I take my chance and escape to the opposite end of the bed.
“Tell me what happened,” I plead, making my voice as soothing as I can. “Talk to me—”
“She is irrelevant,” he says coldly. “You tell me. Say yes.”
“Vadim…” I lean against the wall, my face in my hands. “This is a lot to take in. Maybe if you explain what happened—”
“It doesn’t matter what happened. You claimed you wanted a relationship with me. Or will you let a woman you’ve never even met be your excuse to run?”
I blink. “I’m sorry?”
He barks out a harsh laugh, pacing the length of the windows. “Sorry,” he echoes, eyeing his hands as they curl and uncurl into fists. “You spend my money. Mother my daughter though you tease the idea of leaving when it suits you. Fuck me senseless. And yet, you won’t marry me. You refuse to.”
I gasp, stunned. “That’s a bit of a low blow,” I croak. A surprisingly painful one too. I place my hand over the center of my chest, startled by a real actual ache throbbing there. “Demanding a woman marry you after barely a month is a bit unprecedented. Especially when you won’t tell me why—”
“You know I would do anything for you.” He makes it sound like a crime on my part. Something awful and corrupting that I did to him. This. I made him break down his wall. I forced him to let me in. Let me see those dark, twisted parts of himself no one else ever has.
But from where I’m standing, he’s not the one clutching at his literal heart, feeling it swell too big to fit in his chest.
“Tell me what you want, and you will have it,” he demands. His voice, though softer, still resonates like thunder, radiating more conviction than I think I’ve heard from him until now. In so many ways, he reminds me of his brother. Where they lack in physical similarities, this is what they must share—a ruthless intensity when it comes to what they want.
No matter who stands in their way.
Something in me breaks in the face of this emotion, and I sway, forced to slump onto the end of the bed, too drained to stay standing.
“My money?” he prods, stepping forward. “You have it. My home? You have it. My—”
“I don’t want anything from you,” I confess in a whisper. As his expression falls, I race to add, “I mean, not physically. I don’t want a transactional relationship with you. I want… Time. I just need time.”
More time to heal from Jim. Time to think. Time to feel like being with him is my decision and not a product of hastiness or desperation—it shocks me to realize how much I truly want that—a natural progression with him. Nothing forced or faked.
I want this to be real.
“Just give me time.” I gather the nerve to meet his expression and suck in a hopeful breath. His eyes are still narrowed, his jaw clenched—but that awful, bitter suspicion is gone, replaced by a hunger I’m too tired to deny. I raise my hands to the straps of my dress, guiding them down my shoulders as he tracks every bared bit of flesh with an expression that makes my toes curl. “Can you do that for me? Just give me time.”
He doesn’t answer. With one monstrous lunge on his part, I’m in his arms, swept toward the center of the bed. He strips my sodden clothing, groping the flesh underneath. I react to him wantonly, letting him drown my logical brain in friction and touching and heat.
But even as our lips meet, I sense that unspoken figure looming between us, growing harder to ignore with every surging beat of my pulse. Irina.
Irina. Irina. Irina!
Though I seem to be the only one in this bed haunted by her.
Vadim groans, sinking his fingers into my hair as he manipulates me beneath him—legs splayed, hips pinned against his. Gone is his usual restraint—he enters me with a commanding thrust, going so deep we both cry out. Holy hell. There isn’t even time for my body to adjust to him before he rocks his hips, taking me whether I’m ready or not. Hungrily.
His piercing batters my inner walls, his size straining my limits. It’s a sensation almost verging on uncomfortable—and he moves in a way that makes me suspect, with a hint of alarm, that’s just what he wants. To force me to focus on him, taking him fully. Lulled by his rhythm, my thoughts dissipate. Then reform, still fixated on that beautiful, mysterious blond.
But it’s as if he knows the second my attention shifts from him. Growling, he reaches between us, his thumb grazing my clit, teasing me with the weight of my piercing.
I feel my head tip back, my eyes fluttering shut as the pleasure builds with every stroke.
More. More. More.
A burst of wetness eases his next stroke. The next… But that’s where all similarities to carefree, normal sex end. The second he shifts, gripping my chin, his eyes boring into mine with more ferocity than his cock, I know…
This is something more.
He slows his pace, making me arch into him, my eyes rolling, breaths feathering. I almost can’t bear to meet his gaze like this, head-on. He looks at me so hauntingly. It’s…insane.
Like I’m a lifeline he’s clinging to, strengthening his grip with every thrust. Every startled moan he wrenches from my chest. Helpless, my knees curl around his waist, dragging him in despite the urgings of my brain to stop this. Resist. Fight.
But I can’t.
He has me. All I can do is hold on, groaning as the pleasure builds and builds, and he times his movements with calculated, piercing thrusts. My orgasm is punishing—a wave that hits like a freight train, slamming into me before I realize it.
To savor his victory, his lips capture my startled cry, his body bucking against me as he strives toward his own release. All the while, he strokes me, cradles me to him. Cherishes me.
It’s an intimacy I’ve never known. Not with any other man. Not even within myself during my deepest moments of self-reflection.
It’s torture in its truest, rawest, most debasing form.
A pain I can’t deny or escape.
A pleasure that will undo me.
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.