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He lets me rest, panting for air as he shifts to sit on the end of the bed, his back to me. Despite everything, I reach for him, sensing the bricks of his wall reforming too quickly to batter down.
What the hell happened in the space of time I was in the pool? Something vital. Something that’s shaken him so thoroughly even sex can’t clear his head.
Much like he did when Irina first inserted her presence into his life again, he’s spiraling.
“Don’t shut me out,” I whisper, my voice rasping and broken. “This isn’t a rejection. I promise. I promise—”
“Every time you look at me, I can see you plotting your escape.” His voice. It’s ice-cold, such a contrast to how he spoke to me just mere seconds ago. I go rigid, the air trapped in my chest, my hand frozen inches from him.
“You take what you can from me, but it is never enough, is it?” He stands, striding for the bathroom. His stiffened posture warns me not to follow. Regardless, his voice reaches back like the snap of a whip. “I prefer for you to spend my money.”
“V-Vadim!” I watch him go, blinking frantically. It isn’t until a searing warmth runs down my cheeks that I realize I’m crying, hurt by that implication way more than I want to be. It sounds so dirty. So vicious—using him. Maybe I have. Maybe I am.
But sometimes, manipulation is a two-way street.
I hear the water run, used as a barrier to disguise the sounds of what he’s doing. Splashing water onto his face? Showering? The former, I suspect when he returns, dry save for his damp hair, mussed as if torn through by raking, ruthless fingers.
“What did she say to you?” I demand, alarmed by this shift in him. He isn’t like this—driven by emotion. Wild.
His eyes meet mine, so cold I gasp, shrinking in my seat. “What will it take?” he demands, stopping short just beyond the bed, utterly naked. When I sputter wordlessly, he crosses his arms, his chin cocked in that cruel, calculating way he does when only one thing is on his mind. Business. “Name your price. More money? Clothing? Shoes?”
“Don’t do this.” I shut my eyes just to get a reprieve from his icy exterior. “Don’t hurt me. I am not rejecting you—”
“What do you call it then?” he counters. “When a man offers you the world, and you not only spit on his hand. You demand his thoughts. His secrets. You always ask for more.”
I flinch. “I call it one thing—”
“I’m scared!” My voice breaks, echoing so violently I’m sure Magda can hear it. We both wait, straining through the silence, but no other sound stirs. Just his frantic, furious—gosh, he’s so angry—breaths, and my shallow whimpers as I fight back the tears I feel brewing.
“I’m scared, okay? I marry you in the heat of the moment when your thoughts are on your daughter—as they should be. But what happens in six months when the danger wears off?”
I draw my knees beneath my chin, hunched against the mattress as tears spill down my cheeks, wetting the sheets beneath me. “I’ll tell you what. You realize that you’re shackled to a…” My voice breaks. I’m channeling my ex-husband in this moment. What were the words he said to me on the eve of our divorce? “A lazy, selfish, self-centered, spoiled bitch who can’t even run a home, let alone fend for herself. That’s fine in a one-night stand,” I add, laughing bitterly. “I know my limits. But do you? Do you want more children? I told you about my miscarriage, but I never told you why. It’s not easy for me to get pregnant. Most doctors I consulted recommended IVF. Painful, expensive, grueling treatments that may or may not work. Are you willing to sign up for that? Are you willing to sign up for supporting someone who can’t even hold a fucking job outside of one handed to her because her husband is prominent in a church? You claim I’m after your money? Money can only get you so far.”
It can get you a life, beautiful on the outside, but jagged and agonizing within. A world wherein people only see your worth in a resume or who put a ring on your finger. A world I went on a wild, sexual goose chase just to escape.
“I’m not holding back out of fear for myself. I’m fearful for you! I don’t… I don’t want to disappoint you. I don’t want you to wake up one day, bored, and go looking for another model. I don’t want to be broken again. I want a relationship with you.”
The mattress shifts. Warmth engulfs me, drawing me into a body that conforms to mine, strong and welcoming. He holds me so tightly I couldn’t pull away, even if I wanted to. His voice bathes me in reassurance, so gentle that I relax instantly, my fear drained. He says something in French, too grated to decipher.
In this moment, I don’t need to. I don’t need anything from him but this. Silence. Nearness. Understanding.
I hide my face against his chest, seeking out any comfort in his embrace I can find. The real world can wait—because this conversation isn’t over. Not by a long shot.
But for now, he relents.
And I have a fraction of more time.
* * *
I wake up before he does and escape into a robe, throwing on a nightgown underneath. Entering the hallway, I stop by Magda’s room and peek in to find her still sleeping.
Craving silence, I steal into the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea.
I’ve barely taken a sip before my opponent appears across from me, dressed in a shirt and slacks that look as though he just tugged them on without any forethought. As he claims the seat at the end of the table, I sense the war horns being blown.
Another round is about to take place—because our battle isn’t over.
“Look at me,” he demands.
Because my gaze is on the window apparently, watching dawn claw across the horizon. When I risk sneaking a glance in his direction, I gasp, struck dumb by his expression. Gone is the icy rage from last night. He’s too calm now.
Disarming in his persistence. He’s brought weapons to this fight, I realize—a stack of documents that he places on the table and shoves toward me.
I glance at them, my heart racing. Sure enough, my worst fears are confirmed as I read the topmost line of the first page. Petition to adopt…
“I heard your concerns,” he says, in a tone like thunder, though alarmingly quiet so as not to disturb anyone beyond this room. “Now, you hear mine. My daughter… You think I would offer her guardianship to you on a whim? That I would entrust her to anyone else? I’ve stood in the background of her life for too damn long, never would I jeopardize her safety or her trust. Never.”
I set my tea aside, overwhelmed, and clutch my head in my hands, desperate to keep my thoughts focused. “Vadim, this is—”
“And I don’t extend an offer of marriage lightly,” he adds, easily cutting over me. “Do you know how many women have tried to seduce me? Fool me? Deceive me? I have seen through them all. Outsmarted them all.” He’s proud of that, I realize. Prideful, and defensive. “I knew from the second you approached me at that bar that you were different. Why? I wasn’t your first choice,” he says as if seeing right into my thoughts. My very soul. “I wasn’t even your second or third. You approached me with no preconceived notions or deception, though I wanted to deny it. I did deny it. You approached me as a game,” he says, his brow furrowing, eyes blazing. “To see if I could give you the fun you sought. Or not. You didn’t care. If I failed, you would easily seek your fortune with someone else. It was so damn easy for you to find someone else.”
His tone turns feral, and I picture him recalling all those men I’d taunted him with. Nearly run off to bed with. He’s right, I’d treated it as a game—but only because he kept pushing me away. He hurt me, each time he did so.
“I had to fight to keep you entertained,” he adds, gritting his teeth at the thought. Him, fight? As though he never has. Never sought a relationship with someone else before me—or maybe he did, I realize with growing horror…
Only for that person to reject him. Spurn him so badly he preferred to live his life closed-off, expecting only the worst from those who dared approach him. And the second he does let down his guard, that past rejection makes him spiral into paranoia.
Who was the culprit? Irina? Maxim? In this moment, I don’t even think it matters who. They aren’t the object of his focus now. His ire. His rage.
“I’ve plied you,” he adds through gritted teeth. “Tempted you. Bought you. Fucked you. Tasted you. And yet it feels as if it’s never enough. Like I’m always a heartbeat from losing you. You are still playing your game—”
“No!” I cringe at the woman he’s describing and push back from the table. “I never manipulated you,” I point out, shaking my head. “I never hurt you or tried to play mind games at your expense.”
“Correct.” He nods, his eyes are so dark I swear I can see myself reflected in them—a small, fragile woman on the verge of something both horrific and lifechanging. A realization. A mental breakdown. Who the hell knows?
“You just tease,” he growls, palming the table with a quiet thud that sends my heart racing. “You give me a taste of everything I fucking never knew, and you threaten, every minute, to take it all away.”
“Vadim…” I can’t look at him anymore. I break, forfeiting the round to stare down at my hands. They’re shaking. “What do you want from me?”
“I want everything.” He sounds so hollow. So cold. A man denied warmth for so damn long he doesn’t even remember what it feels like. Just that he craves it above all else. Jealously, he craves it. “Your body.” But his tone implies something else. Something that makes me stiffen, desperate to head him off.
“Your taste. Your love—”
“Vadim!” I lurch to my feet, scrambling for the terrace door. My eyes are burning, vision blurring. Putting distance between us now is my only hope for escape. “I’m going for a walk.”
“So you run,” he snarls. “As is the case with everyone else, I am never enough to keep you.”
I stagger, so wounded I nearly collapse right then and there. There’s so much pain in his voice. Such awful, unending pain…
And a terrifying threat.
“Is this about whatever happened with Irina?” I say, deploying my own secret weapon. “Just tell me what she said—”
“You want time?” he questions. The telltale scrape of a chair over the flooring warns of him standing, his steps heavy. “You have it. But I suggest you not take too long. I am well used to the pain that comes from rejection by others—but Magdalene? My daughter will never know that pain again. Never. You can toy with me all you’d like, but I won’t let you trap her in your web. Never will you be the one to take her happiness away.”
His steps advance from the kitchen, moving toward the foyer.
“Leave or stay,” he adds. “But know that I am done playing your game.”
He retreats to some distant corner of the house, and I slump against the nearest wall, gasping for air. My chest feels so damn tight. Like it’s caught in a vice, being crushed between desire and fear. Ultimatums are nothing new—Jim tossed out his fair share.
But none ever left me feeling like this…
Shaken to my fucking core. Beaten down to a fragile shell seconds from cracking. No one else in my entire life has ever left me so uncertain. Of myself. Of the world around me. Of my heart and every fiber making up the body I’ve spent twenty-eight years dwelling within.
I don’t even process moving, but eventually, I find myself outside, sitting on the edge of the pool in the frigid morning air, shivering, my legs calf-deep in the water. I don’t know how long I’ve sat like this. Just that my only tether to the real world comes in the form of a tiny, disapproving voice speaking to me from the direction of the house.
“Are you going to go swimming in your clothes again?”
I turn to find Magda watching me from the doorway of the kitchen. She’s neatly dressed in a light blue skirt and magenta sweater. Someone took the time to brush her hair and braid it with meticulous care, securing two pigtails with pure white ribbons.
I don’t know why I flinch at first. Vadim’s her father, he should be the one to help her. And yet, I can’t help but interpret the act as a threat, its warning simple. When it comes down to it, I’m not needed.
“No,” I tell her, forcing a tired smile. “I’m just thinking.” I kick my legs for emphasis, sending up a spray of water.
Warily, she slips from around the door and approaches me, her hands on her hips. “Can I play with Ainsley today?” she asks.
I sigh, turning my gaze to the churning waters of the bay beyond our quiet spot. “I don’t know, honey. You’ll have to ask your father—Mr. Vadim.”
A glance from the corner of my eye reveals her pouting, but seemingly undeterred. “I’m hungry.”
“Okay.” I unfurl my sore limbs and follow her into the kitchen. There, I spot the time above the stove and realize that I’ve lost at least three hours, just staring into space. I’m freezing as a result, shivering violently as I adjust to the heat of the house.
After making Magda a bowl of cereal, I creep upstairs into the master bedroom, relieved to find it empty. I shower quickly and throw on a relatively casual outfit consisting of a light linen dress and a sweater. When I return downstairs, Magda’s still seated at the table, but a larger figure dominates the space beside her.
He’s adjusted his outfit, smoothing out the rumpled appearance to regain his polished composure. The only oddity to contrast his icy, businessman persona is the fact that he’s manipulating a white teddy bear with utmost care.
It got a makeover, it seems. His fur is a brighter, cleaner white as if he took a trip through the washing machine. He’s also been freshly stuffed, his head sewn back on and adorned with a tiny red scarf to hide the stitching around his neck.
“What do we think?” Vadim asks, holding the toy up for Magda’s inspection.
She observes the bear critically and then nods in approval, reaching for it. Vadim watches as she tucks the bear under her arm, betraying a sentiment that makes my throat constrict.
It’s like my torment alerts him to my presence before any other clue. His head jerks up, those dark eyes roving in my direction. Coldly, they graze over me before returning to his daughter as he smooths his fingers over one of her braids.
“Would you like to ride Dasha today?” he asks, referring to her pony.
She perks up. “Can we?” She’s already lurching to her feet and bounding from the kitchen by the time he tells her yes. I step aside, my lips parting into a smile. But the expression lasts until the second I see Vadim’s face.
Gone is the warmth he displayed around his daughter. That coldness sets in, hardening the line of his jaw and making his gaze so chilling, I’m frozen even in my sweater. The worst part is that his wall is down all the way, and there’s nothing to temper the hostility. The raw pain he displays, making one fact overwhelmingly clear.
It’s all my fault.
And yet, I can’t seem to move. I’m frozen, caught like a deer in the headlights of this fragile truce until Magda comes racing back into the kitchen, her skirt swapped for jodhpurs, her riding helmet in place.
Like magic, Vadim’s face transforms again, radiating warmth as he stands and follows her out. Before she steps over the threshold, however, she looks back, her gaze finding me.
“Are you going to come to watch?” she asks in that wary, hesitant tone. As if, like Vadim, she’s guarding herself from me, still unsure.
I nod as enthusiastically as I can. “Of course!”
“Then come on.” She squares her shoulders and marches off, her father in tow. And I promptly stagger to the nearest counter, gripping the edge so tightly my knuckles whiten.
Get it together, Tiffany, my inner bitch warns. But even she sounds shaken, a shadow of the guidance that has driven me since leaving Jim. That’s the scary part. Everything I rebuilt of myself—everything I managed to salvage of the shadow I became—I can feel splintering around me, in danger of crumbling all over again. Will the resulting Tiffany be stronger or worse off in the aftermath? I don’t know.
I don’t know anything about myself anymore. My thinking has been corrupted, shaped by a man who seems to crave me one minute, only to push me away the next. Then crave again, somehow making me feel as though it’s my fault for letting him shove. And if he keeps on shoving, I’m going to fall eventually.
Right, a part of me hisses. So, grit your teeth, dig your heels in and stand firm. What do you want?
Him. But on my terms, with enough time to ensure that this is really what he wants as well. I rushed into marriage with Jim and look how that turned out? I deserve the chance to convince myself in every way that life with Vadim is worth the inherent risks.
Because Jim hurt me so badly, it took a reckless vow of sexual exploration to get me back on my feet. Vadim? I can feel the echoes of that old pain where he is concerned—tenfold. He won’t just break me if I lose him the same way.
This man could utterly destroy me.
And yet it’s almost too easy to plaster a fake smile onto my face and skip out to the stable as if nothing is wrong. In one of the fenced-in pastures, I spot Magda, sitting astride her pony as Vadim directs her from the center of the paddock, holding a pink lead rope.
Watching them interact is always engrossing, but now with the sun shining and both of them fighting back grins? I’m helpless to resist. Creeping forward, I slip my fingers through the wooden slats of the fence and watch, my heart aching, my thoughts in disarray.
They move together so well, a beautiful synchrony. With gentle words and reminders, he corrects her posture and offers encouragement. With every word from him, she sits straighter, her eyes brightening, her lips twitching until a genuine grin unfurls despite herself. The potential relationship building between them could be something fearsome to behold—a partnership no one could ever come in between. But one with room for anyone else?
That remains to be seen. And I’m not the only one mulling that very question, I suspect. In the snatches of time that Magda’s back is to him, Vadim’s expression slips, revealing a tumult of contradicting emotions. Every now and again, he’ll look at me, his gaze still accusatory. Wounded. But the second he senses his daughter’s attention on him, he suppresses the darkness, greeting her only with the light.
It’s like being tortured, over and over again, leaving me grasping the paddock for sole support as I’m teased with the full extent of his happiness and then stabbed with his anger.
Again. Again. Again.
I barely notice the sound of approaching footsteps, until a childish bit of laughter reaches my ears. From Magda, I realize in shock. She’s practically bouncing in her saddle, waving frantically at a pair of figures advancing across the fields behind me.
Our intruders somehow made it past Ena, given the unofficial seal of approval to cut into the property from its west end. One of the figures sprints ahead, her dirty-blond hair flying out like a missile behind her. Within seconds, she’s at the paddock gates, cooing. “Wow! He’s so pretty,” she says with all of the solemn awe a child can possess.
Magda beams, so proud from her perch. “She is pretty,” she corrects. “Want to pet her?”
Ainsley looks to Vadim for permission, who tightens his grip on the lead rope and helps Magda down. Then he approaches the gate, allowing Ainsley inside, and stands watch as the girls fuss over the pony. It’s adorably cute in the brief moments those dark, storming eyes avoid meeting mine.
But then they do, and the resulting chill is enough to drive me back from the paddock altogether. Wrapping my arms around my torso, I turn and spot the lone figure lingering on the path, her gaze wary and watchful over the trio behind me.
Sighing, I advance toward her, forcing a neutral smile. “Hey!”
“Hey,” Francesca replies, though she barely takes her eyes off her sister to greet me. Both enemy subjects are dressed warmly—Ainsley in a pink sweater and jeans, Francesca in a black woolen dress and jacket. Her dark hair frames her face, hanging down her shoulders.
“I’m glad you came over,” I say, genuinely pleased for Magda.
Francesca’s lips part into a small grin. “It’s good for Ains to play with someone her own age. Someone other than her brother Eric, at least. And I could use a break from the fighting.”
“I hear you on that,” I murmur, glancing over my shoulder. Even while outnumbered, Vadim maintains his trademark charm. Always the master manipulator, he has the girls spellbound, teaching them various parts of the horse mingled with jokes and exaggerated expressions that have them giggling.
“Cover your mouth, Ains!” Francesca calls as the girl sneezes mid-cackle. Then she turns to me, and something in my expression must trigger her alarm. “Sorry. I think she may be coming down with a cold… Are you okay? This isn’t a bad time—”
“No, of course not!” I make my grin wider, playing up my own social charms. “How about we let the girls play and have our own playdate? I have the best wine—” I eye her warily with what I hope passes for a friendly chuckle. “You are twenty-one, right?”
“I don’t really drink…” Her gaze strays again to her sister. Is she worried about Vadim?
With an awkward bit of guilt, I remember the whole tiny detail about him having kidnapped Ainsley once upon a time.
“Right,” I say nervously. “Well, we could just hang around, and—”
“No.” Francesca shakes her head, forcing a heavy sigh. “No, you’re right. A glass of wine sounds great.”
“Good!” I’m so relieved, I sway. “I could use a bit of adult time, to be honest.”
At least time with an adult who isn’t intent on consuming me, body, and soul.
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.