Shattered Throne Chapter 1

Shattered Thorne (Mice and Men Book 3)

Blurb:

With her family’s safety in jeopardy and her heart on the line, Willow finds herself trapped in a hopeless situation—marry the man who betrayed her and trust in his plan? Or can she navigate the deadly political landscape alone and save the ones she loves? 

The question may be easier said than done when an unearthed secret from the past flips her entire perspective on its head. Is Donatello the monster she’s been led to believe? 

Or is he as much a victim of past events as she is… 

With a war looming and their relationship brewing, both find their loyalties tested to their breaking point—and a new threat on the horizon leaves them little time to waste. 

As the past and present finally collide, will they rise above the fray… 

Or will old grudges finally tear them apart?

Mice and Men is a new standalone series in the War of Roses Universe.

Chapter 1

Disclaimer: The following is copyrighted material is unedited and subject to change.

Evengi

I used to fear the dark above all else. Almost every night, I’d wake up screaming, convinced that any variety of monsters lurked within the shadows. To comfort me, my mother repeated the same bit of wisdom—Stay strong. This fear? It’s nothing.

As she saw it, the real horrors worth battling couldn’t be found on earth in physical form. No beast, or criminal, or illness around was more terrifying than what lurked within the human soul.

“The dark,” she said, “is constant. It can be fought against with light. You know what can’t be banished so easily? Sin. The things you do, the lies you tell. One day, they will be what you see in the shadows.”

She was right, of course. Monsters can be fought; beasts outrun. Neither foe is comparable to what a man learns to truly fear—himself. His past is a beast of his own making, relentless in its pursuit.

The sad part is for all her wisdom, my mother couldn’t even fathom the cruelty of men. The sins that some can easily sow with no remorse. The chilling past that lurks in their wake. She chose to see the good in anyone she met, and that kindness blinded her. So much so that she fell in love with a monster of her very own.

To her dying day, she never regretted any second of that life spent with him. I carried that burden for her, saddled with the weight of my father’s sins and her blind devotion. Once, I was naïve to think I could ignore the baggage. Face that beast and say no more.

Now? I can admit that I’ve never stopped running from it.

I still am.

“I was wrong,” a woman’s purr intrudes on my inner monologue, and I nearly swerve off the road.

Briar Winthorp. I’d forgotten she was here or maybe my brain feels driven to ignore her. Her presence is a thorn piercing through my otherwise logical thought process. Mischa fucked up and took his frustration out on me. I had every right to leave.

When he decides to listen to reason, I’ll go back and make amends.

Allowing us both enough space to process our anger is a fitting courtesy.

But I should have tossed her out of the car ten miles back, Briar Winthorp, one of the three women at the forefront of my mind. Willow Stepanova is the other, followed by a newer name. As of yet, I have no idea just where she fits within this mess regarding Mischa and Vanici, just that she’s related somehow. 

Safiya Mangenello. 

Suffice to say, I’d prefer the company of the latter two than the woman accompanying me now. 

“I thought you were boringly predictable,” she says dryly. “A man I could trust to always do what he perceived to be ‘the right thing’ no matter the cost. But now? I see that you are just as stubborn and reckless as any other man. I should have taken my chances with the other lackey you work with.”

She sounds genuinely disappointed, and I have to scoff. “So now you drop the coy, mysterious act?”

A damn shame. I prefer her silent and smirking.

She barks out a callous laugh. “Why shouldn’t I? Given the way you stormed out of there and the fact that Mischa hasn’t joined us, I’m assuming that you reneged on our agreement to have me meet with him. You’re of no use to me now.”

Her uncanny ability to see to the core of the situation aside, I marvel at the dismissiveness in her tone.

“Is that all people are to you? Useful peons?” If so, I’m not surprised. Given her upbringing, I’m sure that Briar Winthorp excelled at living up to every last stereotype of a selfish socialite. Selfish being foremost.

“I feel it’s better to be pragmatic than emotional,” she replies with an iciness that I suspect isn’t an act. The cold gleam in her eye I spy when I glance in her direction reinforces that suspicion. “Though, I should have guessed that someone who deigns to work for my sister would be of the latter quality. Don’t forget that I did my research on you, Evgeni Volkov. A quiet, dutiful man prone to sadistic outbursts of rage.” She sounds like a student reciting her notes. Maybe she is. “I assume you and that brute Mischa had a tiff, and you stormed out. I hope it wasn’t over little old me—”

“You’re wrong,” I lie, irritated by the fact that she’s not. Beneath those coy expressions and superficiality is a shrewdness I better not underestimate. That doesn’t mean I can’t use those same traits to my advantage. “For all you know, Mischa wants you dead. I could be on my way to kill you.”

The way she sucks in her breath…

It shouldn’t trigger a pang through my cock, but it does. I risk taking my eyes from the road to catch the way hers widen in the rearview mirror. Another twinge through my abdomen has me gritting my teeth. Fear does more for her appeal than makeup. In an instant, the cold, bitchy exterior is stripped for a stark, honest mask that almost makes her seem human.

Until she blinks, boldly meeting my gaze over the mirror’s surface. “Coming from any other lackey, I might believe that,” she admits. “But you? No. You strike me as the noble type too proud to get his hands dirty.”

“Oh?” I adjust my grip over the steering wheel, scanning the road ahead. “Then you didn’t do nearly enough research on me as you should have.”

Her mask falters a second time, and she doesn’t recover as quickly. Her mouth betrays her where her words don’t. I watch her tongue flit across her lower lip, and I mentally file the reaction for later inspection.

“Where are you taking me?” she demands, overlooking my statement entirely.

I don’t respond. I’m too busy trying to figure out the answer for myself. I’ve left the countryside, heading in the direction of the city. Not toward the hospital, I decide. Another location comes to mind, less frequented than most would ever admit.

Bringing her there could be another miscalculation, but hell, it’s not like I can let her go.

And she knows that. A grim understanding dawns across her features, hardening them. She stiffens in her seat, and I don’t doubt that she has a weapon or two hidden within that red dress.

“You’re angry,” she points out, catching me off guard once again. “Tell me why.”

“You sound nervous.”

“For you,” she points out. “I’m not the sort of woman you want to kidnap.”

“Is that a reference to your friends in low places?” I ask, though internally, I’m forced to reconcile the possibility that she’s not bluffing. Whoever attacked the Stepanovs had the resources to do so. I glance at the rearview mirror again, this time checking the road. A black sedan lurking a few yards back wasn’t there before. A tail?

Or, perhaps, her backup.

If so, I just brought her right to the manor’s front door.

The tires squeal as I slam on the brakes, swerving toward the side of the road. This section borders the forest just beyond the city limits, and it’s pretty much deserted this time of day, at least for another hour.

It’s a good thing I’ve learned to excel under a time limit. Once, my entire life was to the tune of a stopwatch. How fast I could eat. Shit. Kill…

A minute and six seconds via strangulation was my best record. The fastest way to achieve that? Crushing a windpipe with my bare hands. Her throat looks thin enough to break that record.

“What are you doing?” The tremor in her voice feeds the part of me I’ve long thought dormant. It stirs to life as I wrench open the door on my end and climb out. Three strides bring me around to her end of the van before she can even attempt to lock it. Her hand flies to the door handle, but I have it open before her fingers can even make contact.

I grab her wrist, yanking her out, and I barely manage to miss the knife she swipes at my face. My body reacts on autopilot—I pivot, knocking the weapon from her hand with a ferocity she doesn’t expect. Hell, I don’t either.

My hand is already around her neck. It’s like riding a bike, these instincts. How to move. How to anticipate a human response. How to feed off the fear of another and use it to my advantage.

She doesn’t expect the pressure I apply to her windpipe. Subtle. Nowhere near enough to break my record, but I’m not inclined to try.

Yet.

“What are you doing, Evgeni Volkov?” Her tone is almost level enough to disguise her fear, but those eyes can’t lie. They widen, and it’s like staring into reflective pools. Endless and yet shallow at the same damn time, showing more of myself than the depths they might contain.

But the man I see? He’s not the loyal mercenary under the employ of Mischa Stepanov. He’s a creature I thought I left behind a decade ago, unpredictable. Ruthless. A monster.

But she’s no victim. I tell myself that as I steer her backward, manually hauling her off the road and into the underbrush. She moves woodenly, her eyes on mine. Despite her fear, the fact that she maintains her composure at all betrays a familiarity with violence I don’t expect.

“What the hell are you doing?” she demands, her voice an octave higher.

“I think it’s my turn to ask questions,” I point out, tightening my grip by a fraction. “Who are you working for?”

She doesn’t answer. 

“Did I forget to mention that I’m asking you nicely? I won’t do so for very long.” To demonstrate, I slam her against the nearest tree, ignoring the gasp that rips from her throat. It isn’t faked. I’m not holding back, but for the time being, I don’t give a damn if I do hurt her. My focus is singular, fixated on one goal.

“Tell me, or I’ll kill you.”

Her lips flit into a shadow of her coy smile. “You won’t—”

It’s comical how little pressure it actually takes to silence her. A flick of the thumb and a crook of my index finger results in beautiful, instantaneous silence. Just as quickly, I loosen the pressure. 

Damn. My heart is pounding. It’s been so damn long since I’ve thought like this.

I refuse to give in now.

“Speak,” I demand, my breathing heavy. “I suggest you don’t play any more games. The truth. Now. Who are you working for? Why are you here?”

And why do I relish the soft feel of her throat more than the sound of her voice…?

“Alexander,” she croaks, prompting me to loosen my grip further. I blink, regaining control over my senses, as she gulps at the air, brushing her fingers across her neck. “He’s why I’m here.”

Her voice contained a suspicious note. Fear? “Your employer.”

Her eyes narrow, and it’s clearer than ever to track her thought process. To lie or not?

I flex my fingers, and she gulps. “The truth. Now. Who is Alexander?”

“He is my son,” she says. “And the man who has him is a big enough threat that I would crawl to Mischa Stepanov for help on my hands and knees. Does that answer your question?”

I school my expression to disguise my reaction. A son. It could be a lie. She’s presumably in her early thirties, certainly old enough, though she doesn’t strike me as the maternal type. She’s too guarded, revealing none of the softness Ellen Stepanova possesses.

However, being a selfish cunt doesn’t mean she could never birth a child.

“Who are you running from?”

“That doesn’t matter,” she spits. “You wouldn’t be able to track him down even if I gave you his identification card and birth certificate. He is a shadow. On paper, he doesn’t exist.”

The tremor in her voice catches my notice.

“You’re afraid of him.” Or so I assume that emotion is what lurks behind her eyes, quickening her breathing. Fear.

“Afraid?” She scoffs at the suggestion, jutting her chin proudly into the air. “You would have the sense to be if you knew what he was capable of. Given your ignorance, I’ll ignore your vain attempt to intimidate me.”

“A man so powerful, and yet you can’t even give me a name?”

“How about Jonathan?” she snipes. “Though that name won’t lead you anywhere.”

It could be a lie. One name, however, wasn’t.

“Alexander,” I say, circling back. “Your son. How old is he?”

She looks away, disguising her reaction. “Three,” she says.

“This Jonathan… Why did he take him?”

“That’s for Mischa to learn,” she says coldly. “Not you. Don’t forget your role in this, Evgeni Volkov—a mere cog in the wheel.”

“Correction. I’m your only chance of getting to Mischa.”

She raises an eyebrow. “You’re so sure of that? I think I could easily find another lackey and grease his palms.”

Her voice radiates more confidence than I’d like. A bluff? If so, I decide to call it out. 

“Do that, then,” I suggest, turning back to the car. “Don’t let me stop you—”

“Wait! Wait…”

Her mask cracks. I can smell the desperation coming off her. See the loathing in her eyes as I turn to face her. She keeps her chin high with defiance, but I can see right through the feigned bravado to the pure terror lurking beneath. 

She really is afraid. But why. Or of who?

Parsing her previous answer, it doesn’t take much to pinpoint the main suspect. 

“Tell me more about this Jonathan.”

Her breathing hitches almost imperceptibly, disguised behind a cocky laugh. “He’s dangerous, more powerful than you can imagine, and even your Mischa can’t counter him so easily.”

“So why come here? Is your son’s life in danger? You don’t seem particularly worried—”

“He won’t hurt Ali,” she says absently. “As long as he’s useful to him.”

“Which means that you aren’t.” 

She doesn’t deny it. If anything, the rage flashing in her eyes reveals that she’s well aware of that fact as well. 

“How did you meet him? Why take your son if not to use him against you?”

“Ali is special,” she says cryptically. “I’m sure if you think really, really hard about it, you might discover why.”

I let the barb pass, seeing beyond the insults to what she isn’t saying.

“So, this man has your son. Has no need for you, and you’re desperate enough to come to Mischa. He wants you dead?”

She smirks. “A lot of people want me ‘dead.’ Few have the balls or the resources to follow through—”

“But I’m assuming this Jonathan does. You’re on the run from him.”

“Run is such a very strong word,” she retorts. “And if he wanted me dead, I would be.”

“Unless you have something he wants. Something you aim to use to curry favor with Mischa.”

Her smile widens. “You do catch on quick.”

“That I do. You’re desperate with a sworn enemy being the first person you run to. Whatever you have, it must be good—but not definitive enough for Mischa to trust it outright, meaning you needed a patsy to vouch for you to get close.”

“Don’t be a showoff,” she scolds, waggling a pale finger. “Cockiness doesn’t suit you.”

“You know what does suit me? A drink—”

“What?” I sense her on my heels as I return to the road. “You need to go back!”

“I will—” I wrench open the door to the driver’s seat and turn to see her lurking by the tree line. “Once you give me a damn good reason to. Something more than a name and a cryptic warning. I want something concrete; otherwise, you can find another fool to manipulate.”

I climb in without looking back and start the van. My next destination should be Stepanov manor to make amends with Mischa and see if he knows anything to corroborate the woman’s story. If she really has a son, for instance.

The sound of the passenger’s side door opening catches me off guard. I turn, genuinely surprised to find her standing there, eyeing the vehicle in disgust.“Don’t look so smug,” she warns as she climbs in beside me. “Whether I tell you a damn thing, he won’t know the difference. He’ll kill you too. Congratulations, Evgeni Volkov. You’ve just signed your death warrant.”

After a decade spent claiming a throne for himself in the seething violence of the criminal underbelly, all Donatello Vanici craves now is peace.

Only a union forged between his heir and the most powerful mafiya family in existence could ever be strong enough to end the bloodshed for good, but the Stepanov head resists his overtures at every turn… 

Until tragedy strikes, and forces Donatello’s hand.

Haunted by a past that dogs her every thought, Willow Stepanov will do anything for the man who adopted her—until a chance encounter with the enemy lands her right in the middle of a dangerous power struggle and a war that grows more violent and vicious each day.

But it’s not just her future her captor holds hostage.

He is a man with nothing left to lose—while she may just lose everything. 

Her life, her family, and her heart…

With her family’s safety in jeopardy and her heart on the line, Willow finds herself trapped in a hopeless situation—marry the man who betrayed her and trust in his plan? Or can she navigate the deadly political landscape alone and save the ones she loves?

The question may be easier said than done when an unearthed secret from the past flips her entire perspective on its head. Is Donatello the monster she’s been led to believe?

Or is he as much a victim of past events as she is…

With a war looming and their relationship brewing, both find their loyalties tested to their breaking point—and a new threat on the horizon leaves them little time to waste.

As the past and present finally collide, will they rise above the fray…

Or will old grudges finally tear them apart?

With all hope of the peace shattered beyond redemption, Donatello Vanici is waging his most violent, bloody war yet. 

And caught in the heart of the carnage is Willow Stepanova, the adopted daughter of his dangerous enemy and the girl who once adored him to the depths of her soul. 

Torn between her loyalty to her family and her volatile connection to Donatello, Willow quickly realizes that it’s not just her life at stake in this vicious battle…

But what will be left of her in the end?

A broken engagement should signal the end of the feud blazing between the Stepanovs and Vanicis—barring one small hitch no one foresaw: a surprise pregnancy that could turn this petty misunderstanding into outright war.

For Donatello, this new baby is a shred of hope after nearly a decade of misery—one he won’t forfeit without a fight.

For Willow, this ordeal is a glaring reminder of her own conflicted loyalty, leading to a choice she will have to live with for the rest of her life…

Salvaging this union will be the hardest, bloodiest war Donatello has fought yet. But, as the danger looming above the city reaches a breaking point, will they outlast the violence with their lives—and hearts—intact?

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