Mended Crown Chapter 1

Mended Crown (Mice and Men Book 4)

Blurb:

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?

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

Chapter 1

Disclaimer: The following is copyrighted material.

Willow

I understand just how fragile the world is. So delicate, in fact, that even a simple drop of blood can tip the scales.

It’s happened before. Seven years ago, blood ties were the catalyst to what turned my life on its head. I lost everything, and in the aftermath, became someone else. These recent events are merely history repeating itself—though, laughably, this time based solely on a mistake.

I’m sure of that, despite what everyone else thinks.

Why waste any energy getting upset over a lie?

Mischa did. Anger was his initial reaction, and he shouted in a voice so booming it reached the furthest wings of the manor. I had no idea what he might do. Ironically, a silence fell afterward, so thick that not even the children seemed willing to break it. For days, that suffocating quiet lingered.

I was sure it would last forever.

Finally, a giddy sense of denial broke through. It’s like some internal switch was flipped within everyone, and they all woke up determined to ignore and forget. The past few weeks could have been written off as a crazed, shared nightmare—if it weren’t for the injuries Ellen and Eli still sport.

And the subtle tension looming over everything like a sharpened knife, waiting to descend at a moment’s notice.

Even so, I should be the most eager to play along with the shared denial. Ignore and smile and clamor for breakfast like nothing has happened.

Live on as though Donatello Vanici isn’t lurking somewhere beyond these walls.

But he is.

So, I don’t leave my room. Not to eat. Not to mingle with the others. I just sit in a corner by the window and read the same series of crumbled pages over and over. They’ve become worn beneath my fingertips, creased so badly in places the slightest pressure could tear them apart.

I’ve come to know each passage by heart, anyway. They’re my only tie to reality, reinforcing the darkness lurking beyond these walls. Greedily, I scan the gnarled handwriting and sniff the cologne faintly clinging to the paper.

I tell myself that the pain I feel stabbing through my chest with every breath is just a necessary evil in a quest to know more. The truth? Some sick part of me has grown addicted to the agony aroused by anything connected to him.

Masochism alone explains why I keep re-reading these letters more than anything else. The fact is, despite days of study, I still haven’t deciphered their meaning in full. At the same time, they remain my only clue to the past, and what really served as the catalyst to the downfall of Donatello Vanici.

I used to think my memories held the answers, but I was wrong. This stack of crumpled letters does, because Olivia, Donatello’s wife, wrote them to another man—my biological father, Gino Mangenello. They lack the emotional passion of her letters to her husband. They’re blunter, more honest, conveying stark desperation that strikes me to my core.

I parse through the potential explanations, ignoring the obvious answer. Maybe she was lonely and desperate enough to seek out the companionship of her husband’s closest ally? Perhaps Donatello disapproved of their friendship?

Or she betrayed him by sleeping with his righthand man behind his back.

I keep picturing her, that beautiful face and hazel eyes. I can’t ever recall seeing deception in them. Just sadness. A sadness so heavy a child could never comprehend it.

Years later, I’m only getting a mere taste of that despair. It’s emptiness. A hollow agony you can only feel after loving someone so much it desolates you by the end. Then, to top it off, you watch them throw that love away. Throw youaway as if you never mattered. In the grand scheme, you were worth nothing.

And you’d do anything in the world to fill the gaping wound left behind. Anything. Even tell yourself that you hated him from the very start. If you have to turn that man into a monster, you will. No matter how you distort the past to believe it, you do until it becomes the only truth.

Until the pain can diminish to the point that you can breathe again and even dream of saying his name without screaming.

He’s already taken so much from me, and yet it feels like this is his final, cruelest game played at my expense. Take from Mischa something he can never, ever erase and rub his nose in their twisted feud.

I want to believe that. Over the past few days, I’ve convinced myself that it might be true. Revenge is all that drives him. That and hate. He hates me…

Then I remember that Donatello wasn’t who pushed our relationship past that invisible boundary.

I did.

In this instance, he isn’t the monster.

I am. Only my victims are far more numerous, and unlike Donatello, I didn’t have the decency of leaving them behind. Every day, I serve as a living reminder of the damage I’ve caused, and nothing assuages the guilt.

“Willow?” A tiny knock on the door heralds the presence of the only person more persistent than Ellen in striving to visit me every day. He sounds winded as if he ran here, forsaking playtime with the others. Still, I hear the thud of him resolutely claiming his place in the hall, most likely sitting cross-legged with a puzzle or book to pass the time.

For a moment, he’s as silent as always. Then he sighs.

“Willow… Are you sick? Is that why you’re going to a hospital?”

A hospital. I haven’t heard of such a trip directly, and I can’t ignore a sense of dread prickling down my spine.

“I hope you feel better soon,” he adds. “But I don’t want you to go away. Okay?”

I don’t move to reassure him. Deep down, I can’t ignore the small voice in my head warning that my going away might be the best option for everyone involved.

The only option.

***

“Willow?” A stern series of knocks rattles my door.

I must have drifted off, because at some point, Eli was replaced by a taller figure who isn’t content to hold their vigil in silence.

“Willow?” The doorknob is tested once more before the door itself opens from the outside, revealing Ellen, framed in the doorway.

I barely manage to shove the letters under my bed before standing to take her in. This isn’t a regular visit. She looks tired. Her hair is loosely piled atop her head, her plain blue dress overbearing amid the gray daylight filtering in from outside. With a sigh, she wipes her hands on her skirt and enters the room, closing the door behind her.

I stiffen. She isn’t one to barge into a situation unannounced. For days, she’s let me hold my silent vigil, respecting the unspoken boundary of a closed door.

One look at her face, and I know that whatever drove her to break that truce is serious. Serious enough that her forced, thin smile doesn’t even reach her eyes.

“You haven’t been eating,” she says tiredly, glancing at the plate left on my bedside table. The untouched oatmeal looks ice-cold now, flanked by a bowl of sad-looking fruit and deflated toast.

“Willow…” With a sigh, Ellen turns the full brunt of her gaze to me. Her lips part, only to purse before parting again. Finally, she swallows as if gathering up the nerve to speak. “Tomorrow, we’ve arranged an appointment with a doctor,” she says softly.

I don’t know how to process that—though at least Eli’s statements make sense. It seems he’s been eavesdropping again, though at least he felt fit to tell me. Apart from knocking on my door throughout each day, neither Mischa nor Ellen has spoken more than a handful of words to me directly.

Not that I can blame them. I’ve buried myself in old love letters and silence—but they can’t escape reality so easily. My heart pangs as I meet Ellen’s gaze and examine her delicate features in full.

It kills me to see the hurt in her eyes. At the same time… I can’t feel anything. It’s like I’m numb, an observer unconnected to unfolding events. I merely watch.

“I know that this isn’t a comfortable conversation, but it’s one we need to have,” Ellen continues. “Whatever decision… We should get confirmation.”

There is no mention of whether Donatello will be there.Because, even if invited, he wouldn’t come.

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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