Have you ever noticed how the mesh bits in lace look like the intersecting bars of a prison cell?
I did. Five minutes ago. As I was sat on the edge of a strange bed in a strange room, in a strange wedding dress, with a strange perfume smothering my senses like a designer rag.
My fingers won’t stop playing with the delicate trim on the bodice. It’s as if I’m trying to find a weakness in the yarn so I can plan my escape.
It’s a Dorian Gray mirror gone askew. The material is stupidly fussy and over-detailed, and it makes me look about twenty years older than I am. Still, at least it covers the bruises…
“Come, Ielena. The car is waiting for you.”
Marie enters the room clapping briskly, as if the force and sound will unchain my heavy heart from the bed and propel me to my feet. Her face is a painted mask of encouragement, but it reminds me of a colombina I bought in Venice once. The initial dazzle concealed the flaws. The cracks in the porcelain grew wider and more obvious as the truth clawed its way to the surface.
That was the day I learned that nothing is what it seems.
Marie’s claps grow louder in my ears. “Up! Up, lazy girl! What are you waiting for?”
A knight on a white horse?
Reluctantly, I stand for her inspection. I’m not sure when or how Marie first entered my father’s life, but her presence is more front-and-center than my mother's these days.
She's brittle and calculating, and our relationship is a Ping-Pong match of mutual hostility. Unfortunately, since Karina disappeared, Marie’s winning most of the shots. She’s subtle about it, though. Her words are well-fed piranhas. They’ll take tiny bites here and there, leaving me stung and permanently unsettled.
She stops in front of me, a smoky swirl of coral-pink chiffon, and I brace myself for more teeth.
“Oh dear.” She casts a critical eye over my wedding dress. “Oh dear, oh dear… Still, it’s the best I could do at such short notice. You have no idea the strings I had to pull to get you something suitable in time.”
If she expects me to thank her for it, I’d rather choke on the lace.
Her assessment moves up to my face and she tuts out even more disapproval. “Good grief. Your make-up is abysmal. Antoinette!” Her maid appears in the doorway like a dutiful pet. “She needs less rouge on her cheeks. And that red lipstick is wrong. She looks like a whore, not a virgin bride.”
There goes my one shot at individuality.
Is this really happening? Has it really only been twenty-four hours since Papa announced I was to marry a man I’d never even met? A one-minute, formally worded deposition slotted in between his business meetings. He takes longer to peruse menus in restaurants.
Come to think of it, it’s the longest conversation we’ve ever had.
“Dressing table,” barks Marie, giving me a not so gentle shove in that direction.
Gritting my teeth, I allow myself to be ‘de-whored,’ by Antoinette. On the plus side, marriage means leaving Marie behind. Even she wouldn’t dare disrespect the wife of Luca Zaccaria…
I should have known she wouldn’t go out without a fanfare, though.
“I don’t see why we’re bothering with this charade,” she mutters, driving an extra pin into the base of my chignon and scraping my scalp on purpose.
“What do you mean?” I catch her eye in the mirror, instantly wary of the cruel green glint that I find there. “This is what my father expects of me.”
I’m rewarded with a cold smile for my curiosity. “I mean why go to so much trouble to look the part when the ceremony room will be empty.”
“But Signor Zaccaria’s family will be in attendance.”
I’ve read all about mafia families and the eight billion aunts, uncles and associated offspring who get wheeled out for occasions such as these. Kind of like a Bratva wedding when a sibling’s disgrace hasn’t double-booked the venue.
Her eyes widen for a beat, and then the chill in her smile drops a couple of hundred degrees. “What makes you think you’re marrying into La Famiglia, child? What makes you think you’re good enough for one of Zaccaria’s precious sons? Your sister has polluted you, like she’s polluted your father’s reputation, and today you will pay the price for her disgrace and his resurrection.”
My stomach lurches. She’s right. My father never actually confirmed who my groom was.
“Who am I supposed to be marrying?” I whisper.
She shrugs, as if the detail is insignificant. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
“I don’t believe you! He wouldn’t do this! Where’s Papa?” I rise to my feet, but her bony fingers clamp around my upper arm to stop me.
“Sit down, stupid girl.” I wince as her grip tightens; her coral pink nails digging crescents into my skin. “Your father has no desire to see you. He left for Paris an hour ago.”
My mouth snaps shut when I realize I’m gaping at her. “But he’s walking me down the aisle! I’m playing the role of the good Bratva daughter for him... The least he can do is guide me through the scene.”
“Be quiet!” Her mask cracks, just like my colombina did, but this time spite comes pouring out. “The only things accompanying you to that altar, child, are shame and solitude. You are all alone in this world now, Ielena. Your sister has deserted you, and your stupid mother is soaking your memory in gin.”
Please tell me I still have Maxim.
“All alone,” she mouths back.
Shrugging her off, I sit back down at the dressing table. My hands are shaking as Antoinette pats away the last of the red Chanel before smoothing on a dash of Vaseline, and then painting my lips a pale mauve.
Even that seems wrong. I need a shot of color confidence to bring my fair skin and frozen expression back from the brink, not something that’ll fade me out even more.
I’m only a half-measure, remember?
An image from yesterday slams into my mind, one with raging battlements of contempt in his eyes.
The man I couldn’t stop thinking about all of last night. The beautiful cruel memory who tempted my fingers between my thighs at the break of dawn.
What was it he said about me again?
“Stupid rich, bored, empty, unemployable, unsalvageable…”
Karina’s voice is in my head suddenly, telling me to hold on to my rainbow, no matter what. We made promises to each other the night she left. The kind you cross your hearts with, schoolgirl style, and keep until you die die die.
“Are you finished?” I catch Marie’s eye in the mirror and hold it. Screw her. Screw my father. They could marry me off to a beggar on the street and I’d still find a way to paint us gold.
“Good,” I say, firing back a Ping-Pong shot of my own.
I was right to feel that sense of satisfaction earlier. I’m not some little girl she can push around anymore. My new groom may not be Luca Zaccaria, but my father’s choice for me would have been tactical. He’ll be a man of standing in the criminal world.
“Good?” she mocks. “You won’t be saying that in an hour’s time.”
“Aren’t you going to wish me luck?”
Without waiting for an answer, I rise to my feet and sashay from the room as elegantly as my badly fitted shoes—thanks again, Marie—will allow.
Heart pounding, I make my way down the elegant marble staircase, feeling like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, but with the whole world, not Rhett Butler, declaring that they don’t give a damn about me anymore.
I reach the lobby to find the tall, stoic figure of my father’s Brigadier waiting for me. There’s another man standing there, too. He has his back turned, his black-suited shoulders blocking out most of the light from a nearby window. I’m so relieved to see Maxim I barely glance at him.
“You’re here!” I take the last couple of steps too fast and nearly lose my footing.
I knew he wouldn't abandon me as well.
He turns at my voice—eyes hooded, expression bleak. “Issa.” He catches me as I stumble into his arms. “Careful, zvezda moya.” He sets me right before sweeping his gaze downward. “Why, you look beautiful.”
“You’re the sweetest liar.” I step back to break his embrace, embarrassed by my lack of poise. What’s worse, there’s a masculine scent in the air that’s aiding and abetting that emotion, whipping up memories I’d rather forget. “Marie chose the dress so you can draw your own conclusions from that.”
“Tsch, Issa,” he chides. “She chose well.”
“Liar, twice over,” I say with a shy smile.
“She’s right, it’s hideous,” drawls a deep voice in perfect Russian. “But it’s nothing a bottle of Saint-Émilion couldn’t fix.”
The same man from the bar and my late night fantasies is smirking down at me, his cerulean-blue oceans churning with the same derision. My lungs stutter and lose function as I finally place the scent in the air.
“W-what are you doing here?”
“My presence was requested so it’s a good job I had another suit to wear.”
I can’t seem to process his words. It’s not just the size of him that’s throwing me off kilter. Those oceans are shark-infested, and I’m the bloody bait.
My head swings to Maxim for answers, but the scars on his face offer me nothing so I find it swinging back to him. It’s magnetic. I couldn't stop it if I tried.
“Monsieur Knight,” I say, pulling myself together. “How lovely it is to see you again.”
He barks out a rough laugh. “You could strip paint with the acid in your voice, princess. Your insincerity is corrosive.”
“Who knew a gentleman could be so vulgar,” I counter quietly.
“Who knew you had the brains to come to that conclusion all by yourself.”
“Have you two met before?” Maxim looks confused, trapped here in our blazing crossfire.
Aiden Knight cocks his handsome head and grins at me, but his eyes are like chips of ice. “Let's just say we had a difference of opinion over some home truths and a bottle of red yesterday.”
Instantly, my heart is a drum and bass beat inside my chest. I hate how British men have the whole archetypal bastard thing down to a fine art. His accent is a poisoned arrow with a fin-shaped fletching of contempt. He’s dressed in black Armani again today, though he’s swapped the black dress shirt for white.
Colors. Colors. He wears them like a warning.
His necktie is a brilliant crimson, the same red as the lipstick I chose for myself until Marie instructed Antoinette to scrub it off. He’s stolen it. How dare he! I find myself hating him more for that than I do for his insults.
“Is it true Papa left for Paris an hour ago?”
I mean to direct it at Maxim, but I can’t seem to tear my gaze away from my nemesis. He’s coolness personified, with the kind of hard arrogance that hazardous men exude. I don’t like the way he’s looking at me either, as if I’m a cornered fox and he’s the Master of the Hunt.
“Why? Are you worried he took his credit card with him?”
"That's enough, Knight!" growls Maxim.
I blush right to my roots as my father’s confidante proceeds to curse in both French and Russian at my English invasion. It’s a bi-language of reproach, but Knight just shrugs it off. Clearly, his ninety-nine problems don't include Bratva Brigadiers who'd be more than happy to use his head as target practice.
Is this man completely impenetrable or just plain indifferent?
“Jesus, you talk a lot of shit, Maxim,” he says in a bored voice, cutting him off mid-flow. “If you’re quite finished, her chariot awaits.”
I watch him stalk through the open front door, down the stone steps and into one of the waiting Escalades without so much as a backward glance at me.
Who is this vile, rude, arrogant man?
I meet Maxim’s heavy stare with unspoken questions in my eyes. “Marie told me I’m not betrothed to Luca Zaccaria anymore.”
“Please, Maxim,” I beg. “If our friendship means anything, I need you to be straight with me. Who the hell am I marrying today?"
My only ally in this world curses and swipes a hand across his jaw. It’s as if he's disinfecting his next words for an unclean revelation. I then watch in mounting, escalating, soul-crushing horror as his gaze shifts to the vehicles outside. Or rather, to one in particular...
© Catherine Wiltcher 2020
Catherine Wiltcher is a bestselling author of ten dark romance novels, a former TV producer, and a self-confessed alpha addict. Her writing is best described as sinfully sexy, and her characters always fall hard and deep for one another.
She lives in the UK with her husband and two young daughters. If she ever found herself stranded on a desert island, she'd like a large pink gin to keep her company. Cillian Murphy wouldn't be a bad shout either…
For book and blog updates, please visit www.catherinewiltcher.com