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Sold to the Russian: A Dark Mafia Romance by Isabella Laase – Sample

Chapter One

St. Petersburg, spring 1995

The late spring breeze tickled her skin throughout the long night to envelop her in a familiar comfort. For the first time in forever, she spent a few blissful hours, escaping her reality in a deep sleep and returning to the rugged Caucasus Mountains where she’d been raised. Her dark curly hair flying untamed behind her, she ran wild across the meadows with her giggling sisters, their bare feet toughened to callus pads against the stones and prickly grasses that scratched their sensitive legs. They pulled fresh figs from the trees and ate sticky, sweet apricots and pomegranate seeds that stained their fingers and dresses. But the honking horns and oversized trucks grinding their gears down the busy street in St. Petersburg reluctantly pulled her away from the memories, reminding her that everything she’d ever held close to her heart was lost.

“Zoya!” called Jelena from the bottom of the stairs. “Hurry. The master is expected today, and he won’t be happy to find you still in bed. It’s almost noon.”

Twenty-year-old Zoya Zhvania rolled over in the tiny cot nestled under the eaves of the attic, but nothing would return her to the drowsy, perfect stage of sleep where she could live in her dreams. Through the lone tiny window, the sun sent sharp streaks across the plain wooden floor, drawing her attention to the Neva River that fed into the Gulf of Finland. A beautiful city, St. Petersburg was built in the early eighteenth century from a frozen swamp to emulate western culture. Under the cover of darkness, the rooftop offered spectacular views of the golden spire from the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Great Winter Palace where Russian czars had lived in luxury during centuries of Romanov rule, but she’d seen none of the sights in person. Zoya hadn’t even left his house since she’d arrived in the cold Baltic port as Damir Petruskenkov’s newest possession.

“Zoya!” came Jelena’s persistent voice. “Come down at once, or I will report your insolence to the master.”

Despite the housekeeper’s nagging, Zoya had no place to go. She was a woman without a purpose, except to keep her master’s cock satisfied. He’d been away for weeks, but his previous night’s phone call had upset the serenity in the quiet household they shared with Damir’s nine-year-old daughter, Ana.

She brushed the snarls out of her hair before slipping the simple cotton dress over her panties and thin shirt. She was tall with a classic Georgian ancestry, but she’d lost much of her curvy figure in the last four months, leaving the old dress to hang awkwardly on her frame. The rich sauces and foods that Jelena prepared in a Russian kitchen had never appealed to her simpler peasant tastes, but homesickness and misery had played a bigger role in destroying her appetite.

The back servant’s stairway in the centuries-old townhouse led to the basement kitchen where Jelena frantically rushed from the pots and pans in the sink to the hot stove. A thick stew with carrots and potatoes delivered a rich, earthy aroma, but Jelena stirred it unhappily. “He’ll beat both of us,” she murmured, wiping aimlessly at the spidery stains on her worn navy blouse. “I spent all day yesterday trying to find beef, but there wasn’t any to be had.”

“This is a country of shortages,” said Zoya with a little more attitude than she’d intended. “Russia is in its infancy, and we’re all trying to make do.”

“You tell him that,” said Jelena, her dull eyes refusing to make contact. “And while you’re at it, get to his study to make sure that it’s clean and dusted. There is no sense in making him any angrier than necessary.”

“It’s fine,” she dismissed. “I took care of it yesterday. And I’m not your servant, Jelena.”

Zoya braced herself for a slap. Making the master happy wasn’t an easy task for either of them, and the older woman often turned her frustrations on Zoya who had no resources other than her sharp tongue and a quick wit that easily outdistanced her reluctant companion. Instead of striking her, Jelena snapped, “Shut up. Sluts have no place in a grand, privately owned home. His ancestor built this house before the revolution. He is a powerful man with royal blood in his veins, but now that the communists have been defeated, he is destined to be a leader in this country.”

“Royal veins filled with ice,” she said quietly. “I’m not a whore. Even though he hasn’t locked my door in weeks, with no resources, I’m a prisoner, and you know it.”

“Why do you complain? He brought you from a country where you were starving. You have no business challenging—”

“He didn’t ‘bring’ me,” interrupted Zoya, her dark eyes burning with an unwelcome anger. An emotionless perspective and a focus on the future was the only way to survive an unfair life. “He forced me. I was drugged for weeks, locked in that room with nobody except Damir who came whenever his cock pushed against his zipper. I don’t understand why you put up with him. You’re Russian with no accent to attract unwanted attention, and he pays you a salary. You could go anyplace you wanted.”

“Why would I leave a warm, dry home with food and a steady income?” Jelena scoffed. “Without the communists controlling prices, the country is starving. I’m the spinster cousin to his late wife, but he promised to keep me safe from what’s out there. I’m grateful for his protection, and you should be as well.”

“Grateful?” shouted Zoya, taking a step toward her. She’d spent months avoiding this topic, but she was nobody’s victim. “Are you kidding me? Grateful that he took me from my home? Grateful that he rapes and beats me? I would leave here in a heartbeat if I had a few rubles and a place to go, but my life is thousands of miles away. I’d never get back, and I have no idea where safety exists in St. Petersburg.”

Jelena slammed the spoon to the counter, twirling on her in anger. “You aren’t listening. There is no safety in St. Petersburg. It’s full of hungry people, waiting to deliver worse than Damir for a poor immigrant. And your father sold you. You have no reason to complain. Your family is probably still living off the money that Damir gave them.”

During her childhood, her father had provided their large family with a simple, subsistence existence. Separated from Russia by the tallest mountains in Europe, Sakartvelo had been thousands of miles removed from their communist-controlled masters in Moscow, but the collapse of the Soviet Union had changed everything. They’d gained their independence from the new Russian federation, but her family’s small farm had been lost for almost four years since the civil wars destroyed the country that westerners called Georgia.

“My father isn’t an evil man,” she insisted, her tone dropping. “He believed that I was married to Damir and thought he was making the decision for my benefit. Even I didn’t know that the priest was fake until I saw him here, in St. Petersburg, laughing at me as though I were his personal fool. Damir tricked my father; he would never have given me away if he’d known.”

Jelena returned to the dishes in the sink, and Zoya took deep breaths to fight the intermixing effects of panic over her lack of a future and anger over her dismal past. Her father may or may not have known the full story, but he’d still forced her to leave with a monster and promised not to report her disappearance to the authorities. He’d never been a warm man, but hunger and defeat had changed him to a bitter shell after the loss of their farm and the death of her mother.

She’d met Damir at her father’s small khachapuri stand in the outdoor market in Batumi. Surrounded by unsmiling men with heavy weapons bulging under their jackets, a leering Damir had returned several times to buy more of the cheesy stuffed breads she and her sisters had made in their tiny apartment. With a broken heart, she’d sobbed and begged her father not to abandon her, but his mind had been made up when he was handed more cash than he’d seen in his life. His closed expression was her last clear memory before Damir’s men surrounded her. She’d fought for her life, kicking at anything that moved and scratching their ugly, expressionless faces before they’d delivered to her thigh the sharp needle filled with tranquilizers.

But she’d never give up. “I’m nobody’s victim, Jelena. I may have a deep hole to climb out of, but I will succeed. I won’t waste my life. You should take a stand while you can. You can do better than this.”

“Jelena!” Damir’s voice accompanied the slamming of the heavy front door, interrupting their spat and causing both of them to jump. “Where the fuck are you?”

He would establish his meals and household first, but it was only a matter of time before he called for his ‘prize.’ Zoya was fastening her hair into an unflattering, messy knot on top of her head as Jelena returned, rubbing a burgeoning pink bruise on her cheek and her eyes were downcast with guilt. “He’s waiting for you, Zoya,” she said quietly, standing aside so Zoya could pass her to reach the narrow staircase.

Cut from the deepest Russian forests, the scarred solid oak floors and trim highlighted a turbulent history in a nation defined by revolution. Curving upward from the tall entry, a wide marble staircase had been hand-polished by artisans from the Ural Mountains, and crystal chandeliers from Italy sparkled in the sunlight. The rooms were filled with classic paintings, fine porcelain, and an expensive collection of iconic Fabergé figurines resting behind heavy glass doors.

What the home provided in beauty, however, was lessened by its lack of a familial presence, creating the effect of a cold museum. There were no photos of his four children or his late wife and the ugly brown synthetic rug in his study didn’t belong. Like the rest of the house, the beautiful grand piano in the main living room sat day after day, untouched and unappreciated. The dark, massive double door to the street was as uninviting as the faceless men who stood guard on the other side.

The discarded plastic bag and straw on his desk was followed by a trail of white crystalline powder. With a half empty tumbler of brandy, Damir stared out the leaded glass window with his back to a decades-old portrait of his mother. Her jewelry was stunning, but the artist had focused on her deep blue eyes and the red-hued chestnut brown hair nestled over her shoulders. A strapless navy blue evening gown was fitted across the lace bodice, cut low to provide the perfect framework for the massive emerald set in a cluster of diamonds, rubies, and sapphires.

Zoya willed her nerves to relax while staying sharp to anticipate his every move. A large man in his late thirties, Damir had likely been handsome in his youth, but his dark blond hair was shaggier than when she’d last seen him and his soft stomach bulged over his pants from too much rich food and expensive wine. Holding out the glass, he nodded without speaking. She moved quickly to fill it for him, but when she took the finely cut Polish crystal, his hand was visibly shaking.

“You’re a beautiful woman, Zoya,” he slurred, absently wiping his nose. “Your country raises the most beautiful women in the world. Come closer.”

She reluctantly moved to his side, and he pulled her to his chest while she tried not to struggle. He would take what he wanted whether she cooperated or not, and he enjoyed himself too much when she fought his authority. Moving his palm under her dress, he fondled her breasts, turning her stomach and burning her cheeks with humiliation. When her world had been limited to a drug-induced fog, she’d quickly learned to give him a small piece of her physical self while building walls around her emotional core. With any luck, he would pass out from the drugs and drink before he could take her, but he pushed her stomach over the arm of the couch to stand behind her.

The grumbling, deep voice came from the hallway. “Damir, I need to speak with you.” Sacha Belsky entered the room, but Zoya didn’t move, closing her eyes to escape her harsh reality. He’d shared her with Sacha before, a fat, ugly Russian with greasy black hair who managed the security in Damir’s complex business hierarchy.

But they’d misjudged her, dismissing her as an uneducated immigrant. Over the last few months, all of them had spoken openly about assassinations, bribery, extortion, and smuggling, each name and incident memorized and evaluated until she’d discerned a pattern for their illicit businesses. She didn’t dare write anything down, but her mind was quick and her motivation was even stronger. The more information she had, the better prepared she would be for her future.

“It’s an emergency,” said Sacha. “I got a call from Boris Novik. Somebody brought your nephew to his police station.”

“Already?” Damir asked sharply, but his hands continued to tremble. “What about his parents? Did they find them, too?”

“No,” dismissed Sacha. “I told you it would be weeks. The housekeeper must have taken him to the authorities. Do you want me to tell the Andreyevs to go get him?”

“Fuck, no,” Damir grumbled. “Their son was a piece of shit who didn’t fulfill his part of our bargain for me or my sister. Get the kid yourself and bring him back here. I’m not letting them have another fucking thing until they start cooperating with me.”

“The Andreyevs’ KGB connections have been valuable to us,” countered Sacha. “But I agree they haven’t delivered everything that they promised. I blame Gavrie, though. He didn’t want to marry your sister any more than she wanted to marry him, but send Boris Stasevich to get him. I hate kids. His wife has four or five of them, and he owes you after he fucked up the money in Moscow.”

Damir pushed her to the floor, scraping her knees against the rug. “Stasevich is done. Take Zoya. She can nursemaid my sister’s brat. It’s about time she did something to earn her keep besides providing a wet pussy for half of St. Petersburg.”

“I… I had many brothers and sisters,” she said, keeping her gaze on the abstract rug patterns and fighting to keep the eagerness from her tone. Leaving the house would provide valuable information on the city’s layout and, possibly, an open door for her escape. “I can do that.”

“You wouldn’t be trying to run away from me, would you?” asked Sacha. “I wouldn’t want to face Damir if I lost his toy.”

“Where would she go?” Damir laughed, kicking her thigh. “Home? Who would have her in a country that values morality? She’s a whore, fucked by half a dozen men. She’s only good for one thing now, but she’s too compliant after those first few days with all that attitude. Sell her after she brings the kid back here and find me one who doesn’t speak Russian. I don’t give a fuck what they’re saying.”

Any dispute would return her to the locked attic room and the influence of his opioids. She stayed on the floor, but her panic increased. As a child of the Soviet Union, she could speak a heavily accented Russian in addition to her native Georgian, but the unknown would take her even further from freedom.

“How much do you want for her?” asked Sacha, rubbing his hand across her cheek. “If I could find a place to keep her, I might take her for myself.”

“You need to work on controlling your own fucking wife,” dismissed Damir. “Just last week, her disrespect to you was unacceptable, and I had to step in. Besides, there are dark places to sell this one, and she knows it. It’s what keeps her legs opening for me.”

The fat Russian laughed. “Knowing that I would share her with you has made my Bertie almost timid. Her lover disappeared quickly once you got involved.”

“It was nothing,” scoffed Damir with a wave of his hand. “My father built this business far beyond what his father and grandfather ever dreamed of, but he never took full advantage of his position. My brother and I understand what to do with power.”

Sacha released his cock from his brown baggy pants and pulled her off the floor by her hair, the unexpected move and subsequent sharp pain causing her to whimper. Rubbing his shaft with his palms, he bent her stomach over the heavy antique table while Damir poured himself another shot of whiskey from the crystal decanter. Damir liked to watch.

She had no fear because everything they could have done to her had already been done. Humiliation, yes, but they would never win. She’d played their role of a whore in order to survive, but she’d defeat them all, find her freedom and escape. Her small pile of money, stolen in bits and pieces from the grocery funds or the pocket of a drunken man who’d passed out after raping her was growing every day. But most important, she had the sharp fish knife taken from the dark corner of the abandoned toolshed. Along with her cash, the weapon reminded her that she would have the ultimate revenge. Damir would pay with his life when she slit his throat, leaving him bleeding on his own ugly brown rug.

Chapter Two

The overcast skies brought little warmth to the antiquated sunporch, but the two children happily shared an old picture book that Ana had found in her closet. Sitting side by side on the couch, the small cousins bore little resemblance to each other; Ana long and lean, her curly dark hair and brown eyes giving a hint of the beautiful woman waiting to bloom and Anton, a sturdy preschooler with baby-fine blond hair and shiny blue eyes that mirrored his grandmother’s in the portrait.

Intelligent and insightful, Anton was big for a three-year-old. His unexplained cuts and bruises had healed since she and Sacha had picked him up at the police station three weeks earlier, and a low-grade fever and runny nose had been defeated by his child’s robust immune system. Despite his quiet nature, Anton’s fear of Damir ran deep, igniting a relentless hysteria when they were together. Flustered, Damir had ordered Zoya to keep the introverted child out of his sight, but Anton had grown so attached to her that she’d had a hard time separating from him, even sleeping on the floor of his room when the nightmares woke him from a restless sleep.

But underneath the relative peace, a deeper unrest existed in the dark household. The boy almost never spoke, processing every sight and sound with an intense concentration and an ugly stuffed rabbit clenched in his arms. Other than the toy and the clothes on his back, he’d come to them with nothing, and no plans were made to retrieve his things. She and Jelena had gone through closets and attics to find hand-me-downs from Damir’s sons so he’d have something to wear. More concerning, he never asked for his mother or father. It didn’t require a lot of presumption to declare Damir’s complicity in their disappearance.

“Zoya,” said Ana with rare excitement. “I forgot to tell you. I got my history test back today, and I got a 95% on it. Thank you for helping me study for it. Even Papa can’t be angry with a 95%.”

“Good for you,” said Zoya, hugging the little girl. “You worked hard getting ready for it.” Between the government’s ever-changing versions of Russian history and Ana’s challenges with simple reading tasks, Zoya had been concerned. “There is a letter for you from Luka,” said Zoya, nodding to a pile of mail on the table.

For a second or two, Ana’s tiny face fell before she exploded with a temper that mirrored her father’s. “Throw it in the garbage. I don’t want anything to do with him.”

“I’m sure he misses you,” Zoya added. When she’d first arrived in St. Petersburg, Zoya had seen herself in the little girl, a motherless child with a distant father, but the nine-year-old had sounded like a bitter adult. “Jelena says that your brother has been away from home for a long time.”

“Did Jelena also tell you that my mother shot herself?” spat Ana. “Because she did. She and Papa were fighting over Luka, and it was Luka’s fault. Papa threw away the rug with her blood on it and all of her pictures, too. You can throw those things away, but you can’t change my mind or erase my memories. I was there right after it happened. I saw her.”

“I’m sorry, Ana,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “I didn’t know any of that. It must have been very hard for you, too, especially when your brothers went away to school.”

“Papa got rid of all of them, but they wanted to leave here and leave me, even Luka. I’ll never speak to him again as long as I live. I wish… I wish I had been born a boy, and I could have gone away too, but Papa wouldn’t waste money educating a stupid girl like me.”

“Just because reading is hard doesn’t make you stupid.” Zoya put her hand on the little girl’s head, but Ana angrily pulled away. “It just takes you a little longer, and you can’t give up because something is hard. The best thing you can do is to get good grades and prove that your father is wrong.”

Dadja Damir is a bad man,” said Anton, still leafing through the old book. “Mama told me to stay away from him. When her was hurt, that’s what her told me.”

Facing the longest sentence the little boy had spoken since he’d arrived, both Ana and Zoya stared at him. In this family, keeping secrets was the key to survival, but she turned to Ana. “Do you know what he’s talking about?”

“No,” said Ana, shaking her head. “But my father’s a horrible person. If they do business in the dining room, I can hear him through the heat register in my bedroom.”

“You must always keep that information to yourself,” warned Zoya. “And he is a horrible person, but none of this is your fault. Stay out of his way. Don’t make him angry. You’ll thrive when you’re away from here.”

Jelena’s voice drew their attention to the doorway. “Why would you fill her head with such treachery? You have enough to worry about. The master wants to see you in his study, so don’t keep him waiting.”

Zoya pulled Ana in for a hug, but this time, the little girl returned the embrace, holding on for an extra-long few seconds. With Ana still in her arms, Zoya turned to Jelena. “You aren’t doing her any favors by letting her think she’s doing something wrong. She needs to be protected from him both physically and emotionally until she’s old enough to earn her own living.”

“I’ll be fine,” said Ana with a tilt of her chin as Jelena walked toward the kitchen stairs, shaking her head. “I’ve managed him this long, and I’ll win in the end.”

“Just remember that, but I need to see what he wants.” Keeping her tone casual, Zoya added, “Take Anton to the kitchen for a snack. He’ll stay with you if you keep reading to him.” Damir had always avoided her when Ana was nearby, but she waited until the children walked down the stairs, praying that Anton wouldn’t try to follow her. Ana wouldn’t be big enough to stop him if he had a tantrum, and Jelena was unlikely to even try.

“Zoya!” shouted Damir from the door of his study. “How many times do you expect me to call for you?”

Despite his obvious impatience, it had been weeks since he’d truly lost his temper, and she was unprepared for his hard slap that dropped her to the floor as soon as she’d entered the room. “You fucking slut,” he roared. “What were you planning? To stab me in my sleep after robbing me?”

Her need to survive came before evaluating his tirade. She stayed on the floor, pulling herself into a smaller ball as he kicked her ribs with his heavy boots, knocking the air from her lungs. From the top of his desk, he picked up both her fish knife and the envelope filled with cash that she’d hidden under her mattress. “Where the fuck did you think you were going with this? You couldn’t have gotten a bus ticket across town with those coins. I would have found you, Zoya. I will always find you, so don’t fucking forget that.”

Wrenching her shoulder, he yanked her to her feet, causing her to cry out in pain. He hit her again, a brutal, angry blow to the side of her face, leaving the metallic taste of blood in her mouth. “What can this fucking weapon of yours do?” he asked. His tone was slurred, and his wild-eyed gaze was terrifying. He pulled the sharp knife from the sheath, the sunlight catching a glimmer of hardened steel.

She ran to the door, but the handle wouldn’t open quickly enough to allow her escape before he grabbed her, forcing her arm behind her until his breath stained the back of her neck. Locked in his grasp, she frantically twisted and pulled, but he was too strong. He held the blade to her throat, the cold steel pressing against her skin. It couldn’t end this way, her life extinguished in that cold household without experiencing what the world had to offer. She froze, afraid to breathe for fear it would push him to the unimaginable, whimpering while his grin grew wide with a brutal satisfaction.

“Stop!” shouted Jelena from the doorway. “Damir, for the love of God, don’t kill her.” Damir took a breath, but he lifted the knife from her throat and pushed her to the floor. Zoya remained on the carpet in a surreal fog, gasping in an attempt to fill her sore lungs with air. “Think of Ana,” Jelena pleaded. “She’s already seen so much death. Don’t let her go through it again. You have all of the paperwork to get rid of this one. Let Sacha take her to the airport tomorrow.”

With a grunt, he made himself another drink, giving her the chance to crawl to the opposite corner of the room. Leaning against the wall, she continued to take deep, choking breaths that aggravated the pain in her chest. Covering her bruised ribs with one arm and rubbing her neck with the other, she mentally prepared to take another stand to defend her life.

“She’s taking the fucking kid with her, too,” growled Damir. “All he does is stare at me. Lock her in her room until Sacha comes tomorrow. I never want to see her face again.” He hurled her money and her knife to the back of the fireplace where the flames destroyed her tiny bit of hope. He left the room without looking back, slamming the front door on his way out of the house.

“Let me look at your injuries,” said Jelena, reaching for her.

“Don’t touch me,” hissed Zoya, slapping her hand aside. Jelena was the only one who would have betrayed her, handing Damir her money and destroying her only chance to escape. And Anton. She’d be responsible for him as well; the tiny boy whose life had barely begun would disappear into a world of crime and horror, dramatically reducing her already pitiful chances to escape. “I want nothing from you.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jelena, but her superior tone offered no comfort. “I found those things in your room, but this is your fault, not mine. Without Damir, I have nothing and neither does Ana. I need him to trust me. A wife has a responsibility to keep her husband safe and informed.”

“Wife?” she responded. “You’re married?”

Jelena stood taller. “We’re keeping it a secret so people don’t judge us. There are unfair rumors about his involvement in Nina’s death, and he needs to protect himself from that scrutiny. She was far from the innocent girl people portrayed her to be. After her parents died, my parents took her in. I know what she was capable of.”

“Are you insane?” With her adrenaline still in control, she was prepared to battle. “You’ve sat here, in this house, and watched what he’s done to me? Your husband? How do you know that your marriage is even legal? He told my father that he married me, too.”

“You’re a fool, Zoya. The fake marriage was for your benefit because he’d hoped that you’d leave Georgia peacefully. Men will do what they need to survive, and your father wanted one less mouth to feed and a handful of cash. Period.”

“That’s not true. He never would have let me go if he’d understood what was going to happen. And you’re just as much at fault for my situation as Damir.”

“Don’t ever judge me,” hissed Jelena, pointing her long skinny finger at Zoya’s chest. “I’m sorry that you’re in this position, but I have no control over any of this. I understand that I am a marriage of convenience, but my own parish priest performed the ceremony. Damir had tremendous guilt over Nina’s death. She pulled the gun on Damir, but it went off when Luka grabbed it. She didn’t commit suicide, but that was a better story than the truth. Luka shot Nina, I’m sure of it. He was a horrible, violent child, and Nina’s death has only deepened his anger. Damir has done Ana a favor by keeping him away.”

“Are you even listening to yourself?” she asked incredulously. “How can you trust anything that he says? Your husband brought a sex slave into your home, and you watched it happen from your place in his kitchen. You don’t even share his bedroom. What kind of a relationship do you think you have?”

“I’ve told you, I’m fed. Many rich men seek prostitutes and mistresses. I’m no different from a thousand other wives in this city.”

“I’m neither! I’m his prisoner. I have given him neither consent to continue nor approval after the fact. This is rape, Jelena. Where is your sense of pride?”

“After Nina’s death, he went through three different housekeepers in six weeks. I owed it to her to care for her child, and I was tired of the uncertainty in a transitioning world.” Jelena moved toward the doorway. “Come, he told me to lock you in your room. You’re not going to escape. Reconcile yourself to a fate that you can’t change, and your life will be easier.”

“Reconciling myself to this fate is to be defeated,” said Zoya. “But Ana, you must take care of Ana. I’ll go peacefully, but promise me that you’ll care for her.”

“Ana will be safe,” Jelena said, pointing to the portrait above the fireplace. “Just like her American-born grandmother, they’re Petruskenkovs, resilient and strong. And save your judgmental tripe for somebody who cares. I live in a beautiful house, and I’ll have wonderful jewels and a place in society when he announces our marriage to the public.”

With her dark blue eyes, the stunning stranger in the painting dared Zoya to fight for her freedom, but she had nothing left to use in a battle. “You’re willing to sacrifice your life for jewels,” she stated flatly.

“Not just any jewels. I will have those jewels. That necklace was designed by Fabergé for the cousins of a czar, and it has been in his family since the turn of the last century. By custom, it is given to the most important woman in the family, and that will be me. You’ve been sold to his brother in New York. In exchange for you, Pavel will return the necklace to its rightful place after he stole it when he returned to his mother on her deathbed.”

New York. Thousands of miles away from her family and friends. Another culture and language of which she had no knowledge and another prison in a Petruskenkov household with another brutal criminal. But the terror from her close brush with death had yet to subside and her ribs remained sore when she took a full breath. If she refused this plan, the guards standing on the other side of the front door would most certainly kill her, dumping her body in the river where it would never be found. There were no options for a penniless, weaponless woman.

“Care for Ana,” she begged. “And tell my father where I’m going. His name is Tamaz Zhvania. You can reach him at a pub called Armazi’s in Batumi almost every Saturday night. It’s the least you can do for me.”

Jelena led the way to the staircase without making a commitment to care for Ana or make the phone call. Broken-hearted, Anton was crying for her in the kitchen. He would have a restless night, but in the morning, they would be together to face the new threat. Her plans to escape had almost gotten her killed, but she wouldn’t fail a second time. Pavel Petruskenkov would pay for both brothers, another faceless mobster who deserved to die.

The sun hadn’t risen when Sacha unlocked the door to her room. She’d slept little during the long night, watching the stars from the attic window and listening to Anton’s intermittent crying with no way to support him. Taking her suitcase and oversized bag, she followed Sacha to the second floor where she woke Anton and took him into her arms. Startled, he wrapped his chubby baby arms around her neck, whimpering and rubbing his face into her shoulder, but she comforted him with gentle kisses on his rosy cheeks until he smiled.

Setting him on the floor, she mustered as much cheerfulness as she could manage. “Come, Anton. We will go on a wonderful adventure and ride on a big airplane, but I need you to walk. You’re too big to carry while I’m managing our suitcases.”

With his fat stuffed bunny clenched in his arms, Anton’s dark blue eyes stared distrustfully at Sacha. Zoya packed his few things into a discarded suitcase, and her heart broke for the motherless child. He deserved a room filled with toys and a family who rejoiced at every new milestone, not banishment to a new country where nobody would love him.

“Put your bunny in my bag, Anton,” she said gently. “I don’t want him to get lost. I promise that you can have him back as soon as we get on the plane.” The toy was his only connection to the past, and she was surprised when he complied without an argument. He’d guarded it with a ferocity that was at times overwhelming, but a lost bunny would be a disaster that might push both of them over the edge.

“I need to say goodbye to Ana,” she said to Sacha. “She won’t understand if we leave without saying a word.”

“We both know that isn’t a good idea,” he said, pointing to Damir’s closed bedroom door. “Just take the boy and come without causing a scene. You don’t want to deal with him any more than he wants to deal with you, so make this a clean break.”

At that early hour, the city was almost deserted with yellow-tinged security lights reaching through the darkness to highlight the empty streets. Sacha merged onto the expressway and wove around the few cars at a breakneck speed. “How do you expect me to do this?” she asked quietly. “The only time I’ve been on a plane was when I was drugged on Damir’s rented jet. I have no passport or ID and no money.”

From the seat next to him, he handed her a thick manila envelope. “Everything you need is in there. Russian passports and visas for both of you and airline tickets. I’ve also added Anton’s birth certificate and the paperwork Pavel will need to gain legal custody of him in New York. Give it all to Pavel when you land. He’ll know what to do with it.”

She opened the package, but the documentation was in Russian, a confusing mix of squiggly lines and indecipherable characters. Georgian was an ancient language with no ties to Russian or their alphabet. Despite the communist attempts at Russification in their multiethnic empire, she’d never mastered reading the foreign script, but that wasn’t her biggest problem. “There’s no money in here.”

“I wanted to give you a few US dollars, but Damir is convinced that you’ll run given a chance. He doesn’t like to lose. You’ll get meals and snacks on every flight, and there will be plenty of people who speak Russian on the plane out of St. Petersburg. You have a layover in Istanbul then a direct flight to New York City. Pavel will meet you at the airport, and you’re traveling with a child. Everybody will help you along the way.”

He parked the car in front of the stark spotlights of the terminal entrance where a few sleepy travelers walked into the building. “One more thing, Zoya,” he said, turning around in the driver’s seat. “There’s a marriage certificate in there between you and Pavel. It’s the only way that we could arrange your immigration status on such short notice. When you go through customs in America, remember that your name is Zoya Petruskenkov. You’ve been married since January first, and you are a naturalized Russian citizen. Damir had the power to make it legal, at least on paper, so if you make a mistake, they’ll arrest you for fraud and take Anton away from you. You must be diligent, especially when you go through customs and immigration in New York.”

Like everybody who’d lived in the former Soviet Union, she’d been taught at a young age to distrust authority, and his threats only added to her burden. “It’s amazing,” she said bitterly. “I’m only twenty years old, and I’ve already been married twice. Once, you forced me into a real ceremony and a fake marriage, and the second time, there was no ceremony and it was a real marriage. You have an amazing talent.”

He had the decency to look guilty. “I’m sorry, Zoya. You deserved better than all of this, but when Damir wants something, he isn’t dissuaded. You have been with him long enough to understand that.”

“There is nothing about Damir that I understand. I don’t speak Turkish or English. I have no money, and I have his own nephew to care for. If the plane is delayed or I miss the connection, I have no resources to even feed him. Even if he hates me, how could he do this to his sister’s child?”

“I would have bought you to keep you in Russia, but Damir insisted on sending you to Pavel. He was Damir’s right-hand man before he left to expand their business in America. And I’m sorry. Truly sorry for all of this and for everything that has happened to you.”

“That didn’t stop you from raping me, did it?” she asked, meeting his eye until he was forced to turn away.

He pulled their suitcases out of the trunk of his car and used her airplane tickets to check them in at curbside for a uniformed porter to take away. With no money and the little boy to care for, she had no options except for the one they’d placed in front of her, but looking backward was the surest path to defeat. America would provide her next chance to escape, only this time, she’d take Anton with her. Dropping the envelope into her small bag, she firmly took Anton’s hand. Without saying another word to Sacha, they went into the airport together.

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