This was the worst day of my life.
It was supposed to be the happiest one. It was every young girl’s dream to get married in the perfect dress, in a pretty church, surrounded by her friends and family and an extravagant number of flowers.
It was supposed to be my day.
I had the beautiful dress, and it had cost a fortune. I hadn’t been one of those women that needed to try on a million dresses in search of “the one”. It had only taken three. It was a fabulous, princess inspired A-line in stark white, designed by Vera Wang and reminiscent of Cinderella. The torso was covered with tiny glittering jewels placed delicately all over the dainty, pristine lace detail that cascaded down the full length of the skirt. It was a once-in-a-lifetime dress meant for a once-in-a-lifetime wedding.
Each pew was decorated with a lovely arrangement of flowers. In fact, the whole church was filled with bouquets and vases, and it felt like the entire place had turned into an elegant indoor flower garden. Brilliant blue hydrangeas and vivid violet irises were hidden among white lilies and roses. The mix of flowery scents was heavenly. Truthfully, my wedding planner had knocked it out of the park. I should have paid her more.
My friends had arrived on time and had waited an hour before the first of them had started to trickle out. The priest had stood with me for a short while, but eventually he’d retreated to his study. A few members of my family had joined too, but they ended up leaving along with the rest. My mother and father had stayed with me the longest, but they had never really like Robert, so I soon grew tired of the “I told you so’s” and eventually told them that I wanted to be alone. They’d be flying back to Los Angeles tomorrow morning anyway. The plan had been that I would leave for my honeymoon in the Maldives at the same time. Everything had been prepared for down to the very last detail. Everything had been perfect, except for one thing.
My fiancé had never shown up.
He’d left me alone at the altar, leaving me to deal with the shame and utter humiliation of having to explain his absence while having literally no idea why he wasn’t here at my side.
Was I not enough? Had I done something wrong? Why wasn’t he here?
Finally, I left the alter and made it down the few steps towards the pew in the front. I lowered myself slowly, sitting down carefully among the copious amount of tulle around my waist. I pressed my hands to my face, wanting to cry but also not wanting to ruin the makeup I’d had done this morning.
What had gone wrong?
Somewhere inside the church, a clock ticked, and my hearing focused solely on it for a moment. Every click of the second hand seemed like the tolling of a bell, and my throat closed, making it hard to breath and even harder to think. My vision narrowed to a single pinpoint, and I closed my eyes, which made everything seem infinitely easier. Maybe I could pretend that I wasn’t here, that none of this was real.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Everything is going to be okay.
The massive oak doors at the back of the church opened, and I didn’t dare look up because I didn’t want to see another familiar face offering pity. Instead, I cleared my throat and tried to play the brave card as best I could.
“I’d prefer to be alone right now,” I tried.
“I’d like a chance to talk to you,” a husky, rumbling voice echoed.
I didn’t recognize it, and even as I searched my brain for any hint of who it could be, I came up blank. The structure of the church gave it a dangerously ominous feel, and it set me on edge, suddenly morphing my embarrassment into anxiety. The scuff of his shoes against the floor told me he was moving closer and that he wasn’t going to go away. I swallowed hard and lifted my chin, forcing myself to look up and see who it was.
Immediately, I realized that my instinct had been right. I didn’t know him. In fact, I couldn’t imagine a world where I would run into a man like him. Truthfully, he was sort of terrifying. He was massive, well over six feet tall and built like a bodybuilder. His biceps were so big that I probably couldn’t have closed my hands if I put both around one. His imposing height and enormous form seemed dangerous. My breath caught in my throat as I met his eyes. Captured in the prison of his steely, greenish-grey gaze, I stared, trying to figure out where he had come from and who he was, but I fell short. His dark brown hair was long enough to sweep towards the right side. There wasn’t any gel or product that I could see that held his hair in place. It simply appeared that he’d used his hands to brush it to the side. Each strand fell with a certain sense of effortlessness and that made him seem even more frightening at first glance. Slowly, my gaze drew down the rest of his face as my heart pounded in my chest. His brow was furrowed with something like concern, but I couldn’t be sure. Maybe it was pity? Hopefully not… His angular cheekbones gave way to a thick, trimmed beard that covered his jawline. The muscles in his cheeks were tense, like he was clenching his teeth together as he stared at me.
What did he want?
He was dressed in an elegant tuxedo, a matte black silk that told me he wasn’t a stranger to money. His cufflinks sparkled, and I didn’t even question if they were diamonds or not. I knew they were. There were tattoos peeking out from the collar at his neck. When I glanced down at his broad hands, I noticed they were rough—the hands of a man who hadn’t shied away from hard work. His tattoos continued past his wrists, down the backs of his hands and onto his knuckles.
Everything about him screamed danger, but for some reason I didn’t run. Instead, I stood up and faced him.
With broad steps, he closed the distance between us. My legs began to shake, and my vision pitched forward. Without warning, my world teetered on edge, and he immediately reached out, catching me in his arms. Like I weighed nothing more than a bag of feathers, he swept me off the floor and sat down, pulling me into his lap.
Well, this was unexpected…
He was even bigger than I thought. The size difference between us was stark, making me feel like nothing more than a small girl being held in a much bigger man’s lap. I should have fought, but I couldn’t bring myself to. For some insane, irrational reason, it felt like home, like I was safe.
The scent of his cologne swirled around me, and I closed my eyes, losing myself in the woody, aromatic scent of citrus and raw masculinity. When I concentrated on the specific notes, I sensed lemon and grapefruit with sandalwood and maybe cedar. There was a hint of lavender, nutmeg, and mint. It spoke of clean sophistication and power. It had a heady effect on me, so I tried to focus on something else.
His enormous, muscled arms surrounded me, holding me gently. He was strong, there was no question. I got the sense that he wasn’t used to backing down out of fear, and that if he was ever afraid of anything, he faced it head on with the courage of a warrior who wasn’t a stranger to battle. Even in his hardness, there was a certain tenderness that came out as he held me there in his lap, and I had to admit, it was curiously compelling.
“My name is Sergei Reznikov,” he began. His voice had taken on a softer tone, and its warmth pulled me in. I trembled a tiny bit in his arms, but I opened my eyes again and pulled away just enough so I could meet his gaze.
Captivated by his eye color, I stared into them, noting the flecks of green within his light silver-grey irises. The color combination gave him a striking appearance, conveying a sense of intellect and focus. He didn’t say anything for a moment, allowing the silence of his intense, icy gaze to capture my complete attention while also giving me a sense of warmth and gentleness from the softness and kindness hidden within them.
“I was supposed to get married today,” I confessed, and his arms squeezed a bit tighter around me, not in a controlling way, but as if he was offering his quiet support.
“His name was Robert Cooper,” he replied. I stilled, narrowing my gaze.
“Why do you know that?” I asked, my head swirling with what ifs. Who was this man? Why was he here, and what did he want? My entire body tensed, immediately suspicious of his intentions.
“I’ve come to tell you some very difficult things, Natasha,” he began gently, and I stiffened in his arms. “I’m not here to hurt you. I promise you,” he added, and eventually I relaxed once more, at least as much as I could.
“How do you know my name?”
He cleared his throat and started to run his fingers along the bare expanse of my upper back. It soothed me, and I settled against him, albeit warily.
“Robert Cooper was found dead this morning.”
Stunned, I blinked as I tried to process the information. Sergei didn’t give me much time, though, and kept going.
“You should know that Robert was hiding a great many secrets from you. First, he had a gambling addiction. It started in some of the bigger casinos in Vegas, and it ended here when he racked up an enormous mountain of debt. He owed some very bad people a lot of money and pissed away the entirety of his trust along with your life savings. The house you two just bought together was put up as collateral, along with any other assets he had at his disposal. He left you both penniless.”
Dumbfounded, I said nothing.
“He owed a lot of powerful people a lot of money, and when the marginal payments he was making stop, they’re going to come after someone.”
“No. Someone much closer to home. They’re going to come after you,” he explained.
“Who? Like a gang?” I asked, my voice quivering as the weight of what he was telling me settled on my shoulders. Could it be true? Robert wasn’t like that, was he?
Deep in the pit of my belly, though, there was something that told me that this wasn’t a lie, that Robert had been fully capable of some truly terrible things. I’d ignored the feeling for a long time, telling myself I was just being crazy, but maybe I had been right all along.
“No, much worse than that. They are more organized than a typical gang, more advanced, with nearly limitless amounts of money, power, and influence at their disposal. If they come for you, there will be no escape. They will find you and squeeze everything out of you. They will ruin a sweet girl like you,” he continued.
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“I can’t stand it when a man’s deceitful actions hurt those around him. You don’t deserve to pay for his sins,” he growled, and I could hear every bit of emotion in his voice.
I shifted in his arms, feeling the tension bleed down into his fingertips. He gripped me a bit tighter.
“Why are you here?” I finally braved.
“I’ve come to offer you a deal.”
Still safely confined in his lap, I swallowed hard. In a single day, my entire world had fallen on its head. This morning, I was set to marry the man of my dreams, or at least I’d thought he was. Now, I didn’t know where I was going to be tomorrow.
A door hinge squeaked at the back of the church, and I jumped. Immediately, I lifted my chin and looked back to see several big men that looked much like Sergei enter the building. They stood at each exit like security guards, and I had a sudden feeling that I wasn’t leaving here by my own choice.
I shifted, starting to feel genuinely uneasy.
“Are you associated with the men that own Robert’s debts?” I asked cautiously.
“I know of them, but I am not here to collect you as payment for his debt,” he answered, his voice calm and strangely protective.
I licked my lips, trying to take his words at face value while feeling apprehensive about the men who had just entered the room. As if he sensed my mistrustful thoughts, he cleared his throat.
“Those are my men. I asked them to be here with me so that I could make sure you were safe, and that Robert’s debts wouldn’t catch up to you before I could get to you first. They are here to protect you,” he explained.
Sergei hadn’t said it explicitly, but it was obvious that he might be just as powerful—if not more powerful—than the men that would come after me. I glanced at the men by the doors, noting that they appeared just as threatening as him, if not more so. One of them had his hand on his belt, resting gently on the butt of a gun. Nervously, I smoothed my palm over Sergei’s chest, eventually finding the unmistakable shape of a handgun with my fingertips stored inside his suit jacket.
“I will pay your husband’s debts for you. That will ensure you are not hurt because of his foolish misdeeds,” he began.
I tensed, trying to read his body language. Was he here to force himself on me? Would he sell my body in exchange for covering Robert’s debts?
Even as I thought those things, somewhere deep down, I knew he wasn’t that kind of man. If he had been, his approach would have been shockingly different. Truthfully, he’d only have needed to press his gun to my forehead to make me do whatever he wanted. What did he want?
“In exchange for what?” I asked, my voice still hinting at my simmering anxiety.
“In exchange for your hand in marriage, I will clear all of Robert’s debts.”
I took a deep breath, trying to think logically while my emotions swirled inside me like a category five hurricane about to slam into shore. My heartbeat had started to quicken, my anxiety getting the best of me.
“How do I know what you’re saying is true?”
“I will take you to my home after the ceremony, and I will show you the records of his gambling debts. I have proof of everything he kept secret from you.”
I sat back, gazing into his eyes. My gut feeling was that I could trust him, yet my head was holding me back.
“Why would you want to help me?”
“I’ve seen women like you ruined by men before, and if I can stop it from happening to someone else, I want that chance. Let me protect you. Let me give you a life, knowing that he gambled away every bit of your future.”
His steely gaze had turned warm, and though he didn’t say it explicitly, he was begging me to say yes. Every single syllable from his mouth felt genuine, and even though I had a thousand misgivings about what I was about to say, I said it anyway.
“Yes, what?” he prodded gently.
“Yes, I’ll marry you.”
He sighed with relief, his gaze sparkling with joy.
“Thank you, Natasha,” he murmured. He lifted his arm, raising a single finger, and I looked up to see the priest emerge from his chambers. When his eyes landed on Sergei, he bowed his head in reverence like he knew him.
“Whenever you two are ready,” he said, taking a spot by the alter.
“Right now?” I squeaked.
Fuck. This was actually real.
“The sooner you become Natasha Reznikov, the safer you’ll be. My name will afford you a great amount of protection and respect here in the city, and I want to give you that right away,” he explained.
It made sense, but it was far sooner than I had anticipated.
“Al… alright,” I answered, my hesitation more than a little obvious. My fingers clutched at him, and I realized that I felt a bit reluctant to leave the protective embrace of his arms.
“When you’re ready, we’ll begin the ceremony,” he whispered, his voice soft and understanding. “Listen, I know this is a lot all at once and probably more than a little overwhelming, but I want you to know that it will all be okay. As my wife, you’ll be mine, and I protect what’s mine. All I need is for you to trust me, and I know that’s a hard thing. But I promise you that my intentions are good. I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”
The men in the room said nothing, keeping their eyes on the floor not in fear, but in respect. Just from a surface glance, I knew that these men were fiercely loyal to him. Tentatively, I curled against him and breathed in the heady scent of his cologne once more. I studied his body language, taking note that his fingers gripped me firmly, but in a possessive way rather than a controlling one. He seemed to know his strength, holding me just hard enough to comfort me, but not to hurt me. There wasn’t a single thing about him that told me I needed to be afraid of him.
When I was finally ready, I took a deep breath and shifted. He gently let me go, and I put my feet on the floor, standing up on shaky legs. He grasped my upper arm and steadied me.
Could a man like him be sweet?
“Victor will walk you down the aisle.” Sergei gestured as another one of his men approached us.
He was just as fierce-looking as my soon-to-be-husband, but his hair was cropped much more closely to his scalp. Instead of a beard, he had a trimmed goatee that gave him a harsh appearance, but his brown eyes still held a respectful warmth. He offered his arm, and I hesitantly took it.
Sergei took his place at the alter while Victor led me to the back of the church. The musical notes of the organ started up again and I took a deep breath, tearing up a little that the song I had chosen was finally playing like it should have hours ago.
Sergei’s men filed inside and took their seats towards the front of the church. A few of them stood back to guard the doors. By the time all of them were seated, there were nearly fifty men gazing back at me from the pews. I noted that not even one peered at me with malicious malcontent, and they seemed supportive out of their loyalty to the man I was about to marry. I met his eyes once more, feeling a bit better about the unknown of all of this.
This man had brought an army with him to protect me, and all I needed to do was offer him my hand in marriage.
“Let me smooth out your dress for you, Miss Natasha,” Victor said, bowing his head respectfully.
I smiled and nodded, a bit surprised that a man like him would think of something like that. He knelt down around me, pulling on the bottom hem and ensuring that every wrinkle was ironed out. He took the train and gently spread it out behind me. When he was done, he stood in front of me and looked me up and down. There was no leering of any kind, and I felt instantly more comfortable the longer he stood by me.
“There. Perfect.” He grinned. He moved to my side and offered his arm. I took it and turned back to the aisle, taking a deep breath and swallowing hard.
I was about to marry a perfect stranger. I knew nothing about him other than his name. The thing that surprised me the most was that I wasn’t afraid, even though I was surrounded by an army of Russian soldiers. Shouldn’t I be?
I pulled my shoulders back as the song slowed down and the musical notes of “Here Comes the Bride” began to play. The acoustics of the church were flawless, each beat of the music bouncing off the walls and the ceiling to provide an all-encompassing sense of love.
I could do this.
I took my first step towards the future, not knowing what this evening would bring, let alone tomorrow. Truthfully, that didn’t matter at the moment. Right now, the only thing that did was the warmth in his eyes that drew me towards him. Even though we’d only just met, there was a gravitational pull between us that I couldn’t deny, or even ignore.
For the first time, I allowed myself to hope.
Sergei’s men surrounded me, like a battalion of soldiers stationed on the battlefield, all there to keep me safe from Robert’s deceit. I knew marriage wouldn’t be easy. There would be happy and sad times, arguments, smiles, and everything in between.
In that moment, though, it all felt right.
My feet carried me forward. My heels clicked against the beautiful wooden floor, but the music of the organ was loud enough to mask it. Before I knew it, I’d reached the alter. Sergei held out his hand, offering his support as I stepped up to meet him. He didn’t let go of me as I turned to face him. He smiled, keeping his focus centered fully on me. His hand squeezed mine.
“You look beautiful, moya malyshka.”
“What does that mean?” I asked tentatively.
“It’s Russian for my babygirl,” he whispered, and my heart swelled, filling with emotion from God knows where. My cheeks heated, and I looked down at the floor, hoping to cover up the fact that the sweet term had made me blush. Eventually, I braved a look up at him, catching his caring smile, and my heart stopped beating for a fraction of a second. When it started up again, I pulled in a shaky breath.
He was devilishly handsome in the roughest sort of way.
“You’ll take care of me?” I asked.
“Forever and for always,” he answered, sincerity bleeding from his every pore.
I swallowed hard and nodded once.
Beside us, the priest cleared his throat. “Shall I begin?” he asked.
Sergei didn’t answer, turning to me instead. He was letting me take the lead on this, which felt infinitely more special than anything Robert had ever done for me.
“Yes,” I nodded, feeling that maybe things were supposed to turn out this way.
My heart pounded in my chest as the priest began the vows. This was really happening. Every second was bringing me closer to actually marrying this man, a perfect stranger, and the thing that surprised me the most was that I wanted to.
I took a deep breath and the priest continued.
“Do you, Sergei Reznikov, take Natasha Page, to be your lawfully wedded wide, to cherish and love and protect for the rest of your life?”
Sergei’s steely gaze held mine and it didn’t waver for even a moment. “I do,” he vowed.
The priest opened his mouth to continue, but Sergei cleared his throat and cut him off, continuing without the need for his guidance.
“I, Sergei Reznikov, take you as my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” he said, keeping his eyes level with mine. It was as if he was speaking directly into my soul and my heart pounded even faster.
“Natasha, please repeat after me,” the priest spoke, but I only just heard him. I kept staring at Sergei, unable to look away.
I nodded, letting him know I understood, and he continued to speak beside me.
“I, Natasha Page, take you, Sergei Reznikov, as my husband, to have and to hold and to obey from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
I did as he asked, repeating every word with the full weight of my heart. My future husband’s face swelled with joyful emotion, and I noted that there was a certain twinge of dark intent when the word “obey” slipped from my lips, but it was gone so quickly that I almost thought that I’d imagined it.
Victor approached us and reached into his pocket, pulling out two blue velvet ring boxes. He passed one to Sergei, who reached out for my hand. I willingly gave it to him.
“With this ring, I thee wed. I offer you my love, my undying loyalty, and my endless devotion. May this ring be a symbol of my commitment to you,” Sergei said, his voice ringing out around the church.
He slipped a platinum diamond eternity ring on my finger, followed by a matching engagement ring with a diamond that had to be at least five carats. It was perfectly sized to my finger, and I swallowed, noting that the stone was flawless. It caught the light just so, casting a rainbow before us on the floor. I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful ring if I had picked it out myself.
Victor handed me a ring too, the wedding band meant for Sergei, and I took it with shaky hands. Instead of waiting for the priest to prompt me, I opened my mouth and began to speak first.
“With this ring, I thee wed. I offer you my loyalty, and my devotion to you. May this ring be a symbol of my commitment to you,” I vowed.
I didn’t offer my love, not just yet. I was hopeful that would come with time, but I couldn’t make that promise to him this soon.
“May these rings be a constant reminder of the commitment you made to each other on this day. May they symbolize your unbreakable bond, and may you wear them always with joy,” the priest continued.
I took a deep breath and smiled at my husband.
“You may now kiss the bride,” the priest announced.
My heart hammered in my chest. Sergei took my hands gently in his and pulled me close. There was nothing forceful about it, and I released the breath I was holding, relieved that this whirlwind of a day was ending this way rather than all alone in my apartment with a bottle of wine and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
His hand wound around my waist, pulling me against him a bit more possessively than before. I gasped as the fingertips of his other hand grazed up the length of my spine, finally settling on the back of my neck. His grip was firmer there too, and my core awakened with desire for the first time. His thumb dragged up and down the side of my neck, his touch sending electric tingles all the way down to the tips of my toes. For a moment, he just looked at me as though I was the prettiest thing in the world, and that made me feel powerful, even against the likes of him.
His gaze held me captive when his lips finally moved towards mine. I closed my eyes as his mouth brushed against me, caught off guard by the rough feeling of his beard against my face. It was scratchy, yet somehow still gentle, and I found myself enjoying it more than I thought I would.
His passionate desire caught me by surprise. In an instant, his kiss pulled me in, capturing me and holding me prisoner. It was sweet and chaste at first, slightly tentative, but it didn’t stay that way. The longer it went on, the rougher it became. His fingers clutched at the back of my neck, holding me in place as he took what he wanted from me. I felt my body fold for him, offering him my cautious surrender as I kissed him back with just as much fierceness.
When he finally pulled away, I found myself breathless. My whole body was simmering with warmth, and I faced the fact that with nothing more than a single kiss, he’d awakened a greater need within me than anyone else ever had in my life, including my ex-fiancé. With a shaky breath, I noticed his reluctance to let me go.
“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the priest proclaimed.
All the men rose to their feet and a resounding applause echoed within the church. Sergei’s hands clutched at me, and he pulled me in for a second kiss. Maybe I should have played hard to get, but I kissed him back.
That kiss pierced right into my soul, and I knew that from this moment forward, my life would be forever changed.
I hoped it would be for the better.