“He’s here!” Diana shuts my bedroom door and presses her back against it. Her cheeks are pale, her chest is rising and falling rapidly.
“Have you talked to him?” I scoot off my bed. She shakes her head; tears well up in her soft brown eyes.
“I can’t.” She covers her mouth.
I go to her, pull her into a hug. “Don’t worry, Diana. We’ll figure a way out of this. Dad can’t do this; Mom won’t let him.” I pat her back while she winds her arms around my middle.
This isn’t new. Me comforting my twin sister over something our father has done.
“He’s already done it. Mr. Staszek is here too. They have a contract laid out on the desk. They’re talking about this like I’m a prized cow.” She lets go of me and runs her hands over her cheeks. Tears have stained her face.
“A contract?” My stomach turns. It’s not real, it can’t be. What judge would uphold an agreement like this?
“Yes.” She walks across my room, twisting her hands together. “Mom’s not even home. She left. She left me to do this on my own.”
“That’s not true.” I defend. “If she’s not here, it’s because he made her leave.”
Diana nods, rubbing her temple. “I know. I’m sorry, Kasia. I’m losing my mind here. This can’t be happening. It just can’t be.”
She’s in no state to go down there and deal with our father. With the Staszek men. Her hair is wound up in a tight bun and she’s dressed in a soft blue romper.
“Has Dad seen you already?” I ask her as I make my way to my vanity.
“What? Yes. He’s the one that told me they were here. I’m supposed to be waiting in the living room, but I had to come up here. I had to get away from it for a moment.” Fat, fresh tears roll down her cheeks again.
“Okay, come here, get out of that romper.” I sit at my vanity and pull out the pins needed to get my hair wound up like hers. I hate having my hair twisted up the way she does, but no choice for it now.
“Mr. Staszek won’t know the difference. Give me your romper,” I say urgently. If she’s supposed to be waiting in the living room, it means they’ll be calling her soon. We don’t have much time to make the switch.
“This isn’t second grade, Kasia. We can’t do this.” She rolls the romper over her hips as she argues with me.
I finish with the last pin and quickly change out of my t-shirt and leggings and into her outfit.
“You can’t go down there sobbing. It will show weakness, and men like them, they feed off it,” I say, repeating the words of our father.
She wipes her nose with the back of her hand. “Kasia. I’m the older one, I’m supposed to protect you, not the other way around.”
I work the last button in place, then go back to my vanity to swipe on makeup. Diana favors blues; I dig out an eyeshadow pallet and get to work.
“You’re older by six minutes,” I say as I finish the last of my mascara. “Let me do this for you. I will deal with Dad and the Staszeks, and you stay up here. Out of sight.” I squeeze her shoulders.
She sniffles. “Okay. Okay.” She nods. “Thank you, Kasia.”
I smile. “What are twins for?”
I leave her to hide away in my room and make my way quickly down to the living room. I’m just sitting down on the couch when Mr. Marcowski, Dad’s new attorney, comes to fetch me.
With a cleansing breath, a quick mental prayer, I follow him down the hall to where my father is waiting.
I hate my father’s office. It’s never been a room that created any pleasant memories for me. This is no different.
“This must be Diana.” An older man I assume is Joseph Staszek smiles at me. His face is squishy, like he’s recently lost a lot of weight and his skin hasn’t snapped back into place. He inclines his head in greeting but doesn’t come toward me.
“Diana.” My father says the name with contempt. The way he speaks my own name. He knows. To call me out on my trickery would embarrass him in front of these men, and he won’t do that. But he’ll deal with me later.
“Diana, this is Mr. Joseph Staszek. And this is Dominik Staszek, his son, your intended.”
Intended. Sometimes I wonder if my father even understands the modern world. He’s so entrenched with old rituals and rules; he sounds as outdated as the furniture in his office.
“Mr. Staszek.” I force a smile for him. Diana is more civil than me, more polite. She wouldn’t offend anyone in this room, and even with my father aware of the switch, I don’t want to make her first impression to these men a bad one.
When I move my gaze to Dominik to greet him, a chill runs down my back. He’s not my age. He looks well past high school years. His hair is cut on the long side, and his beard is well trimmed. It’s his eyes that give me pause. Ice blue.
“Dominik,” I say quietly and avert my gaze. He’s dressed in a black suit with a regal blue shirt, no tie. His hands are tucked into his slacks, but even with his position I can see the muscles beneath his clothing.
“Diana.” He inclines his head. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“The contract has been worked out; we only need your signature, then you can go up to your room. I know you have a lot of homework to get to,” my father says. He’s referring to the biology report I haven’t completed. The tutor my mother made him hire is nothing more than a tattletale.
Mr. Marcowski walks to the desk and turns it toward me, holding out a pen for me. I swallow hard beneath the stare of all four of them on me. Diana would have crumbled in this room. She would have fallen into a fit of sobs. Being made to sign away your future can do that to a sixteen-year-old girl.
I glide across the room, my chin held high and snatch the pen from his hand. The attorney points to the last empty line at the bottom of the paper. Everyone else has already scribbled their names.
“You don’t need to read it. Just sign,” my father snaps at me. I clear my throat as a way to keep from commenting back, then put the pen to the paper.
Easily the pen glides over the paper as I scrawl my sister’s name on the line. Signing away her future. Signing away any chance she had of falling in love the way a girl is supposed to.
“Good!” Mr. Staszek claps his hands together in celebration. He should be happy, from what I was able to glimpse of the contract his family stands to inherit all of my father’s businesses upon his death. There is no son to pass the business onto, this is the next best thing.
“They will be happy, back home,” Mr. Staszek says. “This little feud—it’s over,” he says and waves over at Dominik. “Why don’t you escort your bride for a few minutes.”
Dominik gives a slight nod.
What feud are they talking about?
“Let’s go, Diana.” Dominik touches my arm when he gets close enough. The way he says the name, it’s bitter. Is he as unhappy about this arrangement as Diana is?
“I’ll be up to talk with you later,” my father calls to me as we reach the door. I don’t bother to acknowledge him. He can add it to the list of things he’ll punish me for. I don’t care.
Dominik towers over me as we walk down the hall.
“I can walk myself, thanks,” I say to him as we get to the stairs. “I’m sure you have things to do.”
He grabs my hand as I step onto the stairs and pulls me around to look down at him.
“You’re not Diana,” he accuses.
I school my features. “Why would you say that?”
“Because I saw Diana scurry like a scared mouse when we arrived. She wasn’t wearing any earrings, and she was wearing white sandals.” He gives a pointed look at the black flip flops. I forgot the shoes.
“Does it matter? You got what you came for. A signature,” I say, pulling my hand from his. It’s too big, too powerful. “How old are you?” If we’re skirting small talk, I’d like some information.
“Twenty-five,” he says with a grin. “You’re sixteen. Don’t worry, I won’t claim your sister until after she’s graduated high school. She’s a free bird until then.” He places one hand on the banister and leans on it. “Tell her, I expect her to be at the wedding. And if I were you, Kasia, I’d teach her a bit more about bravery. She’s going to need it.” He winks, then pushes away from the stairs, pockets his hands, and saunters back down the hall toward the office.
The asshole is whistling.
I run up the stairs to my room.
Two years. I have two years to find a way for my sister to get out of this marriage.
Because my sister will never survive being married to a man as cold as him.
It’s four in the morning when I arrive home. My feet throb from the insanely tight shoes I stuffed them into for the night. I’m going to have blisters for days. My eyelids are heavy, and all I want is my bed. I haven’t stayed out this late in too long of a time. I may sleep the rest of the weekend away.
My father’s driver pulls up to the front steps of the house, parking behind a black SUV. I don’t recognize the car, but I’m too tired to really care.
A girl from school threw a graduation bash in the city at a dance club. It wasn’t my scene. I don’t go out often, rarely actually. Making friends isn’t worth the hassle anymore. But her father knows mine, so it was more of a demand that I go instead of a suggestion for some fun.
Four years of college, and I’m still being bossed around by daddy. It’s pathetic.
I carry my shoes with me up the steps to the house. The porch light’s on and two of my father’s men are standing at the door, waiting.
“Evening boys,” I wink at them as I pass them into the house. They don’t smile. To show me any kindness would probably earn them a beatdown.
I can’t blame them.
“Kasia.” Mr. Marcowski steps out of my father’s office further down the hallway. He doesn’t move toward me, but rather beckons me toward him. “Your father would like you in his office.”
“What’s going on?” I ask. I just want to go to bed.
“Your father wants you,” he repeats himself.
I’ve been out all night, doing what my father told me to do. How much trouble could I have caused him while doing exactly what he wanted from me?
“Is someone here?” I ask, noting two more men standing outside my father’s office. They aren’t his men. These two are younger, more severe looking. No, they’re obviously not in their own territory.
My heart is already beating too fast in my chest. I steel my features. It’s not much, but it’s all I have. I take a cleansing breath and wipe my palms on my hips before walking into the office.
Whatever his problem is, I’ll deal with like I always do. And then I’ll move on.
Once inside the brightly lit study, I stop. Marcowski enters behind me and closes the door. The loud thud of it shakes my insides.
My father sits behind his massive desk, drumming his fingers on the arms of his chair. He hates waiting, and apparently, I’m late for a meeting I didn’t know about.
Off to the right of my father stands a man. A familiar man.
My heart trips over itself when I recognize him. He’s aged, but haven’t we all. The years have made him fiercer, at least in appearance. Where he seemed serious before, he looks downright dangerous now.
His hands are stuffed into the pockets of his trousers. His hair is slicked back from his face. He scans my appearance, as though taking stock of me. How much have I changed in the six years we haven’t seen each other? The years that I’ve almost forgotten about him.
There’s no point for him anymore.
Not since the accident.
My throat dries as the tension in the room builds.
“Kasia.” My father finally breaks the silence. “I thought you’d be home earlier.” Anyone who doesn’t know Marcin Garska would think he sounds casual, but I know my father. He’s annoyed.
“I was downtown at the graduation party, like you…suggested. I didn’t realize you needed me home at a specific time.” My eyes wander from my father to the serious man still glaring at me. I avoid his pale eyes and try to assess him in the same manner he did me. He’s wearing a dark gray suit with a black button-down shirt. No tie and the top button is undone. Every bit of his clothing fits him like it was made specifically for him.
“You remember Dominik Staszek.” My father points to him but doesn’t stand up. And Dominik makes no move toward me. No extended hand or a smile. Just a simple nod of acknowledgement.
I was never formally introduced to Dominik. Other than the meeting where I posed as my sister, I have never spoken to him. A sadness showers me with the memory.
I swallow hard. Something’s out of sorts here. Diana isn’t here. She was killed along with our mother in a horrible crash long before she was forced to join hands with him. Dominik shouldn’t be here. He doesn’t need to be here.
“Yes, I remember,” I say, rolling my shoulders back and standing as tall as my spine will allow. Look determined, confident, no matter how much your insides are crumbling.
“Let’s get to the matter at hand,” my father announces. “The arrangement made with Joseph Staszek and his son Dominik stands.”
“What? Why?” I ask, focusing my attention on my father. I can feel Dominik’s stare on me, spreading warmth over my skin.
“It’s what was decided,” my father says.
“But…how? I mean, the arrangement was for—” I hesitate at her name. “Diana isn’t here to keep to the arrangement.” I tense my body, willing myself not to show how much her name still affects me.
“I’m well aware of that,” my father snaps at me, and a heavy wave of guilt rushes over me. “But an agreement was made. You’ll honor it.” My father looks right into my eyes, not an ounce of empathy crossing over his features.
“It’s been years, four years past the agreement,” I say quickly. Surely that has to mean something. He broke the deal by not coming four years ago.
“You’ll have to forgive me for not coming sooner.” Dominik finally speaks, his voice low, controlled.
I glance at him, then refocus on my dad. If I ignore him, maybe he’ll go away.
“This isn’t making any sense. You told me if I stayed, if I went to college and did exactly as you instructed, I would be able to choose for myself. I’ve graduated. I’m free. You said I could move—”
“Enough!” My father’s eyes widen with his outburst. His lips curl inward, and I can make out the vein in his neck throbbing. This conversation isn’t appropriate in front of Dominik, but he’s brought this on himself. He should have told me sooner. He should have given me a chance to talk to him in private about this.
I look to Dominik. The man appears utterly bored. He could be staring at paint dry for all I can see on his expression.
“I don’t understand,” I say softer, unable to tear my gaze away from Dominik.
“What’s not to understand? You’re marrying Dominik. Simple as that.” My father taps his hands on his desk and gets to his feet. He’s made his decision.
There’s a sound behind me. I turn just as Marcowski opens the office doors. The meeting is over. I’ve been informed and now I’m to just accept it. I’m not supposed to ask questions.
But I have so many.
“Go upstairs and pack a bag. Enough for a week.” My father points at the open door. “I’ll have the rest of your things sent to you in a few days.”
This gets my attention, and I face my father. “Bag? Why?” Although the sick feeling in my stomach tells me I already know the answer.
“You’ll be staying with me until the ceremony.” Dominik answers me but doesn’t move toward me.
My head whirls. No. My entire life is spinning out of control.
“So many questions,” he smiles, but it’s not a kind, gentle smile. It feels like a warning. I’m asking too many questions.
“It’s for your safety, Kasia,” my father says, quieter. “Go. Pack a bag. You’ll be leaving with Dominik. He’s waited nearly all night for you. He shouldn’t need to make a second trip to pick you up.”
And that’s it.
I’ve been dismissed. Not just from the meeting, but from my home. My life.
“Do you even know this man?” I ask my father. Everything I’ve done over the past four years was to earn my freedom. I went to the school he chose, I roomed with girls he hand-picked. I did everything because after graduation, I’d be free to move out, to start a new life on my own. And he’s pulled the rug right out from beneath my feet. Not so much as a conversation, a warning. Just a simple command thrown at me like I’m nothing more than a foot soldier.
No. Less than a foot soldier.
This is my life.
My father’s eyes narrow, but I don’t care. I’ll take whatever punishment he wants to dish out; I deserve to know what’s happening to my own life.
“I know everything I need to know. Now, don’t show Mr. Staszek what a rude girl you can be, go pack your bag.” He flicks his hand toward the office doors. He’s dismissed me off hand.
Our relationship has strained over the years since the accident. It’s hard for him to look at me. I understand that, I look just like her, so much like mom, too. And my part in it, he’s never forgiven me. It has to hurt, even for a man who values his work over his family. But this is beyond what he’s done before. He’s throwing me into the arms of a stranger.
Tears threaten, but I turn away before anyone can see. I force my expression to wipe clean of the fear, the sadness.
“Kasia.” Dominik’s voice stops me at the door.
I turn slightly, waiting for him to continue.
“It was nice seeing you again.”
My jaw aches, I clench it so tightly.
I march up to my room. Anger shakes inside me, fear wraps a cold blanket around me. But I hold it in, I shove it down. Because there is no other option. This is my life; this is my duty.
Once safety inside my room, I look around. Nothing here is really mine. Everything can be taken away at a moment’s notice, most of it has been either a punishment or a test.
I grab a bag from my closet and get to work.
There are no options for me. It’s not new, but this feels different.
I’ve been released from the grasp of one monster, only to be thrown into the grips of another.
“She’ll come around,” Marcin Garska assures me once his daughter has left the office. I wait until the patter of her bare feet have faded off into silence before I address him.
“I’m not worried about her,” I tell him, moving my hands from my pockets.
“I warn you, she’s a stubborn girl.”
I raise an eyebrow. “She’ll be fine,” I say, but I don’t sense any actual worry from him. He looks almost relieved to be rid of her, and if she’s being hauled off to hell, which I’m sure he believes life married to a Staszek would be, all the better to him.
“I was surprised when your father called.” He’s trying to fill the space of time it’s going to take his daughter to stuff a few outfits into a bag.
“Why’s that?” I ask, picking up the photo frame on his desk. It’s a picture of his family. When they were a family. Diana is sitting on Marcin’s lap, smiling for the camera while her father wraps his arms around her middle. Kasia, stands between her parents, a forced smile on her lips.
“Well, I know he’s having some issues—”
“Issues that this alliance will help clear up,” I cut him off. He seems to think we don’t know what sort of underhanded shit he’s been pulling over the years. Greasing palms is just part of living in Chicago for men like us, but he’s been doing more. He’s the reason my father’s living in Warsaw right now, hiding from the government. But Marcin thinks he’s too smart to get caught.
“Yes, of course. My resources are yours. Now that we will be family, we help each other,” he says, but bitterness lays beneath his words.
“He’ll be happy to hear that.” I put the photograph back on his desk. “Kasia has finished school, you said. What did she finish for?”
“A degree in teaching,” he scoffs, like it’s the worst profession someone could have. My own mother was a schoolteacher before she married my father. But a man like Marcin Garska doesn’t appreciate actual work. He’s taken over his family from his father, whereas my father created our strength. He brought the Staszek family name up from nothing. It’s something to be admired, but not to a man like Marcin. To him, we aren’t as skilled, not as powerful. But he’s wrong.
“And did she pick her degree or did you?” I ask, but I already have an idea.
“I chose for her,” he says while raising his chin. “It’s what’s best for her.”
“To earn a degree doing a job you find disgusting?” I ask.
“She wanted to go to college. I let her.” He actually thinks he was being generous.
Walking around his office, I spy another photograph. This time it’s just him and the girls. They are smaller, much younger. Diana is laughing, sitting on Marcin’s shoulders, while Kasia, stands beside him, tugging on his shirt.
My jaw clenches.
“How is your sister? Your brother?” Marcin asks. I turn from the bookshelf where the photo is kept.
“Both are fine.” I don’t want to talk about them. I don’t want to talk to him at all. I check my watch.
“She’ll be down soon,” he promises.
“I could help her,” I suggest.
“Christopher,” Marcin calls toward the door. One of his men steps inside the office. “Get Kasia from her room. Dominik is ready to leave,” he states firmly. I don’t miss the bitter way he speaks her name.
While the man scampers off to fetch my fiancé, I turn to the attorney standing in the corner of the room. There’s no need for him here, but Marcin insisted.
“You handle all of the Garska legal issues?” I ask him.
He clears his throat and nods. “Yes, well, I have associates that help from time to time.”
“You’ll be sending the agreement over then. Confirmation that the terms have been seen to?”
He flicks his gaze to Marcin, then back. Maybe I should wait while he fetches the documents now.
“I’ll have them to you by the end of the day,” he promises.
“She’s ready,” Christopher returns, poking his head into the office.
I take a look at Marcin. A father should have some reaction to his only child being carted off in the middle of the night. He has none. A figure of stone watching me from behind his damn desk.
“We’ll be going then. Do you want a moment alone with her?” I ask. Shouldn’t a father say goodbye to his daughter? If my sister were in Kasia’s place—I don’t finish the thought. Joseph Staszek would never allow such an arrangement for his daughter.
“No. I’ll speak to her tomorrow. Once she’s settled.” He pauses. “I don’t want to keep you waiting any longer than you have,” he adds. Maybe he senses his reaction isn’t normal.
“I’ll let you know when she’s…settled,” I say, marching from the office.
Kasia stands at the foot of the staircase. One of my men already has her bag in his hands, waiting for my instructions. I wave him off, and he scurries out to the car to put her things away.
She’s changed out of the too-tight dress that barely covered her ass into a pair of black yoga pants and a white t-shirt. The neckline has been torn out, so the shirt is angled. Her left shoulder sticks out. Her hair is loose around her shoulders, the long locks in thick waves. She’s washed off the makeup. There’s a subtle beauty to her. Natural. The dark lashes and red lipstick overshadowed it. She looks better this way.
“Ready?” I gesture toward the front door.
Her brown eyes widen a fraction. Did she think this was all a game? A bluff?
She casually glances down the hall to where her father is still inside his office. Disappointment crosses her features, but it’s only a flicker. Quickly hidden behind a blank expression.
Oh, sweetheart, you can’t hide from me that easily.
She raises her chin and marches out of the house. It’s the walk of the condemned.
Accurate for the moment.