As his rage subsided and the world around him came back into focus, Leonid Sobakhin took stock of the devastation he’d wrought. Two years ago, he’d set out to take control of the Irkutsk wolf pack and finally he’d eliminated the last resistance to his rule. The mangled corpses of the remaining members of the Volkov family lay scattered around the room, along with those of the men and women who’d been foolish enough to pledge their loyalty to them.
A thousand years of Volkov control was over. Leonid took a moment to revel in satisfaction at having been the one to overthrow them. His actions as he climbed to the top had been bloody, brutal, necessary. Without the body count he’d racked up, others would challenge his rule. He’d needed to show his enemies within the pack and out in the wider world he was not a man to cross.
Exhausted from the grueling fight, he slumped onto a chair and looked around what had essentially been the Volkovs’ throne room. A grandiose space in what was once an Imperial palace, this had been their seat of power. It was where they’d ruled their vast Siberian territories from. Members of the pack came from throughout the region to kneel at their feet and vow allegiance. It was the room where the Volkovs had dispensed their brand of justice, enacting retribution for perceived crimes against them. This was where they paraded their obscene wealth. It was within these gilded walls Leonid’s own parents had been killed, leaving him an orphan at the tender age of six.
He wondered what they’d think of him now, Anatoly and Inessa Sobakhin. They’d probably want to know where his instinct for savagery had come from. His mother had been a human and a particularly gentle one at that. His wolf-shifter father had been a quiet man whose compassion was his downfall. He’d offered a traitor shelter, putting food in his belly and a roof over his head for a single night. That small act of kindness had been enough to seal his fate and that of his mate, whose execution he was forced to watch before his own was carried out.
Both his parents had been good people, unsuited to the brutal world of Siberian shifters. If they saw him now, they’d despair of what he had become. Leonid didn’t give a damn. Their murder in front of his young, impressionable eyes was the spark that lit the fire inside him. Years of mockery and abuse at the hands of the Volkovs who deemed him the lowest of the low had fanned the flames and turned him into the monster he was today.
All he needed to cement his rule over the pack was a female of impeccable breeding to provide him with sons. His future mate would need to be cunning, fearless, and resourceful. She’d be a great beauty, worthy of a place by his side. She’d command respect, bending only to his will. He wanted the type of woman he’d only ever dreamed of possessing until now, a printsessa from one of the great European wolf packs whose ancient heritage would help legitimize his position.
His thoughts of finding a mate were shoved aside as his closest ally, Andrei Petrov, came into the room. He watched the man’s step falter as he registered the horror before him. Conquest was never pretty. Andrei had been by Leonid’s side during many a fight but what happened here was extreme.
“Inform the pack they have a new alpha.” Leonid flashed a feral grin. “Tell them what happened here. Let it be known that anyone who fails to swear loyalty to me by the end of the week will meet a similar fate.”
His face pale, Andrei nodded. “Yes, Leo… Alpha.”
Leonid smiled as the other man practically ran from the room. Even those he called friend feared him and he reveled in the power that gave him. He’d struggled to the top over the bodies of once great men and now that he was where he belonged, he intended to enjoy it. Once he had his printsessa by his side, no one would dare call him mongrel again.
Seven years later
Pacing back and forth the way she had been for the last half hour, it was surprising Francesca hadn’t worn a hole in the carpet. She’d tried to relax but she couldn’t be at ease until this was over and done with. The wait was killing her. Not normally the nervous type, she found the tremor in her hands worsening as the minutes ticked down toward the appointed hour. Her heart fluttered in an unsettling pattern of palpitations and she had to keep reminding herself she was the one who’d set this whole thing in motion. The plan to sell her virginity to the highest bidder was her own and she had to see it through.
“You can still back out.” The voice of her friend, Danielle, pierced the fog of her thoughts.
Francesca looked across the room to where the elegant Frenchwoman sat. Although she’d tried to persuade Francesca from her course, Danielle had arranged for her to have the use of this club for the auction. She’d also helped her to recruit Rene, a flamboyant countryman of hers as an auctioneer and got the word out to the right men about this once in a lifetime opportunity to acquire her body for the night.
“I can’t. It’s too late.”
“You can,” Danielle insisted. “Go home now before anyone sees you. Nobody knows who you are. You can pretend this whole thing never happened.”
Francesca wished that was true, but the bouquet of twelve blood-red roses that arrived at her hotel room this morning told her otherwise. The note accompanying them had been written in an untidy hand but the message was clear—go through with the auction and you’ll be punished. The sender hadn’t needed to sign his name for her to know the warning had come from Leonid Sobakhin. Without ever approaching her directly, the Russian alpha had pursued her across Europe, trying to secure her as his mate.
“No,” Francesca said resolutely. “I have to do this. I need the money.”
“Then get a job.”
Francesca raised an imperious eyebrow. “Doing what exactly? I never went to school and I have no skills to speak of.”
“There must be something you can do, Francesca.” Danielle got up and went to the small bar on the other side of the room. “Have you even considered some ugly old creep might hold the winning bid?”
That had crossed her mind and it was a chance she was willing to take. How bad could it be for just one night?
“Desperate times call for desperate measures, Dani.”
“I know, but there are other ways.” Danielle poured a couple of glasses of Prosecco. “What about the Russian guy? He must really like you. He’s been bombarding you with flowers and chocolates for weeks.”
Francesca snorted. She’d never thought her friend naïve until this moment but she was way off the mark. Leonid didn’t like her. He wanted to possess her. He may have sent flowers and chocolates every day but he was careful not to gift her anything of value, something she might sell to support herself a little longer. He was waiting in the shadows for the moment she was desperate enough to beg him for help. She’d die in the gutter before she let that happen.
She knew what his game was. Taking a woman of her impeccable breeding as his mate would secure his place at the head of the Irkutsk wolf pack. Francesca might not have had the best education, but she understood how the world worked. She had no intention of submitting to a man who saw nothing beyond her pretty face and superior bloodline. She was a di Angelo and would not be reduced to the status of a sports car or super yacht or whatever a Russian billionaire prized. While she longed for the status being mated to an alpha would bring, she had no desire to be a usurper’s trophy.
“He’s been generous,” Francesca agreed as she accepted a glass of Prosecco from Danielle, “but what sort of man woos a woman by proxy? He hasn’t spared me a second of his time.”
Why did that irritate her so much? Even if he had come to her himself instead of sending messengers, she wouldn’t have accepted him. She didn’t care if her cousin, Marco, head of the di Angelo pack, had consented to him becoming her mate. In the five months since she’d fled her family, she’d gained a sense of her worth. For the first time in her life, she was making her own way in the world. Nobody, especially not some Russian dog, would force her back into a gilded cage.
“He runs a vast corporation,” Danielle reasoned. “He’s a busy man.”
Francesca narrowed her eyes and took a sip of her drink. “Since when have you been Leonid Sobakhin’s champion?”
“I haven’t.” Danielle pursed her lips and Francesca suspected she was about to persuade her of Leonid’s merits. “But you have to admit he’s a good catch. He has money, power, influence. He’s not bad to look at either.”
No, he wasn’t. Tall and muscular with blond hair and icy blue eyes, he gave off a bad boy vibe that made women weak at the knees. Even with a nose that seemed to have been broken more than once, he was an incredibly handsome man. But he was an upstart who’d come from nowhere to overthrow the hereditary leaders of his pack. She couldn’t overlook his humble lineage.
“He’s a mongrel.” A sneer curled Francesca’s lip. She drained her glass, wincing at the slightly sour taste. “I could never accept a man like that.”
“Well, then, I guess you’ve no other option. You’d better get out there.” Danielle gave her a smile that conveyed more pity than Francesca could bear. “Good luck, ma cherie.”
Francesca took a deep breath and glanced at herself in the mirror once more. The white satin and lace corset and matching panties were virginal but the cascade of wavy black hair tumbling down her back and the bright red she’d painted her lips with suggested a seductress. The contradiction summed her up perfectly. She was a virgin who knew how to bring men to their knees.
Slipping her feet into her white satin stilettos, she walked to the door. To hell with Leonid Sobakhin and his threats. She was in charge of her own destiny. By tomorrow she’d be a great deal richer and she’d have delivered the ultimate fuck-you to her Russian suitor whose interest in her seemed to have grown since he somehow discovered she was a virgin. A few months after he first contacted her, his messages had suddenly begun to make it clear that he and no other man would be her first lover. There were few people who knew she was still a virgin and she was yet to discover which of them had told Leonid her secret.
As she made her way along the corridor, unease prickled on her skin. Where was everyone? Danielle had arranged for security guards to protect her from overenthusiastic bidders. Rene, who was supposed to manage the auction, should be there to escort her onto the stage. Something felt off, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was.
She was about to turn and flee back to the safety of the dressing room when a tall, heavy-set man appeared in front of her. Dressed in a smart black suit and tie, he looked like a club bouncer.
“Vous est…” She cursed her lack of French. After all the time she’d spent in Paris over the years, she should know more than the basics but her friends were from different countries and everyone spoke English. “You’re here to protect me?”
“Oui, mademoiselle, I take care of you.”
His accent bothered her. It didn’t sound French but as he gestured toward the stage, her feet carried her past him nonetheless. Everything was in complete darkness as she walked to the center of the raised wooden platform. As a shifter, she was blessed with excellent night vision but when a spotlight came on, she was temporarily blinded.
As she stood in the harsh glare, trying to adjust to the brightness, the hairs at the back of her neck rose in recognition of an imminent threat.
“Rene,” she called out.
“He isn’t here, kroshka,” a deep, masculine voice told her.
Francesca’s mouth fell open. She looked around the room and realized it was empty but for a lone figure seated in the shadows at the back. Her stomach clenched. Leonid Sobakhin. As he rose from his seat, she turned to run. The man she’d assumed was a security guard stood at the side of the stage, arms folded across his chest, blocking her way. A faint scent hit her nostrils and she shook her head in disbelief. How had she not recognized he was a shifter? Normally she could spot one a mile away.
With nowhere to go, she turned to face her audience of one. Standing alone on the vast stage in her flimsy lingerie, she was suddenly unsure of herself.
“You tried to steal from me, Francesca,” Leonid said.
“No.” She’d taken nothing from him. She furrowed her brow. Then it occurred to her what he meant. “My virginity. You think it belongs to you?”
“It does.” He prowled across the empty club toward her. “And you tried to sell it out from under me. That makes you a thief. Do you know what I do to people who try to take what’s mine?”
She shook her head, certain she didn’t want to know the answer.
“I cut their hands off.”
If anyone else made such a grim statement, she’d think it was hyperbole but Francesca was quite willing to bet he was serious.
“You’re a barbarian.”
“Possibly” He shrugged lazily. “Fortunately for you, I have a less brutal punishment in mind. Who knows, perhaps you might even get a little pleasure from it.”
Swallowing hard, Francesca backed away as he jumped effortlessly up onto the stage without so much as wrinkling his suit.
“Don’t come near me.” Francesca held up a hand as Leonid stalked toward her, like that was enough to fend him off.
“I tried to make this easy on you. I offered you the world, kroshka.”
She scoffed at that. “You mean your lackey offered me the world.”
“Ah, that is the problem. You wished for me to court you in person.”
He reached out and cupped her cheek in his hand. His touch made her shudder in anticipation. It was all she could do not to lean into him. Damn it. She didn’t want to be affected by this man. Fearing his closeness would make her lose her senses, she stepped back. She wobbled on her heel but quickly righted herself.
“What I wish is that you’d leave me alone,” Francesca spat.
“Not going to happen. Your cousin gave you to me.”
Yes, and she was going to pay Marco back for that one day. She may have betrayed him by setting up an attack on his chosen mate, Sadie, but her cousin had gone too far in giving her to the Russian alpha. He could have just banished her from the pack and been done with it.
“I’m not his to give. Marco had no right to make such an arrangement without consulting me.”
That wasn’t exactly true. As head of the di Angelo pack and one of her closest male relatives, he was well within his rights to choose a mate for her. It was the way it had always been.
“Ah, but he did make the arrangement and he may not have consulted you but I have.”
“I asked you repeatedly to be my mate, to rule the Irkutsk pack by my side.”
No, he hadn’t done that. Her head might be getting strangely fuzzy but she would remember if he’d actually asked her to be his. Leonid had sent her gifts and messages telling her they would be mated. He’d said it was inevitable, that she couldn’t escape from it. If that was his idea of asking, she dreaded to think what he was like when he issued a decree. She shot him her fiercest scowl but he just cocked his head and looked at her as though her reluctance was a puzzle to him.
“I wanted to give you the world, Francesca,” he continued, “but you chose to do things the hard way. What were you hoping to achieve with this charade?”
“I needed the money.”
“You wish to be a whore?”
His tone was so harsh, she took another step back. “No, it was just this one time. I want to take care of myself. The money was to get me set up.”
“And the money from the jewelry you sold, it wasn’t enough to set yourself up?”
She might have known he’d be aware she’d sold several pieces of expensive jewelry to keep herself going. Unused to bargaining, she’d never attained the price any of it was worth and the money had run out fast. And, of course, she’d wasted a great deal at first. Until she realized how much it would cost to live and started to rein in her spending, she’d been too frivolous.
“No, it wasn’t.”
“You know what I think this is really about.” Leonid stepped closer and her breath hitched. “I think you wanted to attract my attention.”
She almost laughed at that. He’d been dogging her steps since the moment she left Florence five months ago.
“I already had your attention, I think.”
“Yes, you did, but I think you wanted to make me jealous.” Arrogance oozed from his every pore. “You wanted to force my hand.”
“In your dreams,” Francesca sneered. She was starting to feel a bit too warm now, as though she was getting sick.
“You always are.” Leonid didn’t miss a beat. “As I suspect I am in yours.”
Francesca gritted her teeth. She had been experiencing more vivid dreams lately, the type that would suggest her mate was coming for her, but she’d never seen the face of the man who haunted her dreams. It couldn’t be Sobakhin. She wouldn’t allow it to be.
“If I was dreaming of you, signore, I assure you it would be a nightmare.”
He threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, Francesca, just keep telling yourself that.”
His self-assuredness angered her. The way he held himself told her he was a man of unwavering confidence. He’d have to be certain of his abilities, of course, to have risen to the top as he had. She just wished he didn’t act as though he knew her mind better than she did.
“It’s true. Why else would I dream of a mongrel like you?”
The moment the words left her mouth she knew she’d pushed Sobakhin too far. His hand shot out and he grabbed a handful of her hair. She squealed as he drew her closer to him.
“Apologize,” he demanded.
Francesca didn’t hesitate. She could feel the anger rolling off him. He was coiled so tight she had no idea what he might do if she provoked him further.
He loosened his grip on her hair and pushed her away. She stumbled but managed to regain her balance.
“Never call me that again.”
Tears pricked her eyes and she nodded furiously. Leonid Sobakhin was a dangerous man. She’d come to think of him as nothing more than a nuisance sending her endless gifts and messages. She’d forgotten who he truly was, that she couldn’t say what she pleased without consequences. This was not a man to toy with.
Looking frantically around the room, she tried to find a way out. If she could get back to the hotel, she could throw herself on Marco’s mercy and ask him to bring her home. It wouldn’t be easy to get past Leonid or his guard dog but if she shifted, she might take them by surprise. She doubted they’d risk following her through the city. A pack of wolves running loose in the center of Paris would attract too much attention, but a lone female might escape notice.
“Don’t even think about it.” Leonid seemed to have read her mind. “Alex, go start the car.”
“You’re leaving?” Francesca asked. Why did her mouth feel so dry?
“We’re leaving,” Leonid corrected. “I’m taking you back to Siberia with me.”
She tried to shake her head but the motion made her dizzy. Her legs gave out and she would have fallen to the floor if Leonid hadn’t reached out to steady her. The next thing she knew she was in his arms. He held her against his chest as he carried her from the stage.
“What did you do to me?” she mumbled.
“Me? I did nothing.”
As they headed for the back door, she saw Danielle in the corridor. Guilt was written all over her face.
“I’m sorry, cherie,” her friend said. “It’s for the best. Leo will take care of you.”
Leo? Stung by the realization she’d been betrayed, Francesca closed her eyes. Cold air hit her and she opened them again as she was carried out into the alleyway where a car sat idling. Leo deposited her on the back seat and got in next to her. He muttered something in a language she couldn’t understand and Alex got out of the car.
Francesca whimpered as she tried to push herself into an upright position and found herself unable to. She was aware of conversation as Alex returned to the car and Leonid bit out a curse. He smoothed her hair back from her face.
“You’ve been drugged,” he told her. “There’s no point fighting it. Sleep.”
Like hell she would. Francesca wriggled across the seat, trying to get to the door. Her body was weak but she couldn’t give up. If he managed to get her out of the country, if he took her to Siberia of all places, she might never escape.
With a sigh, Leonid leaned over and pulled her into his arms. He rested her head against his shoulder and stroked her hair. It was a more tender gesture than she’d expect from a man who was kidnapping her.
“Sleep,” he said once more. “You’ll need your strength for what lies ahead.”
His words send a sliver of dread skittering down her spine and everything went black.
When the tension drained from Francesca’s taut muscles, Leonid knew she was asleep. He was angered that Danielle Moreau had taken it upon herself to spike her friend’s drink but he supposed it made things easier for him. It wasn’t as though Francesca was about to walk out the door with him of her own accord.
He eased her gently off him and lay her down on the seat next to him. Immediately, he missed the warmth of her pressing against him. As much as he wanted to reach for her and pull her back into his arms, he couldn’t. Alex was in the front of the car and he didn’t want him to see how much he already felt for his mate. A man like Leonid couldn’t afford to display any weakness.
Taking his cellphone from his jacket pocket, he scrolled through his messages. Although he’d told Francesca where they were headed, he had to make a quick stop in London first to finalize the purchase of a large parcel of land where he intended to have a new building constructed that would rival The Shard. He would also attend a charity gala but had not yet decided whether he would require Francesca to be by his side.
It was only a few hours’ journey via the Channel Tunnel and his men would pay off customs officials to make sure they got onto Le Shuttle without questions being asked about the unconscious woman they traveled with. They’d be in London by the end of the day and safely ensconced in his townhouse where Francesca would begin to learn what it meant to be his mate. The willful streak she possessed might be appealing right now but if she fought him at every turn, she’d become too much of a distraction. He needed her to fall in line quickly.
He glanced out of his window as the car pulled to a stop outside the George V hotel to pick up Andrei. His right-hand man slid into the passenger seat and turned to address him as the vehicle moved off into traffic once more. He glanced at the supine female form on the back seat and frowned.
“Did you hit her?”
“No,” Leonid snarled. “I don’t hit women.”
Well, not like that, he didn’t. He intended to thrash Francesca’s backside until she learned to behave but he would never harm her.
“Then what happened?”
“Our little spy decided to give her friend something to make her more pliant.”
“Ah, Danielle always did like to take the initiative.”
“She’s lucky I didn’t throttle her,” Leonid said. Noting the way Andrei’s eyes raked hungrily over the unconscious Francesca’s curves, Leonid felt a surge of protectiveness. “Eyes front.”
Was it his imagination or was there a hint of amusement in Andrei’s tone? It made Leonid wary. Just lately the man had been growing in confidence. He was too sure of himself all of a sudden and Leonid knew he’d have to keep watch over him. Something was happening within the pack, stirrings of dissention and he would allow no man to betray him, no matter how much he valued his friendship.
Shrugging out of his jacket, he laid it carefully over his sleeping mate. She was so incredibly beautiful in slumber, so serene. Her olive skin was flawless. She looked so innocent in that white corset and panties he felt an unfamiliar tightening in his chest. Guilt. He tamped it down quickly. He did what he must for the future of the pack and despite her lack of sexual experience, Francesca di Angelo was no naïve girl.
By the end of the week, she would be his legally and in the eyes of his pack. He would marry her and then claim her as his mate. In time, he would show her what she meant to him. He’d give her the world. But first, he had to punish her for her defiance. A grin curved his lips. He would make her kneel at his feet. She’d cry, beg, and then he’d make her come. Loosening his tie, he leaned back in his seat. He could hardly wait to get to London.