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© 2016 Natasha Tanner, Molly Thorne Eros Shrugged Publishing, 2017 All Rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locations is purely coincidental. The characters are all productions of the authors’ imagination. Please note that this work is intended only for adults over the age of 18 and all characters represented as 18 or over. The persons depicted in the photo are models and are not related to the events narrated in this story, which are fictional.
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Being a mail-order bride should be simple. You get in, you get sold, you get out. A ticket out of misery and despair. And what’s better, a ticket that someone else pays. But I just couldn’t make it work. I was stupid enough to leave the comfort and safety I had found only to wind up falling for the most dangerous man the country.
Ace Hart is as handsome as he’s powerful, and as dangerous as he’s handsome. And I’m attracted to him like a moth to a flame.
I know I should keep well away from him, but the situation I’m in keeps pushing us together. And soon there will be no escape.
When stakes are high, you need rules to survive. And the stakes are very high. Millions at a time. Billions, even. Fortunes made and unmade at a poker table.
I have two rules that I live by: No mercy for cheaters. You cheat, you meet my iron hand. And the most important one? Keep my own heart safe no matter the cost.
I’ve managed to enforce both... until now. But then this pretty foreigner appears. Just when shit is about to go down everywhere.
Love is never convenient, but now? It’s suicide. I have to stay away from her, for her own protection.
And yet, to protect her, I must be with her.
Man, I fucked up real good.
This is a romantic novel with no cliffhangers and a happy ending. And action. And sex. And plot twists.
Ever since you’ve been my ace of hearts, hit me like a freight train in the dark...
—Zella Day: Ace of hearts
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. WRITTEN IN THE CARDS
2. THE BLOODY HAND
3. RULES TO LIVE BY
4. THE RUSSIAN BRIDE
5. RIGHT PLACE, WRONG TIME
6. THE NOTE
7. THE BOSS
8. THE BLONDE BITCH
9. A CALL FROM HOME
10. EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH
11. ENCOUNTER IN BROOKLYN
13. POKER NIGHT
14. TWO DREAMS
15. MIRROR, MIRROR
16. A REVEAL
17. A FACE IN THE CROWD
18. CENTRAL PARK HER
19. THE READING LIST
21. ESCAPE TO ROULETTENBERG
22. WRITTEN IN THE CARDS
23. MONTE CARLO BLUES
24. TAMING THE BEAST
25. A SECOND CHANCE
26. A TRIP TO PANAMA
27. A ROOM WITHOUT A VIEW
28. DESPERATE MEASURES
29. PLAN B
30. THE RUSSIAN BRIDE
1. WRITTEN IN THE CARDS
It’s all in the cards. It’s always been.
For most young Russian girls, becoming a mail-order bride is a way to break free, to improve your chances of being happy and succeeding in the world. A ticket out of misery and despair, and what’s better: a ticket that someone else pays.
Then why should it be different for me? I played the same game that all the other girls play. I got in, I got sold, I got out. But I’m not happy. I’ve never been happy. And I think I will never be. It’s like I live in a glitch in the world where happiness is unattainable by design.
I was sold to a really, really nice guy. I wish I could have been happy with him. But it’s just not how fate works. I ended up entangled in the mystery of another man, a bad boy who was made to seize the world and leave a trail of broken hearts behind him.
I’ve had my share of bad boys, but this one, this man I can’t get out of my head, is the worst of them all. A complete jerk from head to toe.
The first time I saw him, there was blood on his hand. The other guy was lying unconscious on the floor, a grayish lump of defeat.
Is this why I came to America? To get involved with the biggest jerk in the country?
This is not what I had in mind when I left Russia. I thought I was leaving it all behind. No more fear, no more despair, no more loneliness. But if I had truly understood all the great Russian writers I love, I’d have known from the start that the cards were already laid down for me. I was made for suffering. Something inside me pushes me into the arms of the most dangerous man I can find.
It’s like an addiction.
This is what I learned from being sold: The problem is not who buys you. The problem is whom you give yourself away to for free.
Well, I gave myself away to a man so tough that he forgot how to love.
My name is Vanina Vokhtazin. And I’m trapped again.
2. THE BLOODY HAND
Six months ago
At first glance, the pub looked completely empty. A dim blue light bathed the long bar, revealing a myriad of bottles and glasses lined up in a triple row against the wall; otherwise, it was dark. All the tables were empty.
The breeze outside had dried my tears already, but I still had some difficulty focusing, and it took me a while to get used to the darkness. I took a few steps and looked for the barman, but nobody was behind the bar. I kept walking erratically among the tables, the wooden chairs gently grazing the fabric of my dress, and soon realized that the place was bigger than I had thought. Walking past the restrooms and down a few steps, in the back area of the pub, there was a dark corridor, and at the end, a partially open door through which I could glimpse the beginning of a staircase going down, its green texture bathed in the faint glow of a lamp.
As I approached the hidden area, a young guy, a mere boy who might not be twenty yet, came through the door into the corridor. He was frowning at his cell phone so he didn’t see me in the darkness and he bumped into me. “Lady,” he said, startled, but I paid him no mind. The green staircase seemed to call me with its surrealistic glow, and I kept walking. “Lady,” the guy repeated, to no avail.
The staircase turned out to be short, no more than five steps down. As I opened the door, I could see a young, pretty waitress frozen in place, looking at the scene that was unfolding inside the room. She didn’t even look at me as I walked past her, still a bit erratically. I followed her gaze and saw the scene.
There was a poker table, its green felt violently enhanced by the unrelenting light of a lamp. There were cards in red and black, white on the front and blue on the back, scattered over the green. There were dollar bills and coins and keys and cigarettes. But the first thing I saw were his eyes. Quiet, peaceful, blue as the ocean —I got immersed in them immediately, as if the world outside had stopped having any importance. He was looking at me, and the azure allure of his gaze caught me off guard. It took me a couple of seconds (or were they hours, days, weeks?) to perceive what was around those eyes: the greying black eyebrows, the aquiline nose, the neat stubble on a compact jaw, the firm lips drawing a straight line across his handsome face. A strong man, with an inner iron core, I thought; a man approaching his forties, with no one to answer to. I was still swimming in a faint cloud of alcohol and tears, my mind wandering and trying to shake off the surreal quality of the situation, but I immediately felt something important was happening, like a lightning bolt striking the earth, as my field of vision widened and I took notice of the rest of the scene.
The man was wearing an expensive suit, and he was sitting on his chair like he owned not only the place, but also the whole world. A couple of girls with revealing dresses were standing around him. One of them, a beautiful blonde with big breasts, had put her arm around his neck. The other, a slender brunette, was standing with her back against the wall, looking at me with an expression of contempt. He didn’t move a muscle, his gaze comfortably perched on me, with bulletproof serenity. There was blood on his hand.
On his hand.
Someone else’s blood, covering his knuckles, putting a red note on the floor where a couple of drops had already met their demise.
There were two other men sitting at the table, and a fourth chair toppled beside it. No more than two feet away from it was the other man. He was lying on the floor, unconscious, his face covered in red in a perfect color match. On a little table in a corner, a laptop computer spat its electronic light out into the smoky air.
“A cheater,” said the man who looked like he owned the world.
His voice was as serene as his gaze, despite the violence of the situation.
“You... you don’t have to explain,” I said, waving my hand feebly, and I instantly felt stupid. Of course he didn’t have to explain. He answered to no one. I knew it instinctively, just by looking at him. His eyes, his mouth, his posture, everything spoke of a man who has met his place in the world, and won’t let anyone make a claim on it. If anything, I thought I was somehow supposed to explain what I was doing there. Hell, the pub was open and there was no barman at the bar —it was not my fault that I’d ended up running into some secret conclave. But still.
“Who are you?” asked the brunette, with a feline intonation.
“I would like to explain,” the man said, ignoring her completely and making me blush, “but maybe we could introduce ourselves?” He stood up, put his bloody hand between his chest and his belly, staining his exquisitely white shirt, and leaned forward in a minimal reverence. “They call me Ace.”
I felt everyone’s eyes staring at me, and I blushed some more.
“H-hi, Ace,” I said clumsily. “I’m Van.”
He raised his eyebrow, a gesture that didn’t reveal whether he was surprised or impressed. I guessed he wasn’t used to revealing too much, that he was always this cool and mysterious. His attitude made him irresistible, and I had to remind myself that there was an unconscious man with a broken nose lying on the floor just a few steps to the side.
“Well, Van,” he continued, savoring every syllable as if his mouth were actually working on my body instead of my name, “welcome to Little Vegas.”
One of the other men, a young guy in a shiny suit, sat up suddenly, hitting the table with his hand.
“ACE! What the fuck? We’re not supp—”
Ace turned around and sent him a look that froze the words in his throat. I couldn’t see his eyes but it must have been a terrifying vision. The third guy kept his cool, though. He was a stocky man in his fifties, a bit on the heavy side, and he was kind of smiling with his eyes as the scene unfolded before him. He still had his cards pressed against his chest. Who knows for how long he had been clutching those cards; he must have a good hand.
When Ace looked at me again, his gaze was as serene as before.
“So what are you doing here, Van? Came for a drink? Or maybe you were looking for me?”
“Oh, no, no,” I replied, and hesitated a bit, unsure of what to say next. “I... I was just... there is no one on the front. I thought—”
Ace waved his hand gracefully and his lips curved in the faintest smile the world has seen to date.
“Nevermind. You’re not here for me, then. I guess we need to punish the boy somehow, don’t you think?”
“I— I don’t...” I didn’t want the young barman to get in trouble.
“I was joking,” Ace said. “He came here because he heard the noise. You see, this man” —here he pointed at the guy lying on the floor— “lied about what he put on the table. He didn’t cheat with the cards, but he did cheat with his assets. Which, if you think about it, is much worse. I can’t allow that, can I?”
“Well... I guess he had it coming, then,” I replied, and took a step back. “Look, I will go now. It’s been a pleasure, Ace. May your cards... uh...”
“... always be winners? That can’t be. I appreciate it, though. But you haven’t had any drinks,” Ace said, his voice soft and hard at the same time. “Are you sure you want to leave?”
Oh gods, I don’t know. I felt danger in the air, and the way his companions (save for the cool stocky man) looked at me seemed to stress that I was not welcome there. I had already seen and heard too much... but at the same time, I was fascinated by the man, and I still felt as if some invisible force wanted me to stay in that room. I couldn’t shake off the surreal atmosphere of the whole situation.
I was still a bit drunk, and maybe that’s why I decided to play for a while. Also, I didn’t like the way he had made me hesitate and mumble like a little schoolgirl. I wanted to come back at him somehow.
“Well, I don’t know,” I told Ace. “Are you sure you want me to stay?”
“Oh, I do,” he said. “I know nothing about you. We could get to know each other a bit more, don’t you think?”
Yeah, with an unconscious man lying on the floor beside us, bleeding from his broken nose.
“And are you sure you want to get to know me?” I replied. He was two or three sizes too cocky, to be sure. I was about to add a sardonic quip, but instead, my beloved Dostoevsky’s words came to my mouth instantly. “The soul of another is a dark place,” I told him, as I turned around to walk away.
To my surprise, he replied immediately.
“And the Russian soul is a dark place,” he said, completing the quote.
I turned around to face him again. He had a weird look in his eyes, as if he had suddenly realized something. Finally, he found the words: “Are you Russian?”
An additional spark of interest. Being the pretty foreigner is good, I guess. But I still felt I was playing with fire. Hard, cool fire. I had to get out of there.
“I am,” I replied, “and you wouldn’t believe how dark my soul is.”
As I walked out of the door, through the corridor, and out of the pub into the cold night, I thought I had actually impressed him in the end.
And boy, he had certainly impressed me. It was good that I wouldn’t ever see him again. I’d had my share of dangerous men.
3. RULES TO LIVE BY
There’s nothing better than fucking up a cheating cretin and screwing two gorgeous bitches afterwards. Sadly, that’s not what happened that night.
Well, the fuck up a cheating cretin part did happen. It had been a while since the last time I broke a jaw, but I never lost the touch. His bone broke very satisfactorily under my fist, with a loud crack that made the girls gasp and the men lean back in their chairs. He fell down instantly, and he was unconscious before touching the ground. Red blood and red cards surrounded his inert body when I kicked him and made him roll away from me. On a corner of the room, the computer revealed his lie.
Nobody dupes Ace Hart. Or, if they do, they don’t stay in one piece for long. I didn’t get to be a billionaire by mingling with cheaters.
You betray me, I fuck you up. It’s a very simple rule. Men respect simple rules, and women seem to like them pretty well.
It’s because I live by simple rules that there were two gorgeous bitches beside me that night, eager for the game to finish so that they could fuck me. Veronica Redd, the blonde, and Bibi Faire, the brunette. Arantxa Black, the redhead, was not there that night. They didn’t even have the good sense to match their lastnames with their hair colors. I kept mistaking them with each other. They didn’t seem to mind.
“So,” Bibi asked, exploring my stubble with the back of her fingers, once the foreign girl had left, “do we win a prize tonight?”
That’s what I should have said. “Of course.” Why the fuck not? They were gorgeous, and I’ve always been down for a good time. That’s a pretty simple rule too.
Simple, clear rules, and a strong hand to enforce them. That’s the way to a good life.
It took a while for me to understand this, though. When I was younger, I lived an unnecessarily complicated life. But that’s the past, and I live in the present. Who wants to go back to the past, after all? There are dark things in the past, and quite a bit of heartache. And you don’t become the ace of hearts by having your heart broken. In fact, you need to break some hearts on your way to becoming the ace. Not yours. Other hearts. You keep your own heart intact.
It’s weird that I’m repeating all of this to myself now, because when Vanina Vokhtazin appeared on the doorframe that night, reeking of alcohol and barely dried tears, it was like the past had broken the fabric of the present to pay me an unexpected visit. And my heart skipped a beat.
An apparition from the past, or something very much like it, I thought as I contemplated her gorgeous body and tried not to get lost in her big dark eyes. Color me impressed.
And then she left, and life recovered its usual rhythm and texture. Only not quite.
“No. There’s no prize tonight,” I said, waving away Bibi’s hand and sitting up without even looking at her. My eyes were still fixated on the empty doorframe, as if the pretty foreigner were about to appear again at any moment.
She looked so much like Rhonda...
On my way to the top, I have been able to get rid of almost everything that could make me weak. I stood strong and steadfast, I faced all obstacles, and I rose. I’m stronger than ever now. But I still have a few weaknesses.
Dead girls from the past named Rhonda, with big dark eyes and curly hair, who took the sunlight with them on their way to an early grave, are one of them.
And Vanina Vokhtazin looked so much like Rhonda.
Rule number one is no mercy for cheaters. Rule number two is you keep your heart safe. Intact. Protected. Out of the game.
Until that night, I had been able to enforce both rules.
Until that night.
4. THE RUSSIAN BRIDE
Many years ago
About the only thing I liked in Arzamas was the Gaidar Museum, because I had read Arkady Gaidar’s books for kids and I was fascinated about the life of someone who had made a living out of writing books. I visited the place where he had lived and spent long minutes staring at everything, getting soaked in the atmosphere of the place. Otherwise, it was a sad neighborhood, with more churches than people, or so it seemed to me as I grew up.
But a little girl does not decide where she lives, at least as long as she’s a little girl. And when we lost Mother (to death) and Father (to abandonment), even though I was not so little anymore, it fell upon Misha to decide what we would do with our lives, even though I was four years older. It didn’t matter that it was always me straightening his path, mending his mistakes and forgiving his slip ups; he was male, so he made all the decisions.
So we stayed in Arzamas for sad, long years. Misha became a gopnik, one of those young jobless guys who turn into smalltime criminals as a natural result of a long succession of days and nights pointlessly roaming the streets. I worked at a grocery store, then cleaning a couple of nice houses downtown, and in my free time I devoured old books from the library and the used bookstore.