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Read the whole First Chapter


Chapter One

Isabella stretched lazily and opened one sleepy eye. Rolling onto her elbow, she watched Ivan in the dim light of the bedroom. He stood at the penthouse dresser, straightening his black silk tie. Although he must have heard her wake, he didn’t turn.

“Be ready at six.” His cultured voice broke harshly into the silence. “I’ll have the limo pick you up. We’re dining with Vladimir Chevtsov and his wife at the Tatiana Hotel tonight.” He turned and trailed a knuckle from her throat to the tip of her breast, not even looking at her face, then swung away to scoop up his dove-gray jacket from the end of the queen-sized bed. Bending, he touched his lips in a hard, passionless kiss to hers and withdrew a slim black jewelry case from his inside jacket pocket. Snapping open the lid, he placed the case on the bedside table. A glittering necklace of diamonds lay displayed on royal blue velvet. Isabella had no doubt the stones were real. However, she viewed them dispassionately, their cold beauty another symbol reminding her she belonged to Ivan.

“Wear something sexy. Chevtsov has a passion for redheads, and he is an important man.” Ivan threw her a hasty smile that didn’t quite light his steel-colored eyes and crossed the beige carpet. She heard the door close with a soft click and wondered with a sick feeling when it had happened. When had she exchanged her position as Ivan’s fiancée, the woman he loved, for his whore?

Isabella slid from silken sheets and moved to the same mirror, which had moments before held Ivan’s reflection. She was disgusted by what she saw. When had she grown so weak? When had her soul died, and who was this woman who peered back at her with lifeless eyes and the stink of sex on her too-thin body? What happened to the fresh-faced girl from Rhode Island? Ivan Sergeyev, that is what happened—handsome, educated, sweet-talking, and the right-hand man to the Russian Mafia boss in the U.S.

Ivan owned a chain of five star hotels, which he used as a front to launder money for some of the largest crime names in the country. Isabella sighed, running a hand through the dark red hair that spilled down around her face and shoulders, and turned for the ensuite. When was enough, enough? She wondered. When would she grow a backbone and take back control of her life?

She reached for the faucet. Steaming water hissed from the showerhead, slapping at her breasts, stomach, and thighs as she stepped into the enclosure. She could have sworn the shower spray rapped out the tattoo, “never, never, never.” Or was it only her tired mind? She clapped her hands to her ears and let her hot tears mingle with the water that spilled down her cheeks.

Wearing a three-quarter length, white, low cut gown, which clung to her body in all the right places, Isabella stepped from the hotel lobby at six to see a long silver limousine pull up to the curb. She frowned. It was not Ivan’s usual car, but the driver stepped out, spoke her name, and opened the passenger door.

She slid into the limo to rest on the plush, powder blue upholstery and the door closed with a soft click behind her. Isabella looked up with a smile, expecting to see Ivan, and her expression sobered. A stranger sat across from her. “Who are you? Where is my fiancé?” Her voice sounded soft and unsure even to her own ears.

“Allow me to introduce myself, Miss Barton.” He leaned forward in his seat. “I am Vladimir Chevtsov.” The solid, silver-gray haired man with swarthy skin and drooping mustache, smiled widely. The gold in his middle top front teeth gleamed in the overhead light. He took her hand and raised it to his lips.

She smiled briefly and snatched back her hand with a cringe. His hand was hot and moist. His mustache tickled her fingers. She wiped her hand surreptitiously down the side of her dress wanting to wipe away his touch. His smile widened. “Ivan allowed me the honor of collecting you,” he continued in broken English.

Isabella didn’t know why, but this man frightened her. Something about this whole meeting did not sit right. She glanced out of the window to hide her agitation. “How did you know what I looked like?” She asked turning back. She hated drooping mustaches. They had always reminded her of the villains in the old movies she and Gran had so dearly loved. The memory of her grandmother helped lighten her mood. She glanced furtively at the man across from her, wondering what Gran would have thought of this one.

“He showed me your picture. I had to meet you.” Chevtsov’s gaze slid to the low cut neckline of her gown and fixed on the swell of her breasts. Something in his almost black eyes and his tone again made her shiver. What had Ivan been thinking in allowing this man to escort her to dinner? She tugged at the material of her neckline and faced the window, feeling uncannily naked beneath his scrutiny.

She heard Chevtsov rap on the glass panel partitioning them from the driver. The roof light dimmed; the car moved forward, and the bright lights of New York City painted an abstract of unreality as the car traversed the busy streets.

Isabella gasped and reeled back in her seat as Chevtsov’s hand came to rest on her thigh.

She tried to push it away, but his hand grew firmer, more demanding and he was stronger than her. His pudgy hot fingers slid higher, taking with them the soft silky cloth of her gown. He lurched forward and his mouth claimed hers in a wet hard kiss as his free hand grasped and squeezed at her breast. She struggled to drag her mouth free from the bitter taste of Cuban tobacco and bristly mustache.

“What are you doing?” She managed to twist and snatch off her white stiletto. Grasping it firmly in her hand, she hammered the spiked heel into the side of his head.

Chevtsov grunted, raised his hands in an attempt to shield himself as she struck again and drew back into his seat, his eyes wide in disbelief and pain. A dribble of dark blood stained the side of his temple. Isabella brought another jab down onto his kneecap for good measure.

“Enough!” He held up his hand, reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded white handkerchief to dab at his head. “Ivan said you would be nice to me.” His voice was almost petulant. “We had a deal.”

She frowned but maintained her grip on the shoe. “There must be a mistake. There is nice, and then there is nice.”

Chevtsov’s expression darkened. “I know exactly what he meant. He assured me you would be willing.”

Isabella swallowed down the hurt in her throat. Bending, she slipped her shoe back onto her foot and willed the tears beginning to form in her eyes to vanish. Ivan hadn’t only resorted to treating her as his whore, now he was willing to pass her off to others. The last small spark of what used to be love for him began to wither and die, as did her dreams of a wedding and children. She’d thought if she and Ivan could only have children…but she knew now that was a false dream. Nothing could fix what was wrong between them. If this was the quality of his love—if this is what it had now been reduced to—what she was reduced to—she didn’t need it. She straightened in her seat and drew a deep breath. “Stop the car.”

Chevtsov frowned. “Now my dear—”

“I said, stop the car.” Her words were calm, almost deadly. They cut through the silence that had formed in the flickering darkness.

“But we are almost there. Ivan is expecting you; he is waiting with my wife.” As if on cue, the car drew to a smooth halt.

“Yes, you are right.” Isabella raised shaking hands to her hair, smoothing it into place. “I do need to see Ivan.”

“You look lovely.” Chevtsov’s tone was almost apologetic. “Ivan is a fool.”

“No. I am the fool for staying with him so long.” She slipped from the car as the door opened, and then ducked her head to look back at Chevtsov. “Where is he?”

“I believe he said he would meet us in the lounge.”

She nodded and pivoted on one foot to march up the path and through the double glass doors of the Tatiana Hotel. Ivan’s hotel.

Isabella spied Ivan the moment she entered the lounge. How could she not? He wore a dark gray suit and crisp white shirt. Apparently, he’d been back to the penthouse to change, while she visited the hairdressers. Gold cufflinks winked in the light of the overhead crystal chandelier. His fair hair was freshly trimmed to sit just above his collar. Not a hair was out of place. He was the epitome of wealth, breeding and charm, which he was expending liberally on the voluptuous redhead whose breasts he eyed as he leaned over her shoulder to pour a glass of vintage champagne.

“Thank you. Just what I needed,” Isabella said, marching up beside him. She snatched up the glass from the table, spilling several drops over the pristine tablecloth and down the woman’s crimson gown.

“Why you—”

“Let me introduce myself.” She leaned over, her face mere inches from the woman’s face. “I am Ivan’s fiancée.”

The redhead swore in Russian and tried to stand, but Isabella pushed her back into her seat and tossed the rest of the drink into Ivan’s face. His expression would have been comical had the situation not been so grave. Champagne dripped from his dark eyelashes, down his clean-shaven chin, and a large damp patch stained the lapel and groin of his Gucci suit. “Pig!” Isabella swung away.

She gained five steps before his hard hand clutched her elbow and he snapped her around to face him. “What the hell was that?”

“You sent me to that man like a whore, and you ask me that question!”

“Lower your voice,” he hissed. “You are causing a scene.”

“Causing a scene?” She hammered her fists into his chest. “You use me as a harlot and I’m causing a scene?”

He grasped her wrists to fend her off. “Stop it, you crazy bitch.”

She tried to knee him, but he raised his leg, and his thigh deflected the blow. She pushed him back and he stumbled and tripped over a freshly laid table. Crystal glasses and silver cutlery crashed and scattered on the floor, the sound echoing through the room. It was as if the whole world was reduced to slow motion.

With dread, Isabella peered around to see who was watching, and in that instant, she did not see the blow coming her way, but she felt it. Ivan had climbed to his feet. The slap rang in her ears, and she reeled, pain exploding in her head. She lost her footing and almost fell, but he caught her.

She dragged her arm free and ran, knowing now she ran for her life.

He was behind her. She could imagine his breath warming her nape, and she heard his shout.

“Isabella, come back here! We can work this out!”

She broke into the night and saw the large figure of Vladimir Chevtsov standing on the curb. His eyes widened in recognition; then, he frowned as he took in her appearance. Momentarily, he blocked her way. The curls the hairdresser had taken so much time in arranging had tumbled down around her face and shoulders, tears streaked her makeup, and the bruise she felt forming on her face throbbed even as she stared at Chevtsov. His gaze shifted over her shoulder, and she knew Ivan stood behind her, Ivan, the man who had brought her to this, Ivan whom she had loved, and to whom she had first given her body. Ivan who had abused her trust and turned her into the wretched creature she now was. Slowly, she turned. His gaze raked over her in cold hostility. His fingers bit into her arm. “How dare you act like a common tramp in my establishment?”

“How dare you?” she snarled. She closed her eyes, pulled back her arm and with all her might, powered a punch into his perfect square jaw. He grunted and toppled into Vladimir who was now standing behind him. Vladimir’s arms wind-milled. He lost his balance and lurched backwards from the curb into the path of an approaching Yellow Cab.

Isabella had no time to spare Vladimir or Ivan more than a cursory glance. She spun to flee. With a sickening crack, she heard—then felt—the heel on her stiletto break. Her ankle buckled to the side and pain shot up the back of her leg, but she didn’t stop. She could not make herself. She kicked off both shoes and left them where they dropped. Crying tears of self-recrimination, guilt, pain and remorse, Isabella limped quickly into the night along the New York footpath and mingled with the faceless crowd of humanity that frequented the streets.

However, even as she disappeared into the masses, she wondered if she could ever run long enough, or far enough, from the man who had called himself her fiancé for she knew no one had ever left the Red Mafia knowing so much and lived.

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