"SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER----If you have NOT read Alexandr's Cherished Submissive yet, do not read any further 'cause here be 'da SPOILERS
Solid warmth blanketed Jessica, a soul-healing scent flavoring each slow breath she took. She floated in divine comfort, her hands roaming over the expanse of a man’s cloth-covered chest, the softness of his jacket pressed to her cheek. God she loved the feeling of a high-quality suit perfectly fit over hard muscle. Rubbing her nose against his solid pectoral muscle, she soaked up his essence and sighed. Her body rose and fell with his deep breaths, and she relaxed further, perfectly content to let him pet her, knowing nothing would ever be able to harm her while he held her so tenderly.
Big, strong hands stroked her as gently as could be, running up and down her body, over and over again, warming her from the inside out. Those long fingers were familiar; the scarred, tattooed, massive hands that could kill a man yet barely skimmed her body in a controlled sweep. Everywhere he touched, her skin tingled with little sparks of heat, even where his caress was hindered by her clothing. And he stroked her everywhere except where she wanted his clever fingers the most.
She frowned at that thought, stiffening, then the soothing petting motions stopped for a moment and someone tenderly kissed her forehead, someone with facial hair and pillow-soft lips.
The need to see who held her tried to surface from her overtaxed mind, but he’d resumed his cuddling and she abandoned herself to his body-melting touch. She’d forgotten how good it felt to be with a man who worshiped her, who did everything he could to bring her pleasure because it made him happy. The more he touched her, the more aware of him she became. Her skin grew sensitive and she wanted to explore more of his intriguing body. The muscled expanse of his chest under her fingertips trembled for a moment as he let out a shuddering sigh. The smooth weave of his open suit coat slid like silk against her skin and she took a moment to relish the erotic promise of his muscled torso covered by his thin dress shirt.
His scent filled her, an exotic blend of key lime, bergamot, and cedar wood that worked with his natural scent in a way that was divine.
Whoever this dream man was, his heart pounded so hard she could feel it drumming against her palm like a hummingbird’s wings. He fairly trembled with tension while she continued to hold her hand against his body, absorbing his heat. His stroke lingered on her side, then his thumb brushed her breast and a hard bolt of desire shot straight to her pussy, dampening her panties in a rush of longing.
His light touch skimmed every part of her body he could reach, over and over again, as if he was memorizing the feel of her. Every once in a while he’d stop to lightly kiss her somewhere. Once he did it on both of her cheeks, then the pulse point of her wrist and each of her fingers.
What an odd dream.
Her thoughts surfaced a bit more from her sleep and she flinched, her gut filling with dread.
God no, she was dreaming of him again. The man she was forbidden to think about. Her illicit craving. A shocking sense of loss filled her and she curled in on herself, so terrified to let this fantasy take root, to let her sick mind abuse her broken heart with things she could never have again. While awake, she could guard herself from these delusions that felt so real. The dreams themselves were wonderful, stolen moments reliving memories of her past where she reveled in his love. Unfortunately, when she woke up, they always left her with the heart-bruising sensation of having lost him all over again.
Fuck, she hadn’t had one of these dreams in weeks. Like a junkie, she was unable to force herself wake, her resistance only intensifying the feeling of being with him. A shudder worked through her as she raised her hand to his face, not daring to open her eyes. Sometimes, when she was dreaming of Alex, not looking at him somehow seemed to extend her time with him. God, how she treasured those stolen moments, when her waking mind couldn’t block her bittersweet memories. They cut like glass and she craved the numbing pain.
Her fingertips encountered the prickle of a beard and she paused momentarily, trailing her fingers along his jawline. When he’d been her husband he’d had a goatee. He’d started growing a beard two years ago but she’d never dreamed of him with one.
“Jessica,” he said, with such painful emotion that the tears threatening her eyes finally escaped and flowed hot down her cheeks, their salty wetness dripping over her chin.
“Alex,” she sobbed without shame, his name broken by her hitching breath.
How could she ever forget the power of his voice? Even if she was just imaging it, the deep sound rippled over her skin like a caress, making her aware of her body being cradled on his lap. Audio caramel, sticky-sweet and sinful.
The longer this dream went on the more intense it became, and she found herself daring to open her eyes. Oddly enough, even in her dream her vision was blurry from crying with her contacts still in. With a practiced blink, she quickly removed her colored contact lenses, putting them without thought into the pocket of her jacket.
As her gaze focused, she realized right away that she was in terrible, terrible trouble, because this was not some harmless fantasy.
This was reality, hard and unbearably cruel.
With her body frozen, she stared up at Alex and died a thousand deaths as she drank in every inch of his face with a starved desperation, both terrified and elated.
No, this had to be some desperate fantasy her mind made up. There was no way she was in Alex’s arms, on a brown leather couch in the middle of an enormous Mediterranean-style bedroom. It was merely a dream.
Trying to refuse the reality of her situation, she looked everywhere but at the man holding her. She’d dreamt of Alex more times than she could count, enough to quickly realize that the situation she was in right now was different from even her most vivid imaginings. She’d never have dreamed of an older Luka staring at her with such intensity that she almost became trapped by his mesmerizing hazel-green eyes.
The reality of her situation came crashing down around her as she stared at her old friend, barely breathing, her gaze locked with his. Luka had changed, his face harder than it used to be, his eyes blanker, and he had a stillness to his entire being that kind of freaked her out. Instantly her mind went to the most likely—and prayed for—explanation as to why she was here.
Hope filled her and her voice came out shaky as she said, “Luka, did Krom send for me? Is it safe?”
He gripped the back of the nearby brown leather chair he was standing next to, sagging as if she’s slapped him, his full lips parting in shock.
At his baffled look, her heart plummeted. “Is it safe!? Krom said if it was safe he’d bring me back to Alex. Is. It. Safe?”
He couldn’t have looked more puzzled, more shocked, if he’d tried. “I do not understand.”
“He promised me,” she near shouted, aware of Alex watching her as she lifted a little from his arms, unable to process him on any level at the moment and doing her best to ignore him entirely. “He promised he’d come get me when it was safe. He swore it! Is it safe?”
With a shaking hand, Luka ran his fingers through his thick light-brown hair. “Eto piz`dets, Krom does not remember anything from that night, no matter how hard he tries.”
Her lower lip trembled and she hated how broken her voice sounded. “He forgot?”
“Yes, from being shot in the head. Jorg’s men found him near the back of the house. He was near dead from blood loss.” Luka shook his head repeatedly. “All this time he’s been thinking he was responsible for your death, when he saved your life. I swear to you, Jessica, he didn’t know that you weren’t really dead. He would have moved heaven and hell to come for you, we all would have.”
Another male voice captured her attention from across the room, one she’d desperately yearned to hear. “Jessica, sweet lass, we’re so glad you’re alive.”
Her breath hitched in her chest as she slowly turned toward the sound of that familiar brogue. The sight of her uncle Peter had her blinking as fast as she could to try to keep her tears at bay. Her uncle had a lot more wrinkles than when she’d last seen him, and more white in his hair, but other than that he was still the robust man she remembered. He moved as if to come to her, but the arms gripping her tightened and the man she’d forbidden herself to think about growled that familiar growl.
Letting him go once had nearly destroyed her; letting him go twice would kill her, but she had no choice.
If nobody knew about her conversation with Krom, that meant she was breaking Mr. Novikov Sr.’s rules and it wasn’t safe. She had to get out of here before Jorg found out she’d somehow stumbled onto Alex. A stinging sweat broke out over her skin, prickling and sensitizing as the compulsion to run filled her.
Panic had her heart thumping painfully as her frantic gaze darted around the room, not daring to look at the man who held her so securely yet meeting his gaze was too hard.
If she looked into his haunting gray eyes again, she didn’t know if she could be held responsible for her actions. His mere presence had her yearning for him so intensely that the thought of doing what she had to do was terrible, yet she couldn’t let herself hesitate. Not with her daughter’s life at stake.
She had to face him, but she couldn’t make herself meet his gaze.
Staring at his chest, she closed her eyes as she shuddered and placed her hands on his shoulders, trying to keep herself from caressing all that hard muscle. “Alex, please release me. It is vitally important that I leave as soon as possible, with as few people as possible ever knowing I was here.”
That one word held so much anger, so much contempt wrapped up in pain, that she wanted to hide from him, knowing she deserved every bit of his disgust. “Alex, listen to me, if you ever loved me, if you ever loved our daughter—”
“You are not leaving me again, ever!” he growled, and she tried to push her way out of his arms, getting nowhere. “I forbid it!”
“I don’t have time for this! You have to let me go before he knows I saw you.” Finally she looked up and met his beloved eyes; hurt on a scale she couldn’t even fathom weakening her until she sagged against him. Her voice came out in a broken murmur as she said, “He’ll take her from me, Alex. Your father will take her and give her to one of his men to raise. I can’t let that monster have her.”
A hot flash of anger dissolved his sorrow in an instant, vaporizing it and leaving devastation in its wake. “Is that what he threatened you with? That he would steal our daughter and give her to someone else?”
She clasped her hands over her mouth, then lifted them enough to speak, her lips trembling against her fingertips. “Please don’t say anything. He can’t know I’m here. Please, he can’t know. I stayed away from you, I did, please, if he finds out you must let him know that I didn’t seek you out. Please!”
He closed his eyes and held her so tightly to him she could barely breathe. “I will kill him for this, for how he has destroyed our lives, for doing this to us.”
“Alex—” her uncle Peter murmured from behind her.
“Out,” Alex snarled.
“Everyone get out. I allowed you to speak to her, and I will now put a bullet in the heart of any man stupid enough to be here in thirty seconds.”
The door slammed not long after that, leaving her alone with him.
A rush of adrenaline gave her the strength to push out of his arms, and she stumbled as she rolled off the sofa then stood on her high heels. For the first time, she gave the room a good look, vaguely noting the fabulous view of the water and the cathedral ceiling. To think how excited she’d been on the drive up the long, winding drive that led to this fantastic palatial residence; how eager she’d been to start a new phase of her life in this veritable palace that Tatiana would adore.
Alex’s voice was positively feral as he nearly snarled, “Jessica, come here.”
The hair on her arms stood up and she backed away from her husband as quickly as she could in her heels, sensing the rising danger radiating from him like a blast furnace. No, she had to make him see sense. If he understood the situation, he’d let her go. “Alex, please, you can’t protect me from him! He can find me anywhere, take me at any time, and nothing will stop him.”
He let out a roar that she swore shook the windows and scared the hell out of her. This was not the same man she’d married. The pissed-off male standing before her was a stranger, a frightening one at that. Deep down she knew he would never hurt her, but the fire in his eyes was no longer sane. Something had broken inside of him and at this moment, she didn’t recognize the cold, hard man coming at her like an enraged bull. The sunlight caught the silver in his temples as he stalked past a bay of windows and she took another shaky step backwards, almost stumbling when her heel hit the edge of a throw rug.
She held out a shaking hand. “Stay away from me!”
When he was almost on her, she reached out and snatched a slender crystal vase that held a single orchid before smashing it against the dark wood table it had stood on.
Holding the razor-sharp glass before her, she brandished it in Alex’s direction while shaking so hard she could barely maintain her grip. “Don’t you understand? I will kill anyone, even you, to protect her. Please don’t make me hurt you, I wouldn’t survive it.”
He strode forward so swiftly she almost accidentally impaled him, only flinging the vase away at the last second. The moment his lips crashed down on hers, he robbed her of all rational thought, of the ability to do anything but feel the brush of his beard against her face, revel in the caress of the lips she worshiped, and taste him on her tongue. God, he tasted just like she remembered. No, almost the same, but richer.
Once again her tears fell, but this time the salt bathed their lips and Alex let out a low, tortured moan that tore at her, lending a desperation to their embrace that sent spirals of arousal through her. Urgently she ran her hands over him, touching every part she could as he did the same, their movements rushed and jerky.
She damned herself for being weak even as she clung to him.
With the last of her willpower, she managed to break their kiss but couldn’t make her arms release him. “Please don’t make me decide between you.”
“Jessica, listen to me very carefully.” His accent thickened with his raspy words. “Jorg was the one who gave Peter information on you. I do not know what happened that night, and we will discuss, but right now I need you to understand you have nothing to fear from my father.”
“What are you talking about?”
She sagged against him, desperately searching his face, her mind pinging over the differences between how he looked now and how she remembered him. The shiny scar going from his cheek to his upper lip was the first thing, a token left behind by Jorg’s torture master. Hatred flared deep in her gut as she reached up and trailed her trembling fingers over his scar, the visible reminder of his suffering tearing at her already shaky hold on herself. It was all she could do not to break down into hysterics as she tried to process his words.
His voice lowered to a soothing croon while he crouched down a little bit, the thick muscles of his thighs straining the fabric. “I do not understand yet what exactly has happened, but my father, for his own insane reasons, must have decided it was time for me to know. And of course he went about giving me the information in the worst way possible. Knowing that he watched me suffer and did nothing…”
Rage like she’d never experienced trembled in the back of her mind as the ramifications of what he’d just said sunk into her.
She wondered how hard it would be to gain access to Jorg Novikov so she could shoot him in the head.
It was a violent, tempting thought and she realized that maybe she wasn’t handling this all too well. In fact, little black dots began to dance around the edges of her vision as her heart continued to race. The fabric of his suit jacket began to fade beneath her fingertips as numbness tingled through her extremities. She’d gone into emotional overload and knew if she didn’t snap out of it, she’d soon have a panic attack.
It took a great deal of effort, but she managed to jerk her gaze back up to Alex, seeking something to hold on to before her rational mind went on vacation. It had been almost a year since her last panic attack; she’d gotten them occasionally after the kidnapping by Jorg’s goons, and she’d been hopeful those episodes were over. Instead a harsh sweat stung her skin and she began to pant.
Alex grasped her face between his calloused hands and forced her to meet his gaze, easily trapping her with his natural dominance that had only increased during their years apart. “Dorogoya, he will never hurt you again. I swear it.”
The fierce desire to believe him battled with her need to protect Tatiana.
She forced her lips to form words she could barely whisper. “But what about the rest of the world, Alex? The Curse…”
“The Curse is no more.”
She startled. “How is that possible?”
“With much work and help, we made it happen. Though you were already lost to me, I did it for my brother and sister-in-law. Dimitri has married an American girl, Rya. He loves his wife the way I love you. I did everything I could to help guard their love. She is so protected not even someone suicidal would try to hurt her, and they are very happy together. The Boldin women are safe as well. We have strong truce. Your…death helped to bring peace to the Novikov and Boldin Bratvas.”
She’d read something about Dimitri being engaged, but at that point she’d been trying to break her habit of checking up on the Novikov men and hadn’t allowed herself to research it any further.
The gentle tone of his voice seduced her and she fought his hold, trying to remember the millions of excuses to stay away from him that were as fragile as spider’s silk in a hurricane. She had to remember that her wants came second to her daughter’s safety. By not running as fast and far as she could, she might be betraying Tatiana. Yes, they might be safe from Jorg—though she doubted it—but Alex’s life was filled with danger. When it came down to it, he was a crime lord and she’d be bringing her daughter into a world where she would be in constant peril.
The thought of anyone harming her bright, loving little girl made her stomach clench in a sour ball. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to go against her natural inclination to give in to Alex’s desires and instead challenge him with the truth. She wasn’t some twenty-year-old girl anymore, dazzled by her husband’s overwhelming charisma. She was a woman who’d vowed never to be a naïve, trusting little fool again.
“Rya, she’s under constant guard, like I was, right? I’d bet her life is so hazardous that she can’t go to the store without her own security detail.” The way his lips tightened confirmed her suspicions. “Alex, I can’t raise our daughter in an environment like that. Tatiana deserves to be free to just be a little girl. To have playmates as companions, not bodyguards. The moment the world knows she exists, she becomes a target.”
The switch from a gentle, comforting Alex to a pissed-off man happened so fast, she got emotional whiplash from trying to follow his shifts in temper. “I could have protected you all those years ago if you’d simply come to me instead of running away. All you had to do was trust me to take care of you like I had sworn to do.”
She jerked back, his words hitting her like a fist. The side of her leg bumped a chair as she regained her balance. When she stumbled, he took a step forward as if to steady her but she held her hand out and snarled, “Trust you? Seriously? You lied to me about everything, over and over again. And I betrayed you by saving our daughter’s life? You have lost your mind.”
He ran his hands through his still thick hair and began to pace. “You should have told me. I would never have allowed him to hurt you. Never.”
“How could I? Alex, people were coming to kill me, they fucking shot Krom in the head and killed our guards. Even if your father hadn’t contacted me, those men would still have come for me. I would still be dead.”
“I could have protected you!” His voice turned anguished and her heart bled for his pain. “If you had just trusted me a little more, I would have destroyed anyone for you. Do you not understand? I would rather have died with you than lived without. No torture in the depths of Hell could compare to the pain of living without you at my side. You were dead to me, Jessica, and my heart died with you.”
His words struck her right in the chest and she gasped at the pain in his hot silver eyes, in every line of his strong, scarred body. All the horror and agony he’d endured was displayed before her and she whimpered for him, torn apart by how much he hurt. Her body ached with guilt, and anger, and fear, all mixed up into a dizzying cocktail that left her thoughts scrambled. Right now her emotional side ruled and her stupid soft heart couldn’t stand to see him suffering.
“I did have faith in you, and faith in Krom. He said he would come get me when it was safe, and I believed that he was working on a way to make it safe. Every day I prayed he would be there, I’d look for him in crowds and hope. I had to stop doing that because as the days passed and I never saw him, it…it hurt. Bad. I-I had difficulty dealing with knowing how much our deaths hurt you, all too aware that if I really tried I could probably find a way to contact you. But at what price? When your father had me kidnapped—”
“What?” Alex said in a low, deadly murmur.
A hitch in her breath stole her voice for a moment, but she forced herself to continue. “He had me kidnapped just to show me that he could, and to reinforce the consequences of what would happen if I returned to you. That…that bastard made me watch a tape of Oleg’s daughter’s funeral.”
An anguished sound escaped him and he ran his hands into his hair again, this time gripping it with his fists.
“Fuck!” His snarl startled her and she flinched, and he grit his teeth. Closing his eyes, he breathed hard enough that his nostrils flared with each deep inhalation.
Knowing he was on the edge of losing it entirely, she quickly said, “They didn’t hurt me, at all, just scared me.”
Hands trembling, he visibly struggled to control himself. “I failed you.”
She ducked her head and tried to keep her cool so she didn’t burst into hysterical tears of sorrow and guilt. Misplaced or not, she couldn’t help but hate knowing that she was responsible for so much grief, so much agony. But even as guilty as she felt, the alternative would have been to have Jorg steal Tatiana from her in the middle of the night like some gruesome troll from an old fairy tale.
“No, no you didn’t, not at all.” Desperately, she tried to make him understand why she went along with his father’s scheming. “If I had stayed, thousands of people would have died, Alex.”
Before he closed his eyes, she watched him struggle to hold back tears. The sight of her proud man so exposed, so raw, was for no one but her. He was giving her a gift by showing his open vulnerability and she understood that, understood a lot of things about her husband that had been a mystery to her before. Now she treasured the intimacy of this moment, fully appreciating it and realizing what an honor it was that he sought comfort from her.
She closed the distance between them then stroked his face gently and he turned into her touch, his eyes closed so tightly the faint lines around them had deepened into crevices. When he whispered her name, it was filled with a heartbreaking mixture of love and sorrow.
She was scarcely aware of her surroundings, could have been in the middle of a circus and the only thing she would be able to see was Alex. The entire situation was so surreal, and her mind was beginning to sort out the convoluted events that led to this moment, but she was still confused. First she needed to hear again what an evil, manipulative, powerful genius Alex’s father was. If she was thinking right, he’d played her with ease. Knowing just what to say to her younger self to make her flee, how to pray on her fears and weaknesses.
“You left me,” he murmured, his voice breaking.
“I didn’t want to leave you, it almost killed me, but your father made me believe some terrible things would happen if I stayed. I can’t understand why he gave you the information on me when he worked so hard to keep me from ever going back to you. It just doesn’t make sense.” Her breath hitched. “Why would he do this to us? Alex? Why? I never did anything to that man to justify this cruel game he’s played with our lives. How could he be so brutal? How could he deny Tatiana her father? And me my husband? Who the hell does he think he is?!”
He cupped her face in his rough hands as she fought back her tears and drank in the harsh, masculine beauty of his face. Right away she noted the scars that had been added to his handsome visage while they’d been apart, the worry lines. Even his gaze was duller beneath the anger and she longed for those gray depths to glow like they used to when he’d look at her. The memory of meeting all those years ago in her uncle Peter’s bar swamped her, and her breath hitched again and a tear spilled down her cheek.
“Alex. I’ve missed you so much.”
“Eto piz`dets.” He let out a low sigh and again closed his eyes, hiding his emotions from her. “You need to know that you are never leaving me. Ever. And neither is our daughter. We will be the family we are meant to be.”
She jolted and a small burst of adrenaline went through her. Right now Tatiana was vulnerable back in the States with just her nanny, Gwen, and a good security system to protect them. All too easily she could imagine a group of thugs sneaking their way up to the house, ready to kidnap or kill the vibrant and loving little girl. The need to physically hold Tatiana consumed her and she grasped the edges of Alex’s jacket, her worry evident in her voice. “Alex, we have to get Tatiana! We can’t leave her alone.”
“She is safe, I already have men loyal to me guarding her, unseen, and Krom is on his way to retrieve her.” His jaw clenched and his body tensed as well. “Besides, you were never alone. My father had men watching you. In the packet my father gave to Peter there were details from various security reports, including one where they had to stop a thief who had thought to target you.”
She blinked rapidly. “A thief? I can’t remember anyone trying to rob me.”
“Of course you do not. Your bodyguards did their job and you were never aware of the danger.”
The headache worsened and she pressed her fingertips to her forehead, trying to will it away. She’d been under so much stress lately and without fail, it triggered migraines. At first she’d been freaked out she had a tumor, it would be just her luck, but after extensive testing, her team of doctors had chalked it up to a hormonal shift that had happened after she gave birth. All she knew was that she had to get a grip on herself in a situation that she had utterly no control of.
Striving to find some way to mellow out, she took a seat on the deep couch and folded her shaking hands in her lap. It took two or three deep breaths, but by the time she’d regained her composure Alex had joined her, his warmth pressed up against her, distracting her in an entirely pleasant way.
He placed his large hands over hers, holding them beneath his strength. “I hate why they were there, but I am thankful they kept you safe, both of you, for me. You have no idea how overjoyed I am that you are here, really here, with me. Prinsessa moya, I thought you were lost to me forever.”
Now she was the one closing her eyes against the terrible beauty of the moment, overcome with emotion as his pet name for her rolled off his tongue, the adoration in those two words suffusing her chest with a pressure that was at once painful and good. How she’d yearned for those words, for his touch, for his everything.
Instead of giving him a chance to speak, she merely lifted her face to his and he lowered his head, his lips passing gently over hers. He exhaled just as she inhaled and she gratefully took his breath into her, tasting him on every level when he licked along the lower curve of her lip. In less than three heartbeats she was ravenous for him, eagerly stroking his tongue with hers, trying to devour him while he hummed with pleasure against her lips.