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Snow was falling so hard and fast that she could barely see through the windshield.
Anna Rostoff parked her old car in the front courtyard of the palace, near the crumbling stone fountain, and pulled on the brake. Her hands shook as she peeled them from the steering wheel. She'd nearly driven off the road twice in the storm, but she had the groceries and, more importantly, the medicine for her baby's fever.
Taking a deep breath, she hefted the bag with one arm and climbed out into the night.
Cold air stung her cheeks as she padded through soft snow and ascended sweeping steps to the gilded double doors of the two-hundred-year-old palace. They were conserving electricity in favor of paying for food and diapers, so the windows were dark. Only a bare thread of moonlight illuminated the dark Russian forest.
We're going to make it, Anna thought. It was April, and spring still seemed like a forlorn dream, but they had candles and a shed full of wood. Once she found work as a translator she'd be able to make a new life with her four-month-old baby and her young sister. After months of hell, things were finally looking up.
She lifted her keys to the door.
Her eyes went wide as a chill descended her spine. The front door was open.
Barely able to breathe, she pushed into the grand foyer. In the shadows above, an ancient, unseen chandelier chimed discordantly as whirling flurries of snow came in from behind, whipped by a cold north wind.
"Natalie?" Anna's voice echoed down the hall.
In response, she heard a muffled scream.
She dropped the groceries. Potatoes tumbled out across the floor as she ran down the hall. Gasping, she shoved open the door into theback apartment.
A figure stood near the ceramic tile fireplace, his broad-shouldered form silhouetted darkly in the candlelight.
For one split second Anna's heart soared in spite of everything. Then she saw the empty crib.
"They took the baby, Anna," Natalie cried, her eyes owlish with fear behind her glasses. Two grim bodyguards, ruddy and devilish in the crackling firelight, flanked her sister on either side. She tried to leap from the high-backed chair, but one of Nikos's men restrained her.
"They came in while I was dozing and snatched him from his crib. I heard him cry out and tried to stop them"
Misha. Oh, God, her son. Where was he? Held by some vicious henchman in the dark forest? Already spirited out of Russia to God knew where? Anna trembled all over. Her baby. Her sweet baby. Sick with desperation and fear, she turned to face the monster she'd once loved.
Nikos's expression was stark, almost savage. The man who'd laughed with her in New York and Las Vegas, drinking ouzo and singing in Greek, had disappeared. In his place was a man without mercy. Even in the dim light she could see that. Olive-skinned and black-haired, he was as handsome as ever, but something had changed.
The crooked nose he'd broken in a childhood fight had once been the only imperfection in classic good looks. Now his face had an edge of furyof cruelty. He'd always been strong, but there were hard planes to his body that hadn't been there before. His shoulders were somehow broader, his arms wider, as if he'd spent the last four months beating his opponents to a pulp in the boxing ring. His cheekbones were razor-sharp, his arms thick with muscle, his blue eyes limitless and cold. Looking into his eyes was like staring into a half-frozen sea.
Once she'd loved him desperately; now she hated him, this man who had betrayed her. This man who, with kisses and sweet words whispered against her skin at night, had convinced her to betray herself.
"Hello, Anna." Nikos's voice was deep, dangerous, tightly controlled.
She rushed at him, grabbing the lapels of his black cashmere coat. "What have you done with my baby?" She tried to shake him, pounded on his chest. "Where is he?"
He grabbed her wrists. "He is no longer your concern."
"Give me my child!"
"No." His grip was grim, implacable.
She struggled in his arms. Once his touch had set her body aflame. No longer. Not now that she knew what kind of man he really was.
"Misha!" she shrieked helplessly.
Nikos's grasp tightened as he pulled her closer, preventing her from thrashing her arms or clawing his face. "My son belongs with me."
It was exactly what she'd known he'd say, but Anna still staggered as if he had hit her. This time Nikos let her go. She grabbed the rough edge of the long wooden table to keep herself from sliding to the floor. She had to be strongstrong for her baby. She had to think of a way to save her son.
In spite of her best efforts, a tear left a cold trail down her cheek. Wiping it away furiously, she raised her chin and glared at Nikos with every ounce of hate she possessed. "You can't do this!"
"I can and I will. You lost the right to be his mother when you stole him away like a thief in the night."
Anna brought her hands to her mouth, knowing Nikos could use his money and power and man-eating lawyers to keep her from her son forever. She'd been stupid to run away, and now her worst nightmare had come true. Her baby would grow up without her, living in LasVegas with a heartless, womanizing billionaire and his new mistress
"I'm so sorry, Anna," Natalie sobbed behind her. "I tried to stop them. I tried."
"It's all right, Natalie," Anna whispered. But it wasn't all right. It would never be all right again.
A door slammed back against the wall, causing Anna to jump as a third bodyguard entered from the kitchen and placed a tray on the table. Steam rose from the samovar as Nikos went to the table and poured undiluted tea, followed by hot water, into a blue china cup.
She stared at her great-grandmother's china teacup. It looked so fragile and small in his fingers, she thought. It could be crushed in a moment by those tanned, muscular hands.
Nikos could destroy anything he wanted. And he had. "I've been here two weeks," Anna said bitterly as she watched him take a drink. "What took you so long?"
He lowered the cup, and his unsmiling gaze never once looked from hers.
"I ordered my men to wait until you and the child were separated. Easier that way. Less risk of you doing something foolish."
Stupid. Stupid. She never should have left her baby not even to go to an all-night market in St. Petersburg. After all, Misha wasn't really sick, just teething and cranky, with a tiny fever that barely registered on her thermometer.
"I was stupid to leave," she whispered.
"It took you four months to figure that out?"
Anna barely heard him. No, the really stupid move had been coming here in the first place. After four months on the move, always just one step ahead of Nikos's men, and with money running out, Anna had convinced herself that Nikos wouldn't be staking out her great-grandmother's old palace. Now mortgaged to the hilt, the crumbling palace was their family's last asset. Natalie was trying to repair the murals in hopes that they'd be able to find a buyer and pay off their paralyzing debt. A fruitless hope, in Anna's opinion.
As fruitless as trying to escape Nikos Stavrakis. He was bigger than her by six inches, and eighty pounds of hard muscle. He had three bodyguards, with more waiting in cars hidden behind the palace.
The police, she thought, but that hope faded as soon as it came. By the time she managed to summon a policeman Nikos would be long gone. Or he'd pay off anyone who took her side. Nikos Stavrakis's wealth and power made him above the law.
She had only one option left. Begging. "Please," she whispered. She took a deep breath and forced herself to say in a louder voice, "Nikos, please don't take my child. It would kill me."
He barked a harsh laugh. "That's what I'd call a bonus." She should have known better than to ask him for anything. "You you heartless bastard!"
"Heartless?" He threw the cup at the fireplace. It smashed and fell in a thousand chiming pieces.
"Heartless!" he roared.
Suddenly afraid, Anna drew back. "Nikos"
"You let me believe that my son was dead! I thought you both were dead. I returned from New York and you were gone. Do you know how many days I waited for the ransom note, Anna? Do you have any idea how long I waited for your bodies to be discovered? Seven days. You made me wait seven damn days before you bothered to let me know you were both alive!"
Anna's breaths came in tiny rattling gasps. "You betrayed me. You caused my father's death! Did you think I'd never find out?"
His dark eyes widened, then narrowed. "Your father made his own choices, as you have made yours. I'm taking my son back where he belongs."
"No. Please." Tears welled up in her eyes and she grabbed at his coat sleeve. "You can't take him. I'm I'm still breastfeeding. Think what it would do to Misha to lose his mother, the only parent he's ever known "
His eyes went dark, and Anna wanted to bite off her tongue. How could she have drawn attention to the fact that she'd not only denied Nikos the chance to experience the first four months of their child's life, but she'd broken her promise about their son's name?
Then he bared his teeth in the wolflike semblance of a smile. "You are mistaken, zoe mou. I have no intention of taking him away from you."
She was so overwhelmed that she nearly embraced him. "Thank youoh, God, thank you. I really thought "
He took a step closer, towering over her. "Because I'm taking you as well."
He should have savored this moment.
Instead, Nikos was furious. For four months he'd fantasized about taking vengeance on Anna. No, not vengeance, he corrected himself. Justice.
Some justice. His lip curled into a half-snarl. Bringing Anna back to Las Vegas, where he'd see her face across his table every day? That was the last thing he wanted.
He'd intended to take his son and leave, as she deserved. But from the moment he'd first seen his baby son a surge of love had risen in him that he'd never felt before. At that moment he'd known he could never allow his son to be hurt. He'd kill anyone who tried.
For four months he'd hated Anna. But now Hurting her would hurt his son. His child needed his mother. The two were bonded.
The payback was off.
He cursed under his breath, narrowing his eyes. Anna had lost all her pregnancy weight, and then some. Under her coat's frayed edges he could see the swell of her breasts beneath her tight sweater, see the curve of her slender hips in the worn, slim-fitting jeans. There were hungry smudges beneath her cheekbones that hadn't been there before, and tiny worry lines around her blue-green eyes. The tightly controlled secretary was gone. Her long dark hair, which she'd always pulled back in a tight bun, now fell wild around her shoulders. It was sexy.
Anna slowly exhaled and stared up at him, her eyes pleading for mercy. Even now, she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Her aristocratic heritage showed in the perfect bone structure of her heart-shaped face, and in every move she made.
Once he'd been grateful for her skills. He'd admired her dignity, her grace. He'd known Anna's value. As his executive secretary, she'd run interference with government officials, employees, vendors and investors, making decisions in his name. She'd reflected well both upon him and the brand of luxury hotels he'd created around the world. Even now he still missed her presence in his officethe cool, precise secretary who'd made his business run so smoothly. She'd made it look easy.
It made him regret that he'd ever slept with her.
It made him furious that he was still so attracted to her. Misha, indeed. A Russian nickname for Michael? Anna had promised to name their son after Nikos's maternal grandfather, but it didn't surprise him that she'd gone back on her word. She was a liar, just like her father.
"I had Cooper pack your things," he bit out. "We're leaving."
"But the storm"
"We have snow chains and local drivers. The storm won't slow us down."
Anna glanced from Nikos to the empty crib, and the fight went out of her. Her shoulders sagged.
"You win. I'll go back with you," she said quietly.
Of course he'd won. He always won. Although this victory had come harder than he'd ever imagined, at a price he hadn't wanted. Already sick of the sight of her, he growled, "Let's go."
But as he turned away Anna's throaty voice said, "What about Natalie? I can't leave her here. She has to come with us."
"What?" her sister gasped.
Nikos whirled back with a snarl on his lips, incredulous that Anna was actually trying to dictate the terms of her surrender.Another Rostoff woman in his house? "No."
"No way, Anna!" Her sister echoed, pushing up her glasses. "I'm not going anywhere with him. Not after what he did to our father. Forget it!"
Anna ignored her. "Look around, Nikos. There's no money. I was planning to get a job as a translator to support us. I can't just leave her."
"I'm twenty-two! I can take care of myself!"
Anna whirled around to face her young sister. "You barely speak Russian, and all you know about is art. Mother doesn't have any more money to send you, and neither do I. What do you expect to eat? Paintbrushes?"
The girl's eyes filled with tears. "Maybe if we went to Vitya he would "
"No!" Anna shouted.