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"After his disappearance from public view over two years ago, Prince Leonid Voronov is back in the spotlight. The former decathlon world champion dropped off the radar after suffering injuries in a car crash that took him off the competitive circuits. Now the billionaire founder and CEO of Sud, named after the Slavic god of destiny and glory, one of the largest multinational corporations of sports apparel, equipment, accessories and services, could be poised to become much more. As one of three contenders for the resurrected throne of Zorya, a nation now in the final stages of seceding from Belarus, he could soon become king. With our field reporter on the scene as the former sports royalty and possible future king exited his New York headquarters
Kassandra fumbled for the remote, pushing every button before she managed to turn off the TV just as Leonid appeared on the screen.
But it was too late. She'd seen him. For the first time since she'd walked out of his hospital room twenty-six months ago. That had been the last time the world had seen him, too. He'd dropped off the radar completely ever since.
But he was back. Reentering the world yesterday like a meteor, making everyone gape in wonder as he hurtled out of nothingness, burning brighter than ever.
Everywhere she'd turned in the past twenty-four hours there'd been news of him. She'd avoided getting swept up in the tide of the world's curiosity about his reappearance, at least outwardly. Until now.
Now her retinas burned with the image of him striding out of his imposing Fifth Avenue headquarters. In spite of herself, she'd strained to see how much of the Leonid she'd known had survived his abrupt retirement from his life's passion.
The man she'd known had been crackling with vitality, a smile of whimsy and assurance always hovering on his lips and sparkling in the depths of his eyes. He'd perpetually looked aware of everything and everyone surrounding him, always connected and tapping in to the fabric of energy that made the world. She'd always felt as if he was always ready to break out in a run and overtake everyone as easily as he breathed. Which he'd literally done for eight years straight.
The man who'd filled the screen had appeared to be totally detached, as if he no longer was part of the world anymore. Or as if it was beneath his notice.
And there'd been another change. The stalking swagger was gone. In its place was a deliberate, almost menacing prowl. Whether this and the other changes she'd observed were sequels of the physical or psychological impact of his accident, one thing was clear, even in those fleeting moments.
This wasn't the man she'd known.
Or rather, the man she'd thought she'd known.
She'd long faced the fact that she'd known nothing of him. Not before she'd been with him, or while they'd been together, or after he'd shoved her away and vanished.
For most of that time, Kassandra had withdrawn from the world, too. After the shock of his rejection, she'd drowned in despondence as its implications and those of her pregnancy had sunk in. She'd been pathetic enough to be literally sick with worry about him, to pine for him until she'd wasted away. Until she'd almost miscarried.
That scare had finally jolted her to the one reality she'd been certain of. That she'd wanted that baby with everything in her and would never risk losing it. That day at the doctor's, she'd found out she wasn't carrying one baby, but two.
After the scare and the discovery, she'd forced everything into perspective, then had even progressed to consider what had happened a blessing. Before Leonid, she'd never thought she'd get married. She'd never considered marriage an option between them, not even when she'd wanted to demand a change in their arrangement. But she'd always wanted to be a mother. Especially after her best friends, Selene, Caliope and Naomi, had had their children. She'd known she wanted what they had, that she'd be good at it, that it would complete her life.
As he'd said, one good thing had come out of that mess. She would be a mother without the complication of having a man around.
Not that it had been smooth sailing. Being pregnant and alone after the unbearable emotional injury of his rejection had been the hardest thing she'd ever gone through. Her family hadn't made it any easier. Their first reactions had ranged from mortification to outrage. Her mother had lamented that she'd deprived her of the traditional Greek wedding she'd planned for her from childhood, while her father had swung between wrathfully demanding the name of the bastard who'd impregnated and abandoned her to forbidding her to have a baby out of wedlock. Her siblings and other relatives had had a combination of both reactions to varying degrees, even those who'd tried to be progressive and supportive.
The only ones who'd been fully behind her from day one had been her trio of close friends. Not only had they always been there for her and vice versa, no questions asked, they'd once been in her situation. Even if their stories had progressed toward ecstatic endings.
But when her family realized the price for any negative stance would be never seeing her again, they'd relented. Their disappointment and misgivings had gradually melted, especially her parents', giving way to full involvement in her pregnancy and the preparation for her delivery. After the twins had arrived, they'd become everyone's favorites and considered to be the best thing that had ever happened to Kassandra. Everything had worked out for the best.
She'd reclaimed herself and her stability, had become even more successful career-wise, but most important she'd become a mother to two perfect daughters. Eva and Zoya. She'd given them both names meaning life, as they'd given her new life.
Then Zorya had suddenly filled the news with a declaration of its intention to reinstate the monarchy. With every rapid development, foreboding had filled her. Even when she'd had no reason to think it would make Leonid resurface.
It seemed her instincts had been correct, for here he was, back on the scene with a vengeance. In one day, he'd taken the world by storm, a mystic figure rising from the ashes of oblivion like a phoenix.
Leonid's disappearance had been the one thing left unresolved inside her. Everything she'd ever felt for or because of him had long dissipated. But wondering where he'd gone and what he'd been up to had lingered. Now explanations would be unearthed and any remaining mystique surrounding him would be gone, so she could once again resume her comforting routines, untouched by his disruption.
Leonid was a page that hadn't only been turned, but burned.
The tension clamping her every muscle suddenly drained at the chirping call of her eldest-by-minutes daughter, Eva. The girls had started calling her Mama two months ago. She hadn't thought it would be that big of a deal. But every time they said it, which was often now that they knew it activated her like nothing else, another surge of sheer love and indulgence flooded her. Her lips spread with delight as she strode through her spacious, cheerfully decorated Bel Air house to their room.
It had been like this for months. Eva and Zoya always woke up an hour after she put them to bed. It was as if they loathed wasting precious playtime sleeping, or thought they shouldn't leave her alone. But since she'd gone back to work after their first birthday almost six months ago, and they spent mornings with Kyria Despina, her late uncle's wife and now her nanny, she welcomed the extra time with them.
As she approached the nursery, she could hear the girls' efforts to climb out of their cribs through the ajar door. They were able to do it after a few trials now, but would soon be experts at it. She debated whether to go in or to let them complete their task and toddle their way to her in their playroom, as she'd been doing lately. It was why she'd been leaving the door ajar. She had child-proofed every inch of her home six thousand ways from Sunday after all.
Moments passed and neither toddler showed up at the end of the corridor. Heart booming with the always-hovering anxiety she'd learned was a permanent side effect of motherhood, she streaked inside and found both girls standing in their crib, literally asleep on their feet.
The tenacious tots were obeying their regular programming even though their strenuously fun weekend at Disneyland had left them wiped out.
Scooping them up, she held one in each arm in the way she'd perfected, cooing to them, letting them know as they nestled into her and made those sweet sleep sounds that she'd come, as she always would, that they hadn't missed that extra time with her they'd wanted.
Once she laid them down again, each turned to her favorite position and resumed a deep, contented sleep.
Sighing at that tremor of acute love and gratitude coursing through her, she walked out, closing the door completely now that she knew they were down for the night.
The moment she exited the room, the doorbell rang.
Frowning, she remembered that the girls' play pals, Judy and Mikey, had again left behind some toys she'd found only after a thorough tidying up. It had become a ritual for Sara, their mother and her neighbor, to come by and collect her children's articles after she'd put them to bed. They usually ended up having a cup of tea to unwind together after their hectic days.
Rushing to the door, she opened it with a ready smile. "We should establish rules about allowing only in-house toys
Air clogged her lungs. All her nerves fired, short-circuiting her every muscle, especially her heart. Leonid.
Right there. On her doorstep.
She'd visualized this encounter countless times in waking trances and suffocating dreams. The perverse yearning had risen time and again for him to show up, look down at her from his prodigious height with eyes full of all he'd deprived her of, and tell her everything that had happened since his accident had been a terrible dream. She'd hoped for it until hope had turned to ashes.
out of the blue, he was here.
Oh, God! He is really here.
Almost unrecognizable. Yet distressingly the same.
Observations accumulated in the white noise that filled her mind, burying her. The most obvious change was his hair. The silk that had been long enough to wind around her hands in the throes of passion was now severely cropped. It still suited him. It actually suited him better, accentuating the dominance of his bone structure.
The other major difference was his body. It hadn't been a distortion of the video or his size relative to others. He was bigger. Broader. More heavily muscled. The leanness of the runner had been replaced by the bulk of a supreme fitness athlete.
His every feature and nuance, familiar yet radically different, felt like a knife to the heart.
But on the whole, he looked as if everything human about him had melted away, revealing a creature of polished steel beneath. Even the way he held himself seemed
inhuman. As if he was now a being of pure intellect and purpose, like a cyborg, an animate form of artificial intelligence.
An hour could have passed as she gaped up at him and he stared blankly down at her. He'd always had that power. Time had always distorted when she'd entered his orbit.
"Invite me in, Kassandra."
His bottomless voice yanked her out of the stupor she'd stumbled in.
"I will do no such thing."
"Your porch isn't the place for what I've come to say."
Her mouth dropped open at his audacity. That he could just appear on her doorstep after what he'd done to her, and without even an attempt at apology or even civility, not only demand but expect to be invited in.
"There's no place where you can say anything to me. We have absolutely nothing to say to each other."
"After the past two years, we have plenty."
"The past two years are exactly why there's nothing to be said. Even if there was, I'm not interested in hearing it."
His eyes gave her a clinical sweep, as if assessing her response for veracity and judging it to be false. It made her loathe her weakness for him all over again.
"I don't know what you were thinking coming here like this, what you expected, but if."
"If you're still angry, we can discuss that, too."
"Are you sure you broke only your legs in that accident? Sounds as if you'd pulverized way more. Like the components that made you human."
"I do realize showing up here must have surprised you."
"Try appalled and outraged?''
He shifted, like the automaton she'd just accused him of becoming, as if moving into a different gear to counter her response. "That's why I showed up. I gathered if I called ahead, you would have been just as resistant to granting me an audience. So I decided to eliminate unnecessary steps."
"And this single step turned out to be as pointless. I'm not granting you an audience since we have zero things to discuss, so you might as well save us both the aggravation and go disappear again. Preferably forever this time."
"If you're concerned I might be here to exhume the past, rest assured I have no wish to resurrect anything between us. I'm not here for you at all. I'm here for my daughters."
Every word sank into her mind like a depth mine. Then the last ones exploded. I'm here for my daughters. My daughters.
The rage that detonated inside her, that he would dare say this, or even think it, almost rocked her on her feet.
Biting a tongue that had gone numb with fury, she gritted out, "Leave. Right this second."
Unperturbed, he gave a nonchalant shrug of his daunting shoulder. "I will leave after I've said what I came to say and when we've come to a preliminary understanding. Whether you approve or not, I am the father of your twin daughters, and I am here to"
Red smeared her vision. "You won't be here much longer or I'm calling the police."
His searing blue gaze remained still, his pupils un-moving, indicating he had no emotional response to her threat and agitation. "I would advise against this. It would disrupt your neighborhood and bring you un-needed speculation and embarrassment. Not to mention you'd have to lie to the police to make them take action against me."
"I won't be lying when I say you're here uninvited, harassing me and making fraudulent claims to my daughters."
"They're my daughters, too."
"Not according to the law, they're not. Nor to them or to the whole world. Any passing stranger they've ever briefly met is more to them than you are."
His formidable head inclined in agreement. "I know that being their biological father on its own means nothing. That's why I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere until I say my piece or until you indicate your willingness to negotiate further."
"What the hell do you mean, negotiate?"
"Over the twins, of course."
She gaped, unable to voice any of the million violent protests ricocheting in her skull and boiling her blood.
"Before you blast me off the face of the earth, I remind you that as their biological father, I do have a right to"
"You have absolutely no right to Eva and Zoya. None. You relinquished any right to even think of them as yours way before they were born. You made it clear you didn't even want them to be born. You may have forgotten this, but I remember all too well."
"I freely admit I behaved extremely
inappropriately when you came to me after my accident. You can understand I was at my worst at the time."
"And you remained there for over two years?"
"I'm the first to admit it took me longer than acceptable to deal with everything."
Rage deepening at his dismissal of his abandonment of her, she seethed, "I care nothing about why you did what you did, and I'll be damned if I let you pretend it was forgivable and invade my life again. You're sure as hell never coming near my daughters."
"I'm not here seeking forgiveness. I don't waste my time, and I certainly won't waste yours pursuing the unattainable. But I'm here to acknowledge my responsibilities. Whatever I've done, I'm myself again."
"If you think that makes it any better, let me disabuse you of that notion. Being yourself is proof you know nothing of responsibility or accountability or even common courtesy and basic humanity."