Ten Years Ago
“You need to leave. Now!”
I furrow my brow, the cold wind whipping through my many layers of clothing. “Then tell me the truth about why you’re here, Dad! What the hell have you been grooming me for if you’re just going to turn me away, now of all times? I thought you needed me here to—”
“Don’t think,” my father grunts, looking left and right. We’re the only two people standing in this darkened alleyway in Saint Petersburg, Russia. At least, for the moment. Sirens wail in the distance and my spine tenses.
“Go home,” my father says in a terse voice. “It’s not safe for you to be here. You need to be at the house with the girls. I told you not to leave them!”
By ‘the girls’ he means Mom and my sister Tali.
But they aren’t the only ones home.
Mischa, our housekeeper is there, too, with her daughter, Lina.
The girl I’ve been in love with for the better part of my short life.
It’s partly because of her…them…that I’m here in the first place.
I’m Dad’s second in command…but who am I kidding? That title is awarded in name only.
I want him to take me seriously so that I can learn more about the life we live, the one I’m currently only allowed to watch from the sidelines.
How the hell can I carry on his legacy, protect the family, and grow our empire if he keeps so much from me? I’ll never be prepared to face the unknown unless he lets me strike.
But every time I feel like he comes close to turning over the reins, shit goes sideways and he pushes me away.
And if he doesn’t take me seriously or trust me to take control, nobody else will, either.
How the hell am I supposed to grow as a leader if he keeps shit from me?
“Why do you keep pulling me in part way?” I press, raking a hand through my hair. My chest tightens as I hear footsteps thumping over cobblestones. A trickle of sweat drizzles down my back despite the frigid weather. My voice drops to a whisper. “If I’m going to be in this—”
“That’s the problem, Alek. I don’t want you in this at all. Not now. I never wanted any member of my family in this. It’s too dangerous.”
“You made me your number two because you had faith that I could handle things. Remember? That’s what you told me! And you know damn well Kaz and Leo can’t do this kind of work.”
“Something happened here tonight,” Dad says in a hushed tone. “And it’s about to bring a lot of trouble our way. I don’t know how much longer we have here in Russia, Alek. We may need to leave. And if I don’t make it, I need to make sure you’re safe so that you can protect the rest of the family.”
I swallow hard. “That’s exactly why I need to know what the hell to expect, Dad!” I slam my hands against my jean-clad legs. “I have to be prepared!”
And if I’m prepared…if I get a shot to make these threats go away…then maybe we can stay.
We can thrive.
We can live.
Hopefully to see another day.
“You’re too young. Too inexperienced,” Dad mumbles, shaking his head. “There are too many unknowns, and the situation is more dangerous than I thought. Something bad has happened, something that is going to destroy all of us. I can’t allow you to get involved.”
“Well, what about you? You’re just going to sit here with the rest of those assholes and wait for the shit storm to blow over? Is that smart?” Panic rises in my throat, but I keep it in check. The last thing I want to do is let him know what’s bubbling beneath the surface.
If I want him to trust me, he needs to see I can be as lethal as him.
With no regrets.
And no fear.
The corners of Dad’s lips curl upward into a sad smile. “It may be the only way I can keep you all safe.” He grabs the sides of my head and kisses me on both cheeks before pushing me away. “You need to learn to listen. How to stand down when the situation calls for it. But you…you just rush into things. You take too many unnecessary risks because you want to lead so badly. You don’t understand that in order to be an effective leader, you need to exercise caution. You can’t run into situations ready to fight if you don’t understand who you’re fighting and why.”
“Then tell me!” I whisper-shout. “Be honest with me, Dad! Give me a damn chance to show you that I can handle things for you!”
He lifts an eyebrow at me. “If you want to prove yourself to me, then get the hell out of here, Aleksandr. Stay out of the line of fire for once. And show me that you can take a goddamn order!”
“But you need me here! I can help!”
The words are barely out of my mouth when the sirens blare louder from around the corner. But we both know there are no cops driving those cars. Dad pushes me away without acknowledging my words and backs into the building. “Go now!” He watches as I jump into my car, gun the engine, and peel away from the side of the brick-faced building. It’s only when I look back, once I’m at the top of the alley, that I see the door to the building is closed tight, my dad safely behind it.
At least for the moment.
I say a silent prayer that the sirens keep moving.
I just wanted to hear my father say the goddamn words, to confirm what I’ve already pieced together myself.
I needed to hear him say it, to tell me why all of the men who worked for Denis Manchenko, including him, are gathered in the basement of that building tonight.
Saying those words would prove that he does have faith in me, that he actually does trust me.
But even though he refused to tell me, I know the answer. I know a lot of things…more than Dad thinks I do.
He doesn’t think that I’m strong enough to handle the dark reality that’s looming.
But he doesn’t realize I’m his best option.
His only option.