Dani felt the breath knocked out from her.

She'd never set foot in Russia, nor knew anyone she could run to even if she managed to escape. Alexei had a build that could easily take her down, if one of his god-knows-how-many lackeys didn't get to her first.

"How the hell did I end up in Moscow?" she demanded, her mind still struggling to remember.

Alexei rose to his full height once more. He had to be at least six feet tall.

"Too easily, actually. You and your friends were already quite inebriated. I mean, you were more than eager to take your sixth shot of tequila from a complete stranger."

"You slipped a roofie in my drink?" Her jaw dropped as her bound hands curled into fists. "What else have you done to me?"

Alexei picked the fur off his parka. "I prefer my partners conscious and completely willing, if that's what you're implying. You were knocked out for the entire flight. Very cooperative for live cargo, really."

"Oh my God." Dani closed her eyes as the full realization began to sink in. "I can't believe this is happening."

"I know this all seems like one terrible nightmare, but I'd like to make this transaction as smooth as possible," Alexei said as one of his lackeys reappeared behind him, wielding a cutter. Her pulse began to escalate again at the exposed blade.

"I'll free your restraints, if you'll cooperate nicely. What do you say?"

Dani narrowed her eyes, wanting nothing more than to tell him to go to hell. Alexei softly chuckled, as if he could read her mind. He nodded to the man behind him, who then knelt before Dani.

Alexei took out a smartphone from his pocket. "I'm about to call your father. If you promise to behave nicely, I'll let you talk to him for a little bit."

She eyed the phone long and hard. Her heart hammered wildly in her chest. "I promise."

His full lips curved to a knowing smile. "Good girl."

He dialed a number and set it on loudspeaker. The ringing echoed loud in the dark, empty room, and Dani felt her chest tighten with every ring. She intently followed Alexei with her eyes as he idly paced the room, waiting for the line to pick up. The other man at her feet was already cutting the cable tie on her left ankle.

Tommy De Luca's voice finally came, loud and clear. "Hello?"

Tears formed in Dani's eyes at the sweet sound of her father's words.

Alexei stopped pacing. "Hello, Mr. De Luca."

"Who is this?"

"It's Alexei Nikolin, Andrei Nikolin's son. It must be a nice afternoon in New York right now."

Dani clamped her trembling lips shut, even as she felt the last cable tie released from her wrists. She wanted to scream to let her father know she was there, but Alexei's long, hard look at her face was enough warning to keep her silent and still.

"Ah, yes. Alexei, was it?" Her father cleared his throat. "I'm afraid this isn't a very good time."

"Just reminding you to settle your bill, sir." Alexei moved towards Dani, stopping only an arm's breadth away. He brought a shushing finger to his lips as his eyes—a mesmerizing ice blue up close—twinkled with mischief. "I understand you must be preoccupied right now, looking for your daughter and all."

"How did you—" The shocked whisper turned to hissing rage. "If you have any information about my daughter's whereabouts, you better tell me or your ten million dollars won't be your only problem."

Slowly, Alexei lowered the finger from his mouth. He knowingly raised his eyebrows at her before nearing the smartphone to her lips.

Her eyes began to well with unshed tears. Frustration clawed up her throat until Alexei finally gave her a single nod and a gaze that said, Choose your words wisely.


"Dani…?!" her father exclaimed. "Oh my God, are you alright?! Where are you? Have they hurt you or—"

"I'm fine, Dad. I'm in Moscow right now." Funny how she was trying to sound like the calm one, even as her voice shook slightly.

"Moscow…? Fuck." Her father released a heavy sigh. "Listen, baby. Don't worry, okay? I'll get you out of there in no time."

She opened her mouth to speak, but Alexei had already retracted the phone from her. He raised a finger to her face, warning her to say no more.

"How soon is in no time, Mr. De Luca?" Alexei asked, turning his back on her. "Ten million dollars in ten days. How does that sound?"

"Ten days?" her father stammered. "I need a little bit more time than that, Nikolin. It's not easy coming up with that kind of amount so quickly."

"Not my problem, Mr. De Luca. I'm not here to play babysitter to your daughter."

Dani was more than aware of the man standing guard behind her should she attempt to charge after Alexei's exposed back. She could only grip the blanket wrapped around her; the sole thing providing comfort in the midst of this shit storm she now found herself in.

"Okay, okay. I'll get you the money," came her father's strained voice on the other line. "Just… please don't hurt my daughter."

"I give you my word so long as you keep yours," Alexei replied. "Ten days, Mr. De Luca."

Alexei ended the call before her father could say anything more. Alexei turned around and fully faced Dani again.

"Well, now that that's out of the way—" Alexei straightened his coat. "Shall we go?"

Dani rubbed her wrists in confusion. "Go where?"

"Somewhere warmer?" He looked around. "Unless you prefer to stay here, of course."

One of the suited guards moved closer to Dani's chair. She gripped the blanket tighter around herself.

"Come along now, Miss De Luca," Alexei said, walking ahead as his voice bounced off the walls. "Do you really wish to be manhandled on the way out?"

She rose from her seat and eyed his back with a glare.

Dani was escorted to a black SUV with heavily tinted windows. A burly guard sat in the passenger seat while she sat in the back, with Alexei climbing into a separate SUV behind them.

Save for the starry, night sky and the dense stretch of trees around them, there was hardly anything to make out of her surroundings. The car's headlights flashed brightly ahead to reveal nothing but a long stretch of snowy road. The heater was already on with the wooly blanket still draped on her, but Dani couldn't stop shaking.

The cold was no match to now being in this terrible nightmare she couldn't wake up from. Who was to say Alexei and his men would keep their word once her father paid up? They could bleed her father dry if they wanted to, and they could easily kill her once the money stopped flowing. What was to become of her then?

Dani tucked her legs close to her chest. The tears would not come, and she couldn't afford to show it in front of these men anyway. She was the daughter of a De Luca. She didn't break down easily.

The movement of the car rocked her to an uneasy sleep she kept waking up from, but whenever she opened her eyes, they were still driving down that dark road. Eventually, a firm shake on her shoulder roused her. Bleak, gray skies overhead greeted her. It was finally morning, wherever they were.

One of the burly, suited men wordlessly commanded her to get out of the car. She practically jumped off the SUV and wobbled, but the man kept her firmly upright. Snow reached her wedged heels.

Dani stood before an old-looking brick estate. It had clearly seen better days and looked to have been erected a good few decades ago, and its owner did not seem to bother with the upkeep. Still, its size could easily house ten rooms, and it looked well-occupied with numerous guards roaming the snowy grounds.

Alexei emerged from the SUV behind her. He didn't bother glancing her way as he walked to the columned entryway. The burly man beside her nudged her forward.

Dani trudged through the snow with difficulty and fought to keep her teeth from chattering, despite the wooly blanket still wrapped around her. The burly man eyed her with impatience and looked tempted to haul her up, but she threw her best glare at him and kept him in place.

Her wedged feet finally touched solid ground. She entered the main foyer, which was surprisingly grandiose with its red carpets, sweeping staircase, and crystal chandelier.

Alexei removed his black leather gloves. Several uniformed servants poured into the room and lined up in attention.

Alexei said something in Russian. A woman who looked to be in her forties, blonde with her hair pulled back in a tight bun, stepped forward. She wore a full-length black dress with a ring of keys jangling around her waist. She eyed Dani with steely grey eyes.

"This is Elena, the head housekeeper. She will guide you to your room." Alexei listlessly waved a hand, and the rest of the servants dispersed as Alexei began walking down another hallway with his bodyguards.

Dani looked around in disorientation. Soon, it was only Elena and her left in the middle of the foyer.

"Follow me please," the woman said in a thick Russian accent. Elena began walking up the flight of stairs and did not bother waiting for her.

Stupefied, Dani followed Elena upstairs and was guided down a long, narrow hallway. From the windows, Dani saw nothing but trees and snow surrounding the estate. Even in the miracle that she managed to sneak past all the guards outside, entering dense woods in this tundra was tantamount to suicide.

Elena cleared her throat. Dani darted her gaze back to the servant, who now held a door open for her. Cautiously, Dani entered inside.

It was a bedroom, which looked bare at a first glance from its whitewashed walls. A king-sized bed in rose and cream-colored bedding greeted her, with a wooden, vintage closet standing to the side. A lone upholstered couch with a plush, grey rug faced a small fireplace near the bed. Despite her predicament, she found herself admiring the rustic but elegant interiors.

The sound of running water reached her ears. To her right, Elena had opened the bathroom. A clawfoot tub was being filled.

"Clothes off, please."

"I-I don't think…" Dani stammered. She wrung her hands together, uneasily approached the bathroom door, and lowered her voice to a whisper. "Listen, I've been kidnapped. I need to get out of here—"

"Clothes off, please," Elena repeated, a little more firmly. Her expression remained a perfect blank, as if she had not heard Dani at all.

"I can't stay here," Dani raised her voice, if only to get her point across. "I need to get home."

Elena's back straightened as her hand remained on one of the tub's faucets. "You're welcome to leave, if you can manage."

Elena's voice and gaze held no sympathy whatsoever. Dani opened her mouth to speak, but the woman was right. She was stupid to ask for the aid of a servant working for Alexei. Tears of frustration began to sting Dani's eyes, but she quickly blinked them away.

"Fine," she said through gritted teeth. She stripped before Elena and entered the tub, and the moment she dipped her foot in, warmth seeped into her very bones.

Dani submerged herself into the water and brought her elbows to her knees. She bent her head, watched the water rise, and closed her eyes in silent tears.

to be continued