Tufts of snow lined the windowsill as Alexei stood observing the expanse of the Nikolin estate. There was nothing but a stretch of white covering the gardens, from the large marble fountain to the hedge maze beyond it.

Even here in Moscow, snow had not ceased for the last few days. Last he heard, a snowstorm was brewing and heading north. Hopefully it wouldn't reach him when he flew back to Unezhma tonight.

"So? How's the De Luca deal going?"

Alexei turned to face his father, who sat upright on the bed with his back against the headboard.

"Another two million was deposited yesterday," Alexei replied, clasping his hands behind his back. "They're still roughly five million short."

"And what will you be doing when they fail to pay in two days' time?"

"Should that be the case, I plan to keep holding the daughter hostage."

"And Tommy De Luca will continue to take his sweet time knowing his darling girl is cozying up in your summer house." Andrei Nikolin wryly smiled until it turned to a scowl. "Perhaps he was smart enough to realize that finger you sent isn't his daughter's."

"He deposited the two million just hours after our package arrived, actually," Alexei informed him. "He seems to respond fast enough when pushed."

"Then keep pushing harder." Andrei gritted his teeth. "There will be no extensions. De Luca has been bamboozling us for years."

Alexei curtly nodded. "Understood."

"Let a few boys take turns with the girl. Record it for De Luca to see. That should flush a few more coins from his pockets."

Revulsion tasted like bile in Alexei's mouth. "Absolutely not."

His father's ice-blue eyes narrowed hard on Alexei's face.

"Look at you," Andrei spitefully muttered. "Your lack of backbone will undo everything I've worked so hard for."

"And I could leave you to rot in here." Alexei slipped his hands in his pockets. "You were the one who drove our family name to the ground, Father."

"You ungrateful piece of shit!" Andrei barely managed to jerk himself forward before collapsing to the pillows in deep, angry breaths. "I've given you everything you have now!"

"Of course you have," Alexei drawled. "I'm inheriting a crime ring. What more could anyone ask for?"

"You forget your men are still my men," Andrei snarled. "They follow my orders at the end of the day."

"Except you're here, and I can shoot whoever I want for their insolence." Alexei shrugged. "This household is still running because of my management. Fire me or kill me, and you won't have anyone else to run your filthy empire."

Andrei pointed a shaking finger towards the door. "Get out of my room!"

"Gladly." Alexei straightened his tie. "Oh, and do try not to keep firing your nurses. I already have enough problems than to deal with finding replacements."

Alexei slammed the door behind him, effectively drowning out the slew of curses his father hurled at his departure.

After landing back in Unezhma three hours later, Alexei was on the car that drove him back to his manor. He had a million correspondences to attend to, but his laptop remained shut at his side.

Instead, he reached for his tablet to check live feeds of the security cameras in his house. His men remained on guard, servants shuffled about, and Dani was in the library by the fireplace, reading while Maksim slept at her feet.

His lips twitched upward. It seemed Dani and Maksim were now inseparable, and it was good to know she had found a companion in his dog. Maksim had an unusually friendly disposition for his breed, which basically made him useless as a guard dog. Still, Alexei would not trade him for any other pet.

Alexei found himself zoning in on Dani's feed. All this time he had expected a spoiled brat, but for a rich man's daughter, she was being surprisingly well-behaved. He had braced himself for all the hysterics a girl her age and upbringing could deliver. Hell, anyone kidnapped in their right mind wouldn't act as level-headed as she had been so far, even after the hospitality he had extended.

The girl had guts, but perhaps it was to be expected of a mafioso's daughter. Still, he had also expected more fight from her, or maybe she was just being smart. Quite admirably, she seemed to act years ahead of her age.

A soft sigh left his lips. It was simply impossible for Tommy De Luca to pool the remaining five million in two days. It was begrudging, but his father was right. A deadline was a deadline. Alexei couldn't afford to cut the De Lucas any more slack, not while his father's shadow loomed over him.

Alexei took out the phone from his pocket. He brought it to his ear and shifted his gaze to the snowy scenery outside his window.

"Good morning, Mr. De Luca. This is Alexei." He crossed his legs. "I have a proposal you might be interested in."

Come evening, Alexei entered the dining hall and found Dani already seated. She was patting Maksim on the head, who looked ready to jump on the dinner table.

"Good evening," he greeted, casting one stern glance at his dog before Maksim's wildly wagging tail slowed down. "I hope you haven't been waiting long."

He nodded to one of the footmen, who then briskly left the room.

"It's fine. I just came down myself," she said as he settled beside her. She was in a dress the color of midnight blue, which contrasted well against her olive skin. Her naturally wavy, dark hair was thick and loose on her shoulders tonight. For a moment, he had almost forgotten she was only eighteen.

Two footmen arrived, each carrying the first course. A bowl of soup was placed before them and their glasses were filled before the servers took their posts at both ends of the room.

Alexei lifted his spoon, pausing when he observed Dani only eyeing her food.

"Not a fan of borscht?" he asked.

"No, I…" Her voice trailed off as she toyed with the napkin on her lap. "It's just that there's only two days left and I haven't heard any updates."

Alexei lowered his spoon. "I understand. I was planning on informing you after supper, but I suppose stress does not whet the appetite."

Her eyebrows met. "Inform me about what?"

He placed his napkin on the table and rose from his chair. "Come with me please."

He left the dining hall and walked down the corridor until he reached the end of the hallway. He opened the door to his left and stepped inside his private office.

He leaned against his cherry wood desk and waited until Dani entered after him, looking around his office in observation before the confusion returned in her eyes.

He took out the phone in his pocket and dialed a number. He set it on loudspeaker as the sound of ringing filled the room.

"Yes, Alexei?" Tommy De Luca answered.

"Dad…!" Dani exclaimed, taking a step forward. Her hands clenched with restraint, clearly itching to snatch the phone from him.

"Dani! Oh, thank God! I'm so glad to hear your voice again!"

Tears began to well in her eyes. "Me too, Dad. How are you and Mom holding up?"

"Silly girl. I should be the one asking you that question." Tommy half-laughed, half-sighed. "Your mother's managing. You know she's tougher than that.

"Listen, baby, I… I'm sorry about your finger." There was a considerable pause. "Alexei swore to me he hasn't touched a single hair on your head ever since, but you need to tell me if he's hurt you again."

Her eyes darted up at him. He cocked an eyebrow in warning, and she uneasily bit her lower lip.

"I-I'm fine now, Dad." Her words were slow and careful. "It's nothing I can't handle."

"I'm really sorry you had to get involved in this, Dani. You don't have to worry about anything anymore. I'm flying over there on Friday to get you."

Her almond brown eyes widened. Panic erupted on her face, until she noted the calmness in his expression and realized her father had not just blurted an escape plan without him knowing. It was almost hilarious.

"Are you serious…?" she breathed. "You were able to pay the ten million?"

"I figured out a way. You just need to stick it out for two more days. I promise we'll get you home, okay?"

"Yes, Dad." She hastily wiped away the tear that escaped down her cheek. "Be safe. I'll see you soon."

Alexei ended the call before Tommy could say his goodbyes. Dani shot him a disapproving glare, but after the call he just indulged her with, her hostility dissipated fairly quickly.

"My dad's really coming here on Friday?" Hope was unabashed on her face, but a shadow of guardedness was also there.

"Yes, he is," he answered.

His confirmation nearly transformed her, in the way her shoulders loosened and her smile of relief completely lit up her face. Something twisted inside him.

"Thank you," she whispered.

Alexei found himself reaching for his tie and slightly loosening it. "I hope you now have the appetite for dinner."

She softly laughed as they returned to the dining hall.

to be continued