Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Christmas Day

*What follows is a prequel short (like a glimpse) into action before 13 TO LIFE actually occurs. It introduces Alexi--the eldest Rusakova--while in Moscow. Alexi gets very little time in the series as it focuses more on his youngest brother, Pietr. This story (and the character of Nadezhda) only presented themselves to me earlier this week. This is also written in present tense (not like the book) because I want to draw a clear distinction between this scene and 13 TO LIFE itself. So: not in the same voice or POV, not of the main characters, my CPs and betas haven't even seen this (so it's rough), it's more for my older readers... Geez. I know--what an awful Christmas gift. Next year I'll do something better for you all. ;-)

“Must you go so soon?” she whispers, eyes shadowed by long and lacy lashes.

His breath catches in his throat and he looks away, past the shelf of snow globes where winter lies in wait—only needing a shake of the glass to be summoned. He stares out the window, wondering how soon this area will go from the warm tones of summer and fall to the cool and cleansing white of winter. “We’ve been in Moscow nearly a month.”

“Nearly a month,” she echoes, “and I’m only now getting to see the man beneath all his masks, behind all his walls.” Her lips, soft and red as a fresh cut rose twist in a sadly wry smile.

He shrugs, avoiding her searching emerald gaze. Pinned beneath it he can too easily imagine living out a lifetime of gracious and glowing summers. He shakes his head, pushing the heels of his hands into his eyes to clear his vision of such a happily ever after. He is certain happiness is not his destiny. Death? Most certainly. Torture? More probably with every moment he remains rooted in Nadezhda Vohlkovna’s bedroom. “I must get my family back to the States. The school year is starting.”

Such a lame excuse.

The gentle pressure of her hand settling on his arm makes his hands drop away from his face. “Why go back? Educate them here in the Third Rome. What can you not learn about life here in Moscow?” She tilts her head, watching him with both curiosity and care. “I am so sorry, Alexi, but there is nothing left in the States to hold you there now,” she whispers, sweeping fingers along his firm jaw line, rasping her nails across his dark stubble.

His eyes flash and he draws back, fighting the disconcerting shiver her touch sends racing through his body. “I have my reasons for returning.”

She flops down on the bed’s edge, pretty blonde curls bouncing as she pouts. “Is it another woman?”

His silence makes her lower lip tremble.

She breathes out his nickname, soft and sure as prayer: “Sasha.”

Movements stiff, he haltingly gathers the few belongings he brings every night he sneaks into her father’s mansion and finds his way unerringly to her wing. Alexi smirks, realizing his sense of direction has always sucked, except when it comes to finding trouble--or his way to Nadezhda’s open arms. Head bowed, he finds his voice.

Nyet, Nadezhda. There is no one else,” he assures. Perhaps a well-placed lie would serve him better—break the bond before his absence stretches it too thin—hurts them both too much.

It has not even been a month he has known her. How dare his heart betray him so eagerly? Why must it falter and race in her presence? Why must his thoughts be clouded with her existence, her touch, her smile?

“It is because I make you laugh,” she says, bouncing on the bed.

His back still to her, he snorts. It is true. He has not laughed in months. But here in Moscow, with Nadezhda? A balance has finally been struck between dark nights and bright days. For the first time in years his face has ached from laughter. “Da, you make me laugh.” He turns back to her, already regretting the words falling from his lips. “But you are more than simply a good time, Nadezhda. You are beautiful, graceful and kind...” He sighs, his shoulders sagging, defeated.

Her hands clasp together, cheeks hot and pink at his compliments. “You speak my charms so well, Sasha. You must stay.” Her long fingers pluck at the bed swathed in satin and velvet, her bright pink nail polish startling against the rich burgundy bedspread.

“I cannot.”

“Please, Sasha. Puzhalsta.”

His heart clenches at such a simple word formed by such a beautiful mouth. “I have so little time and so much must be done...”

“Then take me with you.”

He freezes, staring at her as if she’s suddenly speaking a language that is incomprehensible to him.

“Take me with you. I shall become your scandalous Russian bride,” she says with a wink and a trilling laugh.

He blinks and fights for words. “I--I do not think a Russian bride is so scandalous when married to a Russian-American man,” he chuckles despite his heart being wedged in his throat. “Besides, it is not like I found you online.”

“Or in a catalog,” she muses.

“I dare not imagine the caption that would appear beneath your picture in such a catalog.”

She shakes her shoulders brazenly, straightening her back as she crosses her long legs on the bed. “Busty blonde Russian beauty--”

“--with a brilliant brain--” he adds.

Her smile slips into a grin and she shakes her head to toss her long silken curls into shivering coils of sunlight.

Alexi cannot help but wonder what such a beauty saw in him.

“--eager to please...” she teases.

He growls. “Stop, Nadezhda,” his command becomes a plea and he laughs uncomfortably. “You can kill me with a single word--a single look.”

“Take me with you.”

Seeing her there, so soft, so funny, so clever, so simply human... His chest tightens. “I cannot. There is no place for you. Things are dangerous for my family...”

“That is why you came to speak to my father.”


“I have seen the tattoo, Alexi—and more,” she taunts. “I know what you are.”

Hardly. He looks down and shoves a foot into one of his shoes. He grunts and tugs the other shoe closer with his toes. “You should aim higher than what I have to offer.”

“Love is blind, Sasha, and there is no easy aiming when blind.”

“Then it is better if your eyes are opened to the truth.” Leaning over, he tugs at the tongue of his shoe. If only his own tongue were as easy to control...

“And what truth is that?”

“That I will never deserve your hand in marriage. I will never be the man that deserves your love.”

“And yet you have it.”

“Do not say that, Nadezhda.”

“I love you, Alexi Rusakova, regardless of your odd last name, your strange family, Max always hitting on me, and the secrets you still will not share.”

He straightens, looking down at her. “He still hits on you?”

She laughs at his raised eyebrows, the way he simmers just behind his bright blue eyes. “He’s such a dog,” she giggles.

Da,” Alexi agrees. “I must have a chat with my dear little brother.”

“You are avoiding the most important thing I said.”

He blinks.

“I love you, Sasha.”

He digs into his shirt’s pocket and pulls out a cigarette and his lighter.

“Don’t you dare.”

He pockets both items again.

“I thought you’d quit.”

He had. In Moscow, with Nadezhda, there have only been three times he’s reached for the habitual comfort of his cigarettes. Now his fingers tremble under her strict gaze. “Some habits...” He shrugs.

“You are a stronger man than that.”

Again he shrugs.

“Can you not say it, Sasha? Can you not say that you love me?”

Groaning, he allows his gaze to skim her features and her cheeks color freshly beneath his scrutiny. He had hoped to avoid this sort of entanglement, especially with the daughter of The Wolf. The dreaded Vohlk. But then he had never expected to meet her. He had never expected her to be so... well, her.

A grim silence stretches between them, punctuated only by the old clock on her wall greedily ticking away their stolen moments.

With a disheartened nod, she accepts hesitancy as agreement. “I was wrong,” she murmurs, eyes falling away from his face. Along her lashes tears bead and sparkle.

Alexi’s hands shake again, but not because of the absence of a cigarette. Because, for once, he doesn’t know what to do. Reach out and prolong her hope they might be together? Remain stoic and break her heart by letting her believe he doesn’t love her?

Lies. Both of them.

“It is because of my father,” she moans. “It is, isn’t it?” The tears quiver like gems at the edges of her bright eyes before leaping down her cheeks and racing to meet on her trembling chin.

He shoves his hands into his jeans pockets to stop from grabbing her and kissing the tears away. To stop from telling her the truth. Every mad bit of it.

“You are afraid he will come after you like he has the others.”

It has crossed his mind. Anytime you hear a woman’s last lover was found dismembered it is natural to reassess your involvement with her. To put distance between you. Instead it made him cling to her more tightly. Love. Insanity. One and the same. He squeezes his eyes shut.

“That is why you will not be seen with me in public unless we are in a group. He has frightened you as much as the others!”

Another man might protest, might feel such a declaration is an attack on his manhood. Alexi’s jaw merely tightens, the vein near his hairline rising, his body admitting sadly she’s right. But his unwillingness to go public with their relationship is not in a selfish effort to save his own hide, but to save her. From his reputation.

Because if her father finds out she’s been spending her hours with Alexi... he shakes his head. He is the wrong type in so many ways. And her father, the Vohlk, knows precisely what type he is. He knows Alexi’s secret—at least this particular one.

Somehow all the wrong people do.

Nadezhda and a dozen different suitors might be wrong, but Nadezhda and a Rusakova? Unforgivable.

At twenty-one in most places he’s a legal adult. Already he is a man with many responsibilities and burdens. He feels his years acutely most days. Yet what he knows he must do for the security of his family makes him feel like the most selfish of children.

God,” he rakes his shaking hands through his dark hair and struggles for his breath a moment before he lounges forward and takes her face in his hands. “I do love you, Nadezhda,” he assures, pressing his lips to hers. “God help me,” he gasps between kisses, “I do love you...”

She winds her arms around his neck, drawing him closer and covering his mouth with eager kisses of her own until he pries her arms away and rests his forehead against hers, breathing heavily.

“But I cannot take you with me,” he struggles to explain, eyes downcast. “It is not safe for you. Besides, you are a princess. I am a pauper.”

“Not true,” she protests. “What are you not telling me, Alexi?” She pushes him back and stares up at him. “Nyet. Do not tell me. I am used to not being told everything. There are some truths I do not wish to know.”

He nods. “I cannot--”

Waving her hand before him dismissively she says, “Do not tell me what you cannot do, Sasha. Instead, promise me something.”

His throat flashes as he swallows. “Anything.”

“Promise to come back for me.”

His heart stutters in his chest, his throat constricts and his tongue feels like it’s swelling to an impossible size... Surely he’ll never speak again.

“Come back for me. On Christmas day.”

He snorts. Surely this is a test—a way to plumb the depths of his Russian soul. “You will celebrate Christmas?”

“The tradition has still not taken the country by storm as you might say,” she smiles sadly, “but father sees it as another reason to throw a party.”

“To showcase his influence.”

“There will be many important men there, da.” A smile slides along her lips. “So steal me away then. Prove that you are more than a man of words, Alexi Rusakova. Kiss me beneath the mistletoe and take me from the party—away from all this.” She waves her arms at the huge room and all its colorful adornments. The snow globes sparkle in the slanting light of morning. “Take me to America with you.”

In his chest, Alexi’s heart folds in on itself, becoming smaller and smaller until he thinks it must be gone entirely. He nods and rubs the back of his hand across his forehead as he wonders how to say goodbye to the first girl he’s ever loved.

Then he realizes. He will do it the same way he does everything else. He will lie.

Da, Nadezhda,” he whispers tenderly, reaching forward to sweep a golden curl back, tucking it behind her ear. “Da, I shall return for you—on Christmas day.”

Her eyes light up—nearly glow at his words—and he feels even more the monster now than ever before. To be with the Vohlk’s daughter without permission (and no one gets permission) deserves death, but to promise to be with the Vohlk’s daughter and not come through... To break his daughter’s heart...

That begs for torture.

Because no matter how much he wants a happiness of his own she is too closely tied to a man that would gladly bring destruction to Alexi’s family. And no matter how his heart protests, he knows he must choose them over her. And over himself.

He knows his death is coming—felt it stalking him in the sharp shadows along Lenin’s tomb and the gloom that guttered along the arches at the base of St. Basil’s. Everywhere he’s gone in Moscow he’s felt death trail not far behind.

Yet being with Nadezhda makes him feel invincible—immortal. That is the trick of love: it makes you feel so safe you grow reckless. He’ll die someday. Someday soon. “It’s okay,” he whispers as she buries her face into his chest. “Okay...” But at least this way it’ll feel like there’s a reason for his death...

And so he reaches down for her, meshes his fingers into her sunny hair and pulls her close so their lips meet. Their mouths move together, gasping the same air and he deepens this last kiss, trying to guarantee that regardless of time and distance, when her father’s men finally find him he’ll remember why loving her--and leaving her--is worth a slow death.

“Go,” she whispers, tears sliding freely down her cheeks as he rushes from the room and slips into the remaining shadows lining the long halls of the Vohlk’s mansion. He pads past the guards and stalks behind servants until finally, outside, he catches his breath and adjusts his shirt, glancing at the glaring sun only rising into its heavenly realm. With a sigh he sets off across the broad lawn, slinking into the shade the shrubbery casts. He may have lost his chance at love, but he has given her a second chance. Sometimes that is the best goodbye can bring.

A safe distance from the Vohlk’s home, Alexi fumbles with his shirt pocket and pulls out the cigarette and lighter. With a final look toward her father’s mansion, he wedges the cigarette between his lips and lights it, immediately hating himself for blotting out the taste of her lips and letting the smoke that trails up and stings his eyes be the excuse for the way they tear up.

*Okay, so needless to say, I hope your holidays are far happier than Alexi's and Nadezhda's--much, MUCH happier. Take care, celebrate with your loved ones and avoid dating the daughters (or sons) of dangerous men. ;-)

May hugs and kisses fill your holidays!


Liane Gentry Skye said...

Shannon, the POV choice in this was perfect. First present isn't as easy to pull of as it might seem, but the immediacy it lent this scene was marvelous.

alybee said...

Shannon - Thanks for posting this...such a wonderful treat/present. I really enjoyed this little pieces. Happy Holidays to you...Aly

Shannon Delany said...

Liane, thank you. I *never* write in present tense, but it seemed to want that, you know? I'm happy it seems to have worked. :-)

Alybee, glad you enjoyed this piece of backstory--it sort of sneaked up on me earlier this week. :D

Happy holidays, girls!

Casse AKA Catholic Kittie said...

Well, that was um romantic??? ;-) I loved that you mentioned my Max erm just Max I mean, not MY. *swoons secretly*

Shannon Delany said...

Hi Casse! :-) Poor Alexi's fighting a difficult past and a grim future when he meets Nadezhda in Moscow. Like most people's, his chance at romance is seldom easy. ;-)

LOL--and yes, if there's a girl around, Max *probably* gets mentioned. ;-) LOL


Anonymous said...

Opulently I agree but I think the collection should secure more info then it has.

soycazadoradesombrasylibros said...

Dear Shannon:

Do you know if the book will be publis in Spain?
I already buy it on amazon ;)
Is possible do an interview for my blog to let you know more?
for the spanish people?

big kisses


Anonymous said...

Opulently I agree but I about the brief should prepare more info then it has.

Anonymous said...

Again a honesty a possessions post. Thank your friend

Shannon Delany said...

Hi Maria!

At this point we haven't sold translation/publication rights in Spain, but I will certainly let everyone know as soon as we do (I've been told debut authors don't sell many foreign rights with their first book, but I'm crossing my fingers). I'd be very happy to do an interview for you but right now I'm traveling. I'll email you in about a week.

Hi, Anonymous! I'm not exactly sure what you mean with your comment (but thank you for commenting). The reason this story is so short and simple is because it is supposed to give readers a hint about a character who doesn't get much time in the regular series although he deserves to have his story told as well. :-) I hope that helps explain it.

Thank you for visiting!