His mother had always been so proud of her appearance and her heritage, even when she’d changed her name. A well-meaning agent had convinced a then fifteen year old Mudiwa that her Zimbabwean name wasn’t catchy enough. So, she’d changed it to Phoebe, in honor of her favorite English poet. Ten years and a successful modeling career later, she’d met Maks Romanov at a Safe and Clean Water for All benefit.
“I took one look into her beautiful green eyes and she couldn’t stop me from asking her out,” his father would always say.
“And he couldn’t stop me from saying no,” she’d laugh.
Then they’d kiss and his father would waltz her around the room, caught up in their own love song.
He’d always loved watching them, even with an adolescent’s embarrassment over the affection they shared. Or rather had shared. His father was gone and, for all intents and purposes, so was his mother.
Sasha snagged a towel from by the sink, wrapping it around Phoebe’s wet hair after he’d removed the cap. Then he washed her face and applied the moisturizer to her mostly wrinkle-free skin.
“Last month, your old arch-rival, Lina, had a face lift. Everyone knows she’s at least eight years younger than you. Although she claims to be eternally thirty-five,” he said as he brushed her hair. “I know, I know, I shouldn’t revel in others’ misery.”
Sasha kept the conversation flowing, however one-sided, about fashion and gossip. All the things that would make his mum smile and shake her head at him. It was from her he’d inherited his love of clothes and eye for style.
Tight spirals fell in an orderly array when he was done and he chucked the brush into his bag. Finally he sat, edging the bag out of the seat with his hip and laid his head beside his mother. He took one of her hands and placed it on the back of his neck, the slight weight a comfort. It was times like these he could pretend Phoebe was stroking his hair and asking about his day, his accomplishments.
Exhaling, he closed his eyes and said, “I’ve met the most beautiful woman. She’s kind, generous and has absolutely horrid taste in pajama bottoms. She’s raising her sister’s baby and running a business all by herself. I think you’d get on with each other.”
“Then what’s the problem?” his mum laughed.
“I’ve been sent to destroy her.”
“Mugare kure nemoto.”
Stay away from the fire. He smiled ruefully. That had been her advice every time he’d been caught being naughty.
“That’s a bit dramatic, even for you,” Vladimir Romanov chuckled.
Sasha’s eyes popped opened and he jumped to his feet, his mum’s arm falling listlessly to her bed. He adjusted her hand and the covers. “Don’t recall your name being on my VIP list.”
His uncle smiled. “We are family, Alexander, and despite what you think of me, my ultimate goal is to maintain those relationships.”
“Your ultimate goal is world domination.”
Vladimir shrugged. “With my family by my side.”
“What family?” Sasha leaned against the closest wall and stroked his chin. “Do you mean the son that won’t have anything to do with you, or the one’s that dropped off the face of the planet?” Lucky bastards.
His uncle’s eyes turned glacial. “Your next project.”
Unfazed, Sasha barked out a laugh. “Sebastian hates me only slightly less than you.”
Sasha blinked and blinked again. “You can’t be serious. After what I’ve already done to him?”
“Rather Machiavellian if you ask me.”
“It’s bloody insane, and I refuse to do it.” Sasha crossed his arms over his chest.
“Did you think you could fool my team of scientists with the exact same water samples?” His uncle’s voice was deadly calm as he strolled to Phoebe’s bed, a prelude to a violent storm of consequences that Sasha would bear the brunt.
There was tenderness in Vladimir’s gaze. “Sickness hasn’t diminished this lovely face.”
“You cared for her.” Claws of disgust dug deep into his soul.
Vladimir’s hand hovered over Phoebe’s face and Sasha watched in horror as that same hand covered her nose and mouth. He bolted for her, but two men on his uncle’s security detail grabbed him. They shoved his head on the table, holding it there and twisting his arms behind his back. He moaned in pain. The corner of his iPod dug into the side of his face, but it was nothing compared to the helplessness and rage.
“Lust, nothing more.”
Sasha relished the flash of annoyance on his Uncle’s face. If he could make him mad enough, he might be able to get Vladimir away from Phoebe. “She chose my father over you, didn’t she?”
“She was taken in by all that sentimental drivel he spouted.”
“Like love and genuine affection? Actually putting his family first, before the company. Before you even.”
“Shut him up,” Vladimir commanded.
Henchman number one grabbed Sasha by the hair and banged his head on the table. Sasha saw stars, but he wouldn’t stop talking. It was rare day that he could actually get to the miserable S.O.B.
“You’re jealous of a dead man. Now that he’s gone, she still wouldn’t choose you, and you know it.”
“She was nothing, offered nothing,” Vladimir muttered, his hand tightening over Phoebe’s nose and mouth. Her body jerked pitifully.
An alarm went off on one of the machines, but Sasha couldn’t see which. He grunted and rolled his shoulders, pain shooting through the joints as he struggled to get free. “What she offered, you weren’t allowed to have.”
Mercifully, his uncle removed his hand. The alarm went silent. “Maks walked away from his family, from me. And what did that get him? Six feet of dirt and you for a son.” Vladimir skimmed the back of his knuckles across Phoebe’s cheek.
The pressure on Sasha’s arms and head lessened. He wrenched free, slammed his elbow into a hard body and bolted for his mother, but the sight of a Glock stopped him cold.
“God damn you to hell.” Sasha fell to his knees, prepared to do anything Vladimir asked of him.
His uncle nuzzled the barrel of the gun against Phoebe’s mouth and Sasha wanted to vomit. “You will return to Holland Springs. You will find the spring. You will report on Christian.”
“Fine, just…for the love of God, put the gun away.” Sasha’s gaze traveled from his mother to his uncle over and over. “Please,” he whispered.