He’s one man.
Within twenty minutes, I’m back at the house, stepping out of the black Lincoln just as another pulls up in the driveway. My dad is there waiting, and my mom. She doesn’t look upset at all, apparently still unaware of all that’s going on. I’m tempted to tell her everything, but what would that do except upset her? She wouldn’t remember it tomorrow anyway.
“Anna, thank God you’re all right!” my dad gushes as he comes over to me and wraps me in a hug. Dropping his voice, he adds, “Follow my lead.”
“What is all this, Niko? What’s going on? I got to the hotel and they wouldn’t tell me anything, and she was nowhere to be seen.”
“Anna, I’d like you to meet Alex Sokolov, finally. Alex, this is Anna. You’ll never believe it but her purse was stolen. She was out with some friends and her purse was snatched. She’s been at the police station ever since…”
Alex puts up a hand to silence my dad, his brows knit together. Does he believe a word of it? It’s impossible to tell. His eyes are cold, not quite soulless but like there’s a wall. His dark suit looks like it was made for someone much bigger. He meets my eyes and sucks his teeth.
“Is that so?”
I hesitate. I’m not the greatest liar and—my heart sinks—this man is going to be my husband. Shouldn’t there be some sort of trust between us? But then, if he wants trust, he shouldn’t be forcing me to marry him.
I nod. “It was terrifying.”
He huffs. “I’m sorry that happened to you. We were all very worried. But it’s given me more clarity about our…situation. I don’t like waiting and I won’t chase you. This marriage is happening today. Right now. Get in the car.”
“What?” My father and I say in unison.
My mother squeals. “Oh, how romantic!”
I shoot her a look, but she doesn’t notice, her blissful little world isn’t connected to reality.
My father steps forward, his brow covered in sweat. “Alex, is that really necessary? I thought there was going to be—”
“She travels in my car. You follow behind with her mother. I have a priest heading to my house right now who will perform the ceremony. Let’s go.” He nods to me, then turns, apparently expecting me to follow like a puppy.
If he’s so disinterested in me, why does he want this marriage so much? Is it really just about taking me from my father as payment for a debt?
As soon as we’re ensconced in his limousine, he turns my way.
“I assume from that performance back there, your father has told you what this is all about?”
I nod, surprised that he’s talking so openly.
He huffs. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for what’s going to happen. Truly I am. This isn’t your fault, but your father has to suffer for what he did. I’m not going to lie to you, today is going to be the worst day of your life. First, you’ll marry me, then I’ll use you so badly you’ll want to die. But you won’t die. You’ll survive, and you’ll go back to him and you’ll tell him how much you hate him for what he’s put you through. You’ll hurt your father far worse than I ever could. Do you know what happens in prison, Anna?” He pauses, on a satisfied sniff. “Of course you don’t. But, you will. Your father will feel a pain unlike he can imagine every time he has to send you back to me. And he will, he’ll do it, and he’ll do it every time you go back to him, because if he doesn’t he knows what will happen.”
His words are so plain, so devoid of emotion, that I barely even feel any fear. Just hurt and confusion. “Why?”
“Because that’s how I felt, Anna. That’s why. Because every day in prison, I knew I was innocent, just like you. And every day, I suffered. I suffered in ways right now you can only imagine, but soon you’ll know them only too well. This marriage will end. Your sentence is the same length as mine. Five years. Unless, of course, after our time together, you want to stay…”
Quietly, I turn away, and he doesn’t try to speak to me again. Instead, I watch out of the window as we head to the rest of my life.
And I feel nothing. No fear. No sadness.
Because my body still bears the marks of the man I love. Cyrus was first, and he’ll always be first. Alex can do what he likes, whatever he thinks I have to take for my father’s sake, and I’ll endure it all knowing that he can’t ever take that from me.
Sometimes you have to pack a lifetime into one night. I’m sorry.
I read the note again. Twelve words.