The sound of laughter echoed through the house. Women’s voices rose and fell. Soft. Happy. Loving. Lissa Piner wandered over to the door, opened it and stood looking out into the darkness, carrying those sounds with her. She wanted everything about this evening to be imprinted on her brain for all time.
Her sisters of the heart, always in her heart. So cliché. So often used, but in this case, true. She couldn’t love them anymore than if they’d been born of the same parents. She met them, of all places, in a therapy group for the survivors of family members violently murdered. They’d come together, six women, all lost, all broken, and discovered, that together they were much stronger.
The wind tugged at her hair and she turned her face up to the night sky, inhaling deeply. She loved storms. She loved the Northern California coast where the six women had pooled their resources, bought a farm and for the last five years had grown close and even prosperous together. Tonight though, the clouds roiled and churned, a dark ominous black, nearly blotting out the moon. Not enough that she couldn’t see the bright red ring around the moon as it valiantly tried to shine behind the layer of clouds.
“A storm’s coming,” Blythe Daniels observed over her shoulder. She handed Lissa a cup of tea. She was tall and blonde and towered over Lissa by quite a few inches. “Don’t you love when the moon is full and has rings around it and the sky is so dark it almost looks purple?”
Lissa took a sip of her tea. There was something soothing about tea. She’d only just discovered the properties of tea when she’d come to live on the farm with the others. Tea seemed to be the go-to drink when things were difficult. “I do love purple in the clouds,” she admitted, avoiding all discussion about the red rings and what they might mean. To her, they meant one thingâ€”death. A violent death. Probably hers. She sighed softly and then forced a smile. She had to be so careful with these women. They all were very astute at reading each other.
“Come on, you two,” Lexi called from across the room. She was the youngest sister, the one Lissa was the closest to and the most protective over.
Lexi had recently fallen in love and Lissa still went from being grateful for the match, to being a little worried. Gavriil Prakenskii, Lexi’s man, was no ordinary man. He was rough, scarred, and very dangerous. He was also very protective of Lexi. That, Lissa really liked, especially now.
Blythe leaned in close to her. “Are you all right, Lissa? You’re very quiet.”
Lissa felt her stomach flutter. Her heart clenched, a curious and disturbing physical reaction to the certain knowledge that Blythe saw far more than any one else. It had been Blythe’s idea to band together and buy the farm. She’d been the driving force and she continued to be the one they all looked to.
“I’m always quiet,” Lissa pointed out with another small smile. One, she knew, that didn’t reach her eyes. “Especially before a trip. This is a big one. I’ve got three hotels interested in my work. If I can get contracts with even one of them, let alone all three, we’ll be sitting pretty for a long time.” She turned away from the storm. Away from the night sky and the moon with it’s red rings that signaled danger and violence. “Who knew my chandeliers would take off across the world and I’d become famous for my art?”
She’d deliberately courted the European market. Still, she hadn’t expected, in five years, to be so successful.
“You know, with the men adding money to the farm, we’re not teetering every month on the brink of disaster. You don’t have to work so hard, Lissa,” Blythe said softly. “We all love you for it, but we’re good now. We can all take a breath. Thanks to Lexi, the farm is doing better than ever. Rikki, Judith and Airiana make certain whatever the weather, our crops aren’t adversely affected.”
“Exactly,” Lissa said, closing the door against the rising wind. “Rikki, Judith and Airiana ensure Lexi’s crops thrive. You boost their power. That’s the five of you working together to make the farm a success. What do I contribute? When I first started my business, you all helped me. You believed in me. This is my chance to give something back to the farm.”
Blythe opened her mouth to protest, took one look at her face and closed it again. “We’re all proud of you. The fact that three hotels are all vying for your chandeliers says you’ve made it.”
“I haven’t gotten the contracts yet,” Lissa said, pouring enthusiasm into her voice. “I had to delay the trip by a couple of weeks and reschedule because two of the managers couldn’t meet with me in the time I’d allotted for traveling. As it is, it will be tight.”
“Still,” Blythe led the way back into the center of the living room. “It’s exciting that you can visit so many countries in one trip and write it off legitimately.”
“That’s the best part,” Airiana Prakenskii said. She had recently married Maxim Prakenskii and was in the process of adopting four children, siblings who had been rescued by she and her husband from a human trafficking ring. “Writing your trip off on your taxes.” She looked like a beautiful pixie with her natural platinum hair, large eyes and fragile appearance. She was anything but fragile. She was bound to air and worked for the defense department.
“I despise doing taxes,” Rikki Prakenskii admitted. “I love to dive and it’s great getting paid for what I love doing, but then filing taxes makes it all a nightmare. Thank heavens for Lev. He totally understands all that.”
Lissa smiled at Rikki as she sank into the chair opposite her. “I love that you call him Lev now and that all of you have agreed to take the last name Prakenskii.”
Lexi shrugged. “Since Gavriil is living here and both he and Ilya use the name, why shouldn’t all of them?”
“Don’t you think it’s a little crazy that all of you married Prakenskiis?” Lissa asked. She set her teacup carefully on the end table and folded her hands together, threading her fingers rather tightly.
“Absolutely crazy,” Lexi agreed, “although, I’m not married.”
“It’s a matter of time,” Lissa said. “Gavriil will put his ring on your finger, just the way he put his mark on your palm. Don’t deny it. I’ve seen you rubbing your palm on your jeans. All of you do that.”
“Sometimes it itches,” Lexi said before she thought to deny it.
There was more laughter. Lissa loved the sound of her sisters laughing. There was genuine joy in them. They’d all started out so lost, so broken, especially Lexi. Intellectually, Lissa knew it was a combination of things that had changed for everyone. The way they united as a family, their farm, and then the coming one by one, of the Prakenskii brothers. “Why do you suppose all of you have settled down and fallen madly in love with a Prakenskii?” She asked.
“Hello,” Judith emphasized. “Are you blind? They’re just plain yummy.” Judith was married to Stefan Prakenskii. Judith was nearly as tall as Blythe, with long flowing black hair, a legacy from her Japanese mother. She was an artist and did restoration of paintings as well as creating unique and beautiful kaleidoscopes.
“They are that,” Lissa admitted, “but they’re also overprotective, dominant and arrogant as well as pains in the butt.”
All the women nodded in complete agreement. “They are so all of those things,” Airiana said. “We can’t even argue who is the absolute worst...”
“Gavriil,” a chorus of voices said all at the same time.
Lexi looked shocked. “He is not. He’s so sweet. How can you think that?”
Laughter rose and this time Lissa joined in, a true, genuine laugh. Of course Lexi would never see the dangerous side of Gavriil. He loved her. She was not just the center of his world, she was his world.
“That’s why all of us are going to have Black Russian Terriers to protect every household,” she teased.
Lexi flashed her a grin and then immediately disagreed again. “It’s Lev.”
“I push Lev into the ocean as often as possible,” Rikki said with a little sniff. “It cools him off when he gets out of hand. No way is it my man.”
Blythe held up her hand. “I have to say, all of your men are the absolute worst. Only Lissa and I have any sense left.”
Lissa took a deep breath before nodding. “Which is why I am very glad I’m heading off to Europe and leaving you, Blythe, to the tender mercies of whichever Prakenskii brother shows up next, because I’m fairly certain it will happen. Sea Haven seems to call to those of us who are elements or like the Drake sisters, have psychic gifts. As all the Prakenskiis seem to have or be both, I’m putting my running shoes on.”
At least she wasn’t lying about that. Practically every thing about her was a lie, when she’d been so determined to give her sisters the real person. She gave them what she could of herself, but there would be no acceptance if they knew the truth about her. Sometimes, she could barely look at herself in the mirror.
“What would be so wrong with finding a man?” Lexi asked. “I was certain I never would have that kind of...intimacy...with a man, not after everything that happened to me, but Gavriil came along and I can’t imagine my life without him. Don’t you want to have a relationship, Lissa?”
Lissa wanted to hug Lexi to her. Sweet, wonderful Lexi. She was so accepting. Kidnapped, forced into a sham of a marriage with a pedophile, forced into child labor, her family murdered by the vicious cult that took her, she still had the sweet nature no one could ever take from her. Lissa felt very protective of her and loved her like the sister she never had. She would do anything to keep Lissa safe and happy. She had vowed she would make certain no one took that feeling of safety away again.
“What is it?” Lexi asked, suddenly moving right into her, perching on the arm of Lissa’s chair. Close. Her eyes moving over Lissa, seeing too much. “You look sad. As if you’re saying goodbye to us.” There was trepidation in her voice. Fear on her face. Yet she kept her voice low, instinctively protecting Lissa from the others.
Lissa was grateful. All of her sisters could read each other easily now. Lissa had lived a lie with them for so long she felt guilty and ashamed. They showed her who they were, yet she had to hide who she really was. What she really was. She tried a smile. “Baby, you know I’m heading off for Europe any minute, right? I have to catch a plane. Isn’t that what this gathering is about?” She tried to inject a teasing note into her voice, but in truth, she didn’t believe she would be coming home.
Lexi shook her head. “You know what I mean. This is your home. Are you happy here?”
“I’ve been happier here than I’ve been since I was a very small child. This is home,” Lissa said firmly, grateful she didn’t have to lie. That was strictly the truth and Lexi would hear it in her voice.
“Are you coming back?” Lexi persisted, her eyes showing anxiety.
“This is home,” Lissa said. “It will always be home. I’ll always come back.” If I can. She would. She would never ever leave Sea Haven and the beauty and peace of the farm if she had a choice. She raised her voice a little so the others could hear. “If I get the contracts for the chandeliers throughout these hotels, all three of them, then we’ll be sitting pretty for the next few years. It will give the farm a real chance to thrive.”
“It’s already thriving, Lissa,” Lexi said. “You don’t have to overwork any more. I have Gavriil to help me now and during harvest all of you help. With him around, I won’t mind if we hire extra help when we need it. Before, I was always uncomfortable with strangers, but Gavriil makes me feel safe. Well, all the boys do.”
Lissa burst out laughing. “Only you would refer to the Prakenskii brothers as boys. I love you, Lexi. So much. You taught me a great deal about letting go of anger. It’s still there, but I’m working through it.” She would neverâ€”everâ€”say how to her baby sister.
“I love you too, but seriously, Lissa, don’t take on more work than you can comfortably do.”
Lissa nodded. “One hotel in Italy, a castle in Germany that’s been renovated into a luxury hotel and the last in Russia. I really get to travel and for free. It’s a tough life, but someone has to do it.”
Airiana sighed and leaned back, sipping at her tea. “I thought I would never want to travel again after all my adventures on the yacht and then the cruise ship, but the children are wearing me out. Benito is a crazy boy. He’s getting to be more like Max every day. I swear, without adoption, he’s already a Prakenskii. I could use a vacation. The other night, when Max and I snuck off to the gazebo to have a little fun, we were going at it when all of a sudden, red lights began flashing all around us and an alarm went off. That horrid boy rigged our only safe place.”
The women erupted into gales of laughter.
“Of course he did,” Blythe said. “I was waiting for something like that. No way was he going to resist. I can just picture Benito and his sisters hanging out the window laughing their little heads off.”
“Until Max caught up with them,” Judith said, hardly able to get the words out around her laughter.
“He chased Benito all over the house. The girls and I couldn’t help laughing hysterically,” Airiana admitted. “I didn’t tell Max, but I think Lucia may have been the mastermind behind the red lights. The little girls thought they came up with the idea of the sirens and Benito graciously and in the face of Max’s wrath, allowed them to take credit for it. Clearly, all of them had discussed it and were just waiting for us to sneak out.”
“Bet that didn’t take long,” Rikki said.
Another round of laughter erupted.
“We have to sneak out,” Airiana defended. “Those little monsters sleep in our room. We’re hoping when we get the puppy, they’ll all take to sleeping in Lucia’s room.”
“Most likely the puppy will be sleeping in your room along with the children,” Lissa said, keeping a straight face.
Airiana groaned and covered her eyes. “So true. Just remember that if any of you are thinking about having children. They are exhausting.”
“Not me,” Rikki said. “I’m going to be the favorite auntie.”
“That’s my job,” Blythe objected. “I’ll be the old spinster with five cats.”
Judith snorted. “Like you have a chance of that happening.” She paused. Took a breath. “I didn’t think I’d want children, but Stefan is so wonderful and he’s going to be one of those hand’s on fathers that help. I like having Benito hanging around the house doing art with me. Nicia and Siena are darling children. Even Lucia, although she rarely comes over, is sweet. Stefan and I decided to try.”
There was a shocked silence.
“Really?” Blythe asked. “That’s wonderful. I love the idea of children growing up happy here on the farm.”
“That’s a good thing,” Judith said, “because Airiana is pregnant. I have no idea when she was going to confess, but I can clearly see that she is. Her aura gives her away.”
Airiana looked shocked. “I am not.” She sat up straight, put her teacup on the table and glared at Judith. “I have four children. That’s plenty. I couldn’t possibly have a baby, I’m too tired all time.”
“That’s why you’re tired, silly,” Judith pointed out. “Didn’t you know? Really?”
Airiana scowled at her. “As long as I didn’t take a test or said it out loud, I thought I could dodge the bullet. We weren’t exactly careful in the beginning. And sometimes we aren’t all that careful now.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Judith said. “The horse left the barn and there’s no need to close the doors.”
“That ship has sailed,” Blythe said.
“I hate you all,” Airiana said. “Stop laughing at me. Now, Gavriil has this puppy that I’ll end up having to take care of right along with crazy Benito and the girls. I’m so not looking forward to the next few months. Puking and wishing I could sleep.”
“Lucia will look after the puppy,” Lexi said. “She’s learning already to care for them and she’s very good at it. She has a natural talent. I think it will be good for her and you should tell her you’re pregnant, she’ll help you.”
Airiana shook her head, sudden tears welling up. Instantly the laughter was gone from their circle.
Blythe reached out and took her hand. “What is it, honey? You’re complaining, but you love the children and you know Lucia needs the puppy. You don’t object to that. Are you really ill?”
Airiana shook her head and then shrugged. “I have morning sickness, but it isn’t bad. I just am careful what I eat in the morning. It’s Lucia and the others. I want them to feel loved. To know they have a home. They’ve been through so much. Losing their parents in a car bombing. Their little sister murdered. That awful ship. The things that happened to them on it. They need to feel as if they have a secure home with Max. With me. That we’re going to love them and be their parents.”
“Of course they know that,” Blythe assured gently. “There will be an adjustment, but they’ll accept and want the baby too.”
Airiana shook her head. “I don’t want them to think for one moment that by having a baby, we’ll push them aside. I want this baby. Max’s child, but I love all four of those children as if they were mine. I know Lucia in particular has a difficult time. They need time. I haven’t said anything because I think the longer they have with us without a new baby, the better it will be for them, but then I think if they get used to the idea the better it will be that way.” She threw her arms into the air. “I have no idea what to do.”
“What does Max say?”
Airiana bit her lip.
Lissa gasped. “You didn’t tell him? Are you nuts? Max will kill you for withholding that kind of information. What were you thinking?”
“That he’ll get even more protective than he already is. He can make me crazy, Lissa. They all can make me crazy and lately I haven’t had the tolerance and the humor I need to deal with him turning into macho protective nutcase. All I want to do is cry or throw things.”
“Honey, you’re pregnant,” Blythe said. “That’s to be expected.”
“Your hormones are all over the place,” Judith added gently. “Sweetheart, you need to tell him. You do. You can’t keep something like this to yourself. Tell him and then talk over the best course of action to take with the children. You’ll feel so much better.”
Lissa nodded. “And then we need to put the whammy on Judith so she gets pregnant and the children can be best friends.” She nudged Lexi. “What about you? Do you foresee that man of yours giving you a gaggle of children?”
Lexi laughed. “Not a gaggle exactly, but we’ve talked about it.”
Lissa shook her head. “I’m so getting out of this madness. The next thing I know, I’ll get pregnant by proxy.” She stood up. “I’d better get on the road. It’s four hours to the airport.”
The women immediately stood and surrounded her. She could feel their warmth. Their love. She had to struggle not to cry. This was her family. She had come to love them more than she could ever have thought she would be able to. She had never shared who she was with them, nor had she introduced them to the one member of her family still alive, but they were her world. She didn’t expect to come back to them, but she was going to ensure their safety because they were everything to her.
Each and every one of them had had their lives ripped apart by violence. They had lost the ability to ever live in the world without fear. A home was supposed to be a sanctuary, yet, for these women, they knew a home could be violated at any time. She hated that for them.
She would never have the chance to fall in love with a man but that was her choice. She would never have children, but again, she was making that choice. She knew she was making that choice for these women, all so very precious to her. They held one another in their tight circle, the way they did to show solidarity, sisterhood, to show strength and love. Lissa planned on carrying that feeling of love and support with her everywhere she went.
“We’ll see you when you get back,” Lexi said, breaking the circle to hold her close. She hugged Lissa hard. “I love you. I want you back.”
“I love you too, little sister,” Lissa replied, meaning it. Feeling it. Fighting emotion when she usually was so good at pushing it down. “Take care of each other. And listen to the Prakenskiis when it comes to your security. I mean it. I’ll be upset with all of you if you don’t.”
She hugged each of them hard, turned and nearly ran from the room, out into the rising wind. The storm was closing in on Sea Haven, coming in off the ocean, and she felt that was an ominous portent of things to come in her future. Her bags were already in the car and she had to get on the road if she was going to catch her plane. She drove away from the farm, from her place of peace and never once looked back. She didn’t dare.
The ocean raged, the relentless wind whipping the waves into a towering frenzy. Water swelled high, forming a series of walls, some a good thirty feet high. The waves rushed toward shore, breaking in white foamy crests up high on the rocks and cliffs. The constant roar and boom added even more drama to the wild sprays as they shot into the sky, retreated and burst against the stacks again and again as if trying to destroy them.
“It’s a good night for it,” Lev Prakenskii informed his brothers with a quick grin as they trudged across the sand toward the relative shelter of a series of high boulders that looked as if they’d been flung on the beach. The rocks looked out of place on the wide expanse of sand. “A perfect setting as well. Even if our women caught on, they wouldn’t be able to overhear us.”
Gavriil, the oldest brother present nodded. “That would be why I made certain we didn’t hold this meeting anywhere near the farm.”
Overhead, clouds spun dark threads, churning and rolling continuously in rhythm to the crashing waves below. The wind shrieked and howled, tearing across the sand, flinging drops of salty water from the sea at them and kicking up the fine grains of sand to pepper the five men as they moved quickly towards the relative shelter of the boulders.
“Airiana was extremely suspicious,” Maxim reported. “Lissa is leaving tonight and apparently they’ve always gotten together before one of her trips. She brings in a tremendous amount of money with her glass blowing and welding business and she’s nabbed two major hotels and a castle being renovated into a hotel in Europe. The women do something to bring her better luck and safe travel. Airiana wanted me home tonight to watch the kids, but when I told her I had to go out, she moved the gathering to our house.”
“You’re in such trouble,” Stefan pointed out with a smirk. “You get home tonight and she’s going to grill you. Big time. Airiana has a way of making you talk.”
“And your woman doesn’t?” Ilya, the youngest of the Prakenskii brothers demanded. “If I remember right, Judith crooks her little finger and you run so fast you burn the soles of your shoes.”
Laughter broke out at Stefan’s expense, mostly because they knew it was true. Judith was his world and he wasn’t ashamed of admitting it. In any case, he knew each of his brothers had found the woman they were clearly devoted to. The one that had surprised him the most was Gavriil. His oldest brother had recently moved in with the youngest sister on the farm, Lexi, and was completely and utterly in love with her. Gavriil, even to his brothers, was a very scary man, yet around his fiancé, he was gentle and even tender, two traits no one, not even his family would have ever attributed to him.
The brothers continued toward the row of boulders. In the dark, they were powerful, intimidating figures, walking across the sand with fluid grace. The wind howled around them, but they didn’t break stride, moving like a pack of deadly predators. It was impossible not to notice the confidence. They were imposing men with wide shoulders and thick chests. Mostly it was easy to see they knew how to take care of themselves.
Across the sand, the flickering of a fire flung the wall of a jutting boulder into sharp relief. The red-orange glow illuminated the homeless man sitting comfortably, back to the curve of the rock, one hand curled around a bottle, his coat tight around him and his scarf covering the lower half of his face. At least he looked warm with the flames of the fire dancing high. He’d chosen the center boulder for his camp, leaving a few boulders on either side of him for them to choose for their private gathering.
“Do you want to tell us why you called this meeting, Gavriil?” Lev asked, keeping to the shadows, staying a distance from the man and his fire. He kept an eye on the only other living soul out in the fury of the wind. He’d been at the farm the longest and his affection for all the women who resided there ran deep. He didn’t like leaving them alone and unguarded, even for a few hours.
Lev looked out toward the crashing sea. He’d been caught in those dark waters once, the power of the waves rolling his helpless body, slamming him into a rock with such force, he’d had a concussion. Rikki Sitmore, an urchin diver and one of the amazing women residing on the farm, had saved his life. He’d fallen like a ton of bricks for her. He didn’t like to be separated from her for any length of time, but he wasn’t going to tell that to his brothers. He’d never hear the end of it, even if they were all just as bad.
Lev narrowed his gaze on the homeless man’s fist, wrapped around a bottle of Scotch. “We should move our meeting,” he suggested, his voice low. “We’re not alone.”
“You noticed the Scotch,” Gavriil said.
Lev’s eyebrow shot up. “How could I not? The man’s drinking Glenmorangie eighteen-year-old extremely rare malt scotch. That’s not something a homeless man could afford.”
Maxim nodded his agreement. “Everything else about him fits, but that bottle has to cost at least a hundred dollars. No way can he afford that if he’s homeless.”
None of the Prakenskii’s had turned their backs on the man. They were hunted. From Russia, they’d grown up in special schools, trained to be assets for their country, assassins sent to take down enemies of the state. Because they opposed his politics, their parents had been murdered by Kostya Sorbacov, a very powerful man who had been the power behind the presidency at the time.
The boys had been taken, separated and forced into the brutal training from the time they were very young. Now, years later, Sorbacov’s son, Uri, had recently decided to vie for the presidency. He couldn’t afford to have any scandal attached to his name, so all evidence of the extremely harsh atrocities associated with the schools had to be erased. That meant he was having those raised in the schools murdered. No matter that they had served their country faithfully, there was a hit out on all of them.
“Do you recognize him? Any of you?” Gavriil asked.
Stefan shook his head. “No, but he’s one of us. He’s good. Plays the part perfectly. Without the Glenmorangie, I would have bought his cover. I wouldn’t have given him a chance at us, but I would have bought it.”
“Look closer,” Gavriil encouraged.
Lev glared at him. “You know him. You knew he was here.”
Gavriil grinned. “I can’t believe you don’t recognize your own brother. I’ve invited Casimir here to have a little meeting with us, but he doesn’t have much time. He has to catch a plane tonight.”
The others looked from him to the man sitting in the sand, warming himself by the fire, taking a drink from the bottle.
“You asked him to look after Lissa,” Stefan guessed. “I should have thought of that. I was worried about her running around Europe alone. If either of the Sorbacovs is paying attention, they’d already have the information that she’s living on the farm here. They’d know she’s family and they might try to use her to get to us.”
Gavriil nodded. “I don’t want any of the women going anywhere without protection. We can’t go and Lissa would probably torch our homes if she knew we were sending someone to look after her, but this way, we’ll have peace of mind and she can do her work safely. I contacted him as soon as I learned Lissa was going on her trip. Fortunately, she had to delay it by two weeks, thanks to the German castle, so that gave him a month to work on a cover in Europe.”
Lev nodded his approval. “Good idea, Gavriil.”
The brothers hurried quickly across the wide expanse of sand toward the fire. The ‘homeless’ man rose, a smile on his face. He stepped around the burning logs so he could meet them out in the open. Gavriil pulled his brother close, thumped his back and then passed him around to each of them. They had to introduce themselves, as they hadn’t seen Casimir since he was a child.
Once they settled around the fire and the bottle of scotch had been passed around, Gavriil spoke. “I know you don’t have much time and the rain is going to break soon, but since you were here in the States, I wanted to see you. I knew the others would as well.”
Casimir nodded. “I felt the same way. It was a long way to come and not get the chance to see all of you together. I wish Viktor were here as well. Has anyone heard from him? I check the emergency drop all the time, but in the last five years, he’s gone completely off the grid.”
They all shook their heads.
“He’s in deep cover,” Gavriil said, infusing confidence in his voice. “We’d know if someone got to him. It would be such a victory, they’d crow about it.”
“Viktor’s hard to kill,” Stefan agreed.
“I’ve heard rumors lately that several of the men who went to school with him have been off the grid as well,” Maxim said. “The toughest, most feared, the legends of our schools, seem to have gone quiet.”
“And that includes our esteemed brother,” Ilya said.
They went silent, passed the bottle of scotch around a second time, each saluting the red rings around the moon with it before they took a drink.
“Lissa is one of us, Casimir,” Lev said, breaking the silence. “Important to our family. She’s tough, and thinks she can take care of herself, but she has no idea what the Sorbacovs are capable of if they do, in fact, know she’s considered family to us. Gavriil tells us you’re willing to look after her.”
“I said I would,” Casimir agreed. He didn’t sound like he’d enjoy the job.
“She’s smart and definitely notices everything,” Stefan pointed out. “You’ll have to be careful if you don’t want her to catch on.” He looked around the circle at his brothers. “And we don’t want her to catch on. She could make trouble for us. She’d get those women riled up and we’d all be in trouble.”
Casimir gave a derisive snort. “From just the little time I’ve had for observation, all of you are whipped.” He kept the wistful note from his voice. He was going to do this one favor for his brothers—men he’d been separated from his entire life. Men he didn’t know but felt extreme loyalty toward.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Maxim said, “My woman is my world. I think I speak for everyone here, their woman is the same to them. Lissa is part of that. She’s important, Casimir. We need her safe.”
Casimir shrugged. “You’ve got my word.” He leaned across the warmth of the fire, his gaze caught for a moment. His eyes were molten, a liquid silver, nearly the same color as Ilya’s, the youngest brother. His hair was nearly pitch black. Strange streaks of silver radiated through, five lines that indicated at some point something sharp had sliced along his skull and left behind those thin lines. He kept his hair cropped short and neat. He had a strong jaw, covered with stubble.
His features were cut with angles and planes. Three scars ran from his chin to the top of his skull, thin slices as if whatever had managed to cut into his head and also found his face. The scars were barely there, but they kept his face from being model beautiful.
“Tell me about your lives. Everything. What you’ve been doing all these years and what you’re doing now. I’ve got less than hour before I have to go and I may never see you again. Talk.”