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Broken Whispers: Chapter 2

Bianca

Morning sunlight enters the room through gauzy drapes on the windows, bathing it in warmth. It would make such a perfect day for a wedding, if it wasn’t mine. It might be warm outside, but inside of me, a bloody ice storm is raging.

I lean forward, place the tip of the eyeliner at the corner of my eye, and pull a long thin line on my eyelid. Maybe I should have ran away. They would have found me eventually, but it would have been worth it.

“You are so beautiful!” Milene exclaims from the doorway and rushes into my room. “I’m going to cry!”

I smile for my sister’s sake and continue applying makeup. For someone who hates weddings, she’s been unusually excited about the whole thing, so I couldn’t make myself tell her the truth.

“I wish Angelo was here to see you, he was so mad when Dad made him go to Mexico.”

Yeah, I wish my brother was here today, too. He is the only family member, other than Milene, who actually cares about me, and I’m pretty certain Father sent him away on purpose.

“I made Agosto take me to see the reception hall at six this morning. It’s amazing. I still can’t believe you agreed to an arranged marriage thing. I always thought we’d stay spinsters together, living alone with a bunch of cats.”

She starts fumbling with my dress, soothing the material. “I’m totally living vicariously through you today. It’s the closest I plan on getting to a wedding. Ever.” Laughing, she bends to check the hem of the dress while I watch her in the mirror.

Milene has no idea how close she came to being in my place today. She plans on going to college after high school. Becoming a nurse is all she has talked about since she turned eight, and that is all she ever wanted. I hope her wish comes true. Knowing how stubborn Milene is, she will probably make it, unless our father decides to also marry her off before she escapes his clutches.

“So, tell me about him. I want to know everything about your future husband! Why didn’t you bring him to meet us?”

I leave the eyeliner on the vanity and turn on my chair to face Milene, my sweet baby sister who spent hours of her free time on YouTube and learned sign language because of me. My mother and brother learned the basics as well, but they only practiced enough to understanding simple sentences. My older sister, Allegra, and my father never bothered.

“His name is Mikhail Orlov,” I sign. Milene has gotten so much better in sign language over the last few years, that we can have a normal conversation, but she still needs me to go slow.

“And? What does he look like? Is he hot? How old is he? Come on, tell me.”

“That’s all I know.”

“Oh, don’t be so secretive.” Milene laughs and pinches my upper arm. “Tell me!”

“We never met. And I don’t know anything else except his name.” The truth is, I don’t care, so I never asked. What good would it do me? I’m marrying the man whether I want it or not.

“What! Are you crazy? I though you at least met him and decided to go through with the marriage thing because you liked the guy.”

“Go change. We will be late.”

“Bianca?” She places her hand on my shoulder. “Did you agree to the marriage? Or is Father making you do this?”

“Of course, I did.”

“You agreed to marry someone you never met? Don’t lie to me, love.”

“I am not lying. Please go change.”

She regards me through narrowed eyes, but eventually leaves. I finish my makeup, put on my heels, and head into my unhappily ever after, praying that Milene won’t face the same fate.

 

Mikhail

 

The wedding is set to take place in the reception hall of the luxury Four Seasons hotel in the center of Chicago, and as soon as we arrive, all heads turn toward us. Dozens of gazes follow our path as Roman and the rest of the group go to sit in the first two rows on the right side. There are only eight of us in total, whereas the left side, where the Italians are sitting, is packed full. All twenty rows are occupied with grim faces. I guess no one is happy with one of their own marrying into the Bratva, but that certainly didn’t deter them from coming for gossip and free food.

Italians seriously invest themselves into their celebrations and appearances. There are huge white flower arrangements everywhere and silk ribbons tied into bows around each chair. They even put a bunch of white petals all over the damn floor. For Italians, it’s always about making a great impression.

While the others sit down, Kostya and I stand near the first row. The Italians start talking among themselves, nudging each other with their elbows, watching us. Most of them move their eyes away the moment they see my face and focus on Kostya, sizing him up. With his longish blond hair and mischievous smile, Kostya is a pretty kid. Women have always thrown themselves at him, so it’s not surprising that these people have concluded he’s the one getting married today.

I take a step forward and stand at the front, where the wedding officiant waits on the other side of the high table. Kostya, my best man, follows but stops two steps to my right. The moment it becomes evident that I am the groom, there is a collective gasp, and the whole room goes silent.

I face the crowd of Italians, who stare at me with shock evident in their eyes, and pass over them with my gaze until I reach Bruno Scardoni. Isn’t he supposed to escort his daughter down the aisle? He’s sitting in the middle of the first row, a smug, self-satisfied smile on his lips. Interesting. The three women on his right, his wife and two daughters, are sitting stone still, a look of horror on their faces. That, at least, is expected. I wonder where the brother is. From the information I gathered, Bianca and her brother are close, so it’s strange for him to miss his sister’s wedding.

Just as I start wondering if I should’ve had that meeting with Bianca before the wedding, the sounds of the wedding march fill the room. I hope she won’t run off screaming upon seeing me, because I will be chasing.

 

Bianca

 

I regard the white door in front of me and wonder what kind of life waits for me on the other side. Catalina, my cousin and bridesmaid today, fidgets with the veil, arranging the folds to fall over my face.

Sold. I’m being sold like cattle to ensure someone else’s goals bear fruit. There was nothing I could have done to avoid this, other than ruin my sister’s life in exchange for my own. I can’t go back, so I’ll go forward with my head held high to let my bastard of a father see he hasn’t broken me.

He threw such a fit when I told him I would be walking down the aisle by myself. “What would people say?” he had yelled.

What people say makes no difference to me. I have no intention of having the man who decided to use me as collateral damage play a dutiful father. And I certainly won’t go in there with my face covered like I’m some demure scared victim.

A man in a hotel uniform opens the door when the first notes of the song play. I grab the hem of the veil, remove the damn thing from my head, and drop the lacy fabric on the floor. Catalina gasps behind me, but I ignore her, take a deep breath, and step into the reception hall.

 

Mikhail

 

The woman I’ve been obsessing about for months steps inside the room, and I feel my breath leave my lungs. I knew she was beautiful, but seeing her this close and in person . . . I was so wrong. She’s not just beautiful, that word is too plain. Wearing the long white dress that flows over her body and ends in a short train, she is heart-stopping. Soft blonde curls are falling freely on either side of her face and down to her waist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman with hair that long. She reminds me of an elven princess. I wonder what kind of monster I would be in that story.

Her head held high, she walks down the aisle with sure, quick steps, right toward me. She looks at me and holds my gaze, not a flinch upon seeing my ruined face and the eyepatch, not a falter in her step while she approaches. I expected a shy, timid girl, scared of the situation she has been thrown into, but there is no trace of fear in those eyes, just determination.

She stands before me, so beautiful and defiant, and I have this sudden, unexplainable need to touch her. To make sure she is real. It’s a strange feeling. I don’t enjoy skin contact with anyone except Lena. I don’t like it and I never initiate it.

The wedding officiant starts speaking, and as we turn toward him, I can’t resist brushing my finger over the back of her hand. It’s a small touch. I’m sure she won’t even notice it. The man in front of us keeps babbling, and I look down to steal another glance at my bride. She is on the short side, her tiny hand looking so delicate next to mine. Breakable. But then she looks up, and there is nothing fragile in those eyes that regard me without blinking.

 

Bianca

 

He is not what I expected.

As the wedding officiant starts reciting his part, I don’t hear a word of what he says. My whole being is focused on the man standing by my side. When I entered the room and my eyes landed on his huge frame at the end of the aisle, I almost stumbled, and only the years of practice I had on the stage made me keep moving forward. He is built like a professional fighter, his wide shoulders straining the material of his jacket. He’s wearing a black shirt and black dress pants, and with his ink-black hair and that eyepatch, he looks like a dark avenging angel.

I didn’t notice the scars right away because I was too focused on his imposing figure. The largest scar starts above his right eyebrow and runs straight down his face, disappearing under the eyepatch and then continuing down to his jaw. There is another one next to it, starting from somewhere under the eyepatch and trailing down to a point slightly above the corner of his lips. The one on the left side of his chin, runs the length of his neck and disappears under the collar of his dress shirt. I have no idea what could have happened to him to inflict such wounds, but it must have been something horrific. Most men I know would have grown a beard to conceal at least some of the lines marring their face. Looks like my soon-to-be husband doesn’t hide his scars, because he is clean-shaven as if he doesn’t give a fuck what other people might think.

The wedding officiant finishes his speech, and the man who is standing next to my groom approaches and places a small velvet box with wedding rings on the table. Mikhail takes the smaller one and looks at me, waiting. I raise my hand and watch as he slides the ring onto my finger without touching my skin. It seems like he deliberately avoided it. I take the big wedding ring from the box and raise it, but instead of offering his hand, he takes the ring from between my fingers and slides it onto his finger himself.

The officiant pronounces us a husband and wife, and motions toward the big open book lying on the table. There was no “you may kiss the bride” part, and I wonder if that was intentional or if he forgot, because the man seems strangely distressed, fidgeting with his hands, looking anywhere except at my husband.

Mikhail takes the pen, writes his name, and offers it to me. I look up and find him watching me like he’s expecting me to turn and bolt. Without breaking our locked gaze, I curve an eyebrow, then take the pen from his hand and sign my name. Bianca Orlov. It’s done.

 

Mikhail

 

I watch the crowd of people “attacking” the buffet tables, piling their plates with food and chatting loudly. Bianca is standing next to me, silently observing the room, and I have a feeling she’s not a fan of the crowds. We have that in common.

Roman approaches me, saying he’ll be leaving with Dimitri. He’s probably anxious to get back to his wife who stayed at home. I’m surprised he came to the wedding at all, considering how reluctant he is to let her leave his sight. He turns toward Bianca and introduces himself, offering his hand. When their palms connect, I’m consumed by a strange need to bat Roman’s hand away from touching my wife.

“Do you want to leave?” I ask when Roman is out of sight.

Bianca looks over the crowd, raises her head to look at me and nods. I start toward the exit, motioning with my head to Kostya and the rest of our men. We are almost to the door when I feel Bianca’s hand touch my forearm, squeezing it lightly, and I tense for a split-second before willing my muscles to relax. She glances over at the table where her family is sitting as if she wants to say goodbye, so I turn and start walking in their direction.

The younger sister jumps up from the chair and rushes toward Bianca, embracing her around the waist and whispering something in her ear. Bianca takes a step back and starts signing with her hands. Making sure that nothing on my face shows recognition, I discretely watch her fingers form the words.

“We’re going. Everything is okay. I’ll message you in the morning and we’ll talk.”

“Dad will be mad if you leave so early,” her sister whispers.

“You can tell Father dearest to go to hell.” Bianca signs this slowly, like she wants to make sure her sister catches every word, then grabs her by the hand and turns the girl to me.

The poor thing gulps, but quickly collects herself and smiles. She doesn’t offer her hand, and I’m glad for that. When necessary, I have no problem with standard social interactions, like handshakes, but prefer to avoid them.

“I’m Milene. Nice to meet you, Mr. Orlov.”

It doesn’t escape my attention that Milene is the only one from her family who Bianca introduces personally. With the others, I only exchange curt nods, which isn’t that strange considering we were trying to kill each other not a month before.

Milene turns to say something to Bianca when a gunshot explodes through the room.

 

Bianca

 

Barely a second after the sound of the first gunshot pierces the air, a strong arm grabs me around the waist. The next thing I know, I’m plastered to the floor next to Milene, with Mikhail bent over us, protecting us with his body from the line of fire.

“The service door. Stay low. Now!” he barks over the noise of people screaming and more gunshots.

I manage to untangle my legs from the train of the dress, scoop the fabric in one hand, and crab crawl as fast as I can behind Milene toward the door a few yards away. As soon as I make it into the narrow hallway, I lean back onto the wall and grab Milene in a tight embrace. She is shaking like a leaf, her breathing labored, and I am not far behind. I throw a look toward the door, expecting to find Mikhail there, but he’s not in the hallway with us.

There are two more quick bangs before the gunfire stops altogether, and the only thing I can hear are men yelling and women screaming. I wait a couple of seconds then go back toward the door and glimpse into the room. It’s chaos.

People are stampeding toward the double doors on the other side of the room, not paying attention to others around them. An older man, who I recognize as one of my father’s cousins, is laying in a puddle of blood, unmoving. Not far from him, a woman is sitting on the floor with two men kneeling on either side of her, one clutching her bleeding arm. More people around the room look hurt, either by the bullets or the stampede, but no one else looks dead or seriously wounded. Several men are walking around the room with their guns drawn, checking on the wounded. I recognize a few of them as the ones who came with Mikhail, but the rest are my father’s men.

Off to the side, near a wall, Mikhail is standing with a group gathered above the body of a waiter lying prone on the floor. I watch as Mikhail puts his gun in the holster hidden under his jacket and crouches next to the body. He unbuttons the dead man’s right sleeve and pulls it up, inspecting the forearm. My father goes to stand next to Mikhail. They discuss something for a few seconds, then Mikhail turns and heads toward me.

“Go to your father, Milene,” he says to my sister, then turns to me. “This way.”

He leads me down the long hallway and through the hotel’s laundry room, where the uniformed staff peek out from behind big service washing machines. We exit through a metal door and turn right toward the parking lot. It feels like I’m moving through a vacuum, not hearing anything and just barely aware of our surroundings. This is the first time I’ve witnessed gunfire outside of the shooting range, and I might be in shock.

Mikhail approaches a car and opens the passenger door for me. If someone asks me about the model, or even the color, of the car I get into, I wouldn’t be able to say. He calls someone during the drive, but the whole conversation is in Russian, so I have no idea what he says or with whom he speaks.

Shortly after he cuts the call, he parks in the underground garage of a tall modern building. Since I haven’t paid attention to where we were going, the only thing I know is that we’re somewhere downtown.

Mikhail opens the car door for me, and I follow him to the silver elevator and watch as he passes a keycard over the small display, then presses the button for the top floor. A short time later, the elevator doors open onto a small foyer with only one door directly ahead.

I take a deep breath. He brought me to his home. I don’t know why this fact hits me so hard. Of course he would take me to his place. It wasn’t like I expected him to drop me off at my father’s house, but still, it’s like I’m just now grasping the extent of how different my life will be from this point forward. I take another breath and enter Mikhail’s home.

“Living room, dining room, kitchen, guest bathroom.” Mikhail points around the huge open space lined with floor-to-ceiling windows on the opposite side. “The room I use as a gym. Lena’s room. My office.”

Who is Lena? Maybe he has a live-in housekeeper.

Mikhail turns and points to the other side of the open space. “My bedroom. You can have the guest room next to it.”

I stare at him, processing what he just said. He won’t make me sleep with him?

He looks down at me, his one blue eye regarding me with interest, and reaches with his hand to remove a strand of hair that’s fallen over my face, hooking it behind my ear.

“I don’t force women, Bianca. Is that clear?”

I nod.

“Good. I have to go now, and I probably won’t be back before morning. There is food in the fridge. Eat. Take a shower and go to sleep, you need the rest. Give me your phone.”

Somehow, the small clutch purse hanging across my chest on a thin gold chain survived this evening’s events. I reach inside, take out my phone, and give it to him reluctantly. I didn’t expect him to confiscate it.

Instead of taking my phone away, he starts typing.

“I’m entering my number, as well as the number of the security desk downstairs. If you need anything, you can message me. I may not be able to message you back right away, but I’ll do it as soon as I can.” He offers me back my phone, and I slowly raise my hand and take it.

“Feel free to go around and explore, but my office is off-limits. Everything else is okay. Are we clear on that?”

I nod again and keep staring at him, expecting him to say something like “See you in the morning” or “Good night,” but instead, he just reaches over and traces his finger down the back of my hand, his touch feather-light. It lasts just for a second, and then he’s gone without a word.

What a strange man.

 

Mikhail

 

“He had an Albanian gang tattoo on the inside of his forearm,” I tell Roman. “Do you think it’s Dushku?”

“Possible. Maybe he found out it was me who offed his friend Tanush. Or maybe he was mad because we beat him to making a deal with the Italians.”

“It could be both.” I nod. “Or someone wants us to think it was Dushku. They sent only one man, and half of the people in that room were armed. It was a suicide mission. And how very convenient that he had a tattoo that would connect him with the Albanians. Something doesn’t add up.”

Roman leans forward, drumming his fingers on the desk. “It could be the Italians playing us, setting the stage for something bigger. They were in charge of the security for the wedding, and an armed man managed to get through.” He points his finger at me. “You need to watch your wife. Watch her very closely.”

“I will.” I nod and leave the pakhan’s office.

On my way back home, I think about what Roman said. Could Bianca be acting as a spy for her father? It would be a great opportunity—one I was sure a capo as ruthless as Bruno Scardoni wouldn’t miss. Still, I have a feeling that isn’t the case here. The distaste I saw in Bianca’s eyes every time she looked at her father couldn’t be faked. Yes, my wife has very expressive eyes.

I wonder if I should tell her that I am proficient in sign language. It would make the communication much easier, but it would lead to things I’m not ready to discuss with her yet. We will have to manage without sign language for now.

 

Bianca

 

When I am stressed, I either clean or cook. There is nothing here to clean. Everything is spotless. So, I head into the kitchen and start looking for ingredients to make my quick cheese pasta.

Earlier, I showered in the guest suite bathroom and spent some time walking around Mikhail’s place. The apartment is crazy huge—spanning the whole top floor and decorated in the modern style, mostly glass and dark wood combined with white accents. I checked out the kitchen first, which is a chef’s dream and fully stocked. I stumbled on a few interesting items such as cocoa in the pantry, small packs of strawberry yogurt in the fridge, and a drawer full of sweets. My husband didn’t strike me as a person who would like sweets and strawberry yogurt, but hey, people have strange tastes.

Next was Mikhail’s bedroom. If felt wrong poking around in there, so I just went to his closet and took the first T-shirt I saw. I was not sleeping in a towel or naked. Wearing no panties was bad enough already.

After Mikhail’s bedroom, I skipped the housekeeper’s room and stopped in the doorway to the gym, confused. I expected a bunch of high-end bodybuilding machines, a treadmill, and similar stuff. Instead, there was just a rack with old school weights of different sizes in one corner, a pull-up bar next to it, and a punching bag. Everything was lined along the wall across from the floor-to-ceiling windows, and it didn’t take-up even a fifth of the room. What a waste of space. He could have fit another room in there. From the gym I went back straight to the kitchen, ignoring the door to his office.

When I finish cooking the pasta, I make myself a plate and leave the pot with the rest on the counter. I look around, searching for something to write with and some paper, and eventually find a pen in one of the drawers. No paper though. I take the empty pasta box, tear one side, then sit at the dining table and start writing on the cardboard.

When I’m done, I leave the note on the floor next to the front door, where Mikhail can’t miss it, and go back into the guest room.

 

Mikhail

 

I pick up the piece of cardboard lying on the floor and start reading.

I made pasta. I left it on the counter.

I borrowed one of your T-shirts. I hope you don’t mind.

With everything that happened, I forgot I needed to drop by my father’s house and pick up a bag with my stuff. Can you drop me by tomorrow to get it?

We may need to stop by a store where I can buy a change of clothes. I can’t go to my father’s house wearing only your T-shirt.

I couldn’t find coffee in the kitchen. My name is Bianca, and I am a caffeine addict. If you have it somewhere, please message me the location before you go to sleep. I am not the most pleasant person in the morning before I get my hit.

My lips curl slightly at that last line, and I head toward the door to the guest room, which is slightly ajar. Bundled under a thick duvet, Bianca is sleeping soundly, her hair tangled around her head. I lean onto the doorway and watch her sleeping form until the light of dawn starts seeping into the room.


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