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Broken Whispers: Chapter 3

Bianca

It’s almost nine when I wake up, and I find it rather surprising that I slept like a log for eight hours in a stranger’s home. When I went to bed the previous night, I was out the moment my head hit the pillow. Might be some bizarre aftereffect of being shot at.

After dropping by the bathroom to take care of my screaming bladder, and to brush my teeth, I head to the kitchen. On the counter next to the coffee machine, I find my note, one corner of it sitting under a bag of unopened coffee beans. Next to each of my notes, there are comments in neat handwriting.

Thank you.

I don’t mind.

Yes.

I called my housekeeper and told her to buy something for you to wear tomorrow until we get your stuff. She will leave it on the counter.

Far right cupboard, the top shelf. But you can put it wherever you want.

Next to the note, there’s a paper bag. I look inside and take out a pair of gray yoga pants and two T-shirts. On the bottom, there is a pack of underwear and socks. There are no shoes, so it looks like I will be pairing my strappy heels with yoga pants and a T-shirt when we go to get my stuff. Classy.

After a small detour to the guest room to put on underwear, I make myself a cup of coffee, grab a banana from the bowl, and climb onto a tall chair at the breakfast bar separating the kitchen and the dining room. I should probably message Milene.

09:22 Bianca: Just checking in to let you know that everything is ok. Did Uncle Fredo survive? Was anyone else seriously hurt yesterday? Are you ok?

09:23 Milene: He is gone. I heard Dad this morning saying Fredo was only spending the Family’s money and I quote, “At least something good came out of that wedding.” Agapito’s lover got a bullet in her arm, but I think that’s it. Can’t wait to leave this idiotic life.

09:26 Bianca: Father won’t finance your college, Milene.

09:28 Milene: Nonna Giulia said she’ll pay for it. Three more months and bye bye Cosa Nostra bullshit. Dad is going to lose it, ha ha! Is everything ok there? I want the full report. How did it go? How is he? Did you have to sleep with him?

09:25 Bianca: He’s ok I guess. Little strange. Doesn’t talk much. He just dropped me off yesterday and went somewhere. Work I think. I haven’t seen him since.

09:26 Milene: Wtf? On his wedding night? I guess you were lucky. I have to go, the teacher is coming over.

There are two more new messages, one from my mother and one from Angelo. I read Angelo’s text first.

02:11 Angelo: Congratulations sis. Who is the lucky groom? The connection here is awful, I didn’t hear half of the things Dad said when he called.

I look at the message and sigh. Angelo never found anything wrong with the tradition of arranged marriages. It was expected, and, therefore, must be done. From what I’ve overheard, Father already arranged for him to marry Don Agosti’s granddaughter. But Isabella and Angelo already know each other. It’s not the same situation, and I would be lying if I said I expected him to be so blasé.

09:29 Bianca: Mikhail Orlov. When are you coming back? And what are you doing in Mexico anyway?

The next message is from Mom. I open it and a bunch of text fills the screen. I groan, decrease the font size, and start reading her essay.

07:44 Mom: You were so beautiful yesterday. Everybody talked about it. And that dress was worth every penny. Catalina’s mother asked me where we purchased it so she can order one for Catalina. That woman is always copying us. I can’t stand her. Too bad everything ended so abruptly. I can’t believe that Fredo got shot and died, but I guess it’s better him than someone else. He was over eighty. Did you notice that Luca Rossi came alone? Simona never liked me, but to miss your wedding? I never understood how those two ended up together. It’s such a shame for a man like Luca to end up with a bitch like her. Someone should tell him it’s time for him to cut that hair of his, it’s not proper. He’s a capo, for God’s sake.

I close my eyes and sigh. My mom’s priorities have always been rather weird. It’s not her fault. If she wasn’t a capo’s wife, I’m positive she would have been a serial killer, or something similar. It’s not like she was diagnosed, but I am almost certain that my mother is a borderline sociopath. I wonder at which point in her message she’ll ask about how I’m handling being married to a stranger. I continue reading her novel-length text.

Since you’re done with ballet you’ll have more free time now, we should go shopping together one day, I’m sure the distraction would do you good. I have no idea what your father was thinking when he agreed to marry you for that man. To be honest, I’m glad I didn’t bring my glasses yesterday, so I couldn’t see that well. I tried contacts again yesterday morning, but my eyes started itching. Maybe I should try another brand. Allegra says he is monstrous. Is that true? You should have married Marcus . . .

I take a sip of my coffee. Allegra . . . always putting her nose where it doesn’t belong. No, it’s not true. The man has one eye, so what? It’s not like he’s missing half his brain. Like Marcus. As for the character . . . I can’t say. We didn’t interact much, so I can’t conclude what kind of man he is. But when that first shot rang out, he covered me and my sister with his body. And that says a lot. Reluctantly, I finish reading.

How is he treating you? If he raises his voice at you, just let me know and I’ll have your father talk to him. No one treats capo’s daughter with anything less than respect. Please use protection, you are too young for kids. Love you.

Yeah, like my father respects me.

09:42 Bianca: Everything is okay. I’ll let you know about shopping.

I put my phone down and reach for the coffee cup when the door to the gym opens and Mikhail comes out. It takes tremendous control to keep my jaw from dropping to the floor. Yesterday he was wearing a suit, but even with his jacket on, I noticed he’s packing a nice muscle mass underneath. Now, he’s wearing sweats and a long-sleeved T-shirt which stretches over his impossibly-wide shoulders and muscled arms. The man is a bloody powerhouse.

“I’m going to shower and then we can go get your things,” he says and heads toward his bedroom.

I follow him with my eyes, feeling slightly like a creep. There were a lot of guys in the dance company, and they were all extremely fit, but none of them looked like that. I never met anyone who looked like that. He could probably bench-press me for hours without even breaking a sweat.

When I emerge from my room thirty minutes later, wearing my killer outfit of a T-shirt, yoga pants, and strappy heels with sequins, Mikhail is waiting for me by the door. I expected him to be in a suit again, but it looks like he’s off today since he is wearing faded black jeans and a black Henley shirt. The man genuinely likes black and, apparently, long sleeves.

In the garage, Mikhail leads me toward a monstrous SUV. I’m pretty sure it’s not the same car we arrived in last night, because I have no idea how I’m going to get into that thing in my heels. The floor is at least two and a half feet high off the ground.

Mikhail opens the door for me, and I reach out to take ahold of something to help me up when his hands grasp me around the waist.

“Need a lift?” he asks in a completely serious tone, his face just a few inches from mine.

He doesn’t wait for my reply, just lifts me, deposits me onto the seat, and closes the door.

“Did you find everything you needed last night?” he asks after he gets in the vehicle. “I told the housekeeper to buy you some basics.”

I nod. There was a big basket with body wash, shampoo, conditioner, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and even a new hairbrush left in the bathroom.

“If you need anything else, message me the list and I’ll send someone to buy it.”

He starts the car while I pretend to look at the street in front of me, but secretly, I watch him from the corner of my eye. Does he find this situation strange as well? Did he choose to get married, or did his boss order him? What if he has a girlfriend? Will he continue seeing her? What if he brings her to his apartment while I’m there? Does he expect me to sleep with him?

I let my gaze travel up his arm, noting the contours of hard muscles visible even under his sleeve. He seems focused on the road, and since I’m sitting on his blind side and leaning back in my seat, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t notice me watching him. I take the opportunity to inspect his face better. Whatever happened to him, it was not recent. Those scars look old. The interesting thing is, I don’t mind them at all. Actually, I find my husband extremely handsome, so physically, I have no complaints whatsoever.

The car slows down, probably for a red light on the street, and then stops. Mikhail turns his head toward me and pins me with his gaze. I guess I’m busted, but I don’t look away. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t call me out for my staring, just watches me until the light changes to green. Then, he turns back to the road and keeps driving. I don’t think I have ever met such a composed, controlled person. His face is completely expressionless. I can’t deduce anything from it. Is he angry because I was staring at him? Or maybe he doesn’t give a damn. Strange, strange man.

* * *

Mikhail parks the car in front of my father’s house and comes around just as I’m opening my door. He places his hands on my waist again and helps me down. The moment my feet reach the ground, he quickly removes his hands.

“Take only what you need for the next two days. I’ll send someone for the rest. It will be best if I wait for you here.”

“Five minutes,” I mouth the words, turn and rush inside the house, hoping I won’t meet anyone on the way to my room. Milene is at school, and there is no one else I care to see.

“Dear God, Bianca.” Allegra’s voice reaches me from behind as I’m heading upstairs. “How can you bear being near that monster?”

I stop at the bottom of the stairs and turn to face my older sister, who is standing with her hands on her hips, looking at me with distaste. For some reason, Allegra has always hated my guts and did her best to put me down with her poisonous comments, even when we were kids. Angelo once said she was jealous of me, which was ridiculous because Allegra was always the perfect daughter. Everyone has always adored her, while I was seen as a black sheep in our family, a pretty but flawed girl who couldn’t speak.

I take two steps in her direction and stop right in front of her. Reaching out to grasp for her hand, I look at her bare ring finger, mocking sadness, then pat the back of her hand and lift my own bearing the wedding ring. Having made my point, I flip her off and leave her staring daggers at my back. I know my sister’s weak points well, and I don’t have a problem exploiting them. Allegra’s main goal in life has always been to get married. She started making plans for her wedding day in the fourth grade. In her narrow-minded brain, my getting married before her was the most disastrous thing that could have happened.

My actions were petty, I know, but I couldn’t control myself. No one gets to speak like that about my husband. We may have an arranged marriage, but he has treated me better in the last twenty-four hours than some of my family members ever have. And I’ll be damned if I will allow my sister to say something like that without hitting back.

In my room, I grab the bag I had previously packed and turn to leave, only to find my father blocking the doorway.

“I expected a report last night, Bianca.”

I step forward, intending to pass by him, but he squeezes my forearm and pushes his face up against mine.

“Where is the phone I gave you?”

Making sure that every ounce of disgust I feel for him is visible on my face, I look up and point at the trash can next to the door, where I disposed of the phone the same day he gave it to me. He looks down at it, grinds his teeth, and slaps me across my cheek. A solid open-palmed blow has always been his favorite way of showing his displeasure with me.

“You will regret your disobedience, girl,” he sneers in my face and leaves.

I put the bag down and rush to the bathroom to splash some cold water on my face, and check for damage in the mirror. No broken lip this time, but there is a huge red mark covering most of my left cheek. Shit. I splash a bit more water onto it, then collect my bag on the way out of my room and leave the house in a hurry.

Mikhail is waiting for me outside, leaning casually with his back against the hood, but the moment he sees the mark on my face, he straightens and stares intently into my eyes. I bow my head and keep walking, a wave of shame engulfing me. I know I shouldn’t be ashamed—it’s not my fault that I have an asshole for a parent—but I still am.

Mikhail’s hand enters my field of vision as he places a finger under my chin and tilts my head up. He turns my head slightly to the side, inspecting my cheek.

“Your father?” he asks through clenched teeth, and I nod. “You know, I changed my mind.” He takes my bag and throws it onto the passenger seat through the window. “I would love to have a word with my father-in-law.”

“No,” I mouth and shake my head.

“I’m going to talk with Bruno,” he says in a calm voice. “You can stay here, or you can come in with me. There is a much better chance he’ll get out of that conversation alive if you come.”

I take a deep breath and lead him into the house.

Mikhail enters my father’s office without knocking, leisurely walks to his desk, and sits down in the chair I frequented quite often. I close the door and lean on it, not interested in getting any closer to my father than absolutely necessary.

“How dare you come in here unannounced?” my father barks. “Get out of my house!”

“It looks like I missed spelling out some ground rules for you, Bruno.”

“Rules? Are you serious?” My father laughs, stands up, and hits the table in front of him with his palm. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

It happens so quickly I barely manage to follow. Mikhail takes the decorative letter opener with one hand and my father’s wrist with the other, and plunges the thing right through the center of dear old Daddy’s palm and into the wooden desk.

The cry of pain that leaves my father’s mouth is chilling, and would have brought everyone inside the house rushing to his office if it wasn’t soundproofed. He was always paranoid about someone overhearing his secret conversations.

“Shut up, Bruno,” Mikhail says and leans back in his chair. “And don’t even think about pressing the alarm button I know you have under the desk. I’ll snap your neck before anyone arrives to save you.”

Miraculously, my father stops yelling, and the only remaining sounds are his labored breaths. He grabs the handle of the letter opener and tries to pull it out, but it doesn’t budge.

“Now, let’s clear up a few things,” Mikhail says. “You touch my wife again, in any way, I cut off your hand. I hear you speak bad about her, I cut out your tongue. You dare to even think about hitting her ever again, I cut off your head. Am I clear, Bruno?”

Instead of answering, my father just stares, his eyes wide like a madman’s.

“I don’t think you heard me, Bruno. How about now?” Mikhail takes the handle of the letter opener that’s still embedded in my father’s hand and starts rotating it.

“Yes!”

“Perfect.” Mikhail stands up and heads toward me. “Have a nice day, Bruno.”

I throw a look at my father, who is staring at Mikhail’s back, smile, and follow my husband out of the room.

 

Mikhail

 

I park the car, turn off the ignition, and look at Bianca. “Why did he hit you?”

It took me close to an hour to calm down enough to be able to speak about it. If I asked her while we were still close to her father’s house, I probably would have turned the car around and returned to kill the son of a bitch.

Bianca is staring ahead, her eyes are glassy as if she’s debating with herself on whether to answer me or not. After a moment, she takes her phone, types a few words, and turns the display toward me.

He wanted me to spy on the Bratva for him. I declined.

Well, it’s nothing I wasn’t already expecting. “Why did you decline?”

She raises one eyebrow, types again, and gives me the phone.

I am not suicidal.

“Wise decision.”

I reach out and trace my finger down her cheek, keeping the touch light. Her skin is so soft, and touching it doesn’t bother me. Just the opposite. I brush her cheek once more, with the back of my hand this time. The redness vanished almost completely. I should have killed that bastard anyway.

 

Bianca

 

The look on Mikhail’s face as he caresses my cheek is extremely puzzling. I can’t describe it. Maybe somewhere between surprise and confusion, but I might be wrong because neither of those make sense. He notices me watching him and removes his hand. I wish he didn’t.

“Come on. Sisi probably prepared something for us to eat.”

Sisi? I thought the housekeeper’s name was Lena.

We go to the elevator and ride up in silence. I wonder if the quietness is normal for him, or if he simply doesn’t feel the need to talk since I can’t reply. He opens the apartment door for me, and I go inside and stop in my tracks.

Five yards from the door, and looking right at me, stands a little girl in a pretty pink dress, her dark hair gathered in pigtails at the top of her head. She can’t be more than three or maybe four, and she’s a spitting image of Mikhail.

“Hello,” she says, her face serious, and cocks her head to the side as she regards me with interest.

“Lenochka . . .” Mikhail says from behind me and steps inside.

“Daddy!” The girl squeals in delight, her lips widening in a huge grin as she runs and jumps into Mikhail’s arms.

I watch in awe while he gathers her up and places a kiss on her cheek and then on her forehead, his hand caressing the back of her head the whole time. Mikhail has a child. I’m still processing the fact when she leans in and kisses him on the eyepatch, giggling, and Mikhail smiles.

I can’t stop staring, amazed at the transformation I’m witnessing. It seems like a completely different person took his place. And it’s not just the smile. The posture of his body is different, relaxed. The way he’s looking at her with such warmth . . . this man has nothing in common with the cold, controlled one I married yesterday.

Still holding the girl on his hip, Mikhail turns toward me, and our gazes connect.

“This is my daughter. Lena.”

So many questions run though my head. Why didn’t he say anything before? Is she living with him? Where is her mother? Does she know who I am? What if she doesn’t like me? Instead of asking anything, I smile and wave.

“Lenochka, this is Bianca. You remember what we talked about?”

“Yes. Bianca is going to live with us,” the girl says in her small voice, then looks over at me. “You are so pretty. Want to play? I have new toys. Daddy, Daddy, can I show Bianca my toys?”

She says all that in one breath, and I can’t help but laugh at how cute she is. I want to reach out and touch her little hand, but it doesn’t seem appropriate. And I don’t want to scare her since we just met. I hope she’ll like me. I love kids.

“Later, zayka. Where is Sisi?”

A woman in her late sixties runs out from Lena’s room, holding a pile of clothes in her arms. “Mikhail, I didn’t hear you come in. I thought . . .”

She stops mid-sentence when she notices me, and her eyes widen.

“Sisi, this is my wife.”

For a moment she appears slightly confused, looking from me to Mikhail, back to me again, but then she collects herself.

“Oh, yes, of course. Mrs. Orlov, nice to meet you.” She blinks at me again, then turns toward Mikhail. “The lunch is in the oven. Lena already ate, so I wanted to take her outside to play.”

Mikhail nods, puts the girl down, and crouches in front of her. “Sisi will take you to the park. Go get your backpack.”

“Okay.” Lena runs to her room, only to return a few seconds later carrying a small glittery pink backpack with bunny ears. I watch her as she opens a shoe cupboard near the entrance, takes out a pair of small white sneakers, and sits on the floor to put them on. I have a cousin her age, and he wouldn’t know how to put on his shoes by himself if his life depended on it. When she’s done, she takes Sisi’s hand, waves at us, and they leave.

I feel a light touch on my back and turn to find Mikhail holding a strand of my hair between his fingers.

“Let’s sit down and you can ask your questions,” he says and lets the strand fall away.

He leads me to the dining room table, unlocks his phone, and slides it across the wooden surface toward me. I look at him, then at the phone before taking it in my hand and starting to type. When I’m done, I slide the phone back to him.

He looks down at the screen.

“Lena’s mother is gone,” he says. “Lena wasn’t planned. Her mother wanted an abortion. I said I would kill her if she aborted my child, so after she gave birth, she left her with me, took the money I gave her, and walked away. A few months ago, I found out she overdosed on heroin.”

I suck in my breath and stare at Mikhail. He raised Lena since she was a baby. If he said that before I saw him with her, I never would have believed him. He seems so closed off and unapproachable.

He looks down at the phone again, reading the next question.

“I tried explaining the situation to Lena, but I’m not sure how much of it she understood. She knows that you will be living with us from now on. She adapts well. I don’t expect any problems.”

His gaze finds mine and he watches me in silence for a few moments, and I find myself looking at his eye. It’s the most unusual shade of blue, like clear ocean water.

“Will this be a problem for you? Me having a child?”

I lean back I raise my eyebrows at him. Why would it be a problem? I guess he reads the answer on my face because he nods and looks down at the phone again.

“Lena’s daily schedule?” he asks and looks up, surprised.

I nod.

“She’s up at seven. Sisi comes to take her to day care and brings her back home around three. They have lunch and go for a walk or to the park. Sisi is usually off around five, but she comes over to watch Lena in the evening when I have to go to work. Sometimes, when Sisi’s granddaughters are staying with her, she takes Lena to her place for a sleepover. Like last night.”

He places the phone on the table and nods toward it. “Any more questions?”

I shake my head.

“Let’s eat then.”

My strange husband goes to the kitchen and starts taking plates from the cupboard, and I stand up to help him.

 

Mikhail

 

I watch Bianca as she takes the plates and cutlery, carries them to the table, and comes back for the glasses. She took the fact that I have a child unexpectedly well, especially since I ambushed her with it instead of telling her in advance. The thing is, I wanted to see her reaction. It’s not every day that a person is forced to marry a stranger, and learns afterward that their new spouse also has a child. I have no idea what I would have done if Bianca said she didn’t like kids. Lena is the most important person in my life, and I hope the two of them will get along.

Bianca turns and reaches for the carafe with water, accidentally stumbling into me a little, and I go still for a second. It’s easier when I am the one initiating the contact. I lean to the left, extending my hand as if to get the salad bowl, and let her hip brush my side. Nothing.

She turns and heads toward the table, carrying the water, and I follow her with my gaze, noticing the way her pants mold to her legs and her tight ass. Images of her naked in my bed, pinned down by my body, suddenly flood my mind. It’s been so long since I wanted to feel a woman’s bare body next to mine, but now I do. And for someone with skin contact issues, that’s a highly disturbing realization.

* * *

“I need you to write down your plans for the next two weeks,” I say. “If you want to go somewhere, I’ll take you. Or if I’m not available, one of my guys will go with you.”

Bianca looks up from her plate and shakes her head.

“It’s non-negotiable. I don’t know who is behind that shooting from yesterday, or what they were trying to achieve. Please don’t leave the apartment alone. Can I trust you on that, Bianca?”

She doesn’t like it, I see it on her face, but she nods and goes back to her meal. I watch her secretly, her hands, her long blonde hair. Damn, I’m fascinated with that hair of hers. She braided it before lunch, and it now falls over her shoulder to her front. I dreamt about threading my fingers through those blonde waves last night.

The door behind me opens, and in the next moment, the sound of small feet thumping across the apartment reaches me.

“Hands, Lenochka,” I say when she runs into the dining room.

“They are not dirty.”

“You must wash your hands, zayka. Come on, say goodbye to Sisi and let’s go to the bathroom.”

 

Bianca

 

I can’t stop watching him.

It amazes me the way Mikhail interacts with his daughter. He never ignores her questions, no matter how silly they may seem. How affectionate he is with her. One of her pigtails came loose at some point this afternoon, and she came to him to fix it. I couldn’t take my eyes off his huge hands as he carefully tied her hair. There is so much love in every single act.

They went into Lena’s room some time ago, after she had her dinner, and I found myself drawn toward the door Mikhail left open, and peeking inside. He is sitting on the edge of the bed, holding a big book with a princess on the cover, while Lena lies under the blanket. He’s reading her a story. How can this be the same man who only this morning casually thrust a blade into my father’s hand?

“Bianca!” Lena calls out when she sees me. “Come, Bianca. Daddy is reading a story.”

I look up at Mikhail, waiting to see what he’ll say. I don’t want to intrude on their time. He watches me for a moment, then nods as I come to sit on the floor next to his legs and lean my back on the bed’s side. There are a few moments of silence and then he resumes reading. The story has something to do with a lost horse, but I don’t pay attention to the plot because I’m too focused on the tone of his voice. Deep. A little raspy. I close my eyes and just listen.

I feel a light touch on my cheek—there one moment, and gone the next. I keep my eyes closed, pretending I didn’t notice it. A few moments pass, then I feel a tug on my hair as he removes the hair tie binding my braid, and the strands fall loose. Nothing else happens at first, and I wonder if that’s all he planned to do. Then his fingers start combing through my hair. He is still reading but keeps playing with my hair, and I lean my head back into his touch. And his voice . . . it feels like a caress by itself. He has an accent, I realize. It’s subtle, but it’s there. I love it.

A finger skims over the sensitive spot at the back of my neck, and a slight shudder passes through my body. The hand in my hair stills, then vanishes. No, no, no . . . I lean my head back even more, hoping he’ll get the memo. He does. A few slow strokes down the length of my hair, and then a brush of a finger at my temple. I’m not sure how much time passes, but when Mikhail finishes the story and removes his hand from my hair, my neck is stiff from keeping my head at the unnatural angle. It must have been at least twenty minutes.

“I have some work to finish,” he says. “I’ll be in my office if you need anything.”

He stands up from the bed, walks around me to adjust the blanket around Lena’s shoulders, and leaves the room. He’s not a talkative person, that’s for sure.

I look around the room, regarding the pale pink walls covered with images of animals and cartoon characters and the silky curtains embroidered with flowers. In the corner, there is a big dollhouse and two huge baskets overflowing with toys. I stand up and go to the dresser across from the bed, and look at the picture frames lining its surface. There is not enough light to see the details, but there are at least ten of them, and Lena is in each one. On the side, there is a big box with hair ties in a rainbow of colors. I find it hard to imagine Mikhail browsing in a store and shopping for pink curtains or the frilly cushions that line the wall on one side of the bed, but somehow, I know he was the one who bought them. Such an enigma, this husband of mine.


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