Everything was dark and cold when Dani opened her eyes.
Pitch black engulfed her vision as goosebumps pricked her flesh like a thousand needles. She wildly looked around, but there was nothing to see.
What was going on? Had she gone blind?
Her head felt dull and hazy when she tried to recollect her thoughts. She’d been partying with friends in a club in Melbourne. It had been a warm summer night, far from this dark freezer she was in right now.
Unless she really was in some freezer. That was ridiculous of course, because that would mean she was either dead, or soon to be.
Her next instinct was to wrap her arms around herself. Except she couldn’t.
Her hands were bound behind her back and her fingertips could feel the cable tie around her wrists. Only then did she become fully aware of her position, of how she was seated on some chair—heavy, wooden—and tied down to her ankles.
“What the fuck…?” Her voice came out raspy. The words left her cracked lips and grated in her dry throat. At least she wasn’t gagged.
She struggled, but to no avail. The chair was too heavy, with each of her ankles tied to the chair’s legs.
“Help!” she cried. Her eyes were now slowly adjusting, allowing her to see her own foggy breath. Still, it remained too dark to discern anything else.
Tears began to sting the corners of her eyes. What the hell was going on? She was just partying one minute, and the next she was now in this nightmare. Even if she was still in Australia, she was much too far from home. She wasn’t set to fly back to New York till the end of spring break. Her family probably had no idea what was happening to her right now.
“Please let this be a dream…” she whispered. “Oh God, please…”
The sound of heels, sharp and strong, resounded in what she could now imagine as one spacious room. The floor sounded like marble or polished concrete. The steps grew louder, closer, yet at a leisurely pace, as if whoever was approaching was taking their sweet time.
“Who’s there…?” She’d never felt any more frightened in her life. Was she about to die?
A light so sudden, so blinding appeared above her head. Her eyes nearly burned from the brightness of the overhead lamp, and it took several seconds before she could open them again.
A tall man with platinum blond hair stood before her in a grey suit and white parka. His perfectly coiffed undercut was swept to the side, making him look to be in his mid-20s. Thick dark eyebrows, strong, clean-shaven jaw, lean frame. In any other situation she would’ve appreciated such a well-dressed, handsome guy, but not today.
Especially not when the roguish smile on his lips made him look like he was about to eat her alive.
“Hello, Miss De Luca.”
His voice was a rich, deep timbre. No accent. He sounded American, even. Was she back in the States?
“Who are you?” She sounded calmer than she felt, probably because he was dressed too classy to be an ax murderer. He didn’t seem to be wielding a weapon, though with his hands in his pockets, it was too soon to tell.
“You must be cold,” he remarked, observing her sleeveless crop top and short skirt. With her feet tied to the chair’s legs she was practically exposing herself before him, but that was the least of her concerns.
“No shit,” she nearly stammered. She tried to wriggle her fingers to keep the blood flowing, but they were already beginning to tense up. “Where the hell am I?”
“Far away from home, I’m afraid.” The sympathy in his tone did not reach his eyes. “Somewhere your father can’t find you.”
A shiver that had nothing to do with the cold ran down her spine. Very few people knew she was a mafia boss’s daughter. For this man to know about Tommy De Luca…
Not good. Not good at all.
“I’m not in the family business. I can’t give you information, if that’s what you’re looking for,” she said, racking her own mind for clues. True enough, she’d distanced herself far from the family’s dealings to have any idea how bad of a situation she was in right now.
“Oh, don’t worry. We don’t need anything from you,” he replied. “Quite the contrary, it’ll be your father needing something from us. He should know by now that his only daughter has gone missing. I suspect he’ll be out guns blazing looking for you now.”
“A kidnapping? Seriously?” she breathed in disbelief. “How much are you asking?”
“Ten million dollars.”
She felt the color drain from her own face. “You’re joking.”
“I’m afraid not.” He tutted. “He hasn’t been paying up for quite some time now, so we figured you could be his little… motivation to speed up the process.”
“My father owes you ten million dollars? How is that possible?”
“Just because your father’s a money launderer doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his own debts.” He idly rocked on his heels. “To be fair, it’s debt he’s accrued for a while now. I suppose he doesn’t take us seriously enough to pay up on time.”
Her teeth began to chatter from the cold. “Just who the hell are you?”
He raised a gloved hand from his pocket. Soon there were footsteps again, and another man in a plainer suit handed a thick blanket in the blond’s waiting hand. A maddening need to have that blanket wrapped around her body nearly consumed her.
“Ah, forgive me for my lack of manners,” the blond man said. “My name is Alexei Nikolin. You’ll be under my custody until your father manages to pay every last cent.”
The slightest accent showed when he pronounced his name. “Nikolin? You’re…?”
“Heir to one of the largest crime syndicates in Russia, yes.”
Christ. How could her father owe ten million dollars to this man, of all people?
“My father won’t shell out a dime if you leave me to freeze to death,” she snarled.
The lazy smile on Alexei’s lips turned into a full grin. “Spoken like a true daddy’s girl.”
The blanket unraveled in his hands, and bliss enveloped her the moment he draped the soft, thick wool around her shoulders.
“Am I going to stay here? You could turn down the AC a little bit, you know,” she suggested through gritted teeth.
“AC?” he repeated with a low chuckle. “This is all compliments of the lovely evening weather.”
“Weather? Where the hell…”
Alexei slowly sat on his heels and placed his broad hands on her shoulders. He smiled at her like Christmas had come early.
“Welcome to Moscow, Miss Daniella De Luca. The Russian mafia is looking forward to working with you.”