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Had it really been a full week? It felt like just yesterday that everything had been spinning out of control, yet looking back at the time on her laptop it was indeed eight days later. The past eight days had flown by filled with doctor visits, endless meetings with her office from the comfort of her cabin couch, and more room service than she had ever had in her life.

The doctor had been a dream, she wished to have her own personal on-call doctor, daily the man and his assistant had arrived to dress and check her arm, daily she had been asked how she felt and if any other pain was evident. As much as the Alexeyev family seemed to have a reputation, good or bad she wasn’t sure yet, they sure as hell stuck to their guns when they said something; she had been promised the utmost care and they had not failed.

Sintia would have thought working right through most of the past days and nights, as well as prepping for a few upcoming proceedings, would have given her a slight feeling of relief and allow her to take some time off for herself. But as Kiki had warned, her primary to-do list was the most deadline-driven schedule having many layers of sub-to-do lists.

“Yes, I’m still here, I apologize the connection is a bit slow on my end.” Sintia pulled her eyes away from the time, back to the multi-split screens showing fifteen other faces all framed in their own little box. She had been live with Japan for the past two hours finalizing one of the biggest contracts she had ever had to close, the last little nitty-gritty terms and conditions were being discussed and a question had been asked.

“Your thoughts Miss Swanepoel?” Mr Ching asked, all the faces turning to her little screen. Shit, she hadn’t heard the last negotiation clause read out by their lawyers. She caught sight of her lawyer’s small but discreet nod and took in a deep breath, most of the conversation thus far had been repeating everything they had tried to do over the past two years.

“Yes, I agree to the terms. Ching enterprises have the same vision as Swan and we are proud to be a part of the growth.” Sintia said boldly, her surname had sounded so foreign spoken by them. She had insisted on them calling her Sintia, but their traditions did not allow it, so they had stuck to formalities.

“Before we conduct our business, I have one more, personal request I’d like to have abided to. We are a self-made traditional family name business, dating back hundreds of years. When we take on new aspects of business, we have learned to dig a little deeper, find out who the person is behind the company,”

Sintia’s back went rigid. She had been preparing herself for this her entire life. A flash of Jarred crossed her mind and she wondered just how deep they had dug into her life.

“So far, we are happy with the kind of businesswoman you have become, but,” Mr Ching paused looking to his associate confirming something inaudible. Sintia scanned her lawyer’s face and noticed both her, and their lawyer, were leaning slightly nearer pen at the ready, waiting for the attack. Despite her façade, a cold sweat crept down her back. But what? What on earth had they cooked up now? She had done all they had asked, spent countless days running over preparations and adjustments all to suit their needs, this deal was supposed to be in the bag eight months ago.

“But, we are concerned with your, personal choices of men.”

“Excuse me?” Sintia cut him off.

“Miss Swanepoel, id like to hear what Mr Ching has to say.” Her lawyer advised softly a sternness in his eyes.

“I apologize, please continue.” Sinita swallowed the rage building up in her, she could feel the heat in her ears.

The unfazed man looked at his lawyer then back at her carrying on.

“Many don’t realize this but one’s personal life and business work hand in hand, if the one suffers so does the other.”

“I understand where you are going, but I am not in a relationship so there is no problem,” Sintia said as politely as possible.

“Yet therein lies the problem. What happens when next you get a bad egg and spiral down?”

Sintia looked at the man in shock, what did he want exactly? She said nothing waiting for him to continue, the redness in her ears returning.

“We recommend a marriage proposal of your choosing to help keep things at a steady pace, we are willing to recommend a few suitable high gentlemen if you do not have any in mind, but we do advise having a husband before this year’s end.”

Before she could blow up her lawyer leaned forward taking the lead.

“There is no proof in her past success stipulating anything has gone wrong, or her work has failed in any way due to personal reasons, Miss Swanepoel has kept business and pleasure completely separate at all times.”

“We understand that different cultures take things differently. Normally we would have never gone with a woman for expanding our business, we have been given numerous offers from other worldwide oppositions all run by men, yet your offer caught my eye only because of points other men could not see. We are not saying you are weak alone; we are just saying you could be so much stronger with a man by your side.”

A man will never run my empire, married to me or not. She nearly screamed the words furious at the drastic left turn this meeting had taken. Taking several deep breaths to avoid screaming or slamming the laptop lid shut, she looked at her lawyer who seemed to be just as gobsmacked as her.

“There was no mention of such a condition needing to be met when we first started negotiations.” She managed to say watching her lawyer’s shoulders drop with relief, “I have grown Swan from the ground up, with all the passion, love, and care a mother could give to a child, no man was there at the start and no man needs to be there at the end, I do not accept the condition to marry just to seem more stable to your company. As my lawyer has mentioned there has never been a mixture of business and pleasure, both are kept apart and do not affect the way I handle business.”

“If we may be so bold, why are you in Russia alone when just recently you had broken up with someone, especially when you had such a big launch that needed you there?”

“The launch was a success.”

“We all know it could have been a bigger success if you were there to announce it.”

An awkward silence fell across the screen and all she wanted to do was slap Mr Ching till she felt ok. It’s a man’s world indeed, no matter how hard she tried she was always thrown the gender card.

“We were supposed to be finalizing the contract today, not adding another condition.” Her lawyer finally chipped in; Mr Ching’s lawyer who had been unusually quiet today finally looked up at the screen focusing on her.

“We at Ching Enterprises accept this partnership on the condition that the owner of Swan find a suitable husband before the end of this year, if no agreement can be made to accept our offer come to the end of this month, we will have no choice but to accept another offer. We do hope though that this friendship will still stand in the future no matter the direction this contract goes.”

“Thank you, Mr Ching, please give us some time to work through,”

Sintia felt numb, staring at the men on her screen drowning out the sound, how could this happen? She had done everything, met with them in Japan, had them in the USA, licked ass for the past two years, and was so, so close to having the deal sealed she could almost taste it. But now, now he had taken the 130.5 million deal and slapped it in her face all because she was a woman, a woman with no man.

Traditions her ass! Why did she need a man? She had been an unstoppable force without one forever.

After a quick goodbye, she shut the laptop flinging it to the side of the couch looking out the large lounge window. It was snowing lightly, the perfect weather for some old school movies and a blanket, the fireplace was still crackling, heating the room creating the perfect relaxing atmosphere. Married before December, the conversation hit her again, who the hell did they think they were governing her life? Did she even believe in marriage? Her father had been a washout, a useless no-good gambler. Her parent’s relationship had been rocky at its best. All she knew about true love was from what she had read in romance novels, no man she had dated had ever loved her, or treated her the way the characters had in the books, nor had anyone she knew had such love as portrayed in the novels. Were the books then not just a sad, lonely dream of a woman looking for the perfect love and never, having it? So, therefore, forced to create it in her own perfect world? Could love all be a lie? After all, unicorns were fake yet there were movies and books about them too. And besides all that, who exactly did they think would be a perfect match for her? Mr Ching’s ting-a-ling son, no thank you!

To revved up to relax she decided to head out, her arm was securely bandaged and sealed, but her jacket had been lost to a wolf. She needed warmer clothing and what better way to try find some peace than retail therapy. Doing a quick online search, she found a nearby town hosting some of the name-brand shops she had come to love over the years and headed out the front door, halting at the sight of two men.

Ah yes, her personal bodyguards, she had almost forgotten about them.

“I know it’s an entire week later, but what are your names?”

“You can call us whatever you want Miss.”

She almost thought they had been flirting with her, but looking between them now, she realized they were serious, they were there to protect and be anyone she wanted them to be. A normal woman would have swooned, they were tall and filled out their uniforms in all the right places, strong chiseled faces, and striking eyes. She didn’t know what it was about these men, but most of them lately had the most unnaturally beautiful eyes, sparks of such bright colour.

“I’d prefer to call you by your names.”

“Rud and Don.” The one spoke introducing them.

“Nice to officially meet you two, call me Sintia I do not need your calling me miss, or by my surname.”

“Yes, Sintia.”

“Good, now I’m going into town I need warmer clothes, I take it you will be tagging along?”

They nodded in unison.

“Do you know where this place is?” She showed them directions on her cell she had googled and they nodded again.

The drive down had been surprisingly easy now that she had her own personal body guard’s aka chauffeur, Rud had offered to drive the set of wheels she had hired letting her relax in the back seat not having to strain her arm.

“A Starbucks first please.” She called to the front, sometimes a normal coffee just wouldn’t do, reaching the main road she noticed a few lamp polls advertising the same thing till she caught the name on a large billboard.

“What?” She whispered in disbelief reading it again quickly before they passed by.

“Sorry repeat please?” Don asked turning from his passenger seat to see her.

“Did I read that billboard right? The annual Alexeyev ball? As in the Alexeyev men that hired you two for me?”

“The one and only.”

She frowned, he said it so calmly as if it was just a normal everyday thing. “Explain?”

“What exactly?” Don asked looking back at the main road as Rud took the first turn off pulling up to the Starbucks.

“They host a ball annually?”

“Ja, they do, and the Alexeyev ball is a big deal, people from all over Russia make plans to attend, some from different lands too, it’s been a tradition for forever now, like almost three, four hundred years now?” He asked his partner.

“Yeah, around then, like he said it’s been around forever,” Rud confirmed

“What are they royalty?” She chuckled

“Yes.” They answered seriously, she looked between them slightly dumbfounded as they pulled up to the order window.

“Your order?” Rud asked waiting for her to place it first.

“A double espresso Con Panna with extra cream please.” She replied letting Rud finished while she continued to question Don. “As in kings and queens of England?” She sounded like a fool just saying it but she had to know, she just had to understand.

“Yes, but of Russia, you do not know this?” Don questioned seeming a bit surprised by her lack of knowledge.

“No, I thought they just, well I don’t know, my lawyer knew their name, I guess I wasn’t sure.” She fumbled for her phone opening a tab to type in their name, and her screen was flooded with a million results from images of the two gorgeous brothers she had recently met, as well as pages and pages of new results, in the top five she spotted herself in small looping clip showing the Alexeyev brothers protectively leading her away from the crowd in the lobby. Her heart skipped a beat as she continued to scroll through the results scrolling slower over photos taken of the brothers with their shirts off, seemingly sneak ones done by paparazzi. But boy oh boy they were indeed as she had thought, built like solid machines, true stallions.

Scrolling some more she saw fan pages, websites relating to them as well as charity events and then a familiar golden image showing the ball. Clicking on it she entered a website dedicated purely to the annual ball filled with details as to why, where, do’s, and don’ts on what to wear and a high two thousand dollars price for one ticket. It was for a good cause though and she supposed if she had of known someone this side of the world, she might have attended, ball gowns and masks sounded so very tempting.

* * * * *

“Where exactly are you two off to?” Klaus called, Delacourte gave his brother a look before backtracking to their father’s study.

“Why?” Vincenzo asked slipping his coat on.

“Why?!” Their father asked alarmed, “Maybe because I haven’t seen you two in forever, I leave for Moscow tomorrow, the least you could do is update an old man.” He winked tilting his head towards the open couches by the fire.

“Da, there is a bar we need to go check out.”

“Both of you?”

“No, Vin is off to see the new turn, to see if he can beat the memories out of him.”

“Don’t just stand there, come have a seat we need to talk.”

The brothers looked at each other, time was of the essence, Pavel Balakin had magically disappeared, and in just one week an odd fifty random men had been found dead breaking into their perimeter fence. They had found only a few bodies mid-transformation before being killed while the rest were all human. And on top of it all the media had been following them around like love-sick puppies hoping to catch one of them with Sintia, apparently the women had a boyfriend that she left for them, that’s social media for you.

Looking back at their father pouring three glasses of vodka they stepped in, never been able to deny their father anything, the world would have to wait, family came first.

“What’s wrong da?” Vincenzo asked after the all-clinked glasses taking their seats.

“I know the pressure that comes with leading,” Klaus began taking another sip, Delacourte watched the concern on his father’s face, he was struggling to say something. “Sometimes we have to make hard decisions we don’t want to,” He took another sip.

“Da, what’s wrong?” Delacorte asked downing his drink.

“Remember our last discussion about your mother?”

“Zarah, the heartless poodle?” Delacourte smirked

“Poodle?” Klaus frowned in confusion.

“Ah yes.” Vinchenzo snorted recalling the conversation they had a while back.

“Never mind, yes we remember.” Delacourte waved it aside, “What about her?”

“Well, I think we need them back.”

“You said that would be our decision.”

“Yes, I did, and now asking you to make the decision.”

“Banishment is not taken lightly da.”

“D, the clans are restless and our numbers are not what they used to be.”

“Screw the numbers we have the power.”

“But we don’t have enough.”

“Da, why are you suddenly concerned about the numbers? And why do you want Zarah back? We never needed her, sure as hell don’t need her now.”

Sighing their father rose, walking to his desk pulling open the bottom draw, their noses were instantly insulted by decaying flesh and blood.

“This gift was left hanging in front of my window this morning.” Their father said pulling a box out onto the desk, the brothers flanked their father looking down at the so-called gift.

Inside was the face of one of their men, one of their personal guards that patrolled their home. His head had been viciously bitten off by the neck, chewed, and a small piece of blood-stained paper was nailed into his forehead written with a rushed hand.

Howls of painful fury

Bloody fangs sending fear

Traitors should worry
No escape is near

The enemies shall fall
The true wolf will always stand tall
Untamed by all

See you at the ball

Even the royal Alexeyev can fall.

“What, the fuck.” Delacourte snarled slamming his fist into his father’s desk, “Why didn’t you call us the moment this happened?”

“You boys have enough on your plates as it is, besides I was busy upping guard duty around the house, and dealing with the poor boy's family.”

“You want Zarah back here to show we have strength in numbers.” Vinchenzo voiced pacing the room. “And her children, the more of us the more intimidating?”

“Her children are your brother and sister.”

“Which we still cannot confirm came from you or some other man,” Vinchenzo snapped defensively.

“That’s beside the point, they are true wolves either way and carry the Alexeyev name.” Their father said watching Vinchenzo growl halting in his pacing, “They are not family to us.”

“Well, until you two decide, my brothers and their families will be making the necessary plans to be here by the weekend.”

“Da, all of us under one roof just gives this,” Delacourte crumpled the note in his hand, “This low life shit exactly what he wants, all of us under one roof is just like two birds one stone.”

“Birds huh?”

“You know what I’m saying.”

“I do, and with the ball next month, we might have to cancel.”

“No, we carry on as normal, changing our ways only shows fear.” Vinchenzo argued.

“No, it shows precautions.” Their father objected.

“Damn precautions, I say we go to the Balakin now and end this once and for all!”

“We have no proof it is them yet.”

“Speaking of, does Da know where Pavel could be hiding?”

“It doesn’t matter, if he is not there the night of the ball, by our law the eldest son will have to step up and accept the punishment.”

“I had forgotten about that.” Vinchenzo could have kicked himself, he knew this he knew the law, but lately everything was just a chain reaction of problems.

“Any idea who’s behind this?” Delacourte asked placing the crumbled note back down on the table flattening it back out.

“Not a clue.”

“We believe someone is starting a revolution against us.”

“What? Why?” their father snapped raising his hand, “Ignore that I know why.” Their laws were always being tested.

He handed his father the flyer that had been found on Travis; he took it reading through it twice.

“This just leaves us with more questions.”

“Hence the bar!” Delacourte snapped pointing to the door they were trying to leave through earlier. “Da, we have a lead we need to follow!”

“Then go, and think about what I said, there is strength in numbers.” Their father sighed looking back down at the box.

“Zarah and her kids are but three wolves.” Vinchenzo said softly trying to keep the tension out of his voice.

“You know that one Alexeyev wolf is worth ten of any other.” Klaus said sternly, Vinchenzo nodded respectfully pouring himself self another vodka before downing it.

“Let me take care of this da,” Delacourte reached for the box, his father’s hand stopping him.

“No, go, I have men searching for the body as we speak, I’m sending this in to see if they can pick up any DNA from the bites in the neck.”

“You need to prepare for Moscow, there is no time for you to deal with this.”

“And there is less time for the two of you to be dealing with all this, when you have a country to run, now go, this is the least of your concern, I will have tests run on the note and let you know what turns up.”

They nodded heading for the door before Klaus called out one final time.

“Do not forget, you have an entire league of well-trained men at your disposal, learn to use them. I know we like to pack everything onto our shoulders and do it ourselves, but sometimes asking for help does not mean you are weak, asking for help shows your trust and respect in your men to get the job done. It took me years to learn that.”

“Always the wise one Da,” Delacourte winked before following his brother out.

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