“Are you almost done? I feel like it’s taken two hours to pin that thing.” The excited smile on Alexandra’s face had carried over to her voice, and she struggled to keep from fidgeting.
“You are beautiful.” Alexandra’s mother Darya finished fastening the bridal veil in her daughter’s golden hair and smiled at her. “Look.”
Alexandra and her mother turned to face the familiar ornate mirror which had decorated Alexandra’s bedroom wall since she’d been old enough to walk. Alexandra let out a whoosh of air she hadn’t realized she’d been holding and stared at her reflection.
The wedding gown was impossibly white, almost silver, and its shimmery fabric clung to her curves in all the right ways. The neckline plunged to reveal only a little cleavage, and led to glimmering lace around her shoulders and down her arms. She thought of her gown as elegant, and loved it as it was, though her friend Elena had said it needed more ‘bling.’
As if, Alexandra thought. The twenty-one-year-old woman staring back at her from the mirror was a flawless picture of beauty. Her usually pale skin had been tanned to bronze, lending her a warm glow, and her eyes were bright like the sky on a cloudless day. Her natural beauty, combined with careful makeup, complimented the perfect white of the dress and made her feel radiant.
“Do you think he’ll like it?” She smoothed the front of her dress. Darya’s smile widened.
“He’ll love it.” Darya’s voice was heavy, with a strong Russian accent. Her parents had moved here, to Boston, from Russia when Alexandra had been a baby. And even though she herself spoke perfect American English without an accent, Alexandra loved how her parents spoke.
“Good. Thought so,” she noted, letting out a confident chuckle. Alexandra stole another look in the mirror and then returned her mother’s smile. “Mrs. Boris Sokolov. Has a nice ring to it.” She faced her mother, raising an eyebrow. “Hopefully as nice as the ring on my finger will be,” she added, allowing out a playful laugh. Her mother grinned back at her.
“So silly for such a serious day.” Darya said.
“Not silly—excited! How many years have I waited for this? I’m getting married! I’m finally getting married, and to a rich, powerful Russian mafia boss, too. My own happily ever after.” Alexandra nearly squirmed inside her gown with growing anticipation. “After Boris and I get to know each other, I’m sure we’ll be just as happy as you and Dad are in your arranged marriage.”
“Marriage takes work,” Darya reminded her, casting a look over her daughter.
“I know, I know, and I’m prepared for that. Spending the rest of my life with someone I’ve never met before is going to make things interesting, but I’m so happy I’m finally starting my own adventure.”
And it was true. She was going to fulfill her dream at last. No more skulking around her parents’ house feeling like she was in the way. No more worrying or wondering about when her life might start to pick up. This was the day she would start living, really living, in luxury and power.
A knock at the door took their eyes to their door, and then Darya turned back to face her daughter, primping her veil.
“The limo’s here. Let’s go.”
Alexandra leaned into the mirror one last time, tilted her head to inspect her makeup, and then followed her mother. The anticipation which had previously been a dull buzz grew to a delightful Christmas morning feeling. This was her day—it was finally here.
Her mother escorted them out the front door, down a path across a perfectly manicured lawn, and into the limo. The ride was quiet. Peaceful, even, if not for the butterflies in her stomach.
Alexandra stared at the passing scenery until they arrived. The familiar white Russian Orthodox church with its gold onion domes glistened in bright sunlight as they pulled up. Alexandra straightened and fussed with her gown until it was back to perfection, and then leaned delicately out of the limo and climbed to her feet.
Her heels clicked against the pavement, then the polished wooden floor as she entered the church. A low murmur of conversation met her ears, and she followed the sound toward the chapel as her mother stopped to chat with friends.
Just inside the gorgeous doorway of the chapel, Alexandra stopped and her eyes scanned the crowd, then the altar, for her groom.
But Boris was nowhere to be seen.
She had never met him, not personally, but a single photo she had managed to peek at had given her an idea of what he looked like. It was cemented in her mind, and she knew she would have noticed him here if he were present.
Then, coming down the aisle, a younger man approached them. Alexandra’s heart fluttered for a moment. Tall and powerful, he had Boris’s steely grey-blue eyes—the kind that looked through you instead of at you—and his suit struggled to contain his muscular physique.
Alexandra did her best to hide her surprise and instead smiled at this new man. He was handsome, much more handsome than the older man from the photograph, and she felt heat rising in her cheeks.
“Hi. Have you seen Boris?” she asked as he reached her. She traced the fabric of her dress with her fingers nervously. Up close, she noticed a deep scar across the man’s right eyebrow.
Unique, Alexandra thought. Somehow, it added to his attractiveness.
The man offered no warmth, not even a smile. Though clean-shaven and well-groomed for the wedding, there was an innate toughness to him that lent him a stern edge.
They locked eyes in silence for a passing moment. Alexandra was preparing to ask him another question when he spoke.
“Boris is dead.” His voice had filled the chapel. The crowd reacted immediately to the announcement, and the buzz of voices only added to Alexandra’s sudden dread. She stared at the man in front of her in disbelief.
“But do not worry,” he continued. “There will still be a wedding,” the man announced as he took Alexandra’s stiff hand in his own.
Normally, she would have been thrilled to hold hands with someone so attractive, but she’d tensed with shock at the news instead.
“As my father’s eldest son, what is his now passes to me!”
The murmurs around them picked up into a dull roar. Alexandra looked this new man over, still uncertain what to make of him, and pursed her lips. The butterflies in her stomach had turned to churning bats. Was this really happening? She looked around, still a bit dizzy with adrenaline, and realized that, yes, this was real. Instead of Boris, who she’d seen in a picture and heard about endlessly, she would have to marry this stranger.
The man turned his attention from the crowd to Alexandra. His stern expression didn’t waver. “Go compose yourself. Fix your makeup. Then meet me at the altar.”
His voice was deep, rough velvet and his Russian accent made her feel at home. Rather than wavering, Alexandra gave him a hard look. “I am composed,” she said. She kept her voice low and their conversation private. “Do you see tears in these eyes? I’m doing very well for someone who just found out their groom died on their wedding day, thank you very much.”
Their eyes remained locked. His face was unreadable.
“Five minutes, then. Meet me at the altar. I won’t repeat myself again,” the man told her. He turned away without waiting for a response.
“Jerk!” Alexandra huffed under her breath, but then she moved quickly to find her parents in the crowd. She wove around the guests as they mumbled apologies to her.
It was so awkward. Her special day, the day she had been planning for her entire life, and it was ruined. She’d been promised to a man who was both feared and powerful, and now, she was to marry a boy—an inexperienced, short-tempered version of the groom that should have been hers. Dreams of becoming a powerful matriarch like her mother exploded like fireworks in her mind and then fizzled into darkness.
But she refused to cry.
She had to prove the jerk wrong.
The situation was horrible—her future husband dead—but this was still her wedding day and she had to keep it together.
She found her parents talking to Elena and Uncle Tolya, Elena’s father and long-time family friend. It was easy to spot them from Elena’s ‘bling.’ The amount of rhinestones her friend managed to use in her wardrobe was astounding. Even though Elena could be vain and showy at times, though, she was loyal to a fault, and Alexandra was glad to see her.
“Oh, Alex, I’m so sorry! Come here!” Elena ran up to Alexandra with an exaggerated trot and hugged her tight. “I’m so sorry. So sorry. It’s just terrible.”
Sometimes Elena was a drama queen, but today she was right on the money.
“It’s okay. I’ll be okay,” Alexandra said. She wasn’t sure if she believed it herself, but it sounded confident enough coming from her lips. She hoped her eyes didn’t look puffy from holding in the tears she’d had to fight off.
Alexandra hugged Elena back, and they joined Alexandra’s parents and Uncle Tolya. Everyone took turns hugging her. She kept her emotions in check until now, mostly, but the hugs sent her over the edge, even as they continued back toward the chapel where she’d soon be wed.
“No, actually. I’m not okay,” she admitted. “I’m so embarrassed, so sad, so everything… that I don’t even know what to think right now. My wedding’s turned into a funeral!” Alexandra felt the threat of tears again. They finally spilled down her cheeks as her mother pulled a tissue from her purse and dabbed around Alexandra’s eyes. Thank God, the waterproof makeup held.
“It’ll be okay.” Alexandra’s father spoke up. Sergei’s accent was strong, but the familiar firmness in his voice suggested a control that helped Alexandra think that he had to be correct, that it would be okay, somehow. “There will be a funeral, but not today. Today is still your day. You are still wearing your dress, still beautiful as ever, and I know in the end that things will be alright.” He offered a smile, but it came out weakened by the sadness he’d tried to hide. Boris had been his friend, and Alexandra couldn’t imagine how he felt after hearing the news.
“It will be better than okay,” Alexandra’s mother added. “Boris was old. Viktor is young and at his peak. You will be by his side for much longer.”
“Viktor?” Alexandra was confused for a moment. “Oh. The man with the scar…”
“Your new groom,” Alexandra’s mother clarified.
“Great. I’m learning the groom’s name minutes before I get to marry him,” Alexandra moaned. She glanced toward the altar and saw him standing to the side, talking to two other men. His suit was perfectly tailored and Alexandra could tell there was a lot of muscle underneath that clothing.
“I don’t know… Viktor is pretty hot,” Elena interrupted her thoughts softly. Alexandra turned to face her friend, and saw the smile on her lips.
“I guess…” Alexandra checked the time and swallowed a lump. Was she really going to do this?
As though sensing her hesitation, Uncle Tolya placed a hand on her shoulder. She blinked and looked up at him.
“You don’t have to do this,” Uncle Tolya said tersely.
Alexandra pursed her lips and inhaled deeply. “No. I want to.” She glanced to her family, to Elena, and then again toward the altar. “I’ll do it. For my family.”
She checked her reflection in a compact Elena held out to her, adjusted her dress, and soon made her way toward the altar.