Content warning: For mature audience only. Rated 18+ for occasional profanity and explicit sex scenes. Also includes off-stage murder (though no graphic description of violence).
Klara’s done living in her older sister’s shadow. Determined to forge her own path, she completes a prestigious fellowship program before returning to college. Now scrambling to fulfill her graduation requirements, Klara has no time for distractions like Vlad and his daughter. Especially after an unfortunate first encounter leaves Klara doubting Vlad’s integrity.
But when a shocking murder throws their world into chaos, can they trust each other enough to uncover the truth and embrace the possibility of love?
“Sorry,” Ethan said. “Maya’s teething. Go on.”
Vlad watched as the man draped a fresh burp cloth over his shoulder, adjusted his hold on his six-month-old daughter, and patted the baby’s back.
In the year since Vlad joined the Talbot Fund, he’d been to Ethan Talbot’s home office twice. For a venture capitalist, Ethan did a remarkable job keeping his business life from encroaching on family time. Today’s meeting proved the rare exception. Not that Vlad blamed him. The allure of first-mover advantage was hard to resist.
“The market’s at least $500 million,” Vlad said, picking up where he left off. “They want six million, in exchange for sixty percent of the company—”
A peremptory knock cut him off. The door swung open, and a dark-haired woman popped her head inside. “Sorry, Ethan. Anna needs you. The Pack ’n Play won’t fold, and she’s wigging out.”
Vlad set aside his laptop and rose from the visitors’ chair.
The woman glanced his way. A flicker of something—recognition? awareness?—crossed her face, but before he could interpret it, her expression smoothed into polite disinterest. She turned back to Ethan. “If you want, I can watch Maya while you go fix things.”
Ethan got up and rounded the desk, transferring his daughter into the woman’s care. “She may need a diaper change.”
The baby cooed and kicked her legs. The woman laughed—a smooth, husky sound that trickled like warmed oil down Vlad’s spine.
He forced himself to remain still, knees locked, fingers digging into his palms.
Ethan, apparently unaffected, removed the burp cloth from his shoulder and offered Vlad an apologetic smile. “Sorry. Our first big trip with Maya. You know how it is.”
“Anyway,” Ethan said, “let’s do the due diligence, and if everything pans out, we’ll set up a preliminary meeting. I’m available by phone if you need me.”
The door closed. Silence descended.
Vlad waited to see what the woman would do next.
“Pee-yew.” She wrinkled her nose and headed for a brightly decorated corner equipped with an array of baby paraphernalia. “Your daddy’s right, kiddo. You do smell like you need a diaper change.”
She placed Maya atop the padded changing table and rummaged through the top drawer with one hand, while keeping the other on the squirming infant.
“Looks like we’re in business, kid.” She cleaned, re-diapered, and dressed Maya in a fresh outfit. “Now what?”
Vlad cleared his throat, and the woman jumped, as if she’d forgotten he was still in the room.
“There are toys,” he said. “In the cupboard to your right.”
At least that’s where they’d been the last time he was here, shortly after Maya was born.
“Yeah, I know,” she said. Her eyes—green, with flecks of brown and gold—widened at Vlad’s approach. Her lips parted, and he nearly groaned.
Damn, what was he doing?
“Sorry.” He stopped a couple feet away. “I don’t think we’ve met. Vladislav Snezhinsky. My friends call me Vlad.”
Maya chose that moment to grab a handful of the woman’s hair and pull.
“Oww.” She winced and turned her attention to disentangling her curls from the baby’s fist. “Let’s see about those toys, shall we?”
In the few minutes it took to settle Maya on a brightly colored floor mat with an assortment of plush musical toys and rattles, Vlad studied the woman’s profile. She was tall—maybe half a head shorter than him—and dressed for comfort in an oversized T-shirt and faded jeans. When she leaned down and reached across the mat to grab a toy, Vlad got a glimpse of what her loose clothing concealed: a narrow waist, generous hips, and a rounded bottom that made his mouth water and his fingers itch.
Hoping to disguise his body’s reaction, Vlad hunkered down at the edge of the mat. “Okay, let’s try this again,” he said, stretching out his hand. “My name is Vlad. And you are…?”
“Klara. Anna’s sister.” She withdrew her fingers as quickly as possible, but not before he felt the slight tremor.
Nerves? Attraction? She averted her eyes, focusing on the baby. The pulse at the base of her neck fluttered.
He swallowed a smile. “So, Klara. Why haven’t we met before?”
That got her attention. And not in a good way. Her brows drew together and she narrowed her eyes. “We have. A couple years ago, at your brother’s wedding.”
“Oh.” He blinked away the unpleasant memories that threatened to swamp him. It was unfortunate that he’d forever associate his brother’s wedding with the beginning of the end. That’s when Vlad and Oksana started on a long downward spiral, culminating in an acrimonious divorce that was still dragging on today.
He studied Klara more closely. Something stirred at the back of his mind.
A brief impression of thick black curls swept up in an elegant twist, the body poured into some barely-there excuse for a dress, the lips smiling at him. And then—
The red lipstick smeared, the eyes dripping mascara-tinged tears, his cheek stinging from the impression of her hand.
And then—nothing…until he woke up the next morning, head pounding like an entire battalion of jackhammers doing demolition work.