#NewRelease: Shattered: A Russian Guns Novel #Mafia #Romance - Read Chapter One
The final Russian Guns novel is out! I'm terribly sad, excited, and happy all at the same time. But I can't wait to finally be able to share Demyan & Claire's story. I hope you enjoy it. Read on for the Prologue and Chapter One.

“Don’t fall in love with me. I ruin beautiful things.”

Love made him this way, but life makes him stay.

Life doesn’t give a redo. There’s no rewind or pause button to take you back or stop time. Once something happens, it happened. The most tragic of those times in his life, the ones he wouldn’t get back and the moments he could never fix, reminded Demyan Avdonin of a bullet meeting glass.

The impact of the bullet doesn't break the glass into pieces, but instead, leaves behind a single hole surrounded by a spider web of cracks. Fragile cracks that, when handled with the utmost care, would splinter into shards of what used to be.

Demyan thought he had been broken beyond repair once, four long years ago.

He was wrong.

She touched the glass, unknowing of the cracks holding him together. These are the broken pieces of a shattered man and the woman who made him live.

Life made him this way, but love makes him stay.

Demyan's Story: The Final Russian Guns Novel
An erotic romance with organized crime and suspense elements. Shattered can be read as a standalone in the series but it is recommended Demyan & Ana be read first for full effect.

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Claire Braden had spent the majority of her life trying to stay away from the violent lifestyle of the mob and the men within it. Or rather, one particular man, her step-uncle. Liam Dolan didn’t—or couldn’t—comprehend the word empathy. In all things, he was unfeeling and cruel.
Family was another word her step-uncle didn’t have in his vocabulary, unless they could be of use for him in some way. Claire supposed she should count her lucky stars in that regard because he mostly left her alone. But she still knew what his influence on those around her could do and had done.
After all, just because Claire’s mother had married into the Irish mob after her first husband’s death didn’t automatically mean her daughter was married to it, too, right?
The mafia left no one untouched, especially those closest to it through affiliation. Usually those touches came in the form of cuts that left scars behind. The worst kind of scars that were a brutal red, puckered skin, sore to the touch even when healed, and would never fade.
No matter how much time passed, those scars didn’t leave.
So, it was surreal to sit across the room from Anton Avdonin, a man in a position of power and dangerous like her uncle, while they talked about Liam as if they were having tea. Dreamlike, even bizarre, because all of her work and effort to stay away from a man like her uncle led her to one who simply shared a different last name.
“You don’t sound very …”
“Irish?” Claire offered.
Anton smiled, flashing white teeth. “Yes.”
“You don’t sound very Russian.”
“Point taken, although it’s taken me years to lose the accent.”
“It still comes out,” Viviana Avdonin said from her spot on the couch. “When he’s angry, or in the midst of se—”
“Well, it does.”
Claire was amused at the two, but she hid it. “My biological father is Irish and my mother is half. My step-father is full, but he didn’t think to teach me much and I tried to stay away from a lot of things, if you know what I mean.”
“I suppose, yes,” Anton said quietly.
“So, no quirks or accent from me. Sorry to disappoint.”
“No disappointment here. I am curious as to why you’ve done all this, though. Come to us, I mean.”
“I want to know,” Claire said.
“It isn’t a pretty story,” Anton replied.
“I didn’t come here for a fairytale.”
“I should hope not,” Viviana said. “Because our life sure as hell isn’t one.”
A ghost of a tender smile shadowed Anton’s features as he regarded his wife from the side in silence. Claire decided in that moment, with that one gesture, this Russian man was nothing like her uncle and she had obviously been mistaken in thinking so.
Liam would never smile, and if he did, something awful was sure to follow.
“You’ve been in the city for how long?” Anton asked.
“A couple of months,” Claire said.
“How did you learn of my family?”
Claire glanced away, uncomfortable under the man’s scrutiny. “I asked enough of the right questions, I suppose.”
“About Cavan.”
“Your half-brother,” Anton added pointedly.
Claire hated that she had to admit her relation to the dead man at all. “Yes.”
“What do you know about what happened?” Anton asked.
“I know you killed him.”
“No, my son did.”
“Oh,” Claire whispered. “I only knew the Russians had their hand in it and I assumed—”
“That the boss does all the work?” Viviana interrupted with a soft laugh.
Claire shrugged. “I guess.”
“And you want to know why,” Anton said, drawing out the last word slowly.
“I do.”
“Do you miss him?” the man asked instead.
That was an easy question to answer. “No.”
“Why not?”
“Because he was a monster,” Claire said honestly.
Anton hummed under his breath, his fingers pattering to the table in a fast beat. “He raped my daughter, and my son retaliated on him for what he did. Count your blessings that it was a closed coffin, my dear.”
Claire shivered. The information she had been trying to find for years was tossed out so fast that she almost missed it. Except she couldn’t miss it at all.
And she knew
Knew before he even said the words why Cavan had died. Not because someone else had told her first, but it wasn’t the first time Claire had experienced the backlash of her half-brother’s brutal nature.
A learned behavior, her mother said once.
Claire agreed. Cavan, spoiled and indulged by Liam, had grown up to be the man his uncle created. Yes, a monster.
“It didn’t end with that, of course,” Viviana added when her husband stayed silent.
“Unfortunately, no,” Anton said, resting back in his chair. “Demyan, my son, was expecting his first child—a little girl—with his fiancée.”
The word banged around inside Claire’s head but miraculously, didn’t make its way out.
“Your uncle—”
“Step,” Claire corrected quickly. “I share no blood with that man, not even a last name.”
“Lucky,” Anton murmured. “I would have killed you, otherwise.”
Claire didn’t even blink. “Really?”
“Yes.” Anton waved the statement off, dismissing it altogether. “It’s not important. You came here for information, so I will give it to you. Liam had his men kill Gia, my son’s fiancée and my former best friend’s daughter.”
A quiet man in the corner lifted his hand but kept his face down and his attention on the glass of vodka in his hand.
“Ivan, I mean,” Anton said, gesturing at the silent man.
“Former friend?” Claire asked.
“Best,” Anton corrected.
Ivan chuckled but the sound was hollow. “What a bullet can do to an over thirty year friendship is … amazing.”
“Something like that,” Anton replied coolly.
“Are we going to start shouting at one another in Russian again?” Viviana asked as she pulled out a yellow buffing file to work on her already manicured nails. “Because if so, I would like to leave before you two get started.”
“No, we’ll be good,” Ivan muttered.
“Something like that,” Anton repeated, his gaze leveling on Claire once more. “An apology is right on the tip of your tongue, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Claire admitted.
“Don’t. I have no interest in hearing it from you, neither does my wife, and I’m sure Ivan would say the same. Neither your apology, nor your blood, will pay for ours that spilled.”
Claire shifted in the seat, her fists clenching tightly in her lap. “How did you know I wanted to apologize at all?”
“You have honest eyes,” Anton said simply. “They’re the kind of eyes that are an opening to your soul. An old soul, which I can understand. My son had eyes like those once, too.”
Did that mean he didn’t now? Was it possible for everything you were to be shattered and taken away by one man?
“Because of Liam,” Claire said.
“Because of Liam,” Anton echoed. “And now when we see Demyan, there’s nothing staring back. It’s hard to watch a man slowly suffocate to death in his own private hell, especially when he doesn’t even realize he’s dying.”
Viviana sighed. “Harder when that man is your son.”
Anton nodded, agreeing with his wife. “You also have a look of guilt, Claire. Like maybe you feel you have something to answer for.”
She did. She had so much to answer for.
“What it is you have to answer for, Claire?” Anton asked.
“I didn’t protect someone once,” she said softly.
“Does your family know you’ve sought us out?” Anton asked.
“No. And my aunt and uncle believe I’m in the city to work, mostly. Since they’re the only family I have here and I’m twenty-seven-years-old, they treat me like an adult who doesn’t need to be babysat.”
“Apparently you should be if you’ve found your way to my den,” Anton replied.
“You said work. Doing what, exactly?”
“I’m a nurse.”
Again, a small smile curved the man’s lips upwards at the corners. “So was my mother. ER, mostly.”
“I prefer pediatrics,” Claire explained.
“Children,” Viviana said, giving her husband a look. “Imagine that.”
“Vine …” Anton’s voice barely contained a hidden warning.
“I didn’t say anything, Anton.”
“I can hear your wheels turning, baby. Don’t start.”
“Fine,” Viviana replied, huffing before going back to buffing her nails.
Claire was lost, but she didn’t bother to ask what she missed between the two. She figured they wouldn’t tell her anyway. “I do feel guilty about what happened to your daughter and …” Claire nodded at Ivan in the corner. “His daughter, too.”
Anton lifted a single shoulder in response. “We all are. Apologies have gotten us nowhere but cold.”
She supposed she couldn’t possibly understand these people’s pain because hers was not the same and theirs was much worse.
Leaning forward in his chair to rest his arms over his desk, Anton said, “I’m going to kill your uncle.” Claire wished she could be surprised, but she wasn’t. “And strangely, I have the distinct feeling you don’t even care if I do.”
“I really don’t. I know how he is and the things he’s done. His death wouldn’t be a loss to this world after everything, but a gift.”
“Good, because you’re going to help me do it.”
Her back straightened like someone had shoved a metal rod up her spine. This was not what she had come here for, but Claire knew by the way Anton Avdonin was staring at her, he wasn’t going to give her a choice.
It was yet another thing she wasn’t surprised about.
She also didn’t care.
“How?” Claire asked, unsettled.
“We’ll figure something out. I always do.”
Claire fidgeted with the hem of her shirt. “I don’t know if I can do that. Help you, I mean.”
“Sure you can,” Viviana said sweetly, smiling a brilliant sight that looked warm but felt cold.
“Won’t that make me just as bad as them? A monster, too?”
“Haven’t you realized it, yet?” Anton asked her quietly.
She shook her head. “No.”
Viviana smiled from her seat on the couch, still buffing her nails as though the conversation happening wasn’t really going on at all. “We’re all monsters, sweetheart. Some of us just hide it better than others.”
That was the key, wasn’t it?

Chapter One

If there was one particular thing that frightened the Bratva men who worked under Demyan more than anything else, it was his ability to kill and carry on a normal conversation. Sure, his coldness and the disinterested attitude he sported usually kept others at bay, but the cruel factor left them warier than ever.
“What are you doing tonight?”
Koldan shrugged from his spot on the makeshift, plywood counter. “After the party? Whatever Ana wants, you know. Probably chill at your parents’ place for a bit and try to stay the fuck out of Anton’s way.”
Demyan snorted under his breath. “He likes you.”
“For the last two years, he’s wanted to kill me.”
“Nah, for the last four years he’s wanted to kill you.”
“Thanks,” Koldan said. “I just have to make it to the wedding.”
“Honestly, my father likes you, man. Especially since …” Demyan trailed off, waving a hand at himself like that explained it all. He supposed it did because shit, Anton Avdonin had a son, but he wasn’t there anymore.
“Anyway,” Demyan drawled, bored with the entire conversation. “He likes you. If he didn’t, he’d have killed you by now.”
“Maybe,” Koldan agreed quietly.
“What did you two get her for tonight?”
“That dollhouse she’s been talk—”
The flat end of the hammer came down on the kneecap of a man Demyan had found poking around his territory. The guy screamed into his gag, the stench of urine and vomit emanating from his form. Demyan wasn’t sure of the man’s name, and he didn’t give a fuck, but the shamrock tattoo on the inside of his wrist said enough. That, and the fact he had been toting a gun and tried to go in on one of Demyan’s guys.
After what happened to the Avdonin family by the Irish four years ago, none of that scum needed to be in Little Odessa. Numbness settled in Demyan like it always did when he worked. Well, it never really left.
The hammer came down again. Another muted scream sounded as the guy’s eyes flew wide, and his kneecap blew out from the force of the hit. Bone, blood, and matter spilled.
Demyan didn’t even flinch.
This was the business. His life.
Welcome to the freak show.
Flipping the hammer around, so the claw was out instead, Demyan swung it down and let it lodge into the cavity of the man’s knee.
Yeah, that shit fucking hurt.
If the second round of vomit that bubbled around the man’s gag as he choked was any indication, he felt it, too.
Apparently, Koldan was just about done with the scene.
“Goddamn, Demyan,” Koldan muttered.
Glancing over his shoulder, Demyan chuckled at the sight of Koldan burying his mouth into the side of his arm, poorly hiding his disgust. “You’re a pussy, Koldan.”
“I am not, but I would have put the bastard out of his misery a couple of hours ago.”
So, maybe he’d been at this for a while.
Demyan shrugged in response.
“Irish, I know,” Koldan said, filling in the blank Demyan wouldn’t.
After what they took from him, they deserved everything they fucking got.
“Good thing you’ve got a boss position coming to you in the future.” Demyan yanked the hammer out of the guy’s knee, ignoring the tears streaking down the fool’s face. Tired of using the weapon, he tossed it across the room.
“Why is that?” Koldan asked.
“Because then you can just order sorry assholes like me to do this for you instead of doing it yourself. No need for a pakhan to get his hands dirty.”
“Hey, your father didn’t order you to—”
Demyan turned, flashing his teeth in a wicked sneer. “I know.”
Without another word, Demyan turned back to the man he’d been making hurt a whole hell of a lot for the last few hours.
“Christ, you’re one stubborn motherfucker, aren’t you?” Demyan asked the bound man sitting on the metal chair in the middle of the warehouse. “Just blink twice if you’re going to tell me why in the fuck you thought it’d be okay for you to be anywhere near Avdonin territory, not to mention, coming after one of us. When you do that, everything will move a lot faster.”
Didn’t mean it wouldn’t hurt, however.
The man’s lips curled back behind the dirty gag in his mouth, but only muffled garbles of nonsense came out. Demyan had tied the bandana tight, so it wasn’t a surprise.
“You almost done?” Koldan asked.
“Not yet.” Demyan squatted down to the floor, keeping his gaze locked with the Irishman. “Keep looking at these eyes, asshole, because they’re the last thing you’re ever going to see.”
“It’s nearly five,” Koldan informed. “Party is at six-thirty.”
Shit. Demyan would need a good shower and a change of clothes. That was going to eat up some time.
“Yeah, give Kyle a call and tell him he’s got a mess to clean in warehouse three,” Demyan ordered Koldan without turning around.
“Will do.”
Standing, Demyan reached into his back pocket and pulled out a knife. He cut the gag from the man’s mouth, careful not to get the fool’s vomit on his hands. He didn’t need that stench in his SUV.
Immediately, the guy started screaming. Demyan stood stock still with his arms crossed and a cool expression until his captive was all screamed out. It didn’t take long. When he was done shouting to no one, he prayed through sobs.
God didn’t help men like them.
Demyan pulled the gun from the waistband of his jeans, waving it and the knife in the man’s face. “Talk, and you’ll get quick and easy with a bullet. Stay quiet, and I’ll gut you like a goddamn pig and let you hold your intestines while I cut out your tongue.”
“I … I-I …”
“I-I-I, what?” Demyan barked. “Speak the fuck up, man. Why was an Irish mobster in our territory? Do you think Detroit cares if we cull a couple of you useless fucks? Trust me, that family doesn’t know how to feel.”
The guy coughed out a bitter laugh. “Us?”
“Yes, you. That’s what I said, wasn’t it? I hate repeating myself.”
Us,” the guy spat, but it wasn’t a question the second time. “You were in our territory first.”

• • •

“Hey,” Ana said as Demyan walked into the family room of his parents’ large Oceana home.
His sister bumped his hip with hers playfully. Ana was the only person Demyan allowed to act like that with him. Mostly because she left him alone when he wanted her to while everyone else kept demanding more. Like he was supposed to be their personal project to make happy again or some nonsense.
Demyan rested back to the wall, relaxing for a moment as he watched people mill between the kitchen and family room with plates of food in hand. Balloons and streamers were strategically placed, giving the house a birthday party kind of feel. Demyan wasn’t in the mood to party, but it also wasn’t his day, he supposed.
“Hey,” he said.
“You’re a half hour late.” His sister nodded at the ornate clock on the far wall.
“Yeah, well … work.”
That usually shut his sister’s questions up and this time was no exception.
Ana glanced down at the gift bag dangling from Demyan’s fingers. “What did you get her?”
“Something,” he replied vaguely, smirking when she huffed at his non-answer. “Koldan get here yet?”
They separated after leaving the warehouse, but he hadn’t noticed the guy’s car outside.
“Ma needed more pop, so he went to the store for her.”
“Ah, I see. Gives him a break from being under Anton’s thumb, I guess.”
“Papa is—”
“Sometimes an asshole, even to your fiancé, Ana.”
“Yeah, well … not when I’m around.”
Yeah, even then, but his sister didn’t get to see it because Anton was sly as fuck in that way. Anton didn’t want to give away his only daughter for marriage and despite approving of Koldan, felt the need to give the guy shit while he was still in New York. Demyan didn’t pretend to understand his father. They were nothing alike. Not anymore.
Demyan pushed away from the wall, ignoring the curious, guarded stares of some of the guests nearby. These people, they didn’t know him, not the man he was now, anyway. That or they didn’t want to. The ones who did—mostly Bratva—were scared shitless of him, and everyone else always started a conversation with Demyan by apologizing.
Four years after he buried Gia and people were still apologizing for it, like her dying was their fault and the remorse they felt should make it all better. Yeah, Demyan could finally think her name, but nothing accompanied it now. No emotion, rage or pain, just that dull numbness in his fingertips and a deadweight in his stomach.
Like maybe it never even happened, and his memories were simply delusions filled with blood, pain, and horror. Because that’s all she was to him, now. A memory.
“I better go find the birthday girl,” Demyan said, giving his sister a smile.
It was awkward, he knew it was. It even felt awkward on his face. Demyan didn’t like to smile. Sneering, smirking and being an all-around asshole, those were the things he could do. Smiling? Not so much.
“She asked for you,” Ana said, shrugging. “Actually, demanded.”
Demyan laughed, but even the sound was strained and untrue. “That’s my girl.”
It didn’t take him long to find the princess of the hour. She had been set up at the head of the long kitchen table, surrounded by pink and yellow streamers with helium filled balloons tied to both ends of her chair. Smiling wide and showing off perfect white rows of teeth, Demyan’s daughter sat content between her grandfathers as gifts were passed over for her to open.
Demyan took a moment, staying hidden from Vera’s sight in the entryway, to take in his child. She was always happy. Unknowing of the tragedy that had come before her and how her mother was gunned down the day Vera Avdonin made her way into the world.  
“One more over there, Ivan?” Anton asked.
Ivan handed a sparkly, purple packaged gift to Vera without a word to his former best friend. How the men were even sharing a space, Demyan didn’t know. Then again, Vera always had that effect on people. She brought them together whether they wanted to be or not.
Since Gia’s murder, the friendship between Ivan and Anton had changed drastically. In fact, a person who didn’t know what the two men used to be like wouldn’t believe they had ever been friends, really. Ivan blamed Anton. Anton let Ivan have his anger, even if it was misdirected.
And despite the inner conflict it caused for a good year in the Bratva, Anton allowed Ivan to step down from being his Sovietnik—his right-hand man—in their Russian mafia brotherhood. It had been a rule-altering event in the Bratva’s history because as Demyan understood it, no man left the Russian Mafia alive.
Ivan had.
Anton, regardless of knowing how his ex-friend now felt about him, protected Ivan when he walked out of the Bratva.
“Open it, dushka,” Anton said to Vera as he accepted a glass of water from his wife. “Thanks, baby.”
“Where’s Papa?” Vera asked. “Grandpapa Anton, I want Papa.”
“He’s coming,” Anton replied, reaching over to tap the present with his finger. “Open it, Vera.”
“Is Demyan working, then?” Eva asked from where she stood behind Ivan. “He seems to be doing a lot of that lately.”
Demyan held back a scoff. Apparently being involved in the Bratva meant he would skip his daughter’s birthday. Sure, the first couple years raising Vera had been tough and sometimes she was away from him more than she was with him but shit …
Vera was still his.
“He’s coming,” Anton repeated.
“Soon?” Vera asked quietly.
“Soon, baby,” Viviana assured.
Vera was a dark-haired, blue-eyed beauty at just four-years-old. She was the one—the only, really—good thing in Demyan’s heart. She was serenity in her soul, joy in her smile, and peace in her eyes. She was also her mother through and through. The older Vera got, the more she reminded Demyan of Gia.
He wished he could say it made him sad or angry, but the never-ending numbness of his detachment didn’t let him feel a fucking thing. Hell, even pain would be better than nothing at all.
Demyan knew though, somewhere in the black bleakness of his deadened emotions, that if he felt something, he wouldn’t have the capability to get through the day; never mind be who he was. The last time he allowed his emotions to win and take over, he spent months in a vacuum of nothingness.
Six months, actually. The first half a year of his daughter’s life was devoid of everything but pain, and it was easy. He barely made it out of that alive.
Demyan couldn’t do it again because he wouldn’t survive it a second time.  
Vera must have gotten a peek of Demyan in the entryway of the dining room, so he walked in the rest of the way, his eyes on only his daughter. Demyan was aware how most of these people looked at him. Some, like he was broken. Others, like he was inept at loving and caring for his child. And then there were people like his parents, the ones who knew how cold and unforgiving he could be, that didn’t know what to think at all.
They were all right. Every single one of them.
Demyan still didn’t care. He managed both his life and his daughter just fine and had for four years. She was happy, safe, and healthy, and that’s what mattered most to him.
Vera pushed the present onto the table, her face lighting up with happiness. Demyan’s expression didn’t change a bit as he crossed the dining room to meet his bouncing daughter.
S Dnem Rozhdeniya, dushka,” Demyan whispered, leaning down to kiss Vera’s pink, smiling cheek.
“Happy birthday?”
“A very happy birthday,” Demyan repeated in English.
Vera peeked down at the gift bag in her father’s hand. “Is that mine, Papa?”
“Maybe. You’ll have to wait and see.”
“Demyan, give her the gift and let her open it,” Anton said. “It’s her day, after all.”
Demyan ignored his father. They were going to have enough words later considering the shit he heard from the Irishman.
Vera’s tiny hand found her father’s at his side and she gave it a squeeze. Silently, Demyan did the same. It was, and would always be, their way of expressing words that weren’t said.
I love you, mostly.
“Later?” Vera asked.
“Later,” Demyan promised. “Now, where is your cake?”

• • •

Demyan sat his daughter on the edge of the bed in his old room. Vera hugged her father tightly around his neck, giggling. Despite him moving out long ago, his parents didn’t change much in the space. He refused to search too deep into the things left sitting out on his desk or even what was hidden in the shoe boxes under the bed. If he did, he would find marks of his past everywhere.
A past he just didn’t want to think about anymore.
“Can I see? Can I?” Vera asked, her excitement level rising like the tone of her voice.
“Calm down, princess,” Demyan said, chuckling low.
“But, Papa!”
Demyan fixed Vera with a stare that silenced her pleading. The birthday party had gone on longer than he anticipated, although he didn’t complain. It was Vera’s day, not his, so if people wanted to celebrate his little girl until the sun set, they could go at it.
“All right, dushka, but be careful. Okay?”
Vera nodded, snatching the pink bag Demyan held out for her to take. “Okay!”
She pulled each piece of pink tissue paper out of the gift bag slowly, placing them to the side of the bed. Reaching inside, she brought out a long cylinder shaped object, tapered at the ends and also wrapped in tissue paper.
“What is it?” Vera asked, feeling the gift with her hands and turning it over.
“Open it up, sweetheart,” Demyan urged.
Vera unwrapped the tissue paper, revealing a hand painted, carefully crafted matryoshka doll. The Russian nesting dolls hadn’t been made in some shop in China, but instead, specially imported from Russia by a craftsman who had been making them for over forty years. When he put in the order months ago, Demyan simply asked for a specific design on the dolls and gave a size. They turned out perfectly with their striking faces, and the intricate dresses painted on their wooden bodies.
“Oh!” Vera gasped, her fingers ghosting over the painted face and pink cheeks of the largest doll. “She’s so beautiful, Papa.”
“Open her up,” Demyan said. “There’s four more inside her. All of them are a little different.”
She was so in love with the nesting dolls her cousins had received last Christmas that it was the only thing Demyan knew to get her that no one else would. It was also special because Vera wasn’t the kind of kid to act jealous or ask for something someone else had.
So, when she mentioned to her father the very pretty matryoshka dolls her cousins received, Demyan knew it was something she really wanted. Even more so because she told him and not anyone else.
Vera popped open the first doll to reveal a second smaller one nestled inside the bottom. Pulling it out, she admired the smiling face and reddened cheeks of the doll before pulling it out and opening it, too. She took her time with each doll until she had them all out, their bodies back together, and sitting in a row from largest to smallest along the edge of the bed.
“What do you think?” Demyan asked.
“Thank you,” Vera whispered.
“You’re so welcome, my dushka.” Demyan reached over and spun each doll so they were facing his girl. “Notice anything about them?”
Vera nodded. “They look like me.”
“They sure do.”
Each doll sported painted back curls, bright blue eyes, and wore the design of specific dresses Vera loved. They even shared the tiny, pixie-like nose his daughter had.
Vera stared at the dolls.
“What’s wrong?” Demyan asked.
“I don’t want to break them,” Vera explained. “They’re pretty.”
Demyan chuckled. “They’re yours, Vera, so you can do whatever you want with them.”
“But you said to be careful.”
“I wanted you to see them at least once before you went crazy with them. And they’re tough, so I don’t think you could break them very easily even if you tried.”
“I won’t try, Papa,” Vera said. “I promise I will take care of them.”
Oh, Demyan didn’t even need to hear his daughter give him the reassurances to know how close she would keep her dolls and how much she would cherish them. She always did with the things he gave her, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
A gift from her daddy meant the absolute world to Vera Avdonin.
 Demyan picked up the largest doll, pointing at the Cyrillic lettering along the bottom of the painted dress for his daughter to see. Солнышко моё, it read. Vera was an English-first speaking child, but she was learning to read Russian before anything else. That way, speaking the language would come easier to her. It was transliterating Russian words from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin one that was difficult.
“Sol … ko … mo.” Vera nearly got the pronunciation of the words but not quite.
“Close,” Demyan murmured. “Solnyshko moyo.”
“Sun?” Vera asked, her little nose scrunching up as if she were thinking.
“Yes, that’s pretty much it. My sun, bright and beautiful.”
“You, sweetheart.”
Vera grinned up at her father. “Can I show Grandmamma?”
“Grandmamma would love that,” said a dark tenor from behind Demyan. “And maybe she can show you the set she has, too, hmm?”
Demyan’s spine stiffened as he stood. He forgot to close the door and his private moment with his daughter had been intruded on because of it. Even if it was his father, that didn’t matter to Demyan. He didn’t like for people to see him with Vera when it was just them alone.
“Does she?” Vera asked her grandfather.
“She does,” Anton replied. “They’re not as pretty as yours, though.”
“I bet they are.”
Anton laughed. “Well, you’ll have to decide for yourself.”
Demyan helped Vera tuck the nesting dolls back together quickly before she hugged it to her chest and skipped out of the room with a beaming smile that would melt the coldest of hearts. Demyan’s was no exception, but he always managed to hide it well.
“That was sweet of you,” Anton said. “Actually, I think that’s the first thing I’ve seen you give that girl.”
Demyan’s hackles rose as they usually did whenever his father was around. He refused to defend or explain his choice of keeping his daughter at arm’s length in the eyes of people beyond him and Vera. There would never come a day when another human being could use what mattered most against him again. He wouldn’t allow it.
Even if that meant appearing like a cold, cruel bastard to his own father.
Frankly, it was better this way. At least, that’s how Demyan felt about it in regards to Anton. Vera wasn’t the only thing Demyan was afraid to lose, and whoever he loved and was the closest to, might suffer for his attachments someday.
Anton wouldn’t be one of them.
Turning to face his father, Demyan kept his expression unreadable. “It’s her birthday. She deserves something special, I suppose.”
Mmm, and one of those big headed dolls with too much makeup and terrible clothing choices would have worked just as well.”
“What’s your point, Anton?”
Anton flinched when Demyan called him by his name and not Papa or Dad like he always had before. The first time, Anton did a double take of his son as if he’d been unsure of what he heard.  
“No point, son, I was just saying,” Anton said, sighing heavily. “You were late tonight.”
“Work,” Demyan replied shortly. “Which you already knew. I don’t need a lecture about being on time when I’m cleaning up messes for the Bratva.”
Anton nodded. “I did know you were working, and since I’m the goddamn boss regardless if we’re in my home or on the streets, you can cut the fucking attitude and tell me what happened.”
It took all the effort Demyan could muster to swallow back his irritation and give his father the respect he deserved. Demyan spent a great deal of his time getting out from under his father’s thumb, not that he hadn’t liked it there before, but now it only felt like control.
The Bratva and Vera were the only two places in Demyan’s life that Anton really got to see. Mostly because he didn’t have a choice but to let his father in for those things. Every place else, Demyan kept locked up tight.
It was his goddamn life, and he wasn’t stupid. He was well aware that his father didn’t feel as though Demyan was living, not truly. But it didn’t matter. It wasn’t Anton’s choice, and he didn’t get to make Demyan’s for him.
“Yeah, I planned on having words with you about that shit sometime today,” Demyan said, somehow managing to keep the heat out of his tone. Barely.
Anton arched a single brow high. “Oh?”
“Yes. Why the fuck were Russians on the Irish’s territory, huh?”
Demyan didn’t beat around the bush. His father always taught him not to, and there was a hell of a lot of lessons like those that Demyan could remember growing up. Being blunt was one of the best ones. Straight for the throat, right for the kill. It always set a man off balance when he wasn’t expecting it.
Unfortunately, Anton Avdonin wasn’t like every other man.
Anton’s expression didn’t change a bit. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure,” Demyan said. “The small Irish syndicate has every reason to be fucking around in Brooklyn and Little Odessa because they have all the protection and power in the world here to be doing so. Right?”
“Demyan, count our numbers. There isn’t one Bratva man from our family that didn’t show up for tribute last week. The Irish were toeing our line for at least a month before that. You can bet your ass that if even one Russian skipped over into the Irish’s territory, they would have put him down like a dog. Kind of like we did for theirs today.”
“Well, I made him work for it.”
Anton’s lips drew thin at that omission. “Did you, now?”
“Making a point, that’s all.”
“They’re not all Cavan or Liam, Demyan.”
Demyan shrugged. “I’m not going to give one the chance to be, either.”
“Nonetheless, I’ve sent no men to the Irish and I don’t plan to.”
“I fucking hope not,” Demyan replied. “I don’t want them anywhere near me or my daughter, Anton. I don’t want them to even think they have a reason to be anywhere near us. You better not be planning some stupid shit that will get us all killed.”
Demyan worked damn hard to keep his daughter safe from the prospect of Liam Dolan coming back on her after that man killed Vera’s mother. He didn’t want his father messing with that in some way.
Anton smirked, scoffing. “And what if I was, son? What could you do? You’re as cold as ice, Demyan Avdonin, and someday you’ll make a damn good boss because of it. But that day is not today. I’m boss, not you. Cold, yes, right down to your bones, but you’re not cold enough to take it from me.”
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