Now Eva smiled, too. “You gotta start them early. I had him sorting by two and up to full loads by five. My mama talks about me like a big dog for making him do it.”
It was meant to be a joke, but Alexei’s face grew serious again. “She should not say this thing. He is already very responsible, someone who would make any father proud. He is the best of both of us. It is obvious you have been doing a very good job with him. ”
She put a hand to her chest. “Oh, my gosh, that’s the first time anyone’s ever told me that.”
“Everyone should be telling you that,” he said. “Including me.”
“So you’re not still mad at me about keeping him from you?”
Alexei eyes grew sad. “No, I can no longer be angry with you. You did exactly as I would have had the circumstances been mine. You were right to run, right to protect our baby over everything else. My uncle would have killed you and possibly Aaron, and back then I would not have been able to protect you. My uncle is what you might call a natural enforcer. He was trained from an early age to do this work, and the most important thing you ever did for yourself and Aaron is to take his threat seriously.”
And there they were, the words she didn’t know she needed to hear until he said them. Something cracked inside her chest. All this time, she’d thought it had been her job to give others, including Alexei, closure. She hadn’t realized how much she needed it for herself as well.
For the first time in the history of their relationship, she asked him an honest question, with full expectation of an honest answer. “This is why you didn’t want to have any children, isn’t it? Because you were scared you wouldn’t be able to protect them? Not just from your family’s enemies, but also from your uncle?”
Alexei nodded and steepled his hands on the table in front of him. “My mother did not die in a car accident. At least, her car accident was not accidental. A rival organization cut her brakes. My father was gunned down in broad daylight while meeting with a younger crime lord, someone he believed to be an ally. The man I killed was that younger man, the person who ordered the hit on my father. But after that I swore to myself I was done with that life. It had taken away the two people I loved the most, and I did not want to become the head of a crime family, even if it was what I had been groomed to do.
“At first my goal was to legitimize the Rustanov business, so we’d no longer have to war in the streets like common gang members. But then I met you, and I did not want a life filled with bodyguards and business for us. I wanted us to live a normal life without violence or empire building. And the reason I did not want us to have children was because I knew if we had a boy, my uncle would stop at nothing to involve him in the family business, even if he was bi-racial. This is the way of the Rustanovs.”
Alexei stared into his empty gelato bowl. “But now I can see these dreams I spun for us were the fantasies of a boy. My uncle would not have let me live my life as I saw fit, no matter what I saw for us. It is good you left me the way you did, because I would not have worked as hard to make Rustanov a legitimate enterprise if you had not. Because of you, I am the one who holds all the power now, not him.”
“So you’re no longer a criminal organization?” she asked.
“No,” he answered. “We have not been since I officially took over. I used my American business education combined with my Russian criminal one to rebuild the Rustanov organization into a lawful business. I made timely investments. While my classmates ran after the next big thing in America, I looked to my Russia’s untapped potential: metals, natural resources, media, and the like. I did the right things at the right time and it all paid off. Eventually, I was able to move into the American markets as well, which is why I chose to relocate to New York. Even though I had made my first millions in Russia, I was ready to leave it behind.”
He pushed his gelato bowl away. “But you should know, kotenok, I have never taken a life lightly. The first time was to avenge my father.” He finally looked up at her, his eyes full of sorrow and regret. “And the second time was to keep you and Aaron safe. My uncle will never come between us again.”
It took a moment for Eva to understand his meaning, but then she got it. “Your uncle is dead?”
He nodded. “I left to send the order and make sure he hadn’t already arranged a hit. It’s lucky you came to Italy and told me about his involvement when you did, because he’d already had a man headed to Texas to…I won’t say it. I do not want to think about what could have happened had you returned to Drummond or stayed on in South Padre as opposed to coming here.”
“So when you left, it wasn’t because you were angry?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Of course not. All these years, I had been telling myself to believe the words you wrote to me in that letter, to believe you had not loved me back then as I so loved you. I think much of my anger came from not just the thought of you leaving, but also not fully believing our relationship had meant nothing to you. After you left, I started having these dreams in which you came to me and told me it had all been a misunderstanding, that somehow you had not meant to leave me and you still loved me as I could not stop myself from loving you. Our two weeks on the island was the first time in the last eight years that I have not had this dream.
Though she’d had good reasons for putting him through that pain, it broke her heart to hear about it. “I’m so sorry, baby.”
He shook his head. “No, you have nothing to apologize for. I only tell you this, so you will understand how it is I believed you immediately. Knowing my uncle as I did, I’m sad to say your story made more sense than the fake one you gave me that night in the hotel or even the new one I had made up for myself on the plane ride over here. I threatened you because I was scared for you and also, because I needed to know where you were. Making the arrangements took a few hours, and I wanted to confirm my uncle was dead before returning here. It was the least I could do.”
She should have been horrified that Alexei could arrange such a thing, have his own flesh and blood killed without a moment of hesitation. However, waves of pure relief flooded through her. She had been so scared for so long because of this man that she couldn’t mourn him.
Still, she said, “But he was your uncle. And because of me you lost him.”
He nodded toward her plate, which still had a few uneaten slices of bread on it. “Are you done eating?”
He came around the table and hauled her into his arms. Then he kissed her hard and long before saying, “He was my uncle, kotenok, but you are my heart. If you will have me back, I will always do everything within my power to protect you and our son. I will love you until the day I die, and I will never let anyone come between us again. I just hope you can love me, too, after everything that has happened, after how I treated you in South Padre, and after exposing you even further to my uncle…”
She covered his lips with her hand before he could go any further. “Baby, I love you, too. And I tell you what, I’ll forgive you everything if you grant me one wish.”
“Can I pretty please start calling you Lexie again?”
“Anything but that.”
“Wait a minute, but I said ‘pretty please’ and you said ‘anything’—“
He silenced her protestations with another kiss, and this time he didn’t stop kissing her until they heard Aaron clear his throat.
They looked up to see their son standing in the doorway a smirk on his face. “This means we’re all going to Disneyworld, right?”
Two years later.
ONE hot summer evening in late August, Alexei shifted the stack of newspapers under his arm to unlock the front door of their home in Drummond. It was the same two-story villa both his son and his wife had spent the majority of their lives in, except for a few notable exceptions. He and Eva had stripped all of her father’s hunting trophies and animal heads off the walls and tossed his heavy leather furniture. In its place, they’d put in bright, colorful retro furniture from the fifties, sixties, and seventies. It wasn’t quite to Alexei’s taste, but it had worked out to an even exchange since Eva hadn’t been too excited about him not only buying the houses on either side of the theirs, but enclosing the newly made compound inside a wrought iron gate with stone pillars stationed every feet. He’d also put in a state-of-the-art alarm system and a security booth, complete with full-time guards.
The life of a billionaire was filled with luxuries, but to be able to live anywhere without round-the-clock security wasn’t one of them.
He was just glad Eva’s parents no longer lived there, but in a sleepy retirement community near Dallas, which meant the house that had once been filled with judgment and recrimination, was now was filled with nothing but love and a considerable amount of brightly-hued furniture.