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High Stakes
Author: Iris Johansen

 


Chapter

1

Acara, Russia

 

It’s time, Lara,” Maria said gently from the doorway behind her. “They’ll be picking you up in thirty minutes.”

Lara didn’t look up from the piano keys. “Screw them. I’ll be done here soon.” She finished the concerto in a final glorious flourish. Then she drew a deep breath and sat there letting the music soothe her, letting its beauty take away the ugliness to come.

“How are you?” Maria walked across the room to stand beside her. “Rachmaninoff’s Third. Quite a challenge. But you did it well. Would you like to tell me why you chose it today?”

It was the last thing she wanted to do, Lara thought. There was no use bringing her mother into the situation when she would not be able to do anything but worry. Maria always did anything she could to help her, and she often suffered for it. “I believe it’s the most difficult concerto. It demands every technical skill. I wanted to conquer it. I had to conquer it. As you say, I wanted to challenge myself.” She got to her feet and brushed a kiss on Maria’s cheek. Maria’s skin was silky soft, her dark hair shining in the firelight. Lara had always thought her mother beautiful, and she was just as lovely in maturity as she’d been when Lara was a little girl growing up. “I’m glad you think I did it well. Now I have to go pick up my gear and wait on the steps for them.” Her lips twisted. “I know you don’t want to invite my kind, loving father into your house.”

“It’s only my house as long as he permits it to be,” Maria said bitterly. “But it won’t always be that way, Lara. We’ll find a way out.”

“I know.” She took her in her arms and gave her a quick hug. “It’s just difficult right now. As difficult as that Rachmaninoff Third. But I’ve got a few ideas.” She turned to go. “I should be back in a few days. I probably won’t be able to call you.” She headed for the parlor door. “But don’t worry.”

“Lara.”

Lara looked over her shoulder.

“Why shouldn’t I worry?” her mother asked hoarsely. “What weapons?”

Lara froze. It was the one question she wished she hadn’t asked her. Lie? No, they never lied to each other. They’d made that promise long ago. There were too many lies surrounding them. She braced herself. “No weapons. Bare hands.”

“What?” Maria’s eyes were suddenly glittering with anger. “That son of a bitch.”

“It’s okay,” Lara said quickly. “I’m ready for them. Volkov warned me six months ago it would be coming.”

“How kind of him.” She was across the room, her arms enfolding Lara. “I’m sorry,” she said huskily. “I should have run away when he set it up. No, I should have run when it first started. I thought I’d be able to fight them. I had no idea they’d use you for their damn games.”

“How could you know? You were caught, too.” Lara took her by the shoulders and shook her gently. “It’s all right. I’ve had the music and I’ve had you.” She grimaced. “And look at all the things I’ve learned. Aren’t I lucky?”

“Don’t even joke about it,” Maria said curtly. “Those bastards. What hell they put you through.”

“I wasn’t joking. I did learn a lot.” Her lips tightened. “And most of the time I won. And if I lost, I learned something from that, too.” Her hands fell away from Maria. “It made me stronger.”

“Yes, it did,” Maria said bitterly. “No one can argue that.”

“And you made me stronger, too,” Lara said. “Because you’ve fought them all these years and never stopped.”

“I couldn’t save you,” she whispered. “Not since the day Volkov talked Anton into that damn bet. All I could do was try to make it easier for you. But there’s no way I can make these next days easier.”

“No, I’ll do that,” Lara said. “He won’t win this one. I’m ready for anything that—”

“What are you ready for, Lara?” Anton Balkon asked mockingly as he came into the living room. “I hope it’s to perform better than you did with Oleg a few evenings ago in that barn. He was not impressed.”

She stiffened. “I was trying something new with him. He still didn’t take me down.”

“And Volkov’s men won’t even attempt to take you down. They’ll have permission to make it permanent. Life or death, Lara. Volkov is going to send two of his best men, and they’ll be much more skilled than Oleg and very used to hunting down prey.”

“Stop it, Anton,” Maria hissed as she took a step forward. “You’re going too far. She’s your daughter, for God’s sake.”

“Then she should try to please me. She knows what’s expected of her. Volkov upped the bet on this weekend’s Trial. I’m not going to lose.” He leaned forward and stroked Lara’s cheek. “It’s your first real blood challenge. Are you excited?”

“No.” She wanted to step back, but she knew his hand would only tighten and his nails would dig into her cheek. “But I’ll do what you want me to do.”

“Yes, you will.” His hand fell away from her face. Then he whirled and his hand was suddenly on Maria’s throat. “How have you been, Maria? You’re still beautiful, but you’re a little old for my taste these days.” His grip tightened until she began to choke. “I prefer the little girls Volkov keeps me supplied with. So young, so fresh. But I do remember how talented you were. That’s why I kept you around even after you were stupid enough to get yourself pregnant.”

“Let her go,” Lara said with set teeth.

Anton’s grip grew tighter on Maria’s throat. “Please?”

Lara swallowed. “Please.”

He released his grip. “You see, politeness is everything. I’ll even forgive her for forgetting her place in our arrangement…as long as you don’t forget yours. I will win, won’t I?”

“You will win.” She was cursing herself for not being outside when he’d arrived. She wasn’t sure if it would have done any good, but the longer she stayed the more dangerous it would be for Maria. She had to get out of here. Say anything, give him anything he wanted. “Is that why you’re here? I promise you I’m ready for anything that Volkov’s men will throw at me.”

“Of course that’s why I’m here.” He smiled. “I thought I’d add a little incentive to the mix. Incentive can often be the final ingredient that makes a masterpiece.” He patted her cheek. “You know about masterpieces, don’t you, Lara?” He pushed her toward the door. “Let’s see if you can create one that will keep our Maria alive.”

“Lara!” Maria started to follow her.

“No!” Lara quickly put up a hand to stop her. “It will be fine. I promise.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Anton pushed her out the door. “See that you keep that promise.” He followed her out the door and down the stone steps. “I have to win, Lara. Volkov is entirely too sure of himself. Now go over and tell him how ready you are.”

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