The Rings that Bind

By: Michelle Smart
CHAPTER ONE



ROSA BARANSKI SAT on the kitchen worktop, ostensibly waiting for the coffee percolator to finish, and gazed down at the slate tiles. She hated the flooring. Even with the benefit of under-floor heating it always felt so cold.

It was incredible to think she had once lived in a house of the same proportions as the place she currently called home. In that, her first children’s home, she had shared the house with forty other children and an ever-rotating shift of adults. The home had been a hub of noise and chaos, something she had hated until she had discovered how terrifying silence could be and how loneliness could destroy your soul.

Back then, her bedroom had been around the same size as the one she had now. Then, she had shared it with four other girls.

In those dark days and nights she had dreamed of escape.

Around two decades on, and for entirely different reasons, she had come to the painful conclusion that she needed to escape again. At least now she had the power simply to leave.

But she could not do anything until she had spoken to Nico. However much her stomach churned at the thought, she could not leave without an explanation. It wouldn’t be fair.

For what seemed the hundredth time she read the text message on her phone, her stomach twisting at the bland, almost curt words that leapt off the screen. It was from her brother. She’d received it a week ago and could not stop reading it. She should delete it but she couldn’t. It was her only tangible link to him.

Shifting her position in order to peer out of the window, she felt her belly do a funny skipping thing as she spotted the sleek black Maserati crunch slowly over the long gravel driveway before disappearing from view.

Nicolai was home.

The dread coursing through her bloodstream was reminiscent of the first time she had met him. She had attended an interview for the role of his temporary PA, providing maternity cover for his regular PA, who had gone into early labour.

She had sat in a large waiting room with five other potential candidates. She hadn’t been able to help but notice that the secretary who had been placed in charge of them visibly braced herself every time she knocked on his office door. The other candidates must have noticed it too. All of them had sat in hushed, almost reverential silence.

If Nico Baranski’s reputation had not already preceded him, the sight of the candidates’ faces after they had been interviewed would have been enough to terrify them. One by one they left his office ashen-faced. One woman had been blinking back tears.

Rosa had been the last to go in.

By that point her nerves had been shredded.

She had entered the plush, masculine office and been confronted with an immovable body behind a huge oak desk and a hard, unwavering stare.

She had breathed a visible sigh of relief.

Far from the living embodiment of an ogre her febrile mind had conjured during the long wait for her turn, Nicolai Baranski was but a mere mortal. An enormously well-built, gorgeous mortal, but a mortal all the same.

Her relief had been so great her nerves had disappeared.

When he had finally spoken, inviting her to sit in rapid Russian, she had responded in kind without missing a single beat.

Only by the flicker of an eyebrow had he shown any response to her fluency.

‘It says on your résumé that you studied Russian at university and then spent a year working in St Petersburg for the Danask Group after your graduation, before transferring back to London,’ he had said, flipping through a pile of paper in front of him.

‘That is correct.’

He looked up, the brilliance of his light green eyes piercing her. ‘Your references are excellent. You are clearly a valued member of the Danask Group. Why do you want to leave?’

‘I have gone as far as I can and I am looking for a new challenge. I have already worked my notice with them,’ she added, knowing this position needed to be filled quickly.

‘How many other jobs have you applied for?’

‘None. This is the only one I thought suitable.’

‘You do realise the job involves a lot of travel?’

‘That is one of the reasons I applied.’ The idea of escaping London and her deteriorating home life sounded wonderful. Not that she would say such a thing to him. Rosa kept a strict demarcation between her business and her personal life.

‘You will often be required to leave the UK at short notice.’

‘I will carry a travel case at all times for such eventualities.’

‘You should know I am not interested in hiring someone who clock-watches.’

‘I am aware of your reputation, Gaspadin Baranski,’ she replied, matching his coolness of tone. ‘You pay an excellent salary for good reason.’

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