Once & Forever: Book One “The Children” excerpt

Prologue 
Present days

Spring has finally arrived in New England, as fashionably late as a true lady. Precocious March,    with its roller-coaster of temperatures  ungraciously gave up, succumbing to a fragile, tender, and  crystal clear April which in turn has bowed out to a bold and brazen May. Its sun-kissed embrace has reached the petite coastal state of Rhode Island, chasing off last remnants of winter. Magnificent trees surrounding Brown University slowly came alive with color, welcoming another season in their long, dignified lives. Here and there,   flowers were  flirting with sunlight, pulsing sinuously in rhythm with breezy air. Nature was waking up from long frozen sleep, ravenous for new colors and sounds. She loved spring the best, especially late spring. It was her absolutely the most favorite time of the year: the time of new beginnings, new hopes. But today she was too disturbed to enjoy the beautiful weather. She didn’t    even notice the sunshine or incessant chirping of the birds , despite the fact that she’d been standing by the open window, looking outside for the past half hour. Today was the day she’d been waiting for seventeen and a half years. Oh, how often she dreamed of this day, prayed for it! Her imagination had created thousands of different scenarios, and every one of them had forever etched into her memory. She lived for- longed fo r- this moment of truth and retribution all this seventeen and a half years. Finally, the day of reckoning has arrived. And suddenly , she realized she was not only far from ready for it, she wasn’t even sure anymore she wanted retribution. To add an insult to injury, she was scared. The sticky web of lies and deceptions surrounding her whole life had been swept away, and she’d suddenly broken free. Gloriously, maddeningly free! She was dizzy, and a bit disoriented like a happy drunk with her newfound freedom to defend herself, to tell her side of the story and to finally-   finally – Come back from the shadows. But does she have a right to do it? What purpose would it serve now? Doubts bombarded her, nagging at her conscience.  Justice? Or self-affirmation? Does it matter? A gentle breeze began to unfurl her fashionably twisted hair, transforming a neat do into an explosion of curly halo around her face. But she didn’t notice. Memories, brutally clear and real, assaulted her, momentarily short-circuiting all her sense, and then gushing them all to the surface with a force of an explosion.

Words, smells, sounds, colors- everything was swirling inside of her in a crazy macabre dance. She didn’t try to fight this assault; she welcomed it, deliberately saturating her mind and her soul with pain and hurt. And anger.

It always was one of her strongest defenses–her anger. It kept her sane, forcing her to fight, to endure, to move–one painful step at the time, one hour, one day, one year. Seventeen years and six months, she thought bitterly. Half of her lifetime.
For seventeen  years and six months she lived for this day. And, damn it, she deserved the opportunity to stop hiding in the shadows and come back to light!

Her goal was almost within her reach, but she was suddenly ambushed by doubts. Shrapnel sharp, they sliced through her anger and hurt, ripping to shreds layers of defenses and knocking to hell and back the walls of composure she so painstakingly and methodically built during all these years.

If only it was all about her and her alone! But it wasn’t.

Slowly turning around, she walked toward her desk. Several newspapers lay spread open on its surface, their headlines announcing of the death of Elizabeth Rostoff, multimillionaire and the matriarch of jewelry empire Rostoff & Co. She ignored the written  words, looking instead at the pictures of the Rostoff family: two dark-haired men, father, and son, impeccably dressed, both tall and ridiculously gorgeous even by Hollywood standards, and a stunning young woman with sharp Slavic cheekbones and long pale braid.

Her unique , elongated eyes were the darkest shade of gray, almost pewter or, as she always thought, the color of the rainy sky; her hair was color of pure platinum, almost silvery-white and silky.  She closed her eyes briefly, letting pain fill her heart to the brim until she felt dizzy. Katia. Her little girl, her princess. A grown woman now –Ekaterina Rostoff, a famous artist, celebrity. She still remembered her milky baby smell, her fluffy mop of hair and toothless grin. Katia, her baby, her daughter.

God, how will she hate her! How all of them will hate her…

She sighed deeply, wiped a single tear that managed to slip past her control and took one last look at the pictures.

Two men flanking Katia portrayed the picture of the unerringly calm facade with a hint of Slavic arrogance. So much alike, she mused, lovingly touching the photo, and so much different…

“I love you, “  she whispered, “   all of you. I’ve hurt you once and… I will hurt you again. I don’t want to, but I have no choice. Forgive me.” 

With the last glance on the newspapers on her desk, she straightened her spine, banishing all emotions, all regrets, and pains, tucking them into a deep corner of her mind, heart, and soul, something that she’d learned to do well for the past seventeen and a half years.

With the last deep calming breath, she pushed the button on the intercom, connecting her as well as all other professors of The Department of Slavic Studies with the secretary of the department.

“Yes, Professor?”

“Nancy, please call the Miami  FBI field office, and ask for Special Agent Rostoff.”

Her voice gave a little catch on the surname.

“Ah… Rostoff?”

“That’s right. Peter Rostoff.”

“Sure, one moment.”

She felt calm and in control once again, ready for the first battle that lay ahead.  She’d waited a very long time, and by God, she would be strong and prepared. Turning her head, she looked again at the headlines. Elizabeth Rostoff, she mused, matriarch and multi-millionaire. Tyrant, blackmailer, evil bloodthirsty bitch. You thought you could break me, she thought bitterly, you thought you’d live forever. Well, guess again, Your Grace.

Her heart beat strongly in her chest, and she wondered briefly how was it possible for something shattered time and time again to have such a strong will to function, to continue.

“Professor, Special Agent Rostoff on line two,” Nancy announced cheerfully.

She closed her eyes, shut them tight for a split second, bracing herself.

Finally, she picked up the phone.

“Zdravstvuj, Petya.”

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