Dani’s eyelids were heavy when she awoke on a cold Tuesday morning. The room felt chillier than usual, until she noticed snow falling outside her window.
She was still in her clothes from last night after crying herself to sleep. The reminder of her possible fate loomed over her like a cloud more dismal than the one outside, but there were no more tears left for her to cry. Perhaps it was the grogginess that lingered in her body, but she found herself staring at the window for a long time until the snow grew thick on her windowsill.
The sound of a car pulling over drifted from the outside. There were male voices speaking Russian. A dog barked.
Dani walked over to the window. A big black dog was running through the snow. Nearby, Alexei was speaking to one of his guards. He looked up and caught her eye.
Her impulse was to shirk away from the window, but she held his gaze as he gave her a nod. When she left the room and headed downstairs to the foyer, the main entrance doors were wide open. Elena stood near the entryway, eyeing the small puddles of snow that were gathering on the carpet floor. She did not look pleased.
“Good morning, Miss De Luca.”
Alexei stood out in a long, black trench coat. Flecks of snow dusted his broad shoulders while he stood at the doorstep. Servants carrying luggage began walking past him.
“I hope you won’t mind if I’ll be staying for a few days.” He removed his leather gloves. “I have some business to attend to in the area.”
Dani shrugged. “It’s your house.”
Behind him, a big, black dog played in the snow. Several guards laughed when the dog excitedly ran around them.
“Whose dog is that?” she asked.
“Mine,” Alexei answered, turning around. “Maksim!”
Alerted, the dog stopped. Its body went rigid with attention before running towards them. Beside her, Elena exhaled through her nostrils.
“Good boy,” Alexei murmured, scratching the dog’s ear as it obediently sat next to him. It was a huge Rottweiler that easily reached up to Alexei’s knees and had thick, black fur. Its gaze fell on Dani and eyed her for a long time. With its sheer size, it could down her with one jump if it wanted to.
“Maksim, this is Dani,” Alexei said. “She’s a guest at our house. Keep her company and watch over her while I’m gone, alright?”
Great. As if all the guards outside weren’t enough, she now had her own personal watchdog to maul her if she tried to escape.
Maksim tilted his head to the side but did not move. Dani didn’t even bother touching him for fear of having her hand chewed off.
“Wonderful,” Dani muttered under her breath. She turned around and headed back upstairs without another word.
Like clockwork, Elena entered Dani’s room at seven in the evening to announce supper. Dani had spent the entire day in her room, reading an English copy of Anna Karenina that she’d borrowed from the library. She’d been sucked into the story before she knew it, and while it seemed like a waste of the day when she could’ve been planning her escape, it felt good to finally be distracted with something after the last few days.
Dani hopped off the bed and straightened her peach-colored dress for the day. She descended downstairs to the dining hall, only to find Alexei sitting at one end of the long table. Tableware was arranged on the space to his right.
Dani froze by the door. Alexei looked up from cutting his steak. Beneath him, Maksim’s head rose in attention while he lay lounging at Alexei’s feet.
“Ah, glad you could join me for dinner, Miss De Luca. Please have a seat.”
One of the servants pulled up the chair beside Alexei. All appetite left her, but she forced herself to take her seat beside him.
It was difficult, but it was wise to be on remotely agreeable terms with Alexei. He was in control of what fate lay in store for her after six days. Perhaps if she played nice enough, she could negotiate with him on the terms of her survival somehow.
A servant undid the napkin on her side and placed it on her lap. A bowl of butternut squash soup was placed on her plate.
“How do you like your steak?” Alexei asked.
Alexei nodded to the servant, who promptly left.
“I haven’t seen you around.” He grabbed the stem of his wine glass. “Have you been locked up in your room all day?”
She picked up her spoon. “I was reading Anna Karenina.”
“Oh? And how do you find it?”
“Depressing. But it was either that or War and Peace, so.”
A low chuckle left his lips. “My personal recommendation would be Crime and Punishment, but we do have more to our library than Russian literature, you know.”
Dani played with her soup, changing the topic. “You said you had some business to attend to in the area?”
One of the servants returned, carrying a plate of steak. It was perfectly cooked to her request, garnished with shallots and carrots.
“Just some paperwork,” he answered, leaning back in his seat. “And visiting some villagers in the area.”
“I don’t see any houses nearby.”
“The nearest town would be a 20-minute drive. It would be tough to walk it, especially in this weather.”
Dani paused in cutting her steak. His ice blue gaze was fixated with curiosity on her face when she looked up.
“Who would be crazy enough to walk that far?” she innocently remarked.
“Indeed, who would?” he mused, taking a sip of his wine.
Dani’s grip tightened on the steak knife in her hand. She forced a cordial smile back at him before eating the rest of her food with a straight face.
The garden at the back of the estate spanned the entire length of the house. A large, empty fountain stood at the center, while snow covered the rest of the bushes and trees around it. Dani wiped the snow off a bench with a gloved hand and sat down. Her breath fogged in the air as she wrapped the white parka tighter around herself.
It was Dani’s first time to be outside the house, but only a sunless, grey sky and more snow greeted her. Everything about this place was dull and devoid of life and color, and it was growing increasingly difficult to stay optimistic about her chances of survival after all of this was over.
Five days felt like both a life sentence and the blink of an eye. Alexei deciding to stay over only made things infinitely worse. There was something dodgy about his reason to stay, and the idea of him monitoring her every move kept her awake at night. It felt like the walls were closing in on her with each day, and now there hardly seemed any room left for her to think and breathe.
A bark came from the other end of the garden. Dani didn’t need to turn around to spot the beastly hound that was Maksim, trotting past her and sniffing around. She considered standing up and returning inside the house, until the dog made its way over to her direction and sat only an arm’s length away.
Dani froze. Maksim had his eyes on her but didn’t move, though he could easily jump on her and rip off her face if he wanted to. Now she was glued to her seat, trepidated. She would freeze her ass to death on this bench because of one stupid dog.
“What do you want?” she snarled. “I don’t have any treats for you.”
Maksim stuck his tongue out, baring canines.
“Charming,” she muttered under her breath. She looked around, hoping a guard could distract the dog away from her, but she was all alone in the garden with him.
Maksim began sniffing her boots. Dani went rigid and eyed him like a snake about to crawl up her leg. She stopped breathing as he rose on all four legs, still smelling her, until he turned his back on her and sat directly on her right foot.
“What the…” She stared at Maksim’s back in disbelief. His heavy ass was on her foot like paperweight. Did he want her trapped out here all day?
Flecks of snow coated Maksim’s thick, black fur. He didn’t seem cold at all. Dani never owned a pet growing up, but this dog’s behavior confounded her to no end. What the hell did he want?
Warily, Dani lifted her hand and neared it towards Maksim. His face was turned away, but it was no guarantee he wouldn’t chew her fingers off. Still, it would be his ass (currently on her foot) that would be on the line if he hurt her. Alexei wanted her alive and in one piece, didn’t he?
With a gloved hand, Dani gave a single, light pat on Maksim’s back. The dog did not react.
Emboldened and curious, she sank her fingers into Maksim’s thick fur, amazed at its softness. Her hand lingered until she began patting Maksim’s back with a steady rhythm. His tail, which looked ridiculously tiny compared to the rest of his big body, began to wag. A smile couldn’t help but form on her lips.
“So that’s what you want,” she mused, finding enough courage to move her hand to the top of his head. She flinched when he stood up, only to face her again with his tongue still out. Don’t stop, his stupid face seemed to say.
Something moved from the corner of her eye. She turned to find curtains moving in one of the rooms facing the garden. Someone had to have been watching.
Dani stood up. Maksim rose in attention beside her.
“Let’s go back inside then, you big, fat lummox,” she said, returning inside the house with Maksim trotting after her.