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Shadowed Hearts and Winter Souls

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There were a thousand reasons to love a masquerade.

The playfulness that came with not knowing who was beneath which mask, whether the man in all black was actually the husband of the woman in red, or if the pair was well aware the flirtatious looks and sly touches were being shared with someone not their spouse.

There was a dignity that came with the ornate costumes, meaning that even the servants were treated with respect, men bowing over hands that had scrubbed their toilets the night before, women tittering over sculpted bodies that just that morning were grooming horses and mucking out stalls.

There was a layer of sexual tension in the air not usually present at high society gatherings, or at least not so obviously present and blatantly encouraged. Dresses were cut to just this side of scandalous for the sake of costume. Shoulders were bared, legs wrapped in nothing but sheer stocking, bosoms lifted nigh to the heavens above corsets in colors that would have shocked in the daylight.

Pants were indecently tight, shirts unbuttoned far past acceptable, hands straying lower than necessary as couples circled the dance floor, more said with raised eyebrows and meaningful touches than with the murmur of conversation that ran in tandem with the flow of the orchestra.

Masquerades.

Tony loved them for all these reasons and more. He loved the music that never stopped playing, an easy rhythm the entire room swayed to. He loved the heady scent of flowers that came through open doors, and the balconies just outside that led to private gardens. He loved the masks everyone wore— some nothing more than an eyepiece, others dramatic pieces of art complete with headdresses that flowed down into the costumes.

He loved the pageantry and the mystery and the lightheartedness and tonight more than anything, Tony loved the anonymity.

Usually one to stand out, to strive for the brightest and boldest costume, Tony was nearly invisible tonight, having traded his original costume for one that more matched his mood. Feathers in muted grays and browns ran the length of his cloak, swirling about his feet and mostly covering the black shirt and trousers he wore beneath. The mask was modified as to hide all but his lips, fingerless gloves served to cover the family crest inked onto his wrist. He kept to a spot at the columns that lined the outskirts of the room, seeing everyone and being seen by nearly none.

Invisible.  

And that was exactly how he wanted it.

It had been an act of sheer defiance, coming to the ball tonight. Howard had ordered Tony to stay home and to please not embarrass them any more than he already had. Maria had asked him with tears in her eyes to not make things worse, that once enough time had passed for everyone to forget, maybe then he could go back to dancing at the masquerades and parties and no one would think anything of it.

But tonight, please for tonight, they had told him to stay home. To take his wounded heart and tattered feelings and the lies and hide them away please please please.

But Tony was tired of hiding and he was tired of lying and he was tired of being ashamed of the way he loved– of who he loved–so he had switched costumes and snuck away from the house and come anyway.

Tony loved masquerades for so many reasons, and tonight he hated it for all the same ones.

Alone at the outskirts, he couldn’t help but stare at the couples twirling about the dance floor, laughing and smiling. He couldn’t help but notice pairs sneaking away to the gardens for a less than respectable rendezvous in the shadows. Each smile was happier than the next, every gown more lovely and every suit more dashing and Tony–

—Tony hated them all with something deep and awful and broken that seemed to rise from the edges of his soul.

It wasn’t right they should all be so carefree when Tony thought he might never actually smile again. It wasn’t right for them to laugh and dance and tease and live when Tony felt as if he might shatter to pieces if too stiff a wind came along.

The champagne flute in Tony’s hand threatened to crack his fingers tightened around the delicate stem.

It wasn’t right that he was on there dance floor, the one that had ruined Tony’s life with nothing more than a few words and a dismissive gesture, had laughed when Tony had begged, and walked away without a backwards glance.

Ty.

He was resplendent tonight in a suit of the palest blue and mask of purest white, a costume Tony had helped choose for him, the fit perfectly flattering from every angle. A man so close to a devil shouldn’t resemble an angel and yet he was beautiful as he danced with his wife, a petite brunette swathed in a purple dark enough to be as black as her heart.

She was giggling, head tipped back and pink lips parted in a laugh and Ty was laughing with her, hands that Tony knew intimately set possessively at her waist, holding carefully over the ruffles that hid a pregnancy she wasn’t ready to announce yet.

It’s said that there is a thin line between love and hate, nothing more than a breath between the moment a lover becomes an enemy, a nonchalantly twisted turn of phrase or too long a hesitation before a declaration of love, and what was once delicate and lovely suddenly becomes jagged and torn.

Tony saw that thin line looming before him as he tossed back the rest of his champagne and let the glass shatter on the stone floor. He charged right over the line as he started off across the ballroom, determined to grab Ty by the shoulder and to shake him. To demand in front of all who gathered at the masquerade that the silver tongued bastard tell the truth for once, just once in his miserable life.

It wasn’t right that Tony’s life as he knew it had come to a terrible sort of screeching halt, while Ty could still dance with his wife as if what had happened between them was nothing more than an inconvenience.

An inconvenience. Tony quickened his step, clenching his fists in anger. You cannot throw me away as if I’m an inconvenience.

He had almost made it to the dance floor and was just a few steps away from causing the scene that Howard had been so worried about, when a hand landed on his arm and a vision in green and blue stepped into his path.

Buonasera.” came the lightly accented greeting, and Tony looked down in surprise. “You look like a man who needs a drink.”

It took Tony a few seconds to gather himself from the unexpected appearance of the beautiful woman at his side, but he managed a stiff, “I don’t need a drink. Thank you all the same.”

“Oh, but I do.” Full lips tipped into a smirk and the hand at Tony’s arm squeezed lightly. “So be the gentleman I know you are and accompany me to find a refreshment.”

“I don’t have time for you, Madame.” Tony didn’t bother keeping the bite from his tone. “Nor do I have an interest in whatever you are offering, so let me be.”

The woman laughed then, a husky sound that gave Tony shivers despite his determination to get away from her. “Signore, you are a man with murder in his eyes. Surely you have time for a drink before you slit someone’s throat, hm?”

Tony startled, narrowing his eyes and taking a closer look at the woman, at the eye catching colors of the peacock styled dress, the mask filled with feathers and glitter that covered most of her face. “And who are you exactly?”

“That is a conversation that will be had over a drink.” The peacock said firmly, adjusting the jeweled neckline of her dress. “Shall we?”

Tony’s jaw clenched but he nodded. “Perhaps one drink.”

Offering his arm was a gesture more of habit than politeness, and Tony walked the mysterious woman in silence to the refreshment table, waiting without speaking for two glass of champagne, and not bothering to hide his stare over the rim of the flute and wanting to smile despite himself when she returned his gaze without blinking.

“You do not belong here.” Tony said after several moments of open perusal. “You speak Italian but with a Russian accent, you came to the masquerade as a peacock which would have been very fashionable last season but is out of style for this one. Your mask covers far too much of your face to be teasing which means you are using it to hide, and—“ he raised his eyebrows pointedly. “I know everyone in this room whether they are in costume or not, and I do not know you.”

Green eyes narrowed then sharpened, but Tony didn’t look away. “What’s your name?”

“I am not in the habit of giving my name to strange men.” Came the immediate answer. “And I’d wager that you don’t belong here either, not with the way you are skulking about the edges of the room like a dog kept away from the buffet table, pushed to the side so no one has to see you.”

“Pushed to the side.” Tony repeated, stung that the words were much closer to the truth than she knew, but forcing an edge into his tone to reply, “I’m surprised you noticed me at all, I was under the impression that peacocks were too vain to pay attention to anyone but themselves.”

“And yet we have a thousand eyes—“ she snapped open a fan of peacock feathers, the design bearing an unnerving similarity to a row of eyes staring at him. “— to see any and all things. Tell me, why are you dressed as an owl at a party full of birds of paradise?”

She motioned behind Tony to the myriad of couples dressed in bold colors, then to the hooked horns at the top of his mask. “was under the impression that owls were omens of death. Or was I wrong and you weren’t on your way to rip someone apart when I stopped you.”

She smiled curiously when Tony muttered a curse. “Mm. I thought so.”

“My intentions before this impromptu little meeting don’t matter.” Tony said bluntly. “Your name and your business with me, Madame, or I will take my leave of you.”

“My name and my business.” Another of those mysterious smiles accompanied by the offering of a slim hand. “Signore, my name is Lady Natalia Romanova and I am in dire need of a husband.”

“Lady Natalia—“ again, instinct and manners overcame his intentions and Tony kissed her hand before he fully realized what she’d said. “You are in need of a husband? You came to Italy from Russia to find a husband?”

“Indeed.” The Lady Romanova took a sip of her champagne, her tone blasé but gaze impish as she continued, “I hear the Italians are fantastic lovers and I consider that a desirable quality in a man I’d take as my own. Do take off your mask please, I’d like to know if you are as comely as I first imagined.”

“You are wasting your time with me.” The muscle in Tony’s jaw jumped as he ground his teeth together, suddenly sure that this was some sort of trick orchestrated by Ty, perhaps even by his father as a not subtle encouragement to forget what had happened and move onto something more socially acceptable. “I am not in the market for a wife.”

“No, I wouldn’t think you were.” Natalia conceded. “But you arelooking for a way out of here, aren’t you? And a wife would certainly provide you with a plausible escape.”

“Why would you say I’m looking for a way out?” Tony was suddenly suspicious, taking a closer look at the woman who barely came to his shoulder. Natalia was disarmingly small and looked nearly breakable if not for the steel in the green eyes and the solid set to her shoulders. This was not a woman to be trifled with, yet she was meandering through a masquerade in look of a husband?

No. Tony decided. No there was quite a bit more to the Lady Natalia Romanova, quite a bit more indeed. “Tell me, Lady Romanova. What have you heard about me that makes you so sure a wife is a solution to my problems?”

“I’ve heard exactly nothing about you.” A bare shoulder dusted with blue glitter rose and fell in a careless shrug. “And if I had, I wouldn’t care to listen. But you are not the only one standing in the corners and watching the lovers tonight. I am watching too, and out of every man in this room you are the only one who would rather be anywhere but right here, yet you torture yourself by being exactly here. I wonder why that is.”

Tony stiffened beside her, stubbornly not meeting Natalia’s gaze. “And I wonder why a titled beauty is reduced to trolling masquerades and approaching random men with offers of marriage.”

“Tis not so much an offer as it is a proposition.” She countered with another shrug. “Tell me why you were so intent on murdering the man in the white mask.”  

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” Tony closed his eyes and muttered an oath. “Why are you here propositioning for a husband?”

Natalia took a sip of champagne before answering, “My father left me many properties and business holdings, as well as quite a bit of money. However by virtue of my age and my gender–” Tony’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “– Don’t look so alarmed, I am of age. But in my country and because of the stipulations of my fathers will, I have to be older to take control of my own finances.”

She waited a beat and added, “Older or at least married, because despite my intelligence I am still a woman and most men I encounter think my worth begins somewhere around my thighs and ends just below my collarbone.”

“You need a husband to gain access to the money left to you.” Tony clarified. “Properties and that sort of thing.”

“Yes.”

“I’m supposed to believe this story?” He asked incredulously. “Supposed to go with you clear to Russia so you, a woman I have never met, can receive her inheritance? Even if I did believe you, what would be my benefit from this arrangement? How do I know you won’t just kill me after I sign the marriage certificate?”

“Don’t be so gloomy.” Natalia’s lips turned up into a playful smile. “I have no intention of doing away with you once I have what I need. I’m not a black widow, you know. Besides, there are stipulations for this sort of things, contracts that have to be fulfilled for marriages with in the nobility to be considered legal. As per my father’s will, to protect myself and the man I marry we have to be joined for three years before responsibility for the estates changes hands and before titles can be passed down to children.”

“Children.” Tony choked over the word. “You would want children?”

“I would expect at least a perfunctory attempt at creating an heir.” Natalia tapped at her bottom lip in thought. “However, I don’t consider an heir necessary. If you are in agreement, we could do away with that part of the contract entirely.”

“I still don’t see what I would get from this.” Tony pointed out. “I would have to leave my entire life behind, move to a new country, learn a new language, call you my wife and take on all the responsibilities of a husband. Three years you would need from me, and yet I don’t see a benefit on my end.”

“I am giving you the chance to leave behind whatever it is here that you hate so much.” She said plainly. “Whomever it is, whatever situation. We could leave tonight, you and I. The rumors will say you fell hopelessly in love with a mysterious Russian noblewoman at the masquerade, one who ensnared you with her red hair and considerable—“

Natalia cleared her throat, drawing her fingers lightly across her decolletage. “— assets and we ran away into the night together. We would be the romantic scandal of the season.”

Tony was silent, and she prompted, “What do you have to lose?”

He thought for a long moment about what he did have to lose. Howard’s censure? Ty’s cruelty that he had pretended was love for so long? The gossip and speculative stares and whispers and questions that had already started? The anger that was acid in his stomach, crawling up his throat and burning behind his eyes?

He had nothing to lose.

Nothing he would miss anyway.

“This is absolutely absurdity.” He finally said. “Only a mad woman would suggest something so outrageous.”

“And only a mad man would consider it.” she returned. “And yet, here we are.”

Silence between them again, Tony’s mind racing as he considered everything the Lady Romanova had said– god was he actually considering this?– and Natalia watching him closely for several minutes.

“I have nothing to lose.” Tony muttered, pushing the mask into his hair and covering his mouth with his hand. “My entire life is here and yet–”

Unbidden, he sought out Ty on the dance floor again, watching the man move through the steps of the waltz as if he were floating, nothing but power and grace and a slow smile that still made Tony’s traitorous heart beat faster in his chest.

Damn him.

Ty happened to glance up just then, his eyes widening in surprise as he saw Tony standing by the refreshment table, then narrowing in confusion when he saw Natalia there as well.

There was a flash of disapproval on the perfect features, a thinning of lips and clenching of his jaw and Tony felt that like a splash of cold water, jolting him from his thoughts.

This would be the last time Tiberius Stone would look at Tony as if he didn’t measure up.

“My name is Lord Antonio Carbonell Stark.” The words came a little stronger than Tony had intended, hardened by the anger brought back to the surface just by seeing Ty. “And yes, Lady Romanova. I’ll marry you.”

“Wonderful.” Natalia’s mask hid most of her expression, but her smile was extraordinarily pleased. “I have an officiant waiting for us in the city, we can be married tonight and leaving tomorrow morning if that is acceptable to you.”

Tony swallowed back the sensible part of himself, the part that told him to just go home and forget this nonsense, to listen to his mamma and let time heal his heart– he pushed that part away and nodded firmly. “Tomorrow morning is acceptable.”

“Excellent.” Natalia put her champagne down and stepped close enough that the brilliant colors of her skirt tangled around Tony’s legs, stark against the dark of his cape. “I think a kiss is in order to make things official, don’t you?”

“Why would I kiss you?” Tony didn’t mean to sound quite so surprised, or quite so harsh but he was more than a little taken aback by the suggestion. “What I mean to say is–”

“We’ve been standing here whispering for far too long to not be arranging illicit affairs.” She said simply. “Kiss me and we can leave and no one will think anything of it.”

Tony’s throat jerked as he swallowed nervously, and Natalia lowered her voice. “And also because the man in the white mask has been staring rather intently in our direction for some time now. I wouldn’t be so forward as to suggest that he was jealous–”

She arched a perfect eyebrow. “–but if I were a betting woman, I would think he was jealous.”

There was no censure in Natalia’s eyes, no judgment or disgust, nothing to make Tony feel ashamed that she might have guessed where his desires lay and why he had been so intent on confronting Ty earlier, so Tony took a deep breath and nodded jerkily.

“You– you are correct.” He bit out and Natalia made a noise of agreement, placing a hand at his shoulder and standing on her toes to bring the other through his hair, murmuring, “Then a kiss is most necessary, wouldn’t you say? So we are all aware of exactly who stands where in this little dance of ours?”

Tony shifted his focus just over Natalia’s head and sure enough, Ty was still staring at them, face turning redder with every passing second, his wife forgotten at his side. Even at this distance his anger made Tony want to cringe, to blurt an apology, to beg for forgiveness and–

No.

No, those days were over.

“You’re right.” Tony decided abruptly. “A kiss is practically necessary at this point, isn’t it?”

Natalia laughed quietly and stood taller to bring their mouths together, sliding both arms around Tony’s shoulders to pull him down and nestling her curvy body against his frame.

It was entirely inappropriate to kiss so brazenly in public, of course. Even at a masquerade, kisses were shared in the shadows or along the walks of the garden and not under the lights in front of the refreshment table for all to see, but tonight Tony didn’t care.

Tonight, Tony fit both his hands around Natalia’s slender waist and then let them drop lower over her hips, bringing her deeper into his body. Once their lips met, Tony surprised himself with just how badly he needed the physical contact– even a kiss from a stranger, from awoman, made him feel calmer than he had in weeks and he leaned into the embrace, sighing quietly when Natalia pressed closer to draw the moment out. .  

She was warm and soft, the light scent of her perfume filtering through the hurt and settling into his soul, soothing the edges of his heart ground so rough by his anger and when they finally parted, he gasped out something hoarse and needy. It wasn’t lust and it wasn’t desire but it was something desperate and maybe a tiny bit relieved, and Tony pulled away, blinking back tears that pricked the edge of his vision.

“My god, our man in the white mask ruined you, didn’t he?” Natalia’s eyes were wide with realization and Tony flushed in embarrassment, dropping his hands from around her waist.

“No no.” she murmured, a flicker of sympathy across her expression. “Do not be embarrassed, dorogoi. I won’t say anything again.”

Natalia stepped a little further away and raised her voice to something high and breathy, giggling and snapping open the fan again as if needing a moment to settle herself. “So very pleased to meet you, Signore Carbonell Stark!” She said loudly enough for any passersby to overhear, letting her Russian accent come through thick enough to be unmistakable. “I have half a mind to take you home with me! I do hope your wife isn’t here at the masquerade.”

“You’re very good at that.” Raw from their moment together, Tony retrieved his champagne with shaking hands. “At pretending.”

“You’re rather good at it too.” True to her word, Natalia didn’t bring up what had happened earlier, that brief moment where Tony had nearly crumpled in her arms. Instead she smoothed a few wrinkles from her dress as if fussing that the kiss had wrinkled it and commented, “You should smile though. Most men don’t look quite so upset after kissing a beautiful woman in a daring dress, especially if that woman is his fiancée.”

“Right.” Tony forced a wry smile to his face and raised his glass in a faux cheers. “To the future Lady Carbonell Stark.”

“To the future Lord Romanov.” Natalia corrected with a wink, and clinked her drink with his before finishing it in a single gulp. “Shall we away, then? The night is escaping us and we have much to do.”

Tony took one last look at the ballroom, at the dancers and the musicians, at Ty and his wife and the others and reached for Natalia’s hand. “Let’s go. I’m done here.”

**************

Tony only took two bags with him when he left, packing them hastily so he could be out of the Stark Manor and back to the carriage waiting at the end of the curved drive.

The carriage and his fiancee, that is.

Several of his favorite books and a few pieces of jewelry that were Carbonell family heirlooms as well as a Stark signet ring went into a small bag next to a picture of his mother and father, and one of just he and Maria. Tony’s warmest clothes and coat went into the larger bag, and he made room for a few of his nicer pieces as well, not knowing how long it would be until he could have more clothes made and not knowing what he would need when they very first arrived in Russia.

A cursory search through his desk, and Tony packed a few letters from his friend James who was off fighting the war, a set of wax and seal, paper and envelopes and various writing utensils.

And then he came across the stack of letters from Ty, correspondence between lovers that Tony had treasured as promises of a future, poetry and sketches of their life together, words that had once given him so much joy now nothing more than ink bleeding through thin paper and smudging with his tears onto his finger tips.

Every single letter was tossed into the fire, the satin strips melting away to nothing, the ink flaring briefly before dissolving into ash, and Tony dashed the tears from his face as he turned away, wishing whole heartedly that memories disappeared just as quickly.

The very last thing Tony did was to start a short note to his mamma so she wouldn’t worry about him, and he was midway through a lie about falling in love when Maria tapped at his door.

“Mama.” Tony startled when he saw her. “You’re home. I thought–” He gestured lamely. “I thought you and Papa had gone to Aunt Margaret’s for the night.”  

“And I thought you weren’t going to go to masquerade.” Maria said quietly. “But you did anyway, didn’t you? Why are you home so early, Antonio?”

“I felt as if I overstayed my welcome.” Tony tossed the half written note in the fire as well. No use leaving it now. “Difficult to enjoy a party with all that’s been happening, you know.”

Maria’s dark eyes flitted over to the hastily packed bags and her expression crumpled, her voice catching as she asked, “Where are you going, mio figlio? Surely you aren’t leaving me?”

“I’m going away for a while.” Tony didn’t want to lie to his mama, not to her face, so he tried to keep his answers as vague as possibly. “I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but I’ll be sure to send a letter so you and Papa don’t worry.”

“Please stay.” Maria whispered, holding out her hand to her son. “Antonio, things will be better, you just need to give it time. Running away will not fix a broken heart, nor will it change the truth. Stay here at home and we will face this together.”

“Things will be better?” Tony repeated, a sickening surge of anger tightening in his chest. “Things would be better if you and Papa had believed me, or if you had taken my side against Ty and that wasp he calls his wife. Things would be better if I could walk into a room without Papa turning his back! Things would be better if–”

He stopped abruptly, shaking his head. “It doesn’t matter, Mama. I’m leaving. I have a chance to escape and I’m taking it.”

Antonio–

“I met a woman and I am marrying her.” Tony cut in, and Maria flinched away from the despair in his tone, the hopelessness and resignation that dragged the words. “She needs a husband and Papa thinks I need a wife and in a year or two, you might even have a grandchild to make you smile again. Everyone gets what they want.”

“Sweetheart, no matter the circumstances, neither your Papa nor I would never want you to be so unhappy.” Maria took a step closer. “Do not force yourself into whatever this lie is because you think you don’t have any other choice. Give it some time, Antonio. When the spring comes no one will even remember what happened and no one will–”

“I can’t stay here, Mama.” Tony’s voice cracked and tears came to Maria’s eyes. “I can’t stay here and feel Papa’s disappointment. I can’t watch you pretending like nothing happened and I can’t go through my days as if I’m whole when I’m barely holding on to my sanity. These last few weeks have been–” he shook his head. “I can’t even sleep, do you know?”

“I know.” Maria nodded. “I know you don’t, but–”

“I loved him.” Tony whispered, staring down at his feet so he wouldn’t have to see Maria’s reaction. “I loved him and he cast me aside like I was nothing and I can’t stay here. I can’t do this every day, my heart—”

Not trusting himself to make it through the sentence without breaking down, Tony forced himself to fasten his bags, slinging the larger one over his shoulder and holding the smaller in his arms.

“I will write to let you know I’m alright.” He bent to kiss his mama’s cheek, trying not to cry when she grabbed at his shirt. “But I have to go now. You understand why I have to go.”

Antonio!”

“Bye, Mama.”

Tony didn’t let himself look back as he jogged down the front steps of his childhood home, didn’t let himself look back as he climbed into the carriage and settled into the seat across from Natalia.

“Are you ready, then?” she asked, noticing but not commenting on the redness in Tony’s eyes, the way he folded his arms tight around his body as if trying to hold himself together. “Everything alright?”

“Everything’s fine.” Tony lied, closing his eyes and laying his head back against the carriage seat. “Let’s just go.”

****************

The wedding ceremony was short and simple, nothing more than a few words said by an officiant who looked halfway to terrified of the tiny woman in front of him, darting confused glances at Tony as he directed them both to sign the marriage certificate.

When prompted for rings, Natalia produced two gold bands and any other time Tony might have wondered why his new wife was so prepared with rings, but tonight had been so strange he was beyond asking questions.

It took nothing more than a signature and a seal of legality and Antonio Carbonell Stark was a married man, rushing through the night with his new bride to catch a train headed for the border.

As the train pulled away from the station, Tony stared out the window and watched his home disappear behind him. Everything he had ever known, his friends and his family and the places he had learned to read and write. The orchards he had played in and the gardens where he had discovered love, the river he had daydreamed by and the stars he had spent nights memorizing.

His entire life was lost from view as they rounded a corner and tracked towards the mountains and Tony wondered for a brief second if he would ever come home again, if he ever wanted to come home again and it scared him that he didn’t know the answer to either of those questions.

Lost in his thoughts, Tony didn’t notice Natalia moving towards the back of the car, taking a seat next to a man dressed all in black and whispering quietly in Russian.

“Have you heard from my brother?” She asked, and when the man shook his head negatively, she cursed under breath. “He needs to come home.”

“He will not be happy about this.” A motion towards Tony. “You taking another husband and bringing him into our lives. This was not a wise decision, not after what happened to the first one.”

“If my brother was here like he was supposed to be, I wouldn’t have had to take another husband!” she hissed. “Do you think I wanted this?”

“Do you think he knows?” another nod towards Tony. “Do you think he suspects anything about you?”

“There’s nothing for him to suspect.” she said shortly. “I told him enough of the truth that I didn’t have to lie. Besides, he is running from something of his own, he is too busy with his own secrets to worry about mine.”

“You’re sure?” the man queried. “Because if he starts asking the wrong questions–”

“I’m well aware of what will happen if he starts asking the wrong questions.” Natalia folded her arms stubbornly. “Let us all hope it doesn’t come to that.”