Clearing my throat, I shook my head. My emotions were in turmoil. I not only have let Valerie down, but I didn’t save Irina when I could have.

“Look at me,” I pleaded one more time.

The silence stretched. The seconds ticked by. I waited. Finally, she lifted her head up. Irina stared at me with soulless, dark brown eyes. Her once flawless face had bruises and cuts. They were healing nicely, but I knew once they were gone, new ones would take their place.

My gaze traveled south, and where the collar was attached to her neck, I noticed that her skin was red, almost scratched raw. Her hair was a mess, cut short to her neck and in different angles, almost like it had been chopped angrily.

Her jaw clenched and then her lips parted, as if she wanted to speak. She breathed through her nose and then swallowed hard.

“Konstantin,” she whispered.

I hated that fucking name with a passion. Shaking my head at her, I spoke firmly. “Never. I am never going to be Konstantin again. It’s Viktor. Viktor Ivanshov. From now on, to you—I am Viktor.”

She cocked her head to the side and regarded me with those dark eyes. It was almost like I was staring at my own empty, tainted soul.

Irina gave me a small, tight smile. “It was right there. Right in front of you, Konstantin, yet you refused to see it.”

My throat closed and the invisible weight tightened on my chest at her words, and I looked down, almost ashamed at how much her words rung with the bitter truth. Swallowing hard, my tongue felt heavy in my mouth. My voice sounded rough to my own ears when I finally spoke. “How long?”

Irina stared at me for the longest time before replying. “I don’t even remember. It’s been so long that I have lost count.”

She gripped the blanket and huddled more into its softness. Her bleak eyes closed, and she let out an aggrieved sigh. “I was twelve when I was taken,” she whispered softly. I almost missed the words and I almost wished I did.

It fucking hurt. More than I thought it would.

Standing up, I paced the room in frustration. My fists clenched at my sides, and I suppressed the urge to break something—to fucking kill.

From the corner of my eyes, I saw Irina stand up. Her body heavily sagged against the wall, as if she were in pain. Seconds passed, and she finally took a trembling step forward.

“I was an orphan, running away from a cruel, adoptive system, but I ended up in a hellhole instead. Wrong place. Wrong time. They saw me. In a blink of an eye, I was taken away. Blindfolded, drugged, and then I woke up in a cage.”

I stopped pacing and turned to face her. She looked down at her feet, lost in her thoughts.

“It’s known by many names. The Game. Bloodhound. But the club itself, where all the ringmasters sit, it’s called—The Kingpin.”

Irina looked up, our eyes meeting. She trapped me there, forcing me to see her truth. Her voice cracked when she spoke. “It’s where the arena is. Where the game takes place. Where we are sold, bought, used, and discarded. It’s where the masters make millions a night.”

This—this was Valentin’s business. This was where his money came from. What his Empire was built on. This was his source of power and exactly what I had to bring down. What Alessio needed me to destroy.

“Go on,” I urged, wanting to know everything. I had to know.

Her fingers touched her shackles, and then she dropped her arms down to her sides. I could see her body was weak, fragile, and weighted down. A wilted flower. She reminded me so much of my myshka—my sweet Valerie.

“When something bad happens, your heart argues with you and your brain becomes a messy place. At first, I was confused. Thought it was just a dream and I’d wake up and all of it would disappear,” Irina continued, her weak voice sounding far away through the roaring in my ears. “I was lucky that I was twelve. At least I understood what was going on. Not all, but most of it. I knew something bad was happening. I knew it was going to hurt. I was prepared for it. I knew my life ended the moment I was drugged and blindfolded the first time.”

She looked up again, and I saw tears in her eyes. Her face was void of any emotion, but those tears brimming in her eyes gave her away.

“What about those who are just babies? As young as seven years old?” she murmured. A tear slipped down her cheek. “They knew and understood nothing. They went from being safe to being thrown in the den of The Kingpin. An arena they would never survive. They scream for help. Scream loud for their mommy and daddy to save them. They beg and cry. Nobody came to help, Konstantin. Little girls and boys. Nobody heard their cries.”


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