Nine years before
I woke with a start, the air from the open window thick with humidity. I hated the fact my mother preferred fresh air, requiring us to keep our windows open a good portion of the year. Perspiration trickled down both sides of my face, the stench of my own sweat as thick as the mugginess in the room. I rolled over, glaring at the neon red lighting of the clock. Three-ten a.m. Almost every night for the past month I’d awakened at exactly the same time.
Groaning, I tossed to the other side, staring at the crack underneath the door. In two days, I’d leave for the university. Two days. My brother, Alexei, had graduated a year before, regaling every day he’d spent in the brutal regimen as having been an heir to a fabulous throne. Now he was handling operations for my father, learning every aspect of our business, determined to take over when the time was right.
As the youngest, I was only given the privilege of attending because of who my father was. The Pakhan, the notorious leader of the Bratva in New York. No one challenged him. Whether saints or sinners, politicians or other Mafioso families, they all knew how dangerous he was. They called him unhinged. That’s what I adored about him.
However, I was itching to spread my wings, not kowtow to another set of rulers. The university was special, creating monsters out of boys, coaxing them in how to become ruthless leaders. Now I was going to join the ranks.
Sighing, I tried to will myself to sleep, closing my eyes once. Then I heard a noise. Jerking up my head, I continued to stare at the darkness underneath the door, only I was now able to see shadows. The sweeping sensations of danger hit me once again. Someone was passing by my door, coming from the stairs. I crept out of bed, moving toward my dresser and removing my Beretta. I’d been taught to shoot before I was finished with little league baseball, my father insisting I understand both the power and responsibility of using a weapon.
I heard a creak of floorboards only a few feet away from my room. My parents’ wing was on another floor entirely. Only my sister, Tatiana, and I remained at home, Alexei just purchasing his first New York City condo and our oldest brother Viktor spending more time in Russia handling business than in the US. I moved to within inches of the door, taking my time turning the knob, pulling it open a few inches.
There was a light, only I could tell it was coming from a beam.
Someone was inside the house. We were surrounded by my father’s soldiers, the house wired to the gills with security measures, but with the open windows, it was still possible for someone to get inside unseen.
Keeping low, I moved into the hallway, both hands on my weapon, following the source of light. While it was possible my mother was checking on Tatiana, who’d been sick lately, the bad feeling churned in the pit of my stomach. I remained silent until I noticed Tatiana’s door was open.
When I heard a muffled cry, I reacted instantly, rushing into the room. I didn’t need a light to tell me that two men were attempting to abduct my sister. No one touched her. I’d protected her for years, fighting off bullies, beating several until they were left close to death. These two bastards would never be allowed to touch her. I wasted no time, pulling the trigger twice, catching both men off guard.
Their bodies slumped, one falling directly over Tatiana.
I rushed forward, noticing the bastard still had some life left in him, the barrel of his weapon placed against my sister’s forehead.
“Savi!” she moaned.
The fucker grinned at me, the wash of moonlight highlighting his evil expression.
No. Fucking. Way.
I managed to yank him off her just a split second before the gun was fired, wrestling him to the floor and knocking his weapon away by several feet. I issued hard punches, one after the other, but still the man remained alive. As I fought, I was finally able to aim the pistol, but the fucker snapped his fingers around my wrist, his enormous size giving him the advantage. He was fighting to shove the weapon under my chin. Fuck, no.
I butted his head with mine. He groaned, managing to roll me over, using the heel of his hand, snapping it under my chin. Pain tore through me, but I ignored it, scrambling to get out from under him. I jammed my fingers into his windpipe, able to jerk away, gasping for air. We both jumped to our feet, but he lunged toward me before I could get off another shot.
Tatiana screamed, the sound of terror echoing.
“Run, Tat. Run!” I hissed, but she wasn’t moving. Goddamn it.
He threw a punch then went for my sister again. I was finished with the asshole.
The man was huge, outweighing me by at least fifty or more pounds. My mother called me a late bloomer, my slight frame making me appear much younger. However, I’d been required to train hard in martial arts, easily dragging the man off the bed and onto the floor for a second time, wrestling with him for only a few seconds before I had him in a choke hold.
Then I popped three more shots into his head.
“Savi!” she yelled over and over again.
All hell seemed to break loose, sirens going off outside, the sound of male voices floating in through the windows. I tossed the asshole aside, lifting her away from the carnage and backing away from the window.
“They were…” she sobbed, her fingers clamped around my neck forcefully. “They were going… to hurt… me.”
“Sshhh… You have to be quiet,” I whispered in her ear. “There could be more of them.”
The moon streaming in through the window allowed me to see her nod. I heard thumping from the floor above. My parents were awake. For all I knew, the entire house was crawling with enemy soldiers. I wiped blood from my face, trying to figure out what the hell to do. Where were our damn men watching the house?
There were more shots, at least six.
She was still crying, trying to wrap her leg around me. “Listen to me. I have to find out what’s going on.”
“No! You can’t leave me.”
“Tat, I have to.” I walked her toward the closet, keeping my weapon pointed toward the hallway. Then I opened the closet door as quietly as possible. My father had special panic rooms build in every bedroom and several other locations. I’d called him nuts. Now I wanted to praise him. Once inside, there was almost no way to penetrate the area. My sister hated it, the drills my father had insisted on giving her nightmares for weeks, but I had no other choice.
“No, please. Please. I’ll hide under the bed.”
I forced her onto her feet, shaking her so she’d listen to me. “You don’t understand. If they capture you, I’ll never see you again. I promise I won’t be long.”
“Have I ever broken a promise to you?”
She shook her head. The motherfuckers were going to pay for terrorizing my sister. Tears continued to run down her cheeks, her entire body quivering. I gently pushed the concealed button, cringing when I heard another two shots. They were far too close for comfort.
While she tried to be brave, I could sense every emotion, the horror that wouldn’t leave her for a long time. When she was safely inside, I closed the door then bolted toward the hallway, peering around the door jamb. I heard footsteps coming up the stairs and turned toward them, lifting and holding my weapon in both hands.
“Prendi il bastardo,” one of them hissed.
My mother screamed.
When the second asshole fired, I was forced to jump back, the bullet slamming into the wall next to me.
Italian. Jesus Christ. The damn Mafioso was attacking us. I didn’t hesitate, popping off several rounds, the rage boosting my adrenaline. I jumped over them just as they dropped to the floor, racing up the stairs. Our soldiers were still MIA, which wasn’t a good sign. While I knew the staff would be hiding in their rooms, the men my father employed as enforcers should have broken down the goddamn door by now.
As soon as I made it to the landing, I noticed my mother out of the corner of my eye. She was fighting with one of the assholes who was trying to pin her down. My mother was small but mighty, able to handle herself in almost any situation, but not this time. She yelped, trying to kick him. I moved forward without hesitation, smacking him against the side of the head.
Then I popped three shots into him. This was getting out of hand.
My mother was able to kick him off, gasping for air as she crawled up the wall.
“Your father. I think he’s been shot.”
“Are there more of them on this floor?” I asked, already heading toward their bedroom, pulling her behind me.
“There were three, but two of them left.”
Reaching down, I tossed her the asshole’s weapon then headed into the bedroom. My father was on the floor facedown. “Papa.” I rolled him over, fearful he was gone. Blood covered a portion of his tee shirt, but from what I could tell, he’d been hit in the shoulder. “Wake up, Papa.”
I had to find out what we were dealing with. I grabbed my father’s phone from the nightstand, then moved to the window, darting glances outside. Even with the moonlight, it was impossible to tell if there were more. I dialed my father’s main enforcer. Sergei was always on duty. He never left his post.
“Where the fuck is everybody?” I tried Ivan. No answer. Then Josh, the only American my father had decided to trust. He’d become my best friend over the last few years even if he was a few years older. He’d pledged allegiance to my father without hesitation, protecting my family as if it was his own. We’d played football together, my father too busy to toss a ball with me. Hell, the man had shown me boxing moves better than any of the other soldiers could issue.
He wouldn’t die. He was too mean and tough.
“They’re dead, my son,” my mother croaked, terror crawling into her voice.
“No. Josh is alive. He has to be.”
I slowly lowered the phone, the echo as it rang and rang and rang pounding into my ears. Whenever my mother used the term ‘my son’ it meant she was either furious or distraught. Tonight I knew it was both.
I turned toward her, taking gasping breaths. She was shaking, her breathing so hard I was worried. And her face. I didn’t need light to see the same terror in her expression I’d seen in Tatiana. I was going to kill the fuckers. The ringing continued. Then someone answered.
“I have a message for you.” The voice wasn’t one I recognized, husky and rough as if the man had smoked four packs of cigarettes every day of his life, the broken English difficult to understand.
“What?” I barked, fisting the phone with enough force the plastic case cracked.
“Now, we’re even.”
One massacre for another. Blood spilled. Lives lost.
The fucker had just killed my friend.
The war waged on between our families, all in the name of total control over the city. Hissing, I glanced at the screen then tossed the phone across the room.
The Vincheti family would soon learn nothing was over.
Far from it.
The war was just beginning.
Six months later
There was nothing good about the season. Pollen. Allergies. Fucking flowers. Who the hell liked flowers anyway? I’d been called back from the university, forced to attend a function with my father. It wasn’t that I minded getting away from the ridiculous power plays that occurred every day on the campus, but I also didn’t want to be reminded of the carnage that had happened inside the house.
There were far too many new faces, the men replacing those who’d lost their lives while trying to protect ours. My father had even hired a bodyguard for Tatiana, as if that had helped her nightmares. She’d written to me often, letters that were full of anguish, begging me to come back. I couldn’t help her or return on a permanent basis until I’d received my degree.
The house had been redecorated, the grounds swept of any sign that six people had been murdered in cold blood, but that couldn’t hide the ghosts lurking in the darkness. I shook my head, glaring out into the garden.
Nothing could change that night and the fact my father hadn’t started a war pissed me off. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t wanted to return home. He’d always handled business before anything else. Why he’d held back I couldn’t understand. I’d wanted to crush the Italians, destroying everything and everyone they cared about, but my father had refused. He’d even been hesitant to allow me to return for Christmas. Tatiana had begged him, wanting nothing else under the tree.
Now I stood in my father’s office, waiting for his arrival. Whatever big event he wanted me to attend, he’d spelled out exactly what I was supposed to wear. A dark suit, crisp white shirt, and red tie, complete with the black onyx cufflinks embedded with our family crest. Who the hell was he trying to impress?
My father walked in without hesitation, his long strides putting him behind his desk within seconds. He appeared well, completely healed from the gunshot wound. When he leaned over his desk, I realized he’d never look healthier in his life. He’d even gotten some sun on his face.
“We don’t have much time, son, so I’ll cut right to the point. You’re a man now. You more than proved your worth with how you handled the invasion.”
My father rarely gave compliments.
“Thank you, Papa.”
“Now that you are, it’s time you have the glory of working with me on an important mission.”
“Maybe that’s the wrong word to use, but it will help change our future.”
“What are you talking about?”
He looked away briefly. “I’ve waited for months to retaliate against the Vincheti family.”
“Why did you wait? Why not tear them apart?”
“It’s called patience, son, and the right opportunity. Continuing the war will solve nothing. Innocent lives will be lost and even I won’t tolerate women and children being killed because of our need for power.”
“Does that mean you have a plan?” I was pissed. Was the old man getting soft?
My father took a deep breath, moving to his full height. He was a formidable man, not necessarily in size but in stature. I hoped to command a room like him one day.
“One that will bind us together and stop the bloodshed.”
“Bind us together? Why in the fuck would you want to do that?”
“Don’t you raise your voice to me. I am still your father!” He pointed his finger at me, fury in his eyes.
“Yes, sir.” I knew when not to cross him.
He moved to the couch, grabbing his jacket. There was a small bag positioned underneath it, bright red foil with a silver bow. What the hell was he planning on doing?
“I’m making a business arrangement with Cesare Vincheti. Before you say anything, I assure you that it will be lucrative for our family. It’s also in everyone’s best interest.” After putting on his jacket, he brought me the bag. “This is a gift for Giada Vincheti. She’s turning thirteen today. You will keep her company when I propose my plan to Cesare.”
“I don’t want to spend time with some kid.”
He moved even closer, staring me in the eyes. “Ty budesh delat, kak ya skazhu!”
You will do as I say.
My father was from the old country, while I’d been born in the States, often abhorring our family heritage. He’d forced every child to learn Russian both in speech and in writing. His inflections indicated he wouldn’t hesitate to issue harsh punishment if necessary.
“Fine.” I grabbed the bag from him, trying to realize that my father never did anything without a significant reason.
“Now, we’re going to remain civilized during our visit.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will, my son. Within minutes of arriving, you’ll learn that sometimes mest’ luchshe podavat’ kholodnoy.”
I knew the term but was surprised he’d used it. Revenge is best served cold. He’d been formulating his plan for some time.
“Remember, be civil, Sevastian. It’s important for the future.”
“I look like a fluffy princess.” I glared into the mirror, making ugly faces. “My God, I’m not a child. What the hell was Mother thinking buying me this damn dress?”
Isabella laughed as she continued to fluff my hair. “No, you don’t, silly. You look beautiful. And you better shush. You don’t want Papa to hear you cursing.”
I glared at her with fake hatred.
Beautiful described my sister. She was tall and lanky, her long dark hair silky, not the mass of curls I’d been born with. Our mother once told me I’d come out of her womb with a full head of hair. She should have shoved me back inside, asking for a different daughter. I was an ugly duckling. Even though no one had told me that in the family, they didn’t have to. I was picked on and bullied at school, at least until my classmates were told who my father was.
Important, powerful mafia leader.
Then they’d avoided me altogether.
I knew who and what my father was even though my parents had attempted to shield me from business. While Isabella had gotten the looks, I’d gotten the brains and the musical talent, as well as continuous curiosity. But she had the boys. Lots of boys. I only wished I was turning eighteen instead of thirteen.
I made another face then turned away from the mirror. At least I didn’t rip the pretty pink dress into ribbons. Our mother wouldn’t like that. She’d begged me for once to wear a dress. It wasn’t that I didn’t like dresses as much as it reminded me how ugly I was.
“Don’t give me that look, Giada. You’re going to have a great time today. Daddy pulled out all the stops.”
“I won’t know anyone.”
“I think he invited some of your friends.”
“How many friends do you think I have? Be honest with me.” When she didn’t answer right away, I rolled my eyes.
Izzie patted me on the shoulder. “Just remember that every life needs a celebration. Enjoy your day.”
“Besides, most friends are bitches anyway.” She pulled a face, holding in her laughter.
She could always make me laugh, this time no exception.
I walked toward the window, staring out at the huge tent my mother had insisted on. It was springtime. The flowers were blooming. I didn’t want to be stuck inside a nasty tent.
“Did Valentin arrive?” I asked, studying the waiters who really did remind me of penguins. Guests had already started to arrive. I bet they were drinking champagne, which I couldn’t have. Although I’d snuck a glass last night without my parents finding out.
“I think so. Niccolo and Salvatore are already here. Only Dominik hasn’t arrived from school.”
My brothers. They were all super protective, far too much so. I could take care of myself, but no one had allowed me to try. Valentin was my favorite. He treated me like a small adult instead of a tiny baby. While I was close enough to all of them, only Dominik and I didn’t really get along. He’d changed since being sent to the university. He’d become dark, angry, and more like my father.
“Let’s get this over with,” I said, running my fingers through my hair one last time.
“Don’t! You’re going to mess it up.”
I raked my fingers through my hair on purpose, walking by her and tossing my head.
“You are such a brat, Giada Vincheti.”
While I tried to keep my head held high, I was still cringing inside. All the pomp and circumstance over one little birthday seemed ridiculous. I moved through the kitchen, swiping one of the ham rolls.
I noticed my grandmama out of the corner of my eye. For a tiny woman, she managed to round the corner of the kitchen island in a flash, the look on her face stern.
“Quelli sono per gli ospiti!” she scolded, shooing both Isabella and me away from the kitchen.
“Grandmama. Did you really tell the birthday girl that those are for the guests?” Isabella asked, pretending shock. She knew exactly how our grandmother was. A total perfectionist. With the recent opening of the family restaurant, La Travitorria, she’d become even more that way, checking up on every detail.
Her stern look shifted immediately, opening her arms and pulling me into a hug. “Happy birthday, our baby girl. Soon, you’ll be all grown up, married with children.”
“Married? Children? I don’t think so.” Ugh. It’s not that I didn’t like boys. I had my eyes on a guy at school, but he was considered a real bad boy. I believed marriage was a useless, ancient custom that had no place in modern society. I planned on having multiple boyfriends, tossing them away when I got bored. The thought made me smile.
While I hated the words, I adored my grandmother.
“Now, go. Go!” She shooed us away in order to finish the preparations.
“Psst. You’re on your own, sis. I see a juicy boy I think I’ll introduce myself to.” Isabella was painted, poised, and perfect. As she headed off, I realized I’d never felt so alone.
“Hey, birthday girl,” Niccolo said, tousling my hair just like he’d done for years before walking away. Since he’d gotten a girlfriend, he rarely came over.
When I noticed Valentin, I launched myself in his direction. “Brother of mine.”
“Oh, you look beautiful.” He lifted me off my feet, swinging me around. “I might have a very special gift for you later, but you have to pretend like you like the party.”
“Who says I’m pretending?”
“Um, I know you. Remember?” He put me down, the twinkle in his eyes the same as always.
We both noticed Father coming in our direction. For some reason, he looked stressed. “Valentin, why don’t you come into my office?” He finally seemed to notice I was standing right there, giving me a slight smile. What was wrong? Business today? I hated that they always worked. Always.
While Valentin winked, my father glanced around the room nervously. Whatever was going on, I was far too young to be told. They’d tried to shield me from the business, but I’d seen and heard enough to know exactly what they did, all of them. Only my sister seemed oblivious to the power and influence. Or maybe she just didn’t care.
I was left to fend for myself. After grabbing a Coke, I meandered outside, giving the obligatory hellos to various friends of the family. At least the present table was already packed. I grinned, thinking about the crazy gifts I usually received. Last year I’d received two dolls. Two. I turned twelve, not four. Oh, well. Maybe this year I’d get cash, lots of hundred-dollar bills. The people who attended these soirees were all rich. They could afford it.
The strains of music captured my attention, although it made me frown.
My mother had even hired a band this year, no more DJ like I’d requested. I glared at the getup, wanting to run far away. Everything seemed normal, like a big fancy party and nothing more, but there wasn’t a single thing about our life that was normal. There were guards everywhere, always watching, guns strategically placed for easy retrieval. However, it wouldn’t be good to scare the vanilla guests.
At least a half an hour had passed and I hadn’t seen my father. Mama was busy attending to her guests. I was truly all alone. I moved off the deck, heading toward the garden. I called it my happy place, especially in the springtime. Here I could breathe, pretend that I was someone else, a girl with a normal family.
I sat down on one of the wooden stools, staring at the fountain my mother had insisted on. It was pretty enough but it always made me feel melancholy and I wasn’t certain why.
A few seconds later, I sensed I wasn’t alone. I had no reason to be afraid, but I simply didn’t want to be bothered. I’d be in the spotlight soon enough. I decided to give the mysterious person the cold shoulder. Maybe they’d go far away.
I didn’t hear anything, but still refused to look in their direction. Then I heard a sound, a light plopping as something was tossed into the water. That finally drew my attention. I thought I was the only one who threw pennies into the fountain.
The boy standing only a few feet away wasn’t someone I recognized. He was tall, although not nearly as much as my brothers, his blond wavy hair striking in color. While he wasn’t looking in my direction, I gathered he knew I was there. He had a package in his hand, a delightful red foil bag, which meant he was the son of some senator or other rather worthless individual. At least he looked nice, handsome in fact. Then again from this angle I couldn’t see his face.
“What did you wish for?” I asked, unable to stand the silence.
“A wish will not come true if you tell someone.” His voice was deep, the tone slightly dangerous.
“I won’t tell anyone.”
He laughed softly.
“I wished that the world belonged to me.”
“Wow. I just wish for a new pony or an Xbox.”
He obviously caught my sarcasm, shooting me a look. Instantly, I was taken aback by the stern, cold expression on his face.
And his ice blue eyes.
There was something dangerous about him, as if he knew his place in the world and was doing nothing more than waiting to grab it in his hand. He was attractive but I sensed he was the kind of boy I should stay away from, even though he seemed to be the most intriguing boy that I’d seen for a long time.
“You must be Giada.”
He knew my name. I wasn’t certain whether to be thrilled or incensed. “Who wants to know?”
Narrowing his eyes, he walked closer. He exuded power, everything about him stark and haunting. When he was only a few feet away, I gathered a whiff of his aftershave. I bet he made all the college girls swoon. Well, he wasn’t my type, even though I didn’t have a type. Very slowly, he lifted his hand, presenting the bag.
“Sevastian.” He stated his name with as much authority as his body carried. “This is for you.”
“You don’t even know me. I don’t take presents from strangers.”
Chuckling, he moved even closer. “What about all those presents over there? Do you know everyone who gave them to you?”
He had a point. “Maybe. My father is an important man.” As if that mattered in the least. I was itching to grab the bag, but I tried to have some restraint. Finally, I couldn’t resist. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Does your family always have huge birthday parties?”
I laughed this time. “My mother would celebrate every holiday with a huge celebration if Father allowed her. Trust me. I don’t like them much.” I untied the ribbon, more eager than I should be to find out what was inside. The black velvet box made it seem very special. The one thing I did love was jewelry. I’d gotten that from my mother. As I lifted the box into my hand, I sensed he was watching everything I did. When I opened the lid, I couldn’t have been more surprised.
But Sevastian was absolutely shocked, muttering something under his breath that sounded like a foreign language.
I had no idea what to say. The piece was exquisite, rubies and diamonds all nestled together in a stunning necklace. They glittered in the sunlight, prisms of every color glowing. “This is beautiful. Why?”
“I don’t know.”
Frustrated, I picked it up, allowing the jewels to roll through my fingers. He was breathing rapidly, so much so I dared glance into his eyes again. They were still cold, even more so than before, hatred dancing in his irises. “I don’t know if I can accept this.”
“Nonsense,” he stated. “Stand up. Allow me to put it on for you.”
I’d never felt so awkward in my life, but I rose to my feet, turning around, every muscle tense as I lifted my hair. He was surprisingly gentle, easing the necklace over my head and around my neck. Being so close to him was suffocating. I was attracted to him, even though I shouldn’t be. He was far too old for me. Not that my parents would allow me to date. They’d already told me not until I was eighteen.
He seemed to take his sweet time, which irritated me.
“There. Let’s see.”
When I turned around to face him, everything seemed to be so quiet around us. No chirping birds, no sounds from the band. We were locked in a moment in time, searching each other. A cold chill trickled down the back of my legs, my throat tightening. He nodded once, indicating he was satisfied.
There was a strange, awkward tension between us.
“Do you want to take a walk?” he asked, the tone roguish instead of harsh. That allowed me to turn around, planting a fake smile on my face. Why would he want to talk a walk with an ugly girl when he could have my sister? It surprised me he seemed genuine, his features softening.
I debated his request, glancing toward the house. Good girls never went on walks with boys unescorted. At least that’s what my mother would say.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea. My mother will undoubtedly need me soon enough.” Why, oh, why couldn’t I be that bad girl just once? Just once!
A look of mischief crossed his face. “That’s not fair.”
“It’s my birthday too and you didn’t get me a present.” His eyes twinkled as he made the statement, his smile beguiling, my resolve crumbling.
Frowning, I gave him a hard look, the one that always got me into trouble. “Nice try.”
“I’m serious. I admit it, birthdays aren’t huge in my father’s house, but it is the truth.”
I chewed in my lip, darting a glance toward the party. It didn’t seem like anybody was missing me. At least I had someone to talk to.
Do. It. Do it. Do. It.
“Sure. Why not?”
As we started walking, an odd tension formed between us. I had no idea what to say to him. I’d detected a slight accent, although I couldn’t place from which country. I guess it didn’t really matter. I probably would never see him again.
“Are you in college?” I asked, just trying to break the ice. He led me past the garden toward the grassy area. A huge bank of trees surrounded the property. I knew we wouldn’t get far before we ran into one of the soldiers guarding the property. They wouldn’t allow us to go any further. There was a strict perimeter I couldn’t cross.
“Yes, the university.”
“Just the university.”
Oh, great. Did he take me for some kind of stalker? “What are you studying?”
“Combat scenarios, accounting, martial arts, leadership skills.”
I frowned; it sounded an awful lot like the one Dominik had been sent to, although I thought his had an actual name. Still, I was no dumb girl. He was purposely keeping the information from me. “Fascinating.”
“It can be, although I find all the pomp and circumstance of it boring. What are your plans for the future, Giada?”
“I’m going to be a famous musician.” The statement had a dramatic flair and I tilted my head, fluttering my hand.
“Oh, yeah? Rock and roll.”
A giggle burst to the surface. “No, silly. I’m going to Julliard one day. I’m a violinist.”
“Interesting.” He didn’t seem interested at all. In fact, he seemed just as bored to death as being in his classes.
“What about you? What are you going to become? Some infamous lawyer?”
“Oh, hell, no. I’m going to take over my family’s businesses, becoming the leader. That might take me a few years, but it will happen.”
“Oh, that’s nice. A family business.” The conversation was far too awkward, but there was something about him I liked. He seemed to be a loner like me. He was well dressed, well spoken, and seemed to have manners. That was unlike every other boy I knew.
“It’s dangerous but that’s what makes it exciting. Do you like danger, Giada?”
“As much as the next girl.” Oh, yeah, lie to him. I wouldn’t know real danger, my world was so completely protected.
“Somehow, I don’t think you’re like other girls.”
“No, I’m not. I’m not frilly, as my mother would say. I’m the girl who prefers climbing rocks instead of playing with dolls. It drives my mother crazy. She says I could find a mud puddle anywhere including in the desert.” I heard the angst in my voice and cringed.
As we stepped onto the pathway leading into the forest, it seemed like something changed that I couldn’t put my finger on.
“That’s not a bad thing. There is no Prince Charming and we don’t want to track down a goddamn glass slipper.”
“I’ll keep your advice in mind if and when I allow a boy to enter my life.”
He laughed, more jovial than before. “I hope you do.”
We walked in silence for another few paces.
“I love the forest. The trees. The scent. Don’t you?” I tipped my head, watching him. It seemed like he was searching for something, antsy.
Sevastian took a deep breath. “The forest is where people can disappear.” He turned toward me sharply, giving me a hard look.
I suddenly felt uncomfortable, as if he was here under false pretenses. “The forest is where you can be anybody you want to be.”
“Really?” He walked closer.
I backed up.
He came even closer, his long, muscular legs in my periphery of vision.
I took two long strides backward, hitting a tree. Then I laughed from seeing the sly smile on his face. “Who are you, Sevastian?”
“I’m not certain you want to know the answer, printsessa.”
I froze, suddenly realizing where he was from. Russia. A sick sense pooled in my stomach even though I was drawn to him. “I do. I always want to know the truth, no matter how ugly or demanding.”
He planted his hand on the tree, giving me another hard look. I tilted my head, making certain he knew he couldn’t intimidate me.
“What do you wish for, Giada?” he asked, the tone of his voice changing altogether.
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me your greatest dream.”
“I… Just music. That’s all.”
“You can wish for the whole world. There must be more you want, something you haven’t told anyone.”
This was a bad idea all the way around. I shot out from around him, racing deeper into the woods, going off the path. I wasn’t really trying to get away from him, but I’d never even kissed a boy until the little peck I’d forced on him. I was terrified he’d make fun of me like everyone else. I looked over my shoulder. He was following alright, but walking normally, his hands in his pockets.
I zigged and zagged, finally laughing. He wasn’t going to let me go. What did he really want?
After a few seconds, I looked over my shoulder again, still laughing. I suddenly felt free, as if this was the perfect taste of becoming older. Determined to hide from him, I bolted forward. Then I tripped over something.
When my feet left the ground, I yelped, coming down with a hard thud. Oh, dear God, if I tore the dress, my mother would kill me. Pain tore through my shins and hands. Gasping, I tried to catch my breath.
Then I realized what I’d tripped over.
A man was… lying in the…
I jerked back, only to find another body, blood everywhere. Gasping, I almost started to hyperventilate, struggling to understand what I was seeing.
Then I knew.
I crawled forward, scrambling to get to my feet, catching sight of two more. They were my father’s men. They’d been murdered. They were all dead. Dead.
I turned around only to see Sevastian standing a few feet away.
And he was smiling.