“Which one do you like the best? The red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting? The vanilla one with strawberry filling? Or perhaps the devil’s food chocolate cake with dark chocolate whipped cream frosting. My personal favorite is the lemon cake with raspberry jelly filling myself,” the older woman droned on. I didn’t fucking care which one was her favorite. I didn’t even know her name. She might have told me what it was. Maybe she hadn’t.
Honestly, all these stupid cakes tasted the same. It really didn’t matter to me which one ended up at the reception tomorrow.
I just had to choose. Again.
One seemingly endless decision after the next until it all came together in one perfect day of happily wedded bliss.
Only it wasn’t. It’s not like I had a choice in whether I wanted to get married to begin with. That’s the one choice that had been taken away from me from the very start.
As soon as I turned eighteen, the wedding planning had started, and it never fucking stopped. Choosing the wedding dress had been a hassle and that had just been the beginning. I must have had at least three fittings since that day and I still had another one this afternoon, after the final flower check and last-minute seating arrangements. The wedding venue had wanted to know what color tablecloths and curtains I’d wanted months ago. And all that only scratched the surface to the infinite amount of detail that went into planning a wedding of this magnitude.
“I don’t want it. Any of it,” I scoffed.
“What was that, dear? Should I prepare more samples for you? I’ve got plenty more scrumptious recipes that you can taste,” the woman blurted out. She was desperate to please us. Maybe my father had threatened her and her family. Asshole.
“Keri, pick a cake,” my father demanded, his voice dropping down to a dangerous level.
This wasn’t the first time we’d had this conversation, but the contract had been signed more than ten years ago. My marriage to Anthony Battista had been arranged in order to barter an alliance between the Esposito family and the Battistas. The hope was that once our families were tied together, we would garner more power than ever before and hopefully offset the multiple blows we’d experienced recently from local law enforcement.
Only I didn’t want to do it anymore. I’d never even met Anthony. I’d seen his pictures throughout the years, but my parents had kept us apart on purpose. I’d never even talked to the man I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with.
I wanted out. I needed out.
“Just do as you’re told, Keri,” my mother replied. Her voice was shaky. I glanced at her, unable to hide the disappointed sneer on my face. Under the harsh light of the bakery, I could tell that her makeup was extraordinarily thick around her right eye today. My father had probably given her a black eye last night. Over the years, I’d learned to tune out the screaming matches between the two of them, but sometimes the reigning silence afterwards got to me. She’d learned a few tricks to hide the bruises and evidence of his abuse in their time together, but I knew they were there. I knew what he did.
He’d never raised a hand toward me, but I always feared that might change without much warning.
“I don’t want to do it. I’m not going to marry Anthony,” I said firmly.
The older woman cleared her throat. She was an innocent. She wasn’t tied to the Esposito family, nor was she a Battista. My mother had chosen her because she was one of the most talented bakers in New York. It was rumored that she baked for the wealthy and famous and even once catered a reception for the Queen of England.
“Why don’t you give us a moment,” my mother said nervously, and a look of relief flooded across the baker’s face.
“Just give me a holler. I’ll go prepare a few more samples just in case,” she whispered, her voice strained with fear. My father smiled in her direction, but it did nothing to alleviate the situation. If anything, his tight-lipped tension only seemed to make matters even more terrible.
The reigning silence felt thick as she took her leave. Once the door closed, it felt ten times worse. Now I was alone with my mother and my father. No prying eyes to see what happened behind closed doors and that felt infinitely more dangerous.
“You don’t get to make that decision. It’s done. The ink has been dry for a long time, Keri. Your wedding is tomorrow. You will walk down that aisle. You’ll take your vows, and you will marry Anthony Battista whether you like it or not,” my father said unsympathetically.
“You don’t own me. I’m a legal adult. I have rights. You can’t sell me off to the Battistas like a fucking prized cow,” I snapped.
“I can and I will,” he countered, his voice harsh.
“I didn’t sign that contract. You don’t have my agreement. I don’t consent to this,” I replied furiously.
My father’s gaze darkened slightly. My mother kept her eyes down, refusing to meet mine. I knew she wouldn’t defend me, but her silence still hurt. She knew I didn’t want this. I’d told her at least a dozen times hoping that somewhere deep inside, she wanted to protect me and save me from a loveless marriage to a man who I never met. She didn’t say a fucking word and I knew if she didn’t now, she never would. She was weak. I hated her too.
“You will marry Anthony tomorrow. I don’t care if you are unwilling. I’ll force you down that aisle myself if I have to,” he snarled.
“I won’t do it,” I growled.
“You will or else,” he replied angrily.
“Or else what? You’ll hit me? You’ll give me a black eye like you did to Mom last night?” I yelled. I didn’t care that my voice was beginning to carry. I no longer gave a shit whether the baker could hear me or that I was airing our dirty laundry to the public in a way I’d never done before.
“I’ll do what I have to do,” my father spat as he stood up so hastily that his chair clattered to the floor. The resulting echo was loud, and for a moment it all went silent as I prepared myself to fight for my own freedom.
“So will I. You forget I know who you are, Father. You’re a mobster. A fucking criminal. A murderer. A drug dealer. I could go on and on with each and every law you’ve broken. All I need to do is put in one anonymous tip to the right people and I could take you down. You think I’m naïve, but I know the names of your businesses. I know the names of people you use to launder your money, to sell your drugs. I listen. I observe. I remember because I knew that someday that knowledge may prove useful should I ever need to go against you,” I spat back.
The darkness in his eyes grew pitch black. This was the face of a killer, a person that didn’t hesitate to order someone’s assassination or pull the trigger himself. The true kingpin revealed himself to me at that moment and I steeled myself against the danger. I took my growing fury and held onto it like a vise, using it to fuel my brazen show of power. I was a mobster’s daughter, his fucking daughter, and I wasn’t going to show him a single moment of fragility.
Without a second’s hesitation, he grabbed my arm and tore me out of my seat. He threw me backward and I slammed into the wall, knocking my head hard enough to make me see stars. I cried out and instinctually bowed forward. My fingers flew to the back of my scalp, trying to assess the damage as my head rang from the impact.
No blood. My head spun. It would likely bruise, but there would be no lasting effects other than a nasty headache. I squinted, narrowing my eyes with fury.
“You wouldn’t fucking dare,” he roared.
“I would,” I spat.
His gaze took on a dangerous gleam and for the first moment, I felt myself falter. He took advantage of that single precious second and slammed me back against the wall by my throat. His thick fingers curled around my neck and I squeaked in surprise.
It was clear that he held my life in the palm of his hands. If he squeezed just a bit harder, he could end me and the look in his eyes told me that he knew it too. He’d done it before.
My mother said nothing. Not a single god damned word.
“You will sit down and choose a fucking cake. I don’t care which one you choose, but you will choose one. Then your mother and I will take you to your dress fitting and you will go without a fuss. After that, we’re going to go home, and you will go to your room where you will spend the rest of the night thinking about how expendable you are to me. If you even think about picking up that phone to call the cops, I won’t hesitate to slit this pretty throat myself. I don’t need you to barter an alliance with the Battistas; you are just the simplest solution. You’re replaceable. There’s plenty of girls in the family that I could marry off. Know that you’re not special, you worthless cunt,” he sneered. His fingers grasped a little bit tighter, as if his words weren’t enough to send a message. The pressure was just enough to cut off a portion of my breath. Any tighter and I’d lose the ability to breathe at all.
I stared into his eyes. He was deadly serious. I’d played my hand and lost. He had been dealt the winning suit that topped mine by a long shot.
I swallowed, knowing that I had been defeated. I couldn’t win this battle against him, not by myself and not like this. My father had too much power over my family. He wouldn’t make that kind of threat in jest.
I had to know when to fold and that time was right now. I still had the next twenty-four hours to figure out my next move. I’d come up with something. At least, I hoped I would.
Slowly, I nodded with understanding. I didn’t say anything because I was afraid that my emotion would show in my voice and I wouldn’t be able to hide my fear. He narrowed his eyes at me one last time and finally released me, acknowledging that I had backed down. My fingers rubbed at the skin of my throat, trying to force away the feeling of my own father’s cruel hands against me.
I sniffed back my emotion, storing it away so that I could do what was expected of me. In silence, I sat back down at the table and stared at the mini cakes set before me. I glanced at my mother once, seeing the way she had her hands clenched desperately together, so much so that her knuckles had turned white. She was shaking. I turned my eyes back to the samples because it was too much for me to bear. She would never help me stand up against him and I let go of that improbable hope once and for all. I would need to think of something else.
My father cleared his throat once more.
“Go get Mrs. Clement for us now, Stella,” he said to my mother. She rushed out of the room, almost like she couldn’t wait to get away from us. I stared at the door after she left and the hair on the back of my neck rose as his hand pressed against my left shoulder. I waited for him to hit me, but the blow never came.
“Keri, I mean what I said,” my father said coldly. There was zero emotion in his words. I was simply a business transaction for him now.
“I know,” I whispered.
“Family is important to me, but I don’t tolerate disobedience. Never forget that,” he said harshly.
“Yes, Father,” I spat, playing the part of a dutiful daughter the best that I could.
The door opened again, and the elderly baker returned. She smiled, but her face was tight as she gazed back at me and my father. He removed his hand from me, and she tried not to show that she noticed, but I saw it anyway in the way her breath caught in her throat. At least someone here was concerned for me.
“Have you decided on a cake?” she asked, her voice exceedingly strained. I chewed on the inside of my cheek for a moment, before I finally forced myself to answer.
“What’s the most expensive one?” I pressed, lifting my eyes to face hers.
“The lemon cake with the raspberry frosting. I use only the best organic fruit in the making of that one,” she answered plainly. Her gaze shifted from mine to my father’s and back. I lifted my chin, refusing to let my emotions show.
“Then I’ll take that one. We can afford it,” I replied. I saw my father grimace just a touch beside me, but it didn’t matter. If he wanted to sell me off like a prized horse, he was going to have to pay for it.
The rest of the day dragged by. The fitting went as per usual with the seamstress poking me with one needle after the next. The best part of the whole thing was that my parents had to sit outside the dressing room until it was over, so I had at least two hours of blessed peace other than the woman rambling on and on about how pretty a bride I was going to be. I mostly tuned her out, thanking her periodically so I didn’t hurt her feelings.
When it was over, my parents and I returned home. I disappeared into my room once we arrived. I spent about an hour listening to music before dinner was brought to my room. It was small, a caprese salad as well as a limited selection of meats and cheeses, but I enjoyed every last bite as I tried to figure out what I was going to do. After I was finished, I sat down at my desk and opened my laptop.
For the much-needed distraction, I clicked to my favorite gossip blog, escaping into the lives of celebrities gone wild, and when I began to scroll I came across a familiar name that had always been a quiet source of fascination for me. I paused, staring at the headline just beneath his picture.
He was a name that had gaining increasing attention over the years. He was a very rich man who had inherited a great deal of money but had used his knowledge to increase that original amount at least a hundred times over through a number of wise investments, business deals as well as his own software corporation. I never really paid attention to the details of his professional affairs though; I was more interested in the gossip train that surrounded him.
Sugar Daddy or Devoted Boyfriend
I gazed at his picture and found myself lost in those deep brown eyes for a moment. He was a good-looking man. Really good looking. The kind of man who plagued your dreams at night and left you feeling wet and needy when you woke up in the morning. In his early thirties, he was devilishly handsome. With dark hair and a dark well-trimmed beard, he looked like the type of man who liked to be in control. More important, though, he looked like the type of man who could take care of a woman.
Rumor was that he liked things like that. Some of my favorite blog entries talked about his relationships with women, that he liked being a sort of sugar daddy for them. He dated a range of women with all sorts of incomes, but there was one common theme to all the threads that talked about the breakups.
He liked when a girl was naughty and liked to deal with it in the bedroom.
Earlier this year, I’d had the opportunity to meet him once and he was every bit as handsome as his picture. He was kind and when I’d stumbled in my heels when I’d walked by him, he’d been the one to catch my arm and steady me. I remember the moment his eyes had met mine, full of concern and something else. We’d only exchanged a few words, but I’d remember them forever.
“Are you alright, little girl?”
“Yes. Thank you, sir.”
“Perhaps a shorter pair of heels next time.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“See that you do.”
His returning smile had made my mind go to places where it most definitely shouldn’t have that night.
I’d fantasized about him ever since.
My hand faltered as an idea suddenly came over me.
Jaxon Blackwood was a man with money and means. Maybe he could help me. There were plenty of rumors through the grapevine that he was something of a powerhouse himself. I’d heard his name mentioned many times in the Esposito inner circle and even outside of it.
Perhaps he could rival my father and stop this awful arranged marriage from ever happening in the first place.
In seconds, a plan began to formulate in my mind.
I glanced outside my window. It was past seven o’clock and it already dark outside. I pushed myself up from my desk and walked over to my bedroom door. As quietly as I could, I turned the lock. Then I grabbed my remote off the nightstand and switched on the television, turning it to one of my favorite movies so that if anyone walked by the room they’d think I was inside. Without hesitation, I strode over to my window and opened it wide, looking out at the backyard. My room was on the first floor of the house, which would make this easy.
This wasn’t the first time I’d snuck out of the house. I knew what I was doing.
I quietly sat on the window ledge and lowered myself to the garden beneath it. I was dressed in jeans and a dusky gray sweater, which would be hard to see in the growing darkness. I followed the line of the house, making sure to dip below each window until I reached the back corner where the fence line was closest to the building. I glanced up and made sure no one was watching before I made a mad dash for the entryway to the side garden. Once I was safe from prying eyes, I climbed over the much shorter five-foot brick fence using a nearby tree in order to make my escape.
Once I was free of my family home, I walked hurriedly down the street and called my best friend Ashleigh. Her mom was a world-famous designer and now she was putting together her own line to show to the world. Her name was featured on many of the gossip blogs too, but I knew the real her and she knew the real me.
“I need to see Jaxon Blackwood,” I said as soon as she picked up the phone.
“Oh?” she asked curiously. “Are you finally brave enough to ask that hottie on a date?”
I could feel myself blushing at her words. This wasn’t the first time I’d talked about him.
“No,” I lied.
“Liar, liar. I know you just want to ride his face,” she accused me playfully.
“You know him, right?” I asked. This time I ignored her teasing, and she giggled quietly because of it. My face felt red hot as I waited for her to reply.
“He’s a friend of the family, yes,” she answered evasively. She was enjoying this maybe a bit too much.
“I need to see him tonight. I want to ask for his help,” I finally relented.
“The night before your big wedding, huh?” she said softly. “Getting cold feet and want to try out someone else before you’re trapped by the marriage ball and chain?”
“Maybe,” I muttered. “Do you think he’d be able to help me?” There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that she understood what I meant. We’d known each other since we were in diapers and had been attached at the hip ever since. She was the one person I could trust implicitly and her the same.
“Just tell him your story and he’ll take care of it for you. Tell you what. Why don’t I come get and bring you to Jaxon? Meet you at our favorite coffee shop?” she said quickly.
“Thanks, Ash. I would really appreciate it,” I replied, and she cleared her throat.
“A word of advice though. He won’t offer his help for free. Just know that,” she said.
“I get it. I won’t forget this,” I offered.
“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” she said softly. I could tell she was worried about me and I chewed my lip.
“See you shortly,” I replied, trying to smile as I did so.
“On my way,” she said, then she hung up and so did I.
Her words resonated with me long after the phone call ended, and I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about what the cost of his help might be.
When Ashleigh finally pulled up in her blacked-out Range Rover outside our favorite coffee shop, I climbed inside, sipping a caramel macchiato I had purchased while I was waiting for her in a sad attempt to calm my nerves.
It hadn’t worked.
“You look good,” she murmured.
“Thanks, bitch,” I smiled, and she pulled away from the curb. After that, she drove out of the city into the surrounding suburbs.
I was quiet and she didn’t push me to speak. She knew me well enough to recognize when I got lost in my own head and this was one of those times. She was the only one I’d talked to regarding my reservations about the marriage and the only one I trusted to keep that information secret.
I didn’t pay much attention to our location as she drove and when the car finally slowed down, I looked out the window to see that we’d entered through a large steel gate. I expected to see a small community behind it, but there was only a single massive white mansion up on a hill. The landscaping was elegantly done and when we pulled up to the house, the doorman opened the front door for me, and I climbed out of the car. I looked back at Ashleigh and she smiled gently, giving me the opportunity to speak first.
“I’ll talk to you again tomorrow, either at the wedding or not,” I whispered. Her face lit up with a smile.
“You better, bitch,” she countered lightly, and I laughed. She always seemed to know what to say to brighten my mood no matter what and I adored her for it.
“Now go get what you need,” she added as her smirk grew even wider with her own amusement.
I just shook my head as I closed the door and my nervousness returned almost twofold as I watched her drive away.
It was time.
With an anxious sigh, I strolled up to the house where the doorman was waiting to lead me inside. The interior was just as luxurious as the exterior, but I could hardly focus on it because my thoughts were so horrendously consumed with the man I was here to speak with.
The butler led me to a seating room that felt like a comfy study. There was a small desk in the corner and a number of soft leather couches to relax on. It had a certain subdued elegance to it that spoke to power and money and masculinity all at once.
“Mr. Blackwood will be with you presently,” the man announced, and I nodded.
“Thank you,” I whispered as I tucked my hands in my lap. I tried to think of what I would say, but when I heard the sound of footsteps coming my way I sucked in a nervous breath. I pressed my hands against my thighs and lifted my head, focusing instead on the problem at hand rather than the incredibly attractive man who was about to walk into the room with me. The door opened and I lifted my gaze to see him stride inside, a certain curious expression painted all over his face.
“Miss Esposito,” he purred, and a shiver of excitement raced across my skin.
“Hi there, Mr. Blackwood,” I replied a bit more cautiously than I meant to.
He was just as attractive as I remembered. His presence was distinctly overwhelming, and I found that I couldn’t look away. His thick brown hair looked like he’d run his fingers through it a few times, but it only added to the authoritative aura that surrounded him. His brown eyes met mine, consuming in their intensity. I couldn’t help but notice that his beard was well kept, and I found myself wanting to run my fingers along its edges. My gaze dropped to his hands and I swallowed heavily, watching as he flexed his fingers as he took a seat on the couch across from me. A simmering heat arose just beyond reach deep within my core and I only vaguely identified it as arousal. My pussy tightened greedily, and for a second I stopped breathing as I processed my building desire. He’d only said two words to me, and I already knew I was wet.
It felt so different to be here alone with him with no one else to see us and all of his attention focused solely on me.
With a hard shiver, I remembered myself and forced myself to meet his eyes once more. I was here for a reason and I had to remember that, no matter what my body decided to do.
“I must say, your visit is quite unexpected,” he added, and I stared down at my hands for a second before I was brave enough to look at him again. He’d cocked his head to the side and was studying me more intensely now.
“I need your help,” I finally managed to breathe. With every word, I felt a little stronger. By the time I finished speaking, my voice wasn’t shaking anymore.
He quirked an eyebrow upward.
“Why me?” he asked. There was a twinge of annoyance in his voice. I hadn’t expected that, and I floundered a little bit to answer him.
“I’ve heard that sometimes you solve problems for people, and I was hoping that you might help me solve mine,” I ventured.
“I see. There are lawyers for things like that, Miss Esposito,” he offered instead. “I can give you the name of mine and you can go on your way.” He moved to get up off the couch and I rushed to answer him.
“That’s not the kind of help I need,” I replied hurriedly, deciding that bluntness was likely the best course of action.
“Is that so?” he mused. I’d piqued his interest at least somewhat from what I could tell.
“Please. Call me Keri,” I said softly as I adjusted my jacket so it exposed just enough of my cleavage. His eyes dragged down to my breasts and then back at my face again. If it enticed him, he said nothing.
“As you wish, Keri,” he replied rather dispassionately.
“May I call you Jaxon?” I asked. He nodded in response and I ventured a cautious smile in return. My fingers played with the ends of my hair and I chewed at my lower lip. My attempts at seduction were mostly ignored, but I still continued anyway. At this point it really couldn’t hurt, right?
“What kind of help are you looking for?” he pressed, still too serious for my liking.
“Why don’t I tell you about my problem over a drink?” I coaxed, trying to flirt with him just a bit more because I thought maybe he might like it. Maybe that would loosen him up a bit and calm my nerves a little in the process.
He stood and walked over to a small bar I hadn’t noticed in the corner. He didn’t ask what I wanted. He just uncorked a bottle of red wine for me, poured a rather healthy portion, and handed it to me. After that, he returned to his seat.
“Are you going to have one too?” I asked anxiously.
“No,” he answered rather bluntly.
“Oh.” I chewed my lip again, feeling more anxious than ever.
“Now, tell me why you need my help. I’m a busy man and I have things to do,” he directed. His hands flexed and my mouth went just a little dry as I imagined what they could do to me once more. I took a small sip of the wine he’d given me and put it aside, hoping it covered up my nervous curiosity as he studied me. I tried not to squirm under his scrutiny. I crossed my legs, but I couldn’t stop the anxious shaking of my right foot as I tried to figure out where to begin.
“Do you know my father?” I asked him.
“I’ve heard of him,” he answered evasively.
“Do you know how he typically conducts business?” I pressed further.
“Some of it,” he replied in such a way that I had trouble reading him, so I just decided to go for it and give him my father’s full story.
“He’s a mobster. A mafia kingpin. He breaks the law, traffics drugs, launders money, and sometimes trades in people and even kills them to get what he wants,” I said plainly this time. It wouldn’t help me to skirt around the issue. I had to be blunt.
“I’m aware of the questionable legality of much of what Richard Esposito dabbles in,” he responded. I sighed with the slightest hint of frustration. He didn’t seem any more interested in helping me than he had been before. Maybe I needed to make this more personal. Would it help if he knew more about me?
“When I was six years old, he decided to barter with me. He signed a contract with the Battista family. Had it formerly drawn up with a team of lawyers to arrange my marriage to the boss’ son, Anthony. The wedding was to take place six months after my eighteenth birthday,” I began.
“And has it?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“When is it?” he pressed. Still, he didn’t seem particularly interested so I decided to push it.
“Tomorrow,” I answered.
“I see. Go on,” he replied. There appeared to be a glimmer of curiosity in his eyes now.
“You see, I’ve been having second thoughts about going through with it. I didn’t sign any contract. I didn’t agree to resign my life to a loveless marriage and when I told my father I wouldn’t go through with it, he threatened to kill me. Not only that, but the Battista family did too. I’m scared and I hoped that you might be able to help me,” I explained.
“Your father threatened you?”
This time he sat forward, looking at me intensely as he pressed his elbows to his knees. I’d finally caught his interest and I decided to continue.
I told him about the cake tasting earlier that day. I didn’t leave anything out from the moment he threw me against the wall and put his hands around my throat. Jaxon’s jawline tensed just the slightest bit and I breathed a tiny sigh of relief at the small sign that he was finally beginning to really listen to my story.
“Who in the Battista family threatened you? Was it your husband-to-be?”
I nodded tentatively. His interest had peaked at my father’s malice, so I decided to embellish my story a little bit. I’d never met Anthony, but it didn’t matter. I decided to lie so that it would increase my chances of earning his assistance.
“His name is Anthony Battista. He’s not a nice guy either. When I was at my final dress fitting earlier today, he called me. News must have gotten to him about my reluctance to go through with the whole thing and he wasn’t happy. He told me that he would take me in his bed tomorrow night and that he’d take me whether or not I was his wife. He promised me that he’d make me regret it if I refused to marry him tomorrow and he didn’t care who saw the bruises after that. He told me if the wedding didn’t happen as expected, it would eventually and that I wouldn’t have a choice,” I said, lying my ass off with every word.
“And what would you have me do, Keri?” he questioned, his eyes searching mine. His gaze was harsh, and I looked away, unable to keep eye contact with a man as formidable as him.
“I want you to take care of it,” I replied boldly, putting all of my strength into every last syllable.
“Are you telling me the truth?” he asked, cocking his head to the side.
“Of course I am,” I responded.
“You wouldn’t lie to me, would you, Keri?” he asked.
“No. I’ve told you everything. Will you please help me?” I added carefully. I looked up at him through my lashes, hoping I looked the part of a girl in need of a big powerful man to protect her. If it affected him at all, he didn’t let it show. I schooled my features, trying not to reveal that his lack of reaction bothered me. Was I not pretty enough for him? Was I not in enough danger for him to want to protect me? Did he not want me at all?
“I’m going to make a few calls and see what I can do. If I find out you’re lying to me, you’ll be in trouble,” he answered, and I tried not to let it show how very much that unnerved me. At the same time, though, something deep inside me leapt with interest at his veiled threat.
What was going to happen next?