The savage thud as the asshole hit the concrete wall somehow managed to echo in the damp space. Two of my soldiers waited behind me, hungry dogs eager to chomp down on the remnants of a steak bone. I flexed my hand, chuckling from the ridiculous thought crossing my mind. What did I care if my knuckles bruised? I was used to pain.
As the lying sack of shit slid down the wall, I took a deep breath, glancing at my watch. Dealing with the bastard had made me late for a meeting with Franco, something I abhorred. My brutal adopted father refused to accept excuses.
And so did I.
As the underboss for the DeLuca Cosa Nostra, it was my responsibility to handle our enemies in whatever method I chose.
But I had more fun with the dirtbags who attempted to betray us. Not one had gotten away with a single tangled round of deceit since I’d ascended to the position. I took my job seriously, my adopted father ensuring I had all the skill necessary to become a killer. I crouched down, lifting his head by his hair. The man was out cold.
I’d gotten shit from him, but that’s what I’d expected. He was a low-level player in the scheme of things but I wouldn’t be crossed in any way.
I pulled away, flexing my fingers. Then I heard a shuddering sound coming from the traitor. I twisted my head toward him, curious as to what excuse he could provide. When his eyes opened, obviously searching for me, I hunkered down inches away.
“What?” I snarled, uncertain I cared what he had to say.
When he gripped my wrist, I was surprised at the strength he still had left. His ashen face hinted at the agony he was enduring.
“What?” I barked a second time.
“You’ve… been…” His head rolled to the side, stealing the last of my patience. I shook him, lowering my head.
“Say it, you fuck. What?”
His eyelashes skimmed across his bruised cheeks before he managed to open his eyes. His manicured fingernails clawed my skin, his forceful actions creating another wave of rage. “You’ve… been… betrayed.”
Inhaling, I ripped his hand from my arm, pulling away. I’d been told several times someone in my organization had betrayed me. The warnings had yet to come to fruition. When his head rolled to the side again, his breaths more labored than before, I hissed.
“What do you want us to do with him, boss?” Sergio asked. The brutal man had been by my side for years, one of the few people I could trust.
Standing, I raked my hand through my hair, turning around to face them. “Finish it. Then cut him up and dump the parts in nicely bowed packages on Romano’s doorstep.”
Giuseppe Romano was the same age as the man I learned to call my father, the two men once considered friends. Now they were bitter enemies in a sea of them, sharks waiting for chum to be tossed into the cesspool for a feeding frenzy. There were five crime syndicates located in Italy, all claiming to be top dog. The truth was the old ways and methods of doing business were quickly being replaced with the use of computers and social media. Meanwhile, the old dogs refused to change, handling business as they’d done two hundred years before.
What I couldn’t have was any information regarding our shipments, either legal or under the table, getting in the hands of the Bratva. The scum was also considered a viable threat, more so over the last few months.
“You got it,” Raphaelo said far too eagerly. The bastard lived for slicing and dicing. I gave him a hard look before taking long strides out of the crumbling building located on the back of the estate. For as long as I could remember, the small building had been used for severe acts of punishment, the stone so thick the sounds of anguish couldn’t be heard.
I should know. I’d spent several weeks of my life being chained to the wall, whipped until I slipped into unconsciousness. All for the sake of making me who and what I was today.
A monster whose rise had been fueled by the blood of my enemies.
My soul had vanished at least ten years before, which allowed for a lack of guilt regarding the men who’d died by my hand and my orders.
Smiling, I jumped into my Maserati, heading for the main house. The estate was massive, olive trees lining the miles of roadway within the five hundred acres. While it was beautiful in the daytime, the lush greenery highlighted by pots of vinca and petunias in vibrant colors of fuchsia and deep violets, it was the darkness that appeased the ache inside.
I pulled to a hard stop just outside the front steps.
As soon as I jumped out, I noticed my youngest brother was in a rush leaving. Tomaso was a good kid who’d been born into a sordid world. He threw out his arm, a boyish grin on his face as I slapped my hand against his, ending with a fist bump.
“Called to the old man’s lair, huh?” he asked.
I laughed as I glanced at the front door, half expecting to see Franco waiting not so patiently. “Summoned is more like it.”
We laughed together but I sensed he was more troubled than usual. “He’s in a foul mood. I think a war is brewing.”
“There’s always a war brewing, little brother.”
He shook his head. “He and Mattia have been at each other’s throats for days.”
Mattia was Franco’s other blood relation, a man who would kill to ascend to the throne.
Even though the wealthy kingdom had been promised to me.
“Don’t worry about it. Concentrate on your studies.” I’d been the only one to encourage him to stay in college, his own father demanding his return to the fold.
“Don’t worry,” he said, grinning. “I won’t succumb to the old man’s commands. Gotta run. Hot date. That’s something you should consider yourself, much older brother. You’re not getting any younger.”
I acted like I was ready to throw a punch then laughed. Dating was out of the question. Marriage not a possibility, even if I’d been pushed more than once to have a son, heir to the Cosa Nostra.
As if it wasn’t my choice.
After watching him leave, I moved inside and into Franco’s office, immediately heading to the bar. Mattia seemed more agitated than usual, glaring at me the moment I walked inside.
“You obviously don’t care about family meetings,” he snarked.
“Leave him alone,” Franco barked.
The patriarch of the family looked weaker tonight, more tired than he’d been in a few days. There was no formal greeting, no kiss on the cheek. But he knew I was there, his breathing more labored.
I walked in front of his desk, surprised when he jerked his head up, staring me in the eyes. There was something different about them I couldn’t put my finger on. He walked from around his desk, giving me a once over before speaking.
“What is this meeting about?” I asked, tossing Mattia a hard glare.
Franco took his time responding, catching his breath.
“You are a killer, even your hands weapons. You’re well trained, highly intelligent, and you belong to the DeLuca family. Your thoughts. Your emotions. The need to exact revenge burns in your blood,” the still powerful man hissed as he moved around me in a complete circle. His words were always prelude to a massacre. “You will become a force to be reckoned with.”
“Christ,” Mattia said under his breath.
“Enough!” Franco was angrier than usual.
I shifted my gaze toward the son of a bitch, my chest heaving as my adopted father’s dark words sparked another round of the type of anger that had consumed me long before. I said nothing, but a darkness festered inside me, a hunger so intense that my mind had difficulty processing anything but thoughts of what he was saying. How many times had I handled a situation for him, relieving this earth of a cockroach bent on destroying the DeLuca family?
How many times had I thought about putting a bullet in his sadistic head?
“You are also the heir to my entire regime. You’re the only one capable of handling my empire when I’m gone. The time for your savage reign is near. There is a single test of you remaining, but one that will determine your resolve. Once complete, you will have your entire life ahead of you. Money. Power. Women. Everything you’ve ever wanted will be yours. All because I chose you.”
Chose. He made it sound as if I’d begged to be dragged from the filthy streets of Sicily. I’d forged a new life, one where I’d been the master. Then he’d tracked me down, tossing me into a prison until I’d earned my stripes, done so with whips and required bloodshed.
While I heard every word the barbarian issued, there was no trust that he’d follow through with his promises. After all, his blood didn’t flow through my veins. But I would take what rightfully belonged to me if necessary, killing him in the process.
If the ugliness of cancer didn’t do it for me.
“That’s bullshit, Father. I am your son.” Mattia lunged forward, his fists clenched. My brother was a hothead, incapable of separating business from pleasure, his level of violence increasing.
“Non sfidarmi!” Franco’s sharp voice floated across the room. His statement to Mattia to not defy him was met with a curse in Italian under my brother’s breath.
I casually glanced at Mattia, realizing this was a conversation that should have been held in private.
“We are facing a crisis, the Bratva determined to destroy our way of life. There is someone who requires extermination immediately. This is something you must do without hesitation. It will further prove your loyalty to me.” Franco’s statement was strong, but I sensed something rare. The man was anxious.
Loyalty. Perhaps he should use the word deity to the end. He believed himself God amongst men, lording it over everyone, especially me. I narrowed my eyes, curious where this was going. “Go on.”
“You will hunt your prey, discovering vital information, learning every secret kept locked away. Then you will strike, eliminating a family enemy, which is something you should have no trouble doing. After all, you are nothing but an animal. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I will,” I answered, the power of my voice booming in his expansive office. Violence was the only thing that soothed the ugliness deep within. He’d used my hatred and rage for years, my hands just as deadly as any weapon. The family had several enemies, Italy fractured by the various criminal organizations. Since I could remember, the Lazarros and the Romanos had been fighting amongst themselves as well as with the DeLuca family, but there were others just as hungry to claim the leadership position. I was curious which particular enemy had topped the radar.
I fisted my bruised hand around the thick crystal glass and even the simple act stretched my scarred skin, a reminder that I was nothing but a tool to be used for vengeance. I’d endured years of conditioning, experiencing excruciating torture at the hands of the savage man. He’d molded me to becoming a machine, a price paid for being scooped off the streets. He’d finally stripped away the hopeful boy inside, replacing the terrified kid with a killing machine capable of heinous acts.
Yet even he had no idea the kind of monster he’d created.
Snarling, I tensed my muscles, expecting an electric shock from the cattle prod he often used. But none came.
Instead, my adopted father moved in front, eyeing me carefully. I was several inches taller, fifty pounds heavier, yet even though his body was racked from fighting the sickness slowly killing him, he was still a formidable man capable of significant violence. “There is no room for error, or for catering to your desires for longer than necessary. Do not fail me or you will lose your right to rule my kingdom.”
“Who is this man?” I asked, the gravel in my voice making the sound guttural. My chest rose and fell from the eagerness to claim a victim.
Mattia laughed, lifting his glass as if this was a celebration.
“Not a man but a woman.”
I turned my head, searching his eyes. There was far too much glee in them. Up to this point, killing a woman was rare, usually determined by betrayal, the reason he’d sliced the throat of his own wife. Her infidelity had been caught on camera. She’d been punished in front of the entire household, dozens of his soldiers, until her body lay bleeding and broken. Only then had he shown her any sign of mercy by slashing her throat. I’d been left to pick up the pieces.
“Who is it?” I snarled.
“The very woman who destroyed your entire family.”
What the fuck was he talking about? A cold shiver sliced through me. The man had taunted me for years, dangling a carrot that he used in his methods of control.
He let the words hang, allowing me time to process them. I lifted my head, my heart immediately beating faster. What he was suggesting wasn’t possible. The woman who’d scorned our friendship, betraying me was protected, a perfect princess living in her palace of dreams.
“Will you play for me, Dar?”
“I have work to do.”
“Pu-lease? You can’t say no to me. Play my favorite song. Just once.”
“You shouldn’t be here, but fine.”
Fuck. The vivid memory took me by surprise, my heart instantly racing. I clenched my jaw, refusing to show any emotion.
Franco laughed, giving me a nod of approval. “I can tell you do remember. Sweet little Lucia Lazarro, the one who locked the people you cared about the most inside the barn, forcing you to watch them die fifteen years ago. I remember your burns from carrying your dead sister from the ashes. At least they’ve healed nicely.”
Closing my eyes, I did what I could to drive the memory away.
Just like now, at first Franco had laughed at my sorrow, brutalizing me until I’d toughened up. And I had. So much so all that was left was utter hatred and rage. I swallowed bile rising in my throat, glaring into his eyes. This was nothing more than a test of my loyalty.
“Such a pity. Such a tremendous loss. Your mother. Your father. Your little sister and brother. All taken from you.”
His taunting brought back the wretched memories, the bloodcurdling screams that had never left my mind. Even now I could hear their woeful voices as they’d taken their last breaths.
The fury erupted from deep inside, becoming suffocating, my mind trying to process what he was telling me. “No.” No!
“Yyeesss…” A smirk crossed Franco’s face, his eyes lit with the same fire I’d felt for years. As he pulled a picture into the dim light, he waited for my reaction. “She is beautiful, yes? Very different from the young girl you saw last. She’s successful now, a true Lazarro. I’ve heard she’s quite formidable, using her intelligence and beauty to claim her next victim.”
I could tell Mattia was weighing my reaction carefully, a viper prepared to strike given any weakness shown. Fuck him.
When I didn’t respond, Franco pulled a second photograph from the pocket of his jacket, one taken at least fifteen years before. I bristled, rage from forced recognition tumbling into my system. My mind quickly drifted into the darkness that had kept me alive. I reached out, longing to destroy her beauty in the only way I could but he shook his head, pulling his hand away. The fine line between love and rage had controlled my nightmares for years.
“I understand your feelings, D’Artagnan, and you will have your chance to eliminate her. You deserve to have your revenge. Now is the right time.”
I gritted my teeth, my jaw clenching. This wasn’t possible. “What did she do?”
“It would seem the lovely Lucia Lazarro is to be married to the son of one of our enemies, Antonio Romano. That would make for a powerful connection that could destroy us. She also keeps files from her father’s regime that will aid in destroying his syndicate completely. Extract it from her in whatever method you see fit. In doing so, you can stop a war before it begins. Hunt her down, take the data, and kill her before blood is spilled in the streets of our beloved homeland.” He lifted his gaze, his smirk turning into a smile. “I’ve prepared you for this very day. As my gift for your obedient service, I will allow you to enjoy the prize before you end her life. Once you’ve returned, you will take the throne, my son.” He patted my shoulder, a rare sign of affection.
“That’s fucking bullshit!” Mattia exploded. “Let me marry the bitch. I’d make certain she obeys my every command. Then we can rule as we were meant to do.”
Bristling, I almost crossed the room, beating the shit out of him. I was sick of his bullshit, his determination to burn down the world to get what he wanted. The fucker would never touch Lucia. No one would. She was mine to… punish.
“No!” Franco snapped. “Her blood will never taint ours.”
I thought about his request, shoving the earliest memories aside, the ones when Lucia and I had been friends. Then I’d learned she was as sick and twisted as her brother, her traitorous actions destroying my life. Images flashed in front of my eyes. Her face. Her smile. Sounds. Her laughter. All fake. Nothing real.
As Franco handed me another photograph, vile, ugly memories rushed to the surface, ones I’d done everything to forget. She was responsible for the pain, the torture, and the loss of everything I’d held dear. She’d been my everything. Then she’d betrayed me.
“Kill her,” he said, walking around me again. “Say it for me, animal.”
“I couldn’t care less what you do to her initially. Fuck her. Use her. Beat her. But in the end, make certain you watch the bitch take her last breath.”
I fisted my hand, my chest heaving as spots of blood formed in my eyes. Then I lifted my head toward the ceiling and roared.
It was her time to pay.
It was her time to face my wrath.
And I would enjoy every moment of breaking her into little pieces.
New York City
In the hours of darkness, monsters lurked in the shadows, eager to claim their prey, famished to the point that a mere taste meant nothing.
I was a predator.
She was the prey.
And my hunger knew no bounds.
I’d been in New York for several days, tracking Lucia easily. She was a powerhouse in the city, taking a legitimate and extremely lucrative part of her family’s business to an impressive level. She was also a cautious woman yet hadn’t suspected she’d been followed, her private life becoming an open book to a monster.
There’d been ample opportunity to derail her life, enacting on my initial plan of vengeance, but the moment I’d laid eyes on her, my hunger had exploded. In my mind, she already belonged to me, a beautiful temptation that I would take my time unraveling.
Only on this night, the woman I’d been sent to kill was being hunted by someone else, the man believing himself to be invisible given the late hour and few people awake to witness his planned depravity. I’d watched him for long enough to know he wasn’t a petty thief or rapist. The man was well trained and organized.
Lucia had come onto the radar of another powerful organization, hiring an assassin to snuff out her life. The list of candidates within New York alone was far too long to weed through adequately. There was also the possibility that one of the other Famiglias wanted her taken out, worried she’d been betrothed to one of the Russian pigs. At this point, it didn’t matter. The bastard couldn’t take the fun away from me. She was my pretty little toy to tease, taste, fuck, and destroy. I refused to allow the fucker to interfere.
I’d watched the hired gun as he’d trailed behind Lucia while she walked home, remaining far enough away the beautiful woman was none the wiser. She’d been too busy laughing from jokes made by a friend to realize her life was in danger.
Rage remained just below the surface, my bloodlust prominent and dangerous, but not for the woman who’d haunted my dreams every night for fifteen years. I wanted to beat the man to death, breaking every bone in his body. And I normally would, but it was too risky given the location of her fashionable apartment. However, the fucker wasn’t going to get away with derailing my plans.
The would-be stalker would soon learn my wrath was lethal.
My lovely Lucia had retreated into her apartment, bidding her friend a good night, completely unaware every move she made was being watched, the assassin lying in wait for the perfect time. Her lilting voice was driven a stake into my heart, the way she’d tossed her hair over her shoulder enticing not just the man inside of me but the beast as well.
The unknown assailant moved into an alcove, his presence instantly hidden from the street. Then he tilted his head as a single light was turned on inside her hallowed space. I waited patiently, although I wasn’t known for being able to control my urges. Fifteen minutes after darkness had enveloped the space where she lived, he slipped from his hiding place, heading to the back door leading into the complex.
I moved closer, careful of my steps.
He thought he’d remain undetected, easily able to gain access to her apartment without being seen.
The bastard was wrong.
Once the assailant was in position, attempting to pick the lock, I advanced. The worthless piece of human flesh had no time to react before I drew the sharp blade of my knife across his throat.
“Muori, figlio di puttana,” I snarled. Die, you motherfucker.
His gurgling sounds only registered for a few seconds before the crescent moon allowed me to see the vacancy in his eyes. I’d saved her life under the guise of needing the information Franco had sent me to retrieve, the act of vengeance that I was required to handle.
There was no denying I’d wanted blood to rain in the streets. Every plan I’d made, the anger had burned deep within my mind, stripping away what had been left of my charred soul. That’s all I’d thought about during days and nights of my tortured survival. Suddenly, everything was different, the longing for revenge shifting.
The reality of my dark needs had become something else entirely, a longing burning deep pits into what was left of my blackened soul.
My life meant nothing without Lucia.
Yes, she would bend to my needs, punished for what she’d done to me, but I would not lose her again.
My thoughts were ironic, my actions without hesitation. From the first moment I’d laid eyes on her two days before, everything had changed.
After wiping the knife on his jacket, I quickly checked the assailant’s pockets, finding nothing but another magazine of ammunition. I chucked it and the weapon he carried into my pocket before hoisting him from the ground.
While the man was large, I was easily able to throw him over my shoulder, tossing his body in the alley dumpster. I was all sinew and muscle, honed from years spent in the gym. As I glanced up at the floor of the building where she lived, my jaw clenched, I was fully aware this was the perfect opportunity to comply with Franco’s orders.
Yet my hunger for her was too great, the need for even a single taste intoxicating. It would be a shame to waste something so precious. Exhaling, I studied the darkened alley, calculating the risk of lingering. Then I made my determination.
The order given would be handled my way.
Within seconds, I’d secured entrance to the building, finding the stairs without issue. As I headed to her floor, the intense, electric sensations coursing through me radiated enough heat throughout my body that breathing was difficult.
Once just outside her door, I took several deep breaths. I’d waited far too long for this moment not to hold reverence in my heart.
Even if I was a soulless man.
The lovely woman was no fool, the triple locks preventing the majority of criminals from being able to enter. Her security system was topnotch, worth the money she’d spent. The apartment was almost impenetrable, but I’d already secured entrance, finding her weaknesses without difficulty. Even the code on her system was familiar, the name I’d called her a long time ago when my life had been worth living.
Every muscle ached as I entered her apartment, being careful to ease the door shut with a soft click. Lucia had been trained well, the number of weapons inside the spectacular space rivaling the collection I’d brought with me. Her father had obviously insisted she keep protection with her at all times in case monsters struck in the middle of the night. But her father, the worthless bastard he was, couldn’t have imagined the kind of beast who’d easily gain entrance.
I paused, seeing the flameless candle positioned on a table near the corner. I’d seen it before while surveying her apartment, paying little attention. While there were almost a dozen others just like it throughout her home, this was the only one that remained lit all hours of the day and night. Perhaps it was on a forgotten timer.
The unexpected ache in my heart wasn’t welcomed but was not unexpected. Something drew me to the light, the subtle flicker in the fake flame keeping my attention. The warm glow was inviting, as if she was providing an open invitation to all those needing a safe harbor. Reaching out, I fisted my hand twice before lifting the candle into the air, looking underneath. The setting had been placed in the on position.
Huffing, I returned it to the exact place in the center of the table, backing away. How many times had she told me she’d light a candle for me? In her words, providing hope for a better future. Another moment of anger shut down the pleasant moment. The plastic piece of shit meant nothing to me.
Just like I meant nothing to her.
I brought my fist to my forehead, controlling my breathing.
There were no trip alarms inside other than those secured to the windows. Still, I took careful steps as I headed down the hallway to her bedroom. The door was partially open, the hinges silent as I pushed it with my index finger. I’d planned everything carefully, ensuring nothing would hinder my ability to learn everything about her.
The sight of her only inches away forced my cock at full attention. The stream of moonlight trickling in through the partially open blinds highlighted her voluptuous body covered only by a thin sheet. I took a deep breath, the scent of her perfume igniting a fire from deep within. I closed my eyes briefly, hearing Franco’s words in the back of my mind.
It would be a shame to destroy a creature of such beauty.
I moved closer, sensing she was fast asleep given her even breathing. As I stood over her breathtaking form, I had a sense of power entirely different than I usually felt. While I could end her life with ease, the raw need that had been building for some time prevented me from destroying the woman who’d haunted my nightmares.
It was as if her blood raced through my veins, her heart beating in time with mine. As if I needed the air she breathed to continue living. And in those few previous moments, the need to make her mine developed, desire searing every nerve ending.
Images ebbed and flowed, the ache increasing.
Her face. Her smile.
My chest rising and falling, I used a single finger to lower the sheet, exposing her naked form. I wasn’t the kind of man easily drawn to a creature of such beauty, but as I basked in her hourglass figure, her dark curls splayed out across her soft pillow, my hunger nearly exploded. Unable to resist, I trailed the tip of my finger down her spine, even more aroused when she murmured in her sleep.
Every sound she made, every rounded curve of her body dragged me into a swirling abyss, one that would eventually pull me into a quicksand of darkness completely. But I no longer cared. The pain I’d endured, the brutality that had left me a scarred man had been worth being driven to this moment.
Seeing her brought shimmers of light capable of breaking through the darkness.
As I brought my finger to my lips, sliding the tip inside, my body began to shake. I eased the knife from my pocket, flicking it open. The slender stream of moonlight shimmered against the hard steel as I traced the same line down her body with the tip. It would be so easy to take what I wanted at this exact moment, putting the fear of God into her.
When she moved, I pulled my hand away, holding my breath as she rolled over. She murmured in her sleep again, shifting the sheet even more, exposing her rounded breasts, nipples the color of pink rosebuds in the spring. My mouth watered, my cock fully engorged.
Her eyelids fluttered open, the long lashes skimming across her shimmering cheeks. A single moan slipped past her pursed lips. Then she muttered another word, one that had such a profound effect I was unable to move.
Pent-up fury and frustration fractured a portion of my mind, stripping away at what was left of my humanity. No, this would be done my way. Mine. Mine! No one would take her from me.
Living under Franco’s brutal rule had taught me about the necessity for viciousness. It had also prepared me for war as well as leadership. Who was I to question why I’d been given a nod from the powerful man. Yet the savage bastard had underestimated me. Soon he would learn that while I wasn’t blood, what trickled through my veins was more vital. My brutal decision would be the breath of fresh air needed to condemn the other syndicates. Would there be a bloodbath? Without a doubt, but I was more than ready for the task.
Yes, the DeLuca Empire would belong to me, but I wouldn’t rule it alone.
One day my lovely Lucia would be by my side.
But first, she would pay a price for her treachery.
Then I’d make her mine.
Lucia Lazarro was already bound to me for life.