All around her, jewels glittered, dancing under the bright lights of the ballroom. Millions of dollars’ worth of diamonds and every other gemstone imaginable were draped around the necks of women who’d never had to work a day in their lives.
She should know, since she was one of them. At least on the surface.
Lifting a glass of champagne that wasn’t worth the two-thousand-dollar-a-bottle price tag to her lips, Amara Vitali let her gaze travel the room, searching for her date for the evening. Perhaps date wasn’t the most appropriate word, but target had such a negative connotation.
The overly tart champagne was half gone by the time she located him. Standing off to the side, surrounded by a group of men who just barely toed the line between polished and sleazy, Robert Grayson tossed his head back and laughed at whatever pithy joke one of his companions had just made.
Watching them was physically painful. A few women glided up to the group at times, and they were welcomed with seemingly chivalrous kisses to their dainty hands before being sent off again by whichever ‘gentleman’ they were currently attached to. The lewd, lingering glances that followed the women when they wandered away made her skin crawl. Luckily for her, it wasn’t long before the four glasses of whiskey Robert had downed in the past hour caught up to him, and he excused himself to the bathroom.
Although she was well-known to nearly every person in attendance, nobody stopped her as she slipped through the crowd behind him. Women who came from families like hers weren’t exactly welcomed into high society with open arms. Oh, they gladly accepted her family’s money for their charities and their schools and their investment firms, but they held her firmly at more than arm’s length.
Which was perfectly fine by her. God knew she’d be bored to tears inside an hour trying to live in their world. And maybe they were bored, considering the amount of Uncle Gio’s product everyone in this room consumed on a regular basis.
After checking that she wasn’t being watched or followed, Amara quietly slipped into the men’s bathroom. Robert stood in front of a porcelain piss station, emptying his bladder through a rather unimpressive dick. He glanced over when she entered, a greasy smile curving his thin lips.
“Ms. Vitali. What a pleasant surprise. What can I do for you?”
Bile rose in her throat, but she swallowed it back. She was a professional, after all. Letting her lips lift into her best ‘fuck me’ smile, she dropped her voice to a low purr. “I was hoping to get a moment alone with you tonight.”
The flaccid member in his hand lengthened a fraction at her words. “In the bathroom?” Despite his gaze lingering on her cleavage, the contempt was clear in his voice.
“People talk,” she replied, playing up to his view of her, that she wasn’t worthy of a man like him. “I didn’t want to embarrass you.”
Apparently done with his bladder, he stroked his cock with a large, meaty hand as she approached. Pressing her body against his, she ran a hand up his inner thigh. “Allow me,” she whispered.
When the needle pierced his femoral artery, his eyes nearly popped out of his head. But before he could cry for help, his body went rigid. She neatly sidestepped when he reached for her, letting him fall to the floor with a satisfying crunch of bone and cartilage. Not that he’d feel the broken nose for long, if at all. The dose of potassium chloride she’d just administered was enough to kill a man twice his size in under a minute.
Confident that he wouldn’t recover even if he were discovered within that minute, she stepped around the body and made her way to the second entrance. The one the staff used to come and go without being seen, because God forbid the wealthy and powerful be forced to actually set eyes on the people who cleaned up their messes. Just inside the hallway was a janitor’s closet. Giving thanks to whoever had decided cleaning supplies didn’t need to be kept under lock and key, she slipped into the cramped space and retrieved the backpack she’d stashed there that morning.
Another minute was all it took for her slip out of the slinky designer gown and needle-thin heels and into the black and white uniform with sensible sneakers worn by all of the hotel staff. With her short, jet-black hair tucked up under a baseball cap, she strode out of the closet, through the kitchens, and out the back door.
Checking the dainty, diamond-encrusted watch on her wrist, she grinned as she crossed the parking lot. Ten minutes from the time she’d stepped into the bathroom to the moment she waltzed out the door. A personal best.
Now that she was out of immediate danger, she let the excitement she’d held at bay flood her. Adrenaline pumped through her veins, sending her heart racing. God, there was nothing like the high from taking a life, especially someone as deserving as Robert Grayson had been.
Uncle Gio, as she’d called him her entire life, didn’t place hits on a whim, like some men in his position were known to do. Taking a life was a last resort, an option only employed when negotiations had completely failed.
Or when it was discovered that an individual had certain tastes or tendencies that couldn’t be ignored. Such as Grayson’s preference for underage boys. Very underage. Grayson’s mistake had been thinking that just because Giorgio Vitali engaged in questionable business dealings, he didn’t have any morals. Uncle Gio had disabused him of that notion the first time Grayson had approached him, but he’d felt a stronger message needed to be sent. And that was where she had come in.
Humming happily to herself, Amara climbed into the snappy little sports car she’d hidden around the corner from the venue earlier in the evening. A limo had dropped her off at the event, but she wouldn’t risk Uncle Gio’s men being implicated if she could help it, so she always drove herself home after a job.
Driving also gave her an outlet for all the pent-up energy the adrenaline rush inevitably gave her. In deference to the chilly October air, she left the top up, but she didn’t hold back when she hit the mostly empty interstate. Radar traps didn’t scare her—there wasn’t a cop in a hundred-mile radius stupid enough to give a ranking member of the Vitali family a ticket.
So she let herself fly, weaving between the few cars scattered along the highway with the ease of a seasoned racecar driver. Under different circumstances, she might have pursued racing as a career, but Uncle Gio never would have allowed it. She could hear him now, in her mind, telling her it was far too dangerous and unbecoming of a woman of her station.
Murder, however, was just part of the family business. The irony of it didn’t escape her, but her life was full of paradoxes.
Once she’d driven off most of the excess energy, she turned the car back toward home. Mikey was manning the booth at the front gate, and he waved her through with a polite, if slightly bored smile. More than once, Amara had suggested upgrading their security to include facial recognition and automated entry, but Uncle Gio preferred having a man guarding the entrance. It was no secret the elder Vitali didn’t trust technology, so she’d never bothered to press the issue. With a nod for Mikey, she drove through the gates and up the winding hill to the ‘House Prohibition Built,’ as she often thought of it.
Leaving her car in the drive instead of putting it away in the garage as she’d been lectured on a hundred times, she climbed the short staircase to the front door. It swung open moments before she reached it, courtesy of Cesare, their efficient majordomo who ensured the Vitali household ran smoothly.
“Welcome home, topolina,” he greeted her with a warm, affectionate smile.
Since the affection was mutual, she returned the smile and stood on her toes to brush a kiss over his weathered cheek. “Is Uncle Gio home?”
“In the library, waiting on you.”
“Perfect. Goodnight, Cesare.”
Still vibrating from the rush of adrenaline to her system, she took the stairs two at a time, another little habit that drove the men of the house crazy. She was careful never to push Uncle Gio to the point of anger, but she enjoyed her little bits of rebellion where she could find them.
As Cesare had promised, she found him sitting in his favorite leather chair, holding a worn copy of I Promessi Sposi, with a cup of cappuccino sitting on the table beside him.
“Uncle Gio, you should know that story by heart.” Stopping by his chair, she bent and brushed a kiss across his cheek.
“I may know the destination, but I still enjoy the journey, topolina.”
Rolling her eyes for form, she settled into the chair across from him. “I’m not a child, Uncle Gio. Your little mouse is all grown up,” she teased.
“You will always be little to me.” Closing the book, he set it beside the cup of coffee at his elbow, giving her his full attention. “How was the event?”
This time her eye roll was heartfelt. “Boring, as usual.”
“And your date for the evening?”
“Good.” The corners of his lips tipped down, just slightly, and he tapped a finger on the arm of his chair.
Something was bothering him. The tapping was his tell, something that might go unnoticed by someone who didn’t know him as well as she did. But pushing him to talk to her had the potential to backfire if he wasn’t ready, so she waited him out.
“I have another job for you, topolina.”
It was her turn to frown. “So soon?” And why does this one bother you so? She left the latter part unsaid, knowing her prying wouldn’t be welcome.
She waited for more, a name at least, but the silence stretched on. “Uncle Gio?”
If he’d said the pope, she couldn’t have been more shocked. “What? Has he betrayed us?”
Gio’s handsome face twisted into a grimace. “No. It would be easier if he had. I owe someone a favor, and they’ve called in their marker.”
“You can’t be serious. You would have me kill a man as a favor?”
“I’m sorry, topolina. I would ask anyone else if I could. You are the only one I trust.”
Her heart gave a quick, painful jerk in her chest. “There are others just as experienced as I.”
“The others lack your finesse. I need this done as quickly and as quietly as possible. And I need to ensure it won’t be traced back to me.” Grief shone in his eyes. “I wish I didn’t have to ask this of you, topolina.”
Perhaps it was perverse of her to feel such a fierce sense of pride at his words, but it was there nonetheless. “When?”
“Tomorrow night. It’s Rinaldi’s monthly dinner for the families. We’ve already RSVP’d, so it won’t draw any suspicion for you to be there. You’ll make apologies for me.” He paused, the weight of what he was asking filling the heavy silence between them. “You know how to take care of the rest.”
“Yes.” Normally a job, especially one as fraught with danger as this one could potentially be, gave her a thrill. But she couldn’t find any excitement, only bitterness. “You’re sure this is the only way?”
“I wish it weren’t. You of all people should know this isn’t something I ask lightly.”
She did know. Ordering the death of another human being always weighed on him, even when it was a disgusting piece of human debris like Robert Grayson had been. Ordering the death of a respected rival, the head of another powerful family, however…
“This must be some favor you owe.”
She waited, hoping for more of an explanation, but when it was obvious none was going to be offered, she pushed up out of her chair. “Goodnight, Uncle Gio.”
With another kiss, this one distinctly colder than the last, she headed for her room. There, she picked up the picture of her parents she kept on her dresser, the last picture of them before their deaths nearly twenty years before.
A drunk driver, a rainy night, and the two people she’d loved most in the world had been ripped from her lives. Which was where ‘Uncle’ Gio had come in. Technically, he was her father’s cousin. The pair had been inseparable as children, and that bond had followed them well into adulthood. When her father had taken the reins as head of the Vitali family, Giorgio had naturally stepped into the role as his right-hand man. She’d grown up calling him uncle, and when her parents had died, he’d adopted her without so much as a second thought.
Not for the first time, she wished she could go back to that time in the picture. When she’d been young and innocent, without a care in the world. When the most pressing wardrobe decision had been which dress had the most sparkles, and not which dress provided the best range of motion in case her target put up a fight.
But she couldn’t go back, and her heart was heavy with grief as she planned her strategy for her next job. Rinaldi wasn’t a friend in the most traditional sense, but there was a longstanding and mutual respect between the two families. At ten years his junior, she’d known Emilio Rinaldi her entire life. Much to her own chagrin, she’d been a little bit in love with him as far back as she could remember. The absolute epitome of tall, dark, and handsome, he’d starred in her childhood daydreams and her teenage fantasies.
And he’d made it clear they would be no more than fantasies during her rather disastrous twenty-first birthday party, when she’d gotten completely sloshed and climbed into his lap in front of God and everyone.
You’re making a fool of yourself, Amara. Go home and sober up.
She’d barely spoken a word to him since then, but their world was small, so she hadn’t been able to completely avoid him. Five years ago, his father had handed over the reins and retired to Italy with Emilio’s mother. From what she’d heard and seen herself, Emilio was just as strict as his father had been, but just as fair, as well. His people not only respected him, they genuinely cared for him.
And that, at the core, was why this hit didn’t sit well with her. It was easy to take a man out when there was a good reason, even if that reason was mostly business. But this? Taking the life of a good man simply because some nameless, faceless person wanted it done? It was… revolting.
She set the picture back down and headed for the en-suite bathroom, where she ran the water in the tub as hot as she could stand it. With water running, she dumped a few capfuls of her favorite lavender-scented bubble bath under the tap. Nobody who knew her would believe the Vitali family’s ice princess enjoyed her baths with actual bubbles instead of the bath salts most of her peers seemed to enjoy. But the bubbles were a small joy, the one piece of her childhood she still allowed herself to indulge in, and that bit of joy helped to remind her she was human.
After stripping off the stiff uniform, she stepped into the tub and sank into the water with a blissful sigh. The heat helped leach the stress from her muscles. Normally, she could let her mind go blank, or at least wander while she soaked. But tonight, no matter how hard she tried, her mind only focused on one thing.
Killing Emilio Rinaldi.
As always, Benny had done a magnificent job preparing the house for guests. Every surface gleamed, and even the light fixtures lacked so much as a speck of dust. Trays of hors d’oeuvres traveled among the guests, carried by the silent, efficient catering staff.
Across the crowded room, Amara Vitali held court. It was the only term he could think of for the way their associates gathered around her, clinging to her every word. Not that he could blame them. She’d grown from a gangly, slightly awkward child into a gorgeous, polished woman with legs a mile long. A few years back, she’d cut her dark hair to a sharp, angled wedge that drew attention to her high cheekbones and her ice blue eyes. The look suited her, though he missed the softness she’d had about her when she was younger. She’d lost a little bit of that softness when her parents had died, but it had been completely stripped from her shortly before she’d come of age. Something, or someone, had turned the sweet, happy child into the ice princess before him.
“Ah, Emilio. I was hoping I’d have a chance to speak with you tonight.”
Biting back a sigh at the sound of the sniveling, weasel-y voice, Emilio turned and offered Carlos a polite smile. “Carlos. No business tonight, remember?”
It was the one rule he enforced without fail at these events. It was rare for members of the families to come together without an agenda, and like his father before him, Emilio felt it was important for all of them to connect just as people on a regular basis. And so, for one night a month, there was no talk of business and all rivalries were set aside.
Carlos smiled, the slick, greasy smile of a man used to getting his own way. “This will only take but a moment. You have shipment coming in on Wednesday.”
“I do. If you’d like to discuss it, I will be here most of the morning tomorrow. Please make an appointment with Benito.” Without giving the other man a chance to argue, Emilio turned and worked his way through the small crowd, greeting each individual by name, asking after wives and children.
Years of working in the type of business where letting your guard down for a second could cost you your life had honed his instincts for danger. As he worked the room, he could feel eyes on him, someone watching his every move. While chatting with his cousin Luca’s delightful and very pregnant wife, Teresa, he let his gaze surreptitiously roam the room. He’d expected it to be Carlos watching him, waiting for an opportunity to pounce again.
When he discovered instead Amara Vitali glancing his way for the third time in as many minutes, it was something of a shock. Ever since her twenty-first birthday, she’d kept a polite but careful distance between them. He’d embarrassed her, which he felt some remorse for, but she’d been little more than a child and he hadn’t been in the market for a wife. And if he’d taken her to bed as she’d so brazenly suggested that night, they’d be married with two kids at this point. Since he’d been certain that wasn’t what either of them wanted, he’d sent her on her way.
But perhaps he should reevaluate the situation. The idea of another man marrying the gorgeous Vitali family princess had never set well with him, even after he’d turned down her drunken advances that night. And a union between their two families would be beneficial to both sides. He’d assumed he’d ruined any chance with her, but maybe not, if the way she was watching him was any indication.
Unfortunately, his duties as host kept him busy the rest of the night, and he was unable to carve out any real time for them to be alone together. There was a moment, just before dinner, when she excused herself to use the bathroom and she had to pass him to leave the parlor.
Reaching out as she brushed by, he wrapped his fingers around her wrist. She stopped, spine straight and regal, but he could have sworn he felt her tremble.
“Are you enjoying yourself, my dear?” he asked, dropping his voice low enough for only her to hear.
“Always. You know you throw the best parties,” she replied with a cool smile that made him wonder if the tremble he’d felt a moment before had, indeed, been a product of an overactive imagination on his part.
“Thank you. I’m sorry Gio couldn’t join us.”
Something flashed in her eyes. It was gone as quickly as it came, too quickly for him to properly identify the emotion, but it had looked suspiciously like regret. “Me, too. He doesn’t get sick often, but when he does, he’s down for the count.” Her smile wasn’t as cool this time, but distinctly more forced.
Little Miss Vitali was up to something, but fuck him if he had the first clue what it could be. “Give him my best when you get home, would you?”
“Of course. If you’ll excuse me?”
He released her, watching her as she moved through the crowd. Before she’d disappeared through the entryway, he’d made up his mind. One way or another, he was going to get to the bottom of her strange behavior.
By the time the last of the guests had left, Emilio was ready for a large tumbler of whiskey and his bed. After ensuring Benny would provide him with the former, he made his way up the stairs in search of the latter. Tugging off the tie Benny had expertly tied for him earlier in the evening, he pushed open the door to the master suite.
And froze in the doorway at the sight that greeted him.
Amara Vitali was stretched out on his bed, the navy blue of the duvet cover a stark contrast to the cream silk of her dress. “Hello, Mr. Rinaldi.”
Had he thought her icy? The woman in his bed was as far from cold as a woman could be. He could swear he felt the heat coming off her in waves when her lips curved in a smile that was pure feminine invitation.
“Amara. What are you doing?”
The smile moved to a pout, which was even more enticing than the seductive smile. “I wanted some time with you. Alone.”
This wasn’t the right way. A woman like Amara was meant to be courted, properly pursued before asking for her hand. Giorgio Vitali would slit Emilio’s throat without even blinking if he touched her now.
But she was like a siren, calling a sailor to his death. He crossed the room to stand beside the bed, reaching out to brush her hair from her face. “What are you doing, Amara?” he repeated softly.
Moving with that inherent grace he’d always admired, she pushed to her knees and lifted her arms to wrap them around his neck. The cool blue of her eyes had warmed to beautiful pools of cerulean, and he was so lost in them he almost missed the light glinting off the item she held in her hand.
He managed to grab her wrist before the needle sank into his neck. It clattered to the floor beside him, and for a moment they stared at each other, both seemingly shocked by what had just happened.
“What the fuck is going on?” he demanded, yanking on her wrist so she fell forward against his chest.
Her intention flashed in her eyes a moment before she wrenched her arm free and dove for the needle. Luckily, he was faster and stronger, and he wrapped an arm around her waist before she could reach it.
“Bastardo! Let me go!” Twisting at what he would have considered an impossible angle if he hadn’t seen it himself, she nearly managed to jerk out of his grasp. But at the last minute he flipped her onto her stomach, trapping her legs against the bed with his and pinning her hands behind her back. Even as effectively stuck as she was, she continued to fight like a wildcat.
“Calm down!” Emilio growled in her ear, using a tone that usually commanded obedience from even the most stubborn woman in his care.
But not Amara. “Get your filthy fucking hands off me, Rinaldi.”
Fury turned his vision red at the edges. “Need I remind you, you’re the one who came to my bed, and tried to stab me in the neck with a needle?” Tightening his grip on her hands, he pressed her further into the bed. “What’s in the syringe, Amara?”
“Bullshit. What is it? Who sent you?”
It was the last question that had her going still as a statue beneath him. “Nobody sent me. I swear it.”
Instinct told him she was lying, but he couldn’t think straight through the cloud of rage in his mind. Keeping her hands pinned in one of his own, he worked his thin dress belt free from his pants. Once he had the stiff leather wrapped around his hand, leaving only a short tail hanging free, he shifted to the side for a better angle. “Tell me, Amara. What’s in the needle? Who sent you?”
“Nobody sent me. Let me go!”
The desperation in her voice did little to sway him. He raised his arm and brought the short strip of leather down across her silk-clad bottom three quick times in succession. To her credit, she didn’t scream, barely even grunted at what he knew had to be a fierce burn. “Tell me, Amara.”
Another three, lower this time, catching the fullest part of her ass. When the sixth stroke landed, he was rewarded with a hiss of air escaping her clenched teeth. “Tell me.”
“Never,” she spat at him.
If it had been any other scenario than one where she’d just tried to stab him, he might have appreciated her resolve. As it was, he was going to get the truth from her, one way or another. This time when he whipped her, he gave her a full six, making sure to land three of them across the tops of her thighs. At which point he finally managed to rip a short, high scream from her.
The sound was immensely satisfying, but he wasn’t done. “Tell me, Amara, and I will stop.”
Beneath his hand, her back rose and fell with each shaky breath. “It-it was just to put you to sleep.”
“Sleep?” Frowning down at her, he tapped the belt against her backside, a reminder that he wasn’t fucking around. “Why would you want me to sleep?”
“I-I was going to rob you. It’s just a-a-a kind of game.”
“A game? What the fuck are you talking about, Amara?”
“I get bored, you know? Uncle Gio never lets me do anything, so I have to make my own fun. I’m sorry, please let me go.”
Her explanation, while odd, sounded sincere enough. Some of the rage faded, allowing him to think a little more clearly.
He couldn’t let her go. Not until he was a hundred percent sure she was telling the truth. And not until he saw she was well and thoroughly punished for her little escapade, whatever it turned out to be. But he had… options.
Her body sagged with relief. “You’re going to let me go?
“Not quite.” If she’d been standing, no doubt she would have spat in his face when she spotted his smug smile. “I’ll give you a choice.”
“What kind of choice?” she asked, obviously skeptical.
“I can let you go, and turn you over to the police.” Ignoring her outraged gasp, he continued, “Or you can stay and tomorrow you can accept your punishment for this little stunt.”
“Or you could just let me return home and I swear I’ll never bother you again.”
“Not an option. Which is it? The police or me?”
There was a long pause before she spoke again. “If I stay, what are you going to do to me?”
He tapped the thin leather against her upturned bottom. “I believe I’ve already given you a taste of my discipline, but I can spell it out for you, if you’d like.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“It’s either my strap or the cops, Amara. Choose.”
He let the silence stretch until she finally took a deep breath. “All right. I’ll accept your punishment. Couldn’t we just get it over with tonight, though?”
“No. I need to take some time to decide on a proper punishment.”
“For fuck’s sake. This is ridiculous. Just whip me and get it over with so I can go home.”
“Not going to happen. I plan on making sure this is a punishment you don’t forget any time soon. I’ll let Gio know you had a bit too much to drink and decided to stay for the evening.”
“He won’t believe you. I don’t drink that much anymore.”
“I can be a very convincing liar when I need to be.” Leaving her hands pinned to the small of her back, he helped her stand and led her from the bedroom. Benny was standing just to the side of the doorway, his expression as carefully blank as ever.
“Ms. Vitali will be staying the night. She’s not to leave her room without my permission.”
Benny inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Of course, sir. Will she be using one of the guest rooms?”
“No. She’ll be staying in the pink room.”
To his credit, Benny barely blinked. “Very well. Would you like me to send up a cup of warm milk?”
“Not tonight. Naughty little girls don’t get treats at bedtime.”
The corner of Benny’s lips lifted in the slightest smirk. “Very true, sir. Do you need me for anything else this evening?”
“No, thank you. I’ve got everything under control.”
With another small nod, Benny disappeared down the stairs. Once he was gone, Emilio opened the door to the bedroom just next to his and guided his charge inside.
Her gasp gave him a sense of grim satisfaction. “What the actual fuck, Rinaldi?”