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His Majesty by Sara Fields – Sample

Prologue

Matteo Giovanni Santaro

“I expect an answer. How are you going to get my money back?”

The entire round table stared at me in silence, each face trembling in fear or anger or whatever else they thought they were supposed to feel in response to my own fury.

“What are you going to do about it?” I pressed.

It didn’t matter. They were going to give me answers. Every last one of them.

“You see, Mr. Santaro,” the head of the bank began. I cut him off before he could even get started. He’d already made his first mistake.

“You will refer to me by my rightful title, Mr. Diego,” I warned him, and he stilled. I watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallowed his nerves. He was trying to be brave for the sake of his company, but that didn’t matter right now.

“Your portfolio, Your Majesty, you see it was a risky one. If it had been more diversified, perhaps we could have recovered much of your funds, but the world is entering the beginnings of a recession. Investing isn’t a science, but a gamble sometimes. In this case, it was a loss and there’s nothing we can do,” the manager tried to explain.

I cleared my throat.

“I don’t care what the reasoning is. Your firm advised me to make these investments and you will take responsibility for a loss of this magnitude. If you don’t, I will find someone else who will,” I warned.

“There’s simply nothing we can do for you, Your Majesty,” Diego continued, giving me his very best calming manager face. That wouldn’t work on me though.

I stood up from my chair. Angelo moved backwards, allowing me space to rise to my feet. He held a folder behind his back, but I didn’t need that. Not yet.

“It’s been a long time since I met with all of you in person, so perhaps you’ve forgotten how things work here. My family’s money founded this company and still to this day, accounts for well over fifty percent of your total holdings. I have the power to take this company and destroy it, simply by taking my accounts and bringing them elsewhere,” I began.

“Mr. Santaro, please,” Mr. Diego interrupted.

I took a deep breath and sighed, raising my hand and indicating for my men to give them the warning they so desperately needed.

A gunshot rang out, loud as it echoed off the walls all around us.

The bank manager screeched at the sound. The bullet grazed against his ear enough to leave a scratch and then lodged in the table in front of him. It wasn’t a killing blow by any means, but it was enough to send a message.

“I’ve already reminded you how you shall refer to me. Make that mistake again and the bullet will be right between your eyes,” I warned.

The angry faces turned fearful. Many of them I didn’t recognize, meaning that they were probably unfamiliar with the way I worked.

I held out my hand and Angelo passed me a folder. I took it, stood over the table, and opened it.

“I could replace every single one of you with the contents of this file. Inside it is the ruin of every person sitting at this table. Mr. Diego, yours is especially compelling. An affair that has resulted in a child that your wife knows nothing about. Let’s not forget about the embezzlement over the years either. Mrs. Smith, for you, tax fraud and a sordid affair of your own. And Mr. Santino, that’s quite the latex outfit, isn’t it?” I started.

The table was silent. No one said a word. They were terrified of me now.

Good. They were supposed to be.

“Now imagine if these pictures were to be sent to the press. Images of your deviant affairs and evidence of all of your crimes. Your company would drown in scandal. Every single one of you would lose your jobs and be blacklisted in the community for the rest of your measly lives. The value of your corporation would plummet, and I would purchase you for pennies on the dollar. I would replace every single one of you with people of my own, who wouldn’t hesitate to obey.”

“You can’t do this,” Diego challenged. He moved to stand up. Angelo handed me the gun.

I moved quickly, pushing down hard on his shoulder and forcing him back down in his seat.

“You have no idea what I can and can’t do, Mr. Diego,” I replied, pressing the barrel of the gun against the side of his head.

He didn’t say a word. He kept silent, which pleased me.

“I am a king. The rules of your world don’t apply to me and you would do well to remember that. I could pull the trigger right now and end your life and no one would come after me. You would disappear from all record. People would forget your name. You would cease to exist because my people would erase you. Do you want that?”

“No, Your Majesty,” he answered, his voice shaking with fear. He was getting the message now.

“Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to find a solution to the loss of my funds and you’re going to implement it quickly. You’re going to get me my money. Aren’t you, Mr. Diego?” I demanded.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” he trembled.

I pulled the gun away from his head and he took in a shaky breath.

“If you aren’t able to produce results, Mr. Diego, I’m going to come back for you. I won’t show you mercy next time. Am I clear?” I asked, and he stiffened.

“I understand completely, Your Majesty,” he whispered. I watched as his hands shook.

“I’m glad to hear that we’ve come to an understanding. Now to the rest of you, start looking for solutions immediately. If my money isn’t returned to my accounts within one week, I’m going to return, and the result of that conversation is going to end very differently than it did today for all of you. Do you all understand me?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the round table responded in unison.

My men and I stood for a long moment and I met the eyes of every person sitting at that table. I made a note of every face, how each of them was quivering with the power of their fear.

I liked that.

It meant I was doing my job.

I was king.

It was time they remembered what that meant.

Chapter One

Isabella De Luca

I leaned against the bar and swirled my glass around, listening as the ice cubes clinked against the edges. There was no getting around it. I was bored. And disappointed. And undeniably frustrated with the events that had unfolded over the past few hours. I had been looking forward to going out with my girls tonight, but all of them cancelled. Every last one.

I sighed.

They’d given me excuses. Sophie had feigned sickness, but she probably just buried herself in a book instead. Elena had said she needed to study, but I knew finals weren’t until next week, so it was the lamest cop-out ever. Ariana had ghosted me, and I was pretty sure she was just meeting up with some guy on Tinder instead of coming out dancing with me. Some fucking friends they were.

It was the last night we would all be together since the term was ending and finals were so soon. One last chance to dance the night away before our time as graduate students came to an end and I had to return to America, and they’d ruined it. They’d ruined everything.

I’d been pissed, but I’d gotten dressed up anyway because I’d bought the cutest little black number in downtown Rome earlier today and I had wanted to wear it. The music was pounding loud all around me, but I’d found a sheltered corner of the bar so when I ordered a sangria I could hear the bartender quite clearly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man in a suit glance in my direction. I didn’t even have to look to know that he was walking toward me. He leaned against the bar next to me, his own drink glass empty. He tilted the glass at the bartender and the man just nodded in acknowledgement, before climbing a small ladder and retrieving what I assumed was the most expensive bottle of whiskey in this place.

This man was well off. That was promising. Maybe this night didn’t have to suck after all. A girl could enjoy a couple of free drinks.

“A pretty girl like you should be drinking a glass of expensive champagne and not the well sangria they serve in this joint. Let me buy you a drink,” he said next to me, leaning his body toward mine.

I could drink some free champagne.

I turned my head toward him, assessing him rather brazenly. His suit was impeccably pressed. I didn’t know much about designers for men or anything like that, but if I had to guess, he was wearing something that cost him at least several thousand dollars or even more than that. His cufflinks were brilliantly red glittering gemstones. He didn’t seem like the kind of man who would wear cubic zirconium, so if I was a gambling woman, I’d bet those were real rubies. And they were big. At least five carats in size. Not big enough to be ostentatious, but large enough to make a statement.

He was Italian, likely from somewhere local. His hair was a dark mahogany and well groomed. His chin was lined with thick but well-trimmed facial hair. To be honest, he kind of reminded me of a movie star, although maybe more subdued. He had a quiet kind of power that made me curious.

Most of all, though, his eyes promised more, a way to make this lame ass night more interesting. Least of all, I’d get a few drinks out of it or maybe even dinner. Best case scenario, maybe tonight would end with me having a few orgasms in his bed. It had been a long time since anyone wined and dined me, so what was the harm in having a little fun?

I already had my plane ticket booked to head back home to New York. My time in Rome as an exchange student was coming to an end and I planned to move in with my best friend from back home. So, whatever happened tonight would be a one-time thing.

It could be fun.

Why the fuck not?

“Sure. I’d love a glass,” I smiled warmly, and he grinned, his own eyes sparkling in triumph.

He waved over the bartender and quietly ordered a glass of something called Gout de Diamants for me. Immediately, the bartender slid open a fridge, reached in and pulled out the most expensive bottle of champagne I’d probably ever have the opportunity to see. The logo was a beautiful white gold and at the center of it was what looked like a flawless white diamond. He popped it open and the bar cheered all around us. I laughed and smiled, feeling my tension fall away.

I didn’t need my girls to have a good night. I’d make my own fun instead.

A very full glass of Cristal slid in front of me and I wound my fingers around it like it was something that I did all the time. I didn’t think about the fact that this single bottle cost probably cost more than I even made in a year. I pretended this was normal.

I took a sip and felt the bubbles pop against my tongue.

Delicious.

“My name is Vincenzo Santaro,” he began, looking back at me expectantly.

“Isabella De Luca,” I answered, smiling back in his direction. “Thank you for the drink.”

“It’s my pleasure,” he replied, if a bit cockily. I chose to ignore it. He was obviously a man who was used to getting his way when he flashed a little bit of money and so far, he’d been nothing but nice to me. I took another sip of my drink and savored the feeling of his money bursting across my tongue.

“A pretty girl like you shouldn’t be all by herself on a Friday night in Rome, especially in a dress like that,” he stated, taking a moment to drag his eyes up and down my body. He was enjoying the sight and I would be lying if I said I didn’t like him looking at me like that. Sometimes a girl just wants to be admired and feel wanted and right now he was doing all the right things and saying all the words I wanted to hear.

“All my girls cancelled on the plans we made together, so here I am,” I explained evasively.

“Well, considering that I have a chance to share a few drinks with you now, Isabella, I can’t say that I’m sorry they cancelled on you. I’d say that it was lucky for me,” he replied with a wink.

“Perhaps,” I teased with a grin.

He snorted with amusement. He sipped his drink slowly and looked back at me.

“Would you like to dance with me, Isabella? It would be a shame if you didn’t get a chance to tonight, wouldn’t it?”

“It would,” I grinned. I hadn’t yet made it on the dance floor and hadn’t been sure if I was even going to. Dancing as a lone female in a club was always risky because it left you open to all the creepy lurkers circling around looking for the easiest mark.

He offered me his hand and I took it. He led me out onto the dance floor with confidence. It wasn’t lost on me how people moved out of the way for him, that he carried with him an air of power and expectation that others simply responded to.

When he had me where he wanted me, he pulled me into his embrace, my hips flush with his. I could feel he was hard for me and I had to admit, I liked it.

I decided to be the aggressor. I ground my hips against him first and he growled into my ear. I rolled my pelvis back and forth and his grip around my waist grew tighter and more possessive. He was a man who was used to getting what he wanted and right now, I wanted to give it to him.

What was the harm in it? A few good drinks and a fun night?

I danced more suggestively, pressing my body against his and swaying my hips back and forth, acting the part of the dirty little girl. I gave it my all because I wanted to.

I took another sip of my drink. He took another. And another. He emptied his drink first and took my hand, leading me back to the bar. He topped off my glass of champagne even though I hadn’t drunk all that much yet. The bartender refilled his drink, only this time it appeared to be a double. He wasted little time in downing about half that too.

He pulled me close to him and nuzzled my neck. Gently, he traced his lips along my throat, and I sighed as pleasurable sensations raced across my skin. It had been such a long time since I had been kissed and I could feel myself melting a bit more into his arms at the promise of it.

“Why don’t you finish your drink and I will take you someplace nicer,” he offered.

I bit my lip.

Did I want to?

I did.

“I’d like that,” I whispered, turning into his cheek. He grasped my chin and kissed me softly. He was gentle and unassuming and that made me comfortable, at first. After that, his kiss deepened into something a bit more aggressive and it turned me on.

I sipped at my drink. I couldn’t gulp it down, but I wanted to.

That didn’t stop Vincenzo from downing his in one shot.

A little while later, I’d been led out of the club through a concealed exit that probably only the rich and famous were given the privilege of using. I was ushered into an expensive-looking Rolls Royce. Vincenzo sat in the backseat with me while a driver pulled away from the curb.

Vincenzo dialed a number and pressed his phone to his ear.

“Have a chilled bottle of 2013 Gout de Diamants waiting on the bar, along with a fresh bottle of Matheson 1942. Thanks,” he murmured. I heard someone answer on the other line, but I couldn’t quite make out what they said. It didn’t matter though because he curled his arm around me and pulled me to him, distracting me from the promise of more delicious champagne whenever we reached wherever we were going.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked, hoping that he might be taking me to his place or a quieter bar or even a nice hotel.

“To my penthouse. I want to show you what Rome looks like from way up high. It’s quite a sight at night,” he answered, grinning. He’d somehow garnered another drink and I hadn’t seen how. It didn’t really matter though. I imagined when you had money like he had, the rules didn’t really apply to him.

The Rolls Royce sped down the dark streets, weaving in and out of traffic as if it owned the road. Maybe Vincenzo had enough money that he did.

I looked out the window, watching as the night lights drifted by and as people walked down the streets to their favorite local bars or restaurants, dressed to the nines and ready for a night of fun. I wondered what my girlfriends were doing and what they’d say if they knew where I was and who I was with.

I chewed my lip.

Maybe I should be playing harder to get.

His fingers traced the line of my arm, drifting up to caress my neck. He took my chin and pulled me into another kiss. I could taste the whiskey on his breath and the residual burn was even more arousing than I anticipated.

His fingers slipped up my leg and I carefully took them into my own, not wanting to start anything here in the car. He pulled back and looked at me, trying to gauge where my mind was. I decided to let him in, at least a little bit.

“Let me get comfortable first,” I whispered, tightening my hand around his. He nodded softly, understanding glimmering across his features.

“You need another drink,” he replied curtly, and he slipped his own into my fingers, before flipping open a compartment that I hadn’t noticed before to reveal a glass and another bottle of crystal-encased whiskey. He poured himself another and popped a perfectly circular sphere of ice into it. He swirled the glass and I stared at it, trying to remember how many drinks he’d had already tonight.

Was it more than he should have had? I turned back to him, trying to tell if his eyes were glassy or not. They didn’t appear to be, so I carefully took a sip of his.

“What do you do, Vincenzo?” I asked.

“I run a law firm,” he answered.

“What kind of law?”

“Criminal defense. Lawsuits. We’re a multifaceted firm that has a wide variety of talents specializing in a range of subject matter,” he replied. “What about you, Isabella? Tell me more about you.”

“I’m a senior business student in the master’s program at the Sapienza University of Rome. It’s my last semester here before I head back home to America,” I said.

“Is it now? How have you liked Rome so far?”

“I’ve enjoyed my time here very much. I almost don’t want to leave,” I mused.

“Perhaps you don’t have to,” he smirked. For a moment, he stared at me almost like he had something else to say, but then he turned away and I was left wondering what he meant. He didn’t expand any farther and I was just about to ask him when the car came to a stop in front of a high-rise in the business district of the city. Doors were opened and the two of us were ushered into a rather extravagantly decorated front foyer.

It took money to live here and a lot of it. I was sure of it.

Vincenzo grabbed my hand and led me into an elevator, where he simply pressed the top button. It moved fast and before I knew it, the doors were sliding open to reveal a very elegantly decorated interior. He had the penthouse suite and it was just as ritzy as I had imagined. Everything seemed to be lined with gold. The furniture was so extravagant that I was afraid of sitting down on any of it in case it would ruin it somehow. There was a massive white piano in one corner of the room and the edges were lined with what looked like gold filigree. Once I looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows though, I ignored everything that was inside in favor of what I saw out there.

I’d never seen the city from this high up before and it was a sight to behold. Lights of every different color twinkled beautifully beneath us. I could just make out the Coliseum, brilliantly lit up with an orange glow and I marveled at the different styles of building lit up in the dead of night. I admired it for a while before I took another sip of the whiskey that Vincenzo had slipped into my hand in the car. I didn’t drink whiskey often, but it was so very smooth and burned just a little as it edged down my throat.

I heard the sound of glasses clink against the counter and turned to see Vincenzo pouring me another glass of champagne and more whiskey for himself.

“Isn’t Rome beautiful at night like this?” he said. I noticed that his words slurred just the slightest bit at the end of his sentence, and I turned my head to get a good look at him. He still seemed put together, but the way he was drinking that whiskey like water was starting to worry me.

He leaned over the counter and looked me up and down like I was a piece of meat.

“It would look even better with you naked up against it,” he murmured, and I stared at him for a long moment.

“Would it now,” I answered coyly.

He grinned and flung back his head, downing the glass of whiskey before he put it down on the counter.

“It’s about time I take what is owed, I think,” he grinned.

His eyes were definitely glassy now and I started to feel uneasy.

He poured himself another. He stared at me with a predatory glare and that feeling of uneasiness slowly turned to fear. I tried to stand tall and confident, and I didn’t let how I was really feeling show on my face.

I had ignored the initial cockiness I had seen in him and thought it was just the manner of a man with means, but maybe it was something else. Maybe he was arrogant and entitled. Maybe he was just an asshole who bought everything he wanted without having to earn any of it. Maybe he was the type of man who thought that I should spread my legs just because he’d bought me a few drinks.

“Listen, I think I should go,” I said quietly. My voice was level and non-combative and I did that on purpose. I didn’t want him to think I was a threat in any way because right now, I just wanted to leave safely.

“You’re not going anywhere,” he growled, taking a step toward me. His whiskey glass was so full now that it sloshed over the sides. He didn’t even notice. Instead, he just slurped it noisily before he strode over in my direction once more.

My eyes nervously flicked to the door and back to him, trying to evaluate if I could make it to the door in time before he grabbed me. My legs trembled and I wavered from foot to foot, remembering the heels on my feet once more.

I wouldn’t be able to make it. Vincenzo wasn’t a small guy. He was probably about six feet tall and well-muscled. I had no doubt that he could move quickly if he wanted to, especially if he wanted to grab me. He’d be able to overpower me with ease. I swallowed heavily, trying to evaluate what options I had left.

I’d just wanted to have a little fun. I should have just stayed home with a glass of good red wine and a book, but it was too late for that.

I was going to have to figure a way out of here and fast. I turned back to the window, hoping maybe I could distract him until he possibly passed out. He moved closer to me, his footsteps uneven, his breathing louder than before.

“Take off your dress. I want to see you naked,” he demanded, slurring his speech more so than before.

“I’m not that kind of girl,” I scoffed, knowing that I shouldn’t have said it even as the words left my mouth.

“You’re going to be tonight,” he shouted and then he was right next to me. He grabbed my upper arm and pulled me to him roughly, forcing his lips on mine in a sloppy kiss that left my stomach roiling in disgust. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to get the bitter taste of him off my tongue.

I tried to break his hold on me and pushed against his chest, but he only forced himself on me more determinedly than before. I pulled away from him as much as possible and slapped him as hard as I could. I went to run, but what he did next stopped me in my tracks.

He roared in anger and reached behind his back.

I froze, watching in horror as he pulled out a gun.

“You’re going to regret that, you spoiled little bitch,” he snarled, his words becoming more and more difficult to understand. He wavered from side to side and I was suddenly very worried about where this was going.

“Wait. You don’t need that,” I said, my voice finally trembling and revealing just how very scared I was.

His grin widened immeasurably, and it was unnerving. There was a certain deranged madness there and I knew that no matter what I said now, I wouldn’t be able to break through that. Now it was just the booze talking, revealing whatever asshole had been hidden beneath the nice suit and expensive cufflinks.

I had thought I was going to be spoiled tonight, that I was just going to have a little fun, but it was turning out to be quite possibly the worst night of my life.

It didn’t stop there though. It went from bad to worse after that.

He started blubbering nonsense about his family and something about royalty to himself. He said something about a long line of kings, and I stared back at him like he’d gone insane. For a few seconds, it appeared as though he was just talking to himself and had forgotten about me, so I took a few steps to the side in the general direction of the door and he didn’t notice. I managed a few more before he snarled at me.

“Don’t you dare fucking move. If you run, I’m going to make your life a living hell,” he threatened.

He waved the gun and the unthinkable happened. He pulled the trigger.

The sound of the shot was overwhelmingly loud, and I instantly pressed my hands to my ears as I cried out in fear. Thankfully, the shot had gone wild and thudded into the ceiling. He shrieked again and shot off another and I dropped to the floor in terror, hearing the terrible thundering sound of breaking glass. The window behind me cracked loudly, the splintering echoing in the silence all around me. Then, all at once, the window shattered and the sound of the breeze this high up blew into the penthouse. It whipped my hair around my head and my icy cold fear made my skin prickle. I felt numb with it.

Fuck.

This was bad. Really bad.

The wind howled and my hair flew around my shoulders. He came at me again, clearly not even bothered about the fact that he had just shot a gun inside and shattered the window in his really expensive penthouse. It was like it hadn’t even transpired.

He swayed back and forth as he moved closer to me. His expression was demanding. Expectant. Arrogantly entitled.

He grabbed my upper arms and gripped the collar of my dress. He swung his arm back and my dress ripped down the front, the black lacy inlay decimated under the brute force of his attack.

“I said I wanted you naked, so you’re going to be naked,” he threatened.

No. This couldn’t be happening. I couldn’t allow it.

He may be rich and a condescending prick, but he wasn’t going to take my body without my consent. I had to fight back even though I was terrified.

I grabbed his shoulders. He smiled, taking it as my acquiescence, but it wasn’t. Instead of curling into his drunk embrace, I brought my knee up hard straight into his nuts. The high-pitched sound of pain was satisfying as he crumpled to the floor right in front of me. He rounded forward and cupped himself, as if that could make him feel any better.

“You have no right, asshole. You can’t just buy a girl a few drinks and expect her to put out,” I shrieked.

He started to laugh.

I got scared.

“If you run, I’m going to destroy you. You have no idea what you’ve stumbled into, little bitch. You’ve entered a whole new world and you don’t even know it’s over for you yet.”

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

Was this crazy talk? What the hell was he saying and what did that even mean?

He stood back up, rounding on me. I took a couple of steps backwards, but before I knew it, I reached the wall behind me and he used his body to block the pathway to the door. That left the only way out about thirty-five stories down through the shattered window.

“There’s nowhere for you to go. There’s nowhere for you to hide. My people knew your name before you even walked into that bar. They know the names of your parents, of any of your siblings and exactly where they live. There’s isn’t even the smallest detail about you they won’t know, including where your friends are right now. I know everything.”

I stilled.

“What about my friends?” I whispered.

“You don’t think it was by chance that the two of us ended up in the same bar by ourselves tonight, do you?”

“I didn’t realize…” I whispered, trying to come to terms with what he was telling me.

“Think about that before you try to run. Now take off your dress,” he demanded.

I stared at him, both angry and scared at the nonsense coming out of his mouth.

“Who are you?” I asked once more.

“My name is Vincenzo Santaro,” he answered cockily.

“And who exactly is that?” I pressed, trying to keep him busy so he didn’t focus on hurting me or taking what he thought was his to take.

“A very powerful name,” he answered evasively.

I scoffed in response.

“If you say a word about what is about to happen, I’ll end you. I’ll destroy your life. Those tickets back to America you already bought will be gone. Every single one of your friends will disappear and it will be your fault,” he threatened, slurring heavily once more now that the pain from my knee to his balls had likely faded to a dull roar.

My chest rose and fell with an eerie combination of anger and fear. I tried to reconcile with the words he was saying, but it just sounded crazy. No one had that kind of power.

“Are you a mobster or something? A mafia boss of some sort?” I asked, furrowing my brow as I tried to process the slurred threats.

“No. More powerful than that,” he smirked.

I felt even more on edge. Nothing he said was making sense, yet at the same time I feared that his threats were so outlandish that they might carry with them a certain amount of truth. Could he actually do these things? Could he hurt my parents and my friends? Would their blood be on my hands if I didn’t give him what he wanted tonight?

I swallowed, anxiously weighing my options. Should I run and risk his drunk ramblings to be the truth? Do I stay and give myself up to be raped to protect my friends and family from harm? Or do I fight?

He lurched toward me, and I instinctively rose to defend myself. I pushed him away from me and he staggered backwards, dropping low in the process. He tried to recover, but he was far too drunk to steady himself properly and I took advantage by kicking him as hard as I could in the face. He screeched and staggered back several steps straight toward the window. He swayed and couldn’t find his footing, losing his balance and tumbling backwards.

I screamed. I couldn’t have stopped what happened next even if I had wanted to.

I watched in horror as he slowly pitched over the edge of the shattered window. He tried to catch himself on the floor, but it was slick and there was nothing for him to hold onto. I froze, unable to tear my eyes away as his drunken angry eyes met mine and then he was gone.

All I heard after that was his screams until he’d fallen so far that I couldn’t hear him anymore.

A strange terrified keening sound echoed all around me and it took me a few seconds to realize that the sound was coming from me. I curled my arms around my shoulders, trying to protect myself from what I had just witnessed, but I kept seeing his furious eyes staring back at me as he went over the ledge.

We were so high up. There was no possible way he could have ever survived that fall. He was dead and it was my fault. I’d pushed him. I’d kicked him in the face. I’d killed him.

There were signs of a struggle and I was the only one left alive. What if his threats had been real? I couldn’t discount the possibility that his people could come after me, that I would be put in prison for the rest of my life. I didn’t know what Italian prisons were like or what they’d do to me, but I really didn’t want to find out.

I couldn’t stay here. Someone would come looking for him eventually. I didn’t know if the sound of the gun would bring anyone all the way up here. If not, the shattered window certainly would.

Panic welled up from a place deep inside me and I couldn’t push it away. It overwhelmed me until I found it hard to breathe and I did the only thing I could think of.

I ran. Right out of the penthouse and into the elevator. I hit the button for the first floor. It took forever for the doors to close and when they finally did, I breathed a sigh of relief. I just had to get down to the first floor and out onto the street. I could weave between buildings and catch a taxi somewhere close. Maybe I’d get a hotel for a few nights. I could hide out and study and take my finals and get the hell out of here next week on the quickest flight. Perhaps it would be best if I didn’t go back to New York City at all. Maybe I should just disappear and start fresh somewhere new.

I kept telling myself that his threats were nothing but the ramblings of a drunken man. I told myself that over and over until I’d marginally convinced myself that it was true. I sagged against the wall of the elevator, trying to calm the frantic beat of my panicked heart. I watched as the floor numbers descended, although it seemed to be going so much slower than when I’d taken it up to the penthouse.

The elevator started to slow. I stared at the numbers, watching as they stopped altogether.

I was only on the fifteenth floor. I had a way to go before I reached the ground level.

I pressed the first-floor button again and again, but nothing happened. I started to get nervous.

Why wasn’t it moving?

Then the doors slid open. Outside them stood a group of men all dressed in black. They stared at me and I stared at them. They piled into the elevator and I shrank back against the wall. I told myself that they were just taking it down with me.

They weren’t.

They turned toward me and grabbed me. I struggled, fighting tooth and nail against them, but there were too many. A black bag was slipped over my head and I noticed a faint, sweet flowery scent before I started to feel lightheaded.

My eyes rolled back in my head and I knew no more after that.

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