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King of Depravity: A Dark Mafia Romance by Piper Stone – Sample

Prologue

Mallory

The moment I walked into the room I’d known something was wrong. The air was sucked from my lungs as I turned my head, struggling to catch sight of him. Almost instantly I sensed him moving closer. I couldn’t hear his approach, I felt it just as I had before.

“Stay away from me.” Saying the words meant nothing.

“Now, now. You know I won’t do that. My sweet, innocent fawn. What a bad girl you are,” he said in his dark, dangerous voice.

He hadn’t touched me.

Yet.

But I’d felt him the moment he’d arrived.

The predator.

A man who refused to take no for an answer.

The cold shiver trickling down my spine clashed with the explosive heat building in every cell, a need so intense that the only thing that mattered was touching him.

Kissing him.

I could feel his heated breath even though he was across the room. He’d stalked me, obsessing over every detail, preparing for what would happen when he’d tracked me down.

Just like he’d promised he would.

“You shouldn’t be here,” I managed.

“Yes, I should. And do you want to know why?” His voice reeked of depravity, drawing me into the same darkness swallowing half his massive figure.

I remained silent, miming the words as he said them out loud for me.

“Because you belong to me.”

The first time I’d met him, I’d feared he was a serial killer, the thick outer layer of clothing and the darkness of the snowy day incapable of hiding his true nature. He’d given off an aura of danger and dominance, both chilling and enthralling. I’d never been one to surrender to any man. But in the middle of the worst time of my life, I’d lost myself, yielding to a monster.

I hadn’t known just how much it would change my entire life.

Now the hunter had found his prey.

And this time, he would never let me go.

Passion burning deep inside.

A hunger so profound that I couldn’t breathe.

Or think.

“Never.”

“You should have known better than to try and run from me.” His husky voice dripped over me like a velvet blanket, his heated breath brushing softly against my skin leaving me incapable of thinking. The few words said ignited the fires erupting in my system, my nipples swelling from the thought of his rough intentions.

He would take me.

Use me.

Fuck me.

There was only want so captivating that nothing else mattered.

But him.

His touch.

His wet mouth pressing against mine.

His tongue exploring.

His fingers dancing along my skin until I was no longer capable of focusing.

Indecent thoughts, ones so filthy and sadistic flowed through my mind leaving me tingling all over, my pussy wet from raging desire.

With a single snap of his hand, he ripped the thin gown from my body, exposing my nakedness beneath. As he raked his hooded eyes down ever so slowly, I was frozen in the moment, sinful thoughts tickling the back of my mind.

I reached out, longing to touch his skin, to feel the power he exuded, gorging on the flow of electricity soaring between us. But he cocked his head, his nostrils flaring. He was in full control, refusing to allow me satisfaction.

Not yet.

Not until he’d gotten everything he hungered for.

All of me.

My total surrender.

I’d sensed him watching me in the shadows, lurking like the predator he’d become.

“I wasn’t trying to run, at least not from you.”

His laugh was as dark as his eyes had become, as if attempting to hide the devil inside. Only I had managed to break through the coated armor, exposing the man underneath. And what I’d seen had frightened me, his need to devour my body and soul palpable, yet we were like moths to a flame, incapable of staying away from each other.

“Yes, you were, at least at first. But I can sense your hunger.”

Even though I shook my head, I basked in his beauty. He was so strong, his chiseled muscles a thing of perfection, as if God himself had created the ultimate man, everyone else paling in his likeness. His skin glistened in the firelight, his chest rising and falling from the intensity of his need.

As he shoved me onto the rug, the crackling sound of the fire ebbed and flowed with the rapid beating of my heart. He pinned my arms over my head, wrapping his long fingers around both my wrists. I was going nowhere. He’d hunted me, tracked me. Now that he’d found me, there was no turning back. He would never let me go.

He took a deep whiff, holding the heated air in his lungs, never blinking as he showered me with his look of brutal affection. There was something so magnificent about the feeling of being captured, the weight of his body comforting. Perhaps I was his prisoner, but I’d been the one to capture his heart.

He pressed his knees between my legs, pushing them to the sides, nestling against my aching pussy. I was so wet, juice trickling down the insides of my thighs. As I wiggled in his hold, I sensed his amusement.

“You will never get away from me again.” His statement held dark emotion, highlighting his frustration that had built from our separation. I shouldn’t have run. I shouldn’t have believed I could ever get away from him.

He was the air I breathed, the nourishment my body craved.

My drug.

As he exhaled, I tingled all over, wrapping one leg around his muscular thigh. He pressed his thick cock against my wetness, grinding his hips seductively, reminding me what I’d abandoned. His hold around my wrists remained firm, his fingers digging into my skin as he rolled the rough pads of his fingers down my neck, brushing them tenderly along my side. But I knew the moment wasn’t about tenderness. He was incapable of romance.

But I didn’t care.

Our hunger knew no bounds and I was ready to beg him to fuck me. Breathless, my heart thudding, I arched my back, a single moan escaping.

His chuckle was even darker. “My little fawn is hungry tonight.”

“Yes.”

He jerked my leg, bending it at the knee and pushing it to the side. Then he gave me a brazen look of lust before snapping his other hand around my wrist, placing my other leg in position. “You’re such a bad girl.”

“I know.” My whisper was hoarse and as I dragged my tongue across my parched lips, his savage sounds filtered into my ears. He was nothing but an animal, his needs becoming primal. “I should hate you. You’re nothing but a monster.”

“But you can’t. You won’t. And there’s a fine line between love and hate, a need that can never be denied. I am a monster, or the devil if you prefer. But all that matters is that you’re mine. You’ve always been mine.”

As he thrust the entire length of his cock into my tight channel, all the anxiety and uncertainty faded, only desire that would never be satisfied remaining. I was his.

His lover.

His possession.

His salvation.

His body shuddering, he threw back his head, grinding his hips as my muscles stretched, my pulse racing. I’d never known pleasure, the taste of pure rapture, until I’d met him. Until I’d surrendered to him. Now he was all I could think about.

Could dream about.

Could want.

He pulled out, lowering his head until our lips were almost touching. I longed to touch him, to feel the heat generated through my fingers, cascading all throughout my body. When he rubbed his lips across mine, I darted out my tongue, the single taste of him sending a shower of vibrations into my body. My core was no longer just heated, but exploding from licking flames.

His brutal thrust jarred my senses and as he developed a rhythm, I stretched my legs open even wider, purring as his skin pressed against mine. Everything remained a beautiful blur, pushing me into a realm of bliss. He was forceful and rough, unforgiving as he’d always been, but there was so much more to his almost desperate need.

As if the time away had stripped him of what was left of his humanity.

As if only I could fulfill his dark needs.

With every savage plunge, I tossed my head back and forth, but he never blinked, his eyes searching mine. Within seconds, an incredible wave of sheer pleasure powered into my system, the climax as unexpected as the man himself.

“Oh. Oh…” I jerked up, struggling in his hold but it was no use. The throes of ecstasy, the jolts of electricity stripped me of any rational thoughts. The cresting wave turned into another, sweeping through me like a firestorm. Breathless, I murmured his name over and over again.

“Say it. Say it loud. Let me know how much you hunger,” he whispered, the tone even huskier than before.

“Fuck me, Brogan. Just fuck me.”

As his eyes penetrated mine, his expression hardened, his thrusts more brutal than before. When his muscles tensed, I squeezed my pussy, clamping around his thick cock like a tight vise.

And as he erupted deep inside, filling me with his seed, his dark whisper, a promise of continued danger would haunt me long into the wee hours of the morning.

“No one else will ever touch you again.”

Chapter One

Three weeks earlier

Brogan

Blood, sweat, and violence.

That’s what my family had been forged in decades before. While we’d suffered our share of losses, death was considered an acceptable part of our brutal world. My father had taught us years before to expect tragedies and that we’d be forced to go against the saving grace of God on numerous occasions.

That had come to pass over the years, enough bloodshed endured that I was immune to the savagery of it. I had no issue killing an enemy or some stupid slug who’d decided to betray our family because that’s what was most important in life. Family.

We were Irish through and through, my mother and father’s heavy accent a testament to what Pops had called ‘the old days in a country of scandalous cads.’ He’d always been capable of making me laugh. Much to his chagrin, his four children had grown up very Americanized, our accents indistinguishable. But my mother made certain each one of us understood that we were a tight clan. If any one of us was challenged, that meant we all were, and we’d fight to the death if necessary in order to protect the family.

Our experiences had turned me into the brutal man I was today.

I liked to cause pain, the need increasing over the years. My years of formal education had provided an innate knowledge that my psychosis had a name, but that didn’t matter to me. I’d been the one to classify other people’s neuroses, labeling them damaged goods for the rest of their lives, some far too broken to be repaired. I specialized in fixing what couldn’t be fixed, even if the repair was short term, held together by duct tape and drugs. I was considered an expert at what I did, performing miracles other professionals had told me.

However, the world of a psychiatrist also carrying the same demons hadn’t been easy, which is why I’d lost everything I’d worked so hard to achieve.

I’d made a single mistake that had allowed the monsters I’d managed to keep on a tight leash to escape. Since then, I’d become a hunter, longing to find the perfect prey. There was no reason for me to be thinking of such darkness on this festive day, but lately, it was all I’d been able to think about. The desire was becoming an overwhelming need, which didn’t bode well for my lack of patience.

While I’d hidden my brutal longings well, those who knew me insisted I was more of a butcher than a lover, something both my mother and father would disagree with. But at my core, I was brutal, savage, and more merciless than my older brother could ever be. While his preferred method of handling business was as suave as his expensive suits, I used mind control to fuck with anyone daring to get in my way.

I was good at it. I’d trained for years to see through the bullshit, helping hundreds of desperate people in their time of need. Once a respected psychiatrist, I’d specialized in working with serial killers. At the time their methods had filled me with equal parts horror and fascination, but now they allowed me to attack our foes from avenues even hardened Mafiosos couldn’t plan for.

But not today. Today was meant for a celebration of life and family, however jaded or repulsive we might seem to the rest of the world.

My brother was thriving when he’d been at death’s door only months before. Cancer was a treacherous bitch.

“A toast to Liam. May he live a long and happy life. And produce many children.” As our father lifted his wineglass, I glanced around the table, my entire family beaming. My older brother, my best friend and confidant had been cancer free for six months, his prognosis excellent.

He’d once been at death’s door, losing nearly eighty pounds, so weak he couldn’t lift a two-gallon bottle. Now he was bulked up from brutal daily physical training, his skin no longer gray. It was truly a blessed miracle.

I was surprised when my mother had invited our priest, but last rites had been requested at one point and he’d been considered part of the family for years. Father O’Brien was genuinely happy for all of us, especially Liam.

He lifted his wineglass, his smile genuine. “May you be blessed for many years to come, honored by a wonderful family, including one of your own.” When he gave my mother a look, I could tell she’d been talking to him about the state of our family as she usually did.

While my father might not approve of the priest as not only her confidant but her therapist as well, it seemed to give her great joy.

“Aye,” my mother said in her Irish brogue. “I need grandchildren.”

My father burst into laughter, the rest of the family as well. I simply glanced at my brother, noticing the amused look on his face. He’d known what was coming. He’d waited on purpose to consider finding a girlfriend because he’d been certain he was going to die. Perhaps this would allow him to enjoy his life once and for all.

“That would require me to find a wife first,” Liam said, also laughing, lifting his eyebrow as he returned my gaze.

My father winked at my mother, which indicated the two of them had a secret. Their old ways were insufferable at times, including their thoughts on arranged marriages. I doubted Liam would stand for such an ancient custom, even though our father would challenge his sense of duty and honor. I’d learned at a young age that power meant wealth, and my father was considered one of the most powerful men in America, the family’s extreme wealth kept private or the Feds would be knocking down our doors.

“Uh-oh. Father has something up his sleeve,” my sister Erin said, her giddiness unusual. She was always the quiet one, spending hours inside her room. It was good to see her so happy.

“You can always tell,” Fiona said, giving me a roll of her eyes. She was the feisty one in the household, refusing to follow rules, but I loved her dearly. We were lucky the entire family was so close.

“We have the perfect woman for you, my son,” Mother told him.

There was no doubt Father O’Brien had an idea of what they were cooking up.

Liam threw up his hands. “Oh, no, you don’t. You’re not fixing me up with the Pakhan’s daughter or the Cosa Nostra’s niece. I refuse to marry either one of them.”

“No,” Father said as he returned to his blood-rare steak. “I’ve found someone of more importance to our family.”

Now he had me curious. At least I wouldn’t be pushed into carrying on the family traditions. As the black sheep, I was lucky my father hadn’t banished me from the fold. I’d mull that over another day. For now, I was happy Liam was doing so well.

There were too many rumbles in the street, the Bratva threatening war, which they’d done on two occasions. It was ridiculous given the last time had ended with the aging Pakhan losing his life to an unknown assailant, at least according to the law enforcement officers who’d investigated the heinous scene then closed the case. The Bratva were considered scum to almost everyone in Chicago.

I grinned at the thought. The bloody assassination had been my brother’s fine work in motion, his skills at breaking and entering any facility something to marvel at. He’d subsequently suggested to the chief of police that the city was better off without the savage man. All had been quiet for the last six months, so much so I’d become concerned, voicing my thoughts to Liam who hadn’t taken me seriously.

And now, I found out my father was looking for a long-term alliance, which a wedding would help create. I pitied my brother. He’d be browbeaten into accepting his responsibility.

I sat back in the chair, shifting my glass of bourbon back and forth on the table when something caught my eye. Chuckling, I lifted my glass to an associate, a man with a large appetite for everything. Women. Food. Drink.

And power.

I pushed my plate away, leaning toward Liam. “Excuse me for a minute, brother.”

Liam turned his head, following my gaze. “You’ll need to explain one day why you associate with known criminals.” While he had a partial lilt to his voice, my brother had never understood why I’d associated with members of other crime syndicates, forming an association of sorts. The Brotherhood. The group had been formed years before by two dangerous, influential sons of some of the most ruthless mafia organizations in the world.

Those two I considered friends, although they’d been rivals in college. At least our alliance helped keep bloodshed at a minimum due to preventing the unnecessary wars often crisscrossing the United States. “Because I need to get away from your ugly mug every now and again. Excuse me, Pops. I’ll be right back.”

My father wasn’t any happier with my association than my brother, but I hadn’t given him any choice and what did it matter? I wasn’t the heir apparent for the Callahan Empire.

I strode toward Phoenix, unable to keep from laughing. He had two women at his table, both of which were looking at him like he was a god reincarnated. Phoenix Diamondis was the merciless ruler of Philadelphia, his brutal tactics well known. I held out my hand, a smile crossing my face. “How do you do it?”

He snorted, his handshake just as formidable as the man. “Which part? Being a sexy beast or ruling a good portion of the county?”

“Both.”

“It just comes naturally.” His arrogance was part of his charm, but he was the kind of man you didn’t want to cross.

“What are you doing in Chicago, my friend?”

“I thought I’d take a look at the windy city for a change.”

“Uh-huh. Don’t get any ideas. My brother is prepared to take the helm and he’s not fond of the Greeks.”

“Now, did I say I was associating with any of them?” His eyes twinkled as if he held a secret, everything about him screaming of his Greek heritage.

“Duly noted. They are pigs.”

The banter was a good escape from the recent months of being on the edge. Since losing my license to practice psychiatry, I’d floundered in my father’s regime, not interested in the least in taking on the role of underboss or second in command. I wasn’t the kind of man to take a backseat to anything.

“Yes, they are. And they’re dangerous.” His sudden solemn turn was a clue to what he was doing here.

“A challenge?”

He nodded, scanning the restaurant as if expecting to see an enemy. “One that needed to be handled. I promise not to destroy your lovely city.”

“Go ahead. We’ll just rebuild it our way.”

His laugh boomed in the crowded location, the restaurant a favorite of both my father and brother. It had been at least two years since we’d been here as a family. “And I’m certain you’ll do that with flair.”

“Exactly.” His eyes suddenly narrowed and when he eased back the edge of his jacket, placing his hand on his weapon, I tensed, immediately reaching for mine. “What the fuck?”

Before I had a chance to respond, hair stood up on the back of my neck. I had no doubt we were under attack.

Hard cracking sounds occurred seconds later, a sudden burst of wind catching me off guard. Then the shattering of glass was the real indication of what was happening.

An assassination attempt.

Just who was the target?

Both hands on the weapon, I jerked toward the family table just as additional shots rang out, the loud popping sounds scattering through the restaurant as if kettles of popcorn had been placed on every table. I didn’t hesitate, firing off an entire round, the magazine emptied within seconds. My training intact, I reached for the second clip, ducking down as the vacuum of noise shifted, the screams of customers echoing in my ears.

And blood. There was blood everywhere, tables overturned as people rushed to get out of the massacre.

“What the fuck?” I heard Phoenix yell as he fired off several shots of his own.

There was no time to waste, and I lunged toward the table, knocking Erin to the floor, covering her with my body for protection.

“No. No!” my father yelled, dragging my mother away from the window as the two soldiers assigned as guards continuously fired through the shattered window into the street.

There was no way to tell who was firing. I crawled toward Fiona, touching her arm, yelling at the top of my lungs as I pulled my hand away.

It was covered in blood, her eyes open wide in terror.

“Stay here. Do not move.”

She nodded, her entire body shaking, blood soaking through her dress.

I scrambled to the other side. “Liam!” Then I fired off another few shots before jerking away from the window, tossing a chair aside and dropping down. That’s the moment I noticed my brother’s eyes.

His vacant eyes as they stared up at the ceiling, his body riddled with bullets.

Chapter Two

Mallory

“Move your ass, Jodie. And maintain your position. What the fuck is wrong with you?” the photographer barked, which was his only method of communication.

I glared at him from the sidelines, shivering to the point goosebumps had covered nearly every inch of skin over thirty minutes before. Michael Chevell might be considered the most creative photographer in the world, but to plan a holiday photoshoot for backless dresses on a frigid late October day in Montreal was ridiculous. It was obvious he couldn’t care less about the models hired for the festive shoot.

Jodie did her best to plaster on a saccharin smile even though she was shaking like a leaf. Her pose was stilted, which meant she’d be forced to do it again. And again. Michael was a perfectionist, which is why he was the most sought-after man in the business.

I kept my hard glare from the sidelines, sipping my fourth cup of bitter coffee just to try to stay warm. In the last ten minutes, I’d planned deliciously evil ways of killing him.

Driving a knife into his heart.

Putting a bullet in his brain.

And my personal favorite.

Drowning him in a vat of scalding oil.

I hated few men in my life, but he was on the top of the list, even if he was attempting to make me famous. Don’t provoke him. Just smile and take it.

Even if my inner voice had provided a solid solution, that didn’t mean I couldn’t envision his bloodied body in the forefront of my mind while performing like a seal. I had far too much of my father’s savage personality in me, much to my mother’s disapproval. What few knew is that I wouldn’t have a single problem or feeling of guilt if I did drive an icepick between his eyes. I’d been programmed that way and was proud of it.

Finally, I blocked out his irritating voice, tipping my head toward the sky.

Sun.

Glorious sun on a bitter cold day.

It was a gorgeous late morning, not a cloud in the sky. I hadn’t been in such a good mood in weeks, maybe months. The photo shoot I was about to finish was part of the reason. I’d never made so much money modeling, enough to pay the bills for a full six months if not more.

And there was more work promised, including a trip to Italy for fashion week. I was giddy from the experience, even if the photographer was an asshole. But I was used to that. I could handle men who thought they were all that and a bag of chips with ease.

“Honey, get your ass moving and suck in your stomach, for fuck’s sake. You’re a fat cow and I’m getting sick of it. Plus, I don’t want to be here all day.” Michael was rude, arrogant, and damn good looking. He was one of the few photographers I’d worked with who wasn’t gay. That made him the haughty son of a bitch he was, especially since he could get any girl he wanted. I’d seen him with three at a time, which made me sick. He called them the flavor of the night and none of the beautiful women had enough self-respect to kick him in the balls.

I glanced at Jodie, feeling sorry for her. She was the typical girl from the Midwest, her family far too Hallmark material for her to be able to handle the ugliness of modeling. When I noticed the tears in her eyes, I finally couldn’t take it any longer. She was skin and bones and Michael was only feeding her neurosis with his nasty words. I’d caught her throwing up in the bathroom after eating an apple.

“Leave her the fuck alone, Michael. Why don’t you go stick your dick into an electrical outlet? It’s obvious you need it recharged.”

There wasn’t a person on the set who didn’t suck in their breath. No one talked to the famous Michael in such an egregious manner. I noticed the flash in his eyes, but it wasn’t rage like everyone else expected. The man had lusted after me for months, making my life as miserable as possible but I hadn’t given him the time of day let alone a single second of knowing whether his raunchy comments bothered me.

And they didn’t, other than the fact he could put the word out that I was difficult to work with and my career would be finished.

Then again, he knew better than to invoke my wrath or my father would make him fish food within the hour. That gave me leeway to yank his chain.

He slowly turned his head in my direction, narrowing his ice-blue eyes. I smiled at him sweetly, blowing him a kiss then turned away on purpose.

“Girl, you have balls,” Kendra, the costume handler, said under her breath.

Someone needs to cut him down to size.”

She threw a look over her shoulder, her expression full of distress. “You don’t know his temper or what he can do.”

I’d never flaunted who my father was and what he did for a living. There was no need, but to see her very much afraid of a pompous prick like Michael allowed me to take a moment of appreciation for my father and everything he’d built. I’d always been considered a princess, pampered in every way, but the reason I adored the man who’d raised me was because he cared about his family more than his billions of dollars or the empire he’d built. While I was determined to create a life on my own, it was wonderful to know I had him to fall back on if necessary.

“And I couldn’t care less,” I told her.

Against the asshole’s wishes, I returned to the heated building, the blast of hot air exactly what I needed. Seconds later, Jodie bolted into the rented facility, bawling her eyes out from whatever additional horrible thing Michael had said to her.

“You’re worthless, Jodie. You’re also a pig,” he shouted after her seconds later. As he headed in my direction, I took a deep breath, shifting back and forth on the ridiculously tall heels.

I planted my hands on my hips as he strode toward me, his massive body towering over mine. When he lowered his voice so no one else could hear, I held my breath.

“Do you know what I do to prissy little girls like you?” he asked, issuing a growl that was so low and husky, I had to strain to hear it.

“I’m certain you’ll be happy to tell me.”

He crowded my space, but I refused to budge. “I strip away their defenses, tossing them in a cage for a couple days until they beg and plead, promising to do anything I ask. That’s when I fuck them raw, spending hours taking what belongs to me. And when I’m finished, I toss them aside like the trash they are. I suggest you keep that in mind the next time you dare to raise your voice to me.”

“Is that a threat?’ I asked casually.

His chuckle brought out the beast inside of me, the one my father had said was hereditary. “Sweetheart, you can take it however you want to, but expect it will happen sooner versus later.”

The son of a bitch deserved all the vile thoughts I’d had before. Sadly, I couldn’t allow it to get messy at this point.

Now I was ready to tell the asshole exactly what I thought of him. It would also take an act of God not to yank my switchblade from my purse, carving my name in his chest before slitting his throat. I marched over to him, rearing back and slapping him across the face. “How dare you. That ‘pig’ is a beautiful young girl. The reason you love to tear people down is because you’re completely inadequate, your cock the size of a sweet gherkin.” To prove my point and without thinking, I wrapped my hand around the bulge in his pants, twisting until he cried out in pain.

“I was only half right. It’s much smaller.” My temper had finally gotten the best of me. I could count fashion week out, but to see the look of hatred in his eyes and the glee in everyone else’s was well worth possibly losing my career.

“You bitch! You’ll never work in this industry again,” he struggled to say.

I waved my hand at him and walked off the set. No one treated me that way.

Within five minutes, I was in my car, my fingers wrapped so tightly around the steering wheel they ached. I spun out of the parking lot, flicking him the bird.

“Son of a bitch,” I huffed, glaring into the rearview mirror, half expecting him to be running after me.

I continued to replay the interaction, wishing I’d said a few other choice and very derogatory statements. As soon as the phone rang, I knew exactly who was calling me. My agent.

“What the fuck did you just do?” Sally barked. “You just fucked up your last assignment.”

“You do know Michael Chevell is a pompous pig. Right?”

“I don’t care if the man wore bunny ears and did the photoshoot naked. You were there to do a job, not to start a war. How many times has this happened? Too many. I’m finished with you. Consider your contract terminated.”

I didn’t have to retort but if I had managed to do so, the woman who’d called herself my best friend more than once wouldn’t have enjoyed my words. I tossed my phone into the seat, smiling broadly. Just seeing the look of shock on Michael’s face had been worth it.

As I headed for my sweet little house I’d paid for by myself, I realized I’d forgotten to drop off my mother’s birthday present. While she couldn’t stand getting older, ignoring the special day of the year, that didn’t mean I wouldn’t spoil her with gifts. She’d pretend she was offended but I’d always catch her smiling not long after opening the gift. I switched lanes, returning to the interstate, turning on metal music as I headed toward their estate.

By the time I rolled up to the set of massive iron gates fronting the long, curved driveway, I was in a much better mood. Fuck Michael. Fuck modeling. I’d concentrate on the business I’d shoved aside, graphic design my first love. I’d been lured into modeling by a guy who’d reminded me of Fabio from all the early romance novels I’d read. The first gig had been terrible, paying a little over minimum wage, but it had led to something special for a little while.

I pressed my fingers against my lips and my favorite soldier who’d been banished to the doldrums of monitoring the estate from the small guardhouse winked, likely expecting me. I’d often surprised my mother with a trinket or flowers since my father sucked at all things romance. After pulling in the front and killing the engine, I heard my phone chime. Then I realized there were three calls, all from upcoming modeling gigs. There was no doubt they were calling to cancel.

Rolling my eyes, I hopped out, grabbing the present, fluffing the bright red bow before scampering up the massive set of ornate stairs. I opened the door slowly, almost immediately met by one of the housekeepers. Maria also knew my sneaky methods, grinning then quietly closing the door behind me. She pointed toward the living room, and I tiptoed in that direction, surprised to hear my mother’s voice angrier than I’d heard it in a while. I leaned back against the wall, knowing better than to interrupt. My father’s temper was explosive.

“I won’t let you do that,” my mother snapped.

“You have no say in the matter, Lucia,” my father said. While he hadn’t raised his voice, I sensed he was ready to explode.

“Bullshit. I’m her mother. I refuse to allow it. Mia figlia non sposera un maiale.”

I shrank back, my breath caught in my throat. My mother had insisted that I learn Italian, teaching me herself. It was another mother-daughter interest my father hated since he’d refused to learn and it allowed us to talk about him when he was in the same room. Now the knowledge sickened me.

My daughter will not marry a pig.

Marriage? Was this some kind of joke? While my father might be mafia, he’d never subscribed to methods used by other powerful syndicates. There’d never been any need.

“Do not speak in Italian!” He’d finally lost his cool. “She’s my daughter and will do what I say. Period.”

“No!” she screeched.

Then I heard something I thought would never happen, not in a house that had been full of so much love and laughter.

The sound of my mother’s sharp, shocked cry when my father struck her. My entire body was stripped of all breath, my mind reeling from the ugly realization of what he’d done. Why? How could he have done something so horrible?

The silence in the room was deafening. I was sick to my stomach, trying to figure out what to say to him, or if I should intervene. While I loved my father with everything I had and would do anything for my family, I couldn’t stomach either his sudden need for violence against his wife or his desperate need to marry me off as if I’d never mattered to him.

“Why, Grayson? Why?” my mother finally asked, her voice filled with sorrow.

He grumbled something under his breath that I couldn’t understand. “It will keep the fucking Russians from entering Canada.”

She exhaled, the sound almost as terrifying as the brutal slap. “That’s what this is about? You’re worried about the Bratva?”

“They’ve already killed four of my men. The proposed alliance will ensure a line of power they won’t be stupid enough to cross. Plus, we’ll have additional inroads to the United States that we wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s a win all the way around. There is no other choice!”

“For whom?” she asked. “Our daughter? She will never forgive you for this. Never.”

“It’s a done deal, Lucia, and Mallory will do exactly what I tell her to do. She has no other choice. The engagement will be announced by the weekend. Mallory will get used to it. She may even like the man selected.”

That was all I could take. I couldn’t hear another word. Between the modeling event and this, my mind was buzzing with a fog that wouldn’t go away anytime soon. How could my father do something like this to me? How? I was stunned, barely remembering making it back to my car. As I started the engine, a single tear slipped down my cheek. I wiped it furiously, struggling with the good girl I’d always been.

I’d followed the rules, been a team member and worshiped my family, but I couldn’t stomach a responsibility of this nature. And I shouldn’t be forced into spending a lifetime with someone I didn’t know, let alone love. Or like. There was no possibility a marriage could be successful if you didn’t even like each other. None.

Gasping, I almost hyperventilated as the haze wrapping around my brain formed a mist in front of my eyes.

Poor Samuel. I almost ran him over as I floored it past the gatehouse. At least I didn’t run smack into one of the stone pillars, wrecking my car to add to the shitty day it had already been. It wasn’t even two in the afternoon.

“No. No.” The two little words were the only ones that didn’t have the worst expletives attached to them.

Fuck. Shit. Damn. Hell. Son of a bitch. Asshole. That covered the basics at least.

For now.

What could I do? How was I supposed to handle this? Outright refuse? Maybe pretend to go along with it and run away? Right. Where could I go? Granted, I had money of my own saved away. It wasn’t like I needed my father’s bank account or the waiting trust fund to survive. In fact, I hadn’t touched the trust fund he’d established when I was a baby. I’d had no need to.

Okay. Okay.

When I had to throw on my brakes a split second before smashing into the car ahead of me, I accepted the fact I wasn’t fit to drive. Maybe I wasn’t fit to do anything but get drunk. No, that wasn’t going to solve anything. But a drink would help calm my nerves until I could figure out what I needed to do.

“Think. Don’t be a dumb bitch.” Was it possible I could use the anger I felt toward Michael to help me out of the jam? And it was a huge one. Big. Really big. Oh, God. What I needed was advice. And girl time. Yes. That was a good idea. I managed to snag my phone off the seat without crashing, my hand shaking when I dialed my best friend’s number.

We’d been besties since grade school, even though we’d gone through a full year of hating each other. We’d laughed about that ever since. I only prayed to God she would answer.

“Hello, bitch.” Her greeting never got on my nerves.

“Hey, slut. I need you. I mean I really need you.” My throat remained almost totally closed.

“Boy trouble?”

“Life trouble,” I managed, hating the shake in my voice.

“You don’t sound good.”

I slowed down for a traffic light behind another car. The second red went to green, I beeped my horn with so much ferocity, I shocked myself.

“Holy crap. Are you okay?” Jillian asked.

“No. Can we meet for a drink at our favorite bar?”

“Wow. Miss Workaholic needing a drink in the middle of the afternoon? Now, I’m worried. I’ll meet you there in fifteen minutes.”

O’Grady’s was one of the most popular local bars in Montreal, the three Irish brothers who owned it so good looking that they filled every single girl’s fantasy. And probably half the married women. Jillian was already inside, finding a bar-top table so close to the bar I had to squeeze past several burly men. Ordinarily, I’d enjoy the fleeting feeling of hard bodies pressed against my curves, but not today.

Actually, I was annoyed enough I shoved one of the lumberjack-like men a little too hard. His quick snarl as he pulled back his arm to throw a beer-laden punch was quickly replaced with a wink and a glisten in his eyes as he grabbed my hips, pulling me closer.

“Aye. Look at the lass.” His booming voice was sexy enough, rugged with a hint of rasp that probably had women swooning in their high heels, but I did nothing but glare at him. There was no doubt my irritation was obvious because he seemed instantly offended, but that didn’t keep him from grinding his hips.

“Don’t keep pushing me, buddy. You won’t like what happens.” I gave him another hard shove, ignoring the whoops and hollers from his buddies. By the time I slid onto the barstool, I knew exactly what I needed to do, even if it was for a short duration.

Get the hell out of town.

“That was quite the entrance,” Jillian said, fanning her face in purpose.

“I’m not in the mood for assholes. I’m up to here with them.” I raised my hand, dragging my index finger across my neck.

“Hmmm… Sounds like it’s a beer and shot kind of afternoon.”

“Straight tequila is fine with me.” When the same jerk barked at me, I issued a growl so deep that he pulled back, almost falling over.

“What’s going on? You face is flushed.”

I threw my hand in the air, motioning for anyone to bring us libations before I blew a gasket. “First of all, I told Michael the fuckhead photographer off.” It was easier breaking the ice with the lesser of the evils.

“You did? Are you kidding me?”

“Nope.” When a nice enough looking guy approached, I rattled off drinks, shooing him away almost instantly.

“And he did what?”

“After telling me he’d hunt me down locking me in a cage? He fired me then made certain he ruined my career.”

Jillian shrank back. “Well, if it’s any consolation, you’re on the cover of Vogue.” She pursed her lips together as she yanked the glossy magazine from her huge, bright blue Hermes purse. I’d never been capable of understanding what she saw in a thirty-thousand-dollar bag.

When I continued to grumble under my breath, she leaned over the table.

“Did you hear me?” she asked.

“What? I’m trying to tell you I had a shitty day and you haven’t heard the last of it and… Whoa. What did you say?” She slid the magazine across the table, bobbing up and down in her seat.

“You really didn’t know?”

“No.” I could no longer find any words. What little girl hadn’t experienced two dreams as a kid? One, planning her lavish wedding and finding the perfect dress to stand beside the man who’d captured her heart.

That now made me want to vomit a little in my mouth.

Two, to grace the cover of a high fashion magazine. At least I’d accomplished one of them in my life. I yanked it into my hand, hopping up and down on the barstool, snarling after receiving funny looks from two different groups of men. Fuck them. I had something to celebrate.

“You look fantastic,” she said, sighing as she stared at the cover.

“You do realize it was photoshopped. Right?”

Her eyes opened wide then she gave me a sour look. “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter. That’s you through and through, the most gorgeous woman in the world.”

Snorting, I rolled my eyes. “Hardly.” When the drinks arrived, the poor waiter barely had time to place the shot glass on the polished wooden surface before I snagged it from his fingers, throwing every last drop into my mouth. When I thumped it down with a dramatic flair, he nodded his approval.

“One more. I’m celebrating the end of my life,” I told him.

Jillian cocked her head. “What’s with the extra drama? What else happened?”

“My father wants to marry me off to a stranger. On top of that, he hit my mother.”

She started to laugh until she noticed the look on my face. “Whoa. Are you kidding me?”

“Do I look like I’m kidding?”

“Is your mother okay?”

I nodded, although I knew the single slap would haunt her for years to come. “I think so. She’s tough.”

“Uh-huh. Like you,” she teased. “Who is the would-be suitor?”

“I have no idea and I don’t give a shit who it is. I’m not going to marry some two-bit, burly asshole from the States just to make my father, the notorious mafia man even richer.” I realized I’d raised my voice a teensy bit too much, every single rugged brute in close proximity backing away as if I suddenly had two heads. That was always the reaction when a man found out who my father was.

She shrank back, her shoulders slumping. “I was always afraid of something like that.”

“You were?”

“Isn’t that what all crime syndicate families do?”

She’d lowered her voice, but I thought she was kidding at first. Then I laughed, shaking my head. “My dad is powerful but he’s not like that. At least that’s what I believed my entire life.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Honestly? I need time by myself to think and there’s nowhere in all of Canada I can go where he won’t find me.”

“So, what then?”

I tilted my head, allowing a smile to cross my face. “Do your parents still own that cabin in Colorado?”

“Yeah, of course but… wait a minute. You want to hide out there?”

“I do.”

Jillian sat back. “I don’t know. My parents are very protective of the location. I haven’t been allowed to go there alone.”

“Pretty please. I’ll make certain nothing happens to it. I just need a few days, nothing more. Besides, you owe me.”

“For what?” She sounded indignant.

“For the time I scooped you out of that asshole’s bed before he forced you to go any further? Remember? The guy I beat up?”

While her face turned red, she laughed. “My little ball-busting friend. Fine. When are you leaving?”

I thought about it and sighed. At least my passport was in order. “The sooner the better. Today. And you must promise not to tell my father a single thing.” I gave her a hard look and she fisted her hand, raising her arm. As we bumped knuckles, she nodded.

“Don’t worry. Not a word.”

At least I could count on someone.

“But I need to warn you,” she continued. “The location is very secluded, as in there’s no one around for miles. There are also wild animals on the mountain. Bears. Cougars. Wolves. My father used to set out traps because there were so many. Granted, this was years ago, but just be aware.”

I gave her a look. “I wouldn’t care if you told me the abominable snowman had been discovered there. As long as there are no men to bother me, I can handle anything. You seem to forget, I’m a dangerous woman when pushed.”

As she laughed, I felt a sense of relief. For once, I was doing what I wanted, not what was expected of me.

And it felt damn good.

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