Amazon Rainforest, Brazil
That was the way of our world, a place where men climbed the corpses of others in order to achieve their personal greatness. My captain in the Marines had never called himself a great leader. He’d always treated himself as if he was required to dig in the trenches, wallowing in mud and gore just like the rest of the men and women under his command. However, he’d never wavered on the orders he provided, insisting that his people follow without question.
And we always had.
That had been indoctrinated into me from day one after I’d joined the ranks. I’d been forced to prove myself right along with the hundreds of others, a strong percentage of them failing bootcamp. Hell, the percentage of failures had been almost thirty percent the year I’d been trained, the workouts and experience brutal.
But not nearly as much as the training I’d received being a member of the King family, the lastborn son of a great man. A dangerous man.
A powerful man.
My reputation had preceded me, almost the entire leadership making it their personal mission to have me tossed out. I’d even been given ‘special’ treatment during the Crucible, the toughest fifty-four-hour endurance training of the entire experience. But I’d survived. Hell, I’d even gotten the best score of the grueling two-day-plus event.
However, it had taken my accuracy at weaponry, taking out several enemies at long range distance to garner their respect.
I’d also had zero issue with using a level of violence as required, perfecting kills with speed and ease of conscience.
That had gotten me labeled as a dangerous man.
While I’d been coerced to return to the King family organization, even receiving multiple phone calls from the family Consigliere, I’d refused for well over two months. However, as my father had lectured from the time I could remember, blood was thicker than water. It had been my duty to return.
I shifted the gears on the old Jeep, the dim headlights barely allowing me to see a few feet into the dense rainforest. The recent heavy precipitation was gone, leaving the traveling treacherous, water dripping from the lush greenery. Sounds of jungle life were everywhere, the clicks and creaks a constant reminder of being overseas, only the circumstances were entirely different.
Our shipments of party favors had been delayed, our vessels prepared to leave Brazil standing empty. We’d already lost close to a cool half million during the last week. That was unacceptable. Fortunately, the reason had been determined. Betrayal. The dictator holding court in all of South America had allowed the King family to take a small percentage of his business. Carlos Morales was a brutal leader, the tenuous deal made with him obviously prepared to crumble. I’d been sent to handle the necessary punishment as well as determine Morales’ continued plans. If that included invading our turf in the United States, he would be crushed like a bug.
“I don’t like this shit at all,” Paolo hissed from the passenger seat. The man had been assigned as my Capo, my brother Cristiano vouching for his loyalty as well as his leadership skills after my return. I’d yet to make my decision about him. Perhaps I was used to an entirely different mindset. While the man was highly skilled, including in weaponry, he was crude around the edges, his lack of organization pissing me off more than once.
Although the man had humble beginnings in Mexico, the jungle was oppressive in an entirely different way. The Amazon had a way of determining man from boy.
“Relax. We go in. We extract the needed information as well as issue penance. Then we’re out.” I had to admit I didn’t want to hang around in Brazil longer than necessary. The flight would leave early in the morning. Unfortunately, there were men loyal to Carlos Morales everywhere in the country, the bastards true mercenaries in every sense of the word. If he’d turned some of our soldiers, the asshole was prepared for war.
Almost eight months had passed since the family’s last incident with Morales. However, we’d known that it would only be a matter of time until the brutal dictator reared his ugly head. A deal of peace had been proctored over a need to rid ourselves of a common enemy, Morales promising to forgo advancing anywhere near our turf stretching from Texas to the Florida Keys.
However, the man had no honor.
Now we’d found that that three of our most trusted men had not only provided information but help, allowing for a raid of our shipment of cocaine. That couldn’t go without punishment.
But not before I determined Morales’ future plans.
That was my one task at this point, other than making an example out of the fuckers who’d dared to defy the King Empire.
“Yeah, well, leaving can’t occur soon enough,” Paolo huffed. “And a freaking mine? What the hell are they doing at a damned cave?”
“Just an excellent place to store our product before it gets shipped out.” While we stored the drugs produced and brought to New Orleans in a series of secured warehouses, in South America, Morales either owned or protected almost every piece of real estate. We’d determined it had been far too risky operating out of a building. That had been done before with explosive results. We couldn’t keep enough manpower in a foreign country to make it worthwhile. Even keeping the compound my father had secured almost two decades before was a ticking timebomb. Of course, Morales knew its location. He also knew that attacking it wasn’t in his best interest.
Paolo huffed. “Whatever you say, boss.”
“I assume you’ve made certain I have everything I need for our… conversation with the men?”
“Absolutely, boss. Jarvis made certain you’d be happy.” He snickered then cursed in Spanish as he slapped at several flying insects. “Goddamn, they grow the fucking creatures big here.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. The man had no understanding of the kind of monsters lurking in the deserts and jungles where I’d been. I slowed the Jeep, studying the area then checking the map, finally able to detect what appeared to be a torch in close proximity. I grabbed the binoculars, scanning the area in search of any problems. While I detected none, I was no fool. Communication could have been intercepted at any time.
Morales had shifted his main operation to his various compounds throughout the country. His estates were massive and luxurious, several of which we’d yet to locate. However, it was obvious that he owned one of the properties in close proximity given the location of the river.
“Be ready in case we’ve been compromised,” I said under my breath, dragging my Glock from the duffle bag. I turned off the lights after only a few yards, able to maneuver close to the camp.
Paolo rose from the seat, pointing his weapon in the direction of the lights. “I see our people.”
I cut the engine, taking my time to exit the vehicle. The camp had been used years before and found by one of our soldiers. Given the close proximity to Manaus City as well as to the Rio Negro, the location was truly perfect for doing business as well as maintaining a low profile when necessary. There was still extensive mining occurring in the country, although the majority in this area had been stripped of various precious gems.
With Morales threatening our business, it would seem he was preparing for a change in scenery. If that was the case, we’d be forced to make certain decisions that could create issues in our beloved N’awlins.
When I approached, Jarvis headed in my direction, a grin on his face. He’d earned his moniker of Bone Crusher with ease. He was another man without a conscience, his gruff actions proving useful over the last few months.
“Boss. Good to see you,” Jarvis said, sweat beading along his forehead.
I studied the area, shaking my head. “I take it you provided a generator.”
“Full service, boss. You should know that by now.”
Paolo flanked my side, sweeping the area. We were likely less than five miles from one of several massive estates, the production of rubber very good to the most influential people in town. However, given the rough conditions of the Amazon, no one would ever know it. It was a stretch of land considered uninhabitable. The slithering sound of several snakes made my Capo jumpy.
“All right. Time to get on with the party.” I allowed Jarvis to lead the way into the mouth of a cave, the thick walls also an excellent sound barrier. I passed by bundles of product, all waiting to be shipping out in the morning. Everything had been on track. Now I had to deal with freaking betrayal.
As I was led down a fairly well-lit passageway, I was able to hear the sound of water. There were waterfalls everywhere, their fall leading to the various rivers. It was vital to the method of punishment I was planning on using.
“Watch your head, boss. They’re in here.” Jarvis leaned over before entering another cavern area. It was easy to see that at some point, there’d been extensive mining activity.
I followed him in, Paolo directly behind me. There would be two soldiers remaining at the entrance; however, I doubted our little party would be detected. Once fully inside, I had to say I was impressed with the rigging system Jarvis had been forced to improvise. The man’s creativeness in using the naturally cascading water was brilliant.
I’d known men and women in my company who’d been brave, enduring torture while refusing to provide information to the insurgents. Some had been rescued, others dying for their country. They’d all been true heroes, rewarded with the highest honors possible. I’d learned about and studied several methods of enticing an enemy to talk from the guerillas overseas, but the procedure I’d perfected had been learned from my father.
He was the true King of Pain.
While there would always be enemies, the situation was much worse when it came from within your own ranks. The disloyal behavior called for a long and difficult death.
As I walked closer, it was easy to tell even in the dim lighting that all three had been properly worked over prior to my arrival. I shifted my gaze to the chains wrapped around their wrists, the metal pole keeping them in the air perfect for the conduction of electrical current.
Let alone the water flow.
Only one of the former soldiers was actively attempting to free himself, the creaking of metal as he swung his body adding to the eerie ambiance in the cave. I would start with him. Slipping a finger under his chin, I forced it up by several inches, allowing me to study his battered face. He was difficult to recognize, but I knew his name as I did all the men who’d been placed on my detail.
“Felipe. It would appear that you didn’t find the working conditions within the King family to your satisfaction. Is that the truth?”
My question didn’t seem to register in the asshole for a solid thirty seconds. Then he grinned. “It was fun while it lasted.” Felipe’s voice was strangled, likely from the blood dripping from his mouth.
Jarvis took a step closer, acting as he was prepared to beat the shit out of the man. I threw up my arm. While he knew better, I appreciated his quick reaction.
“I’m going to make this fairly easy for you, Felipe. What information did you supply to Morales, other than providing the details about our product location to him?”
“I didn’t need to say anything. He knows everything about your whereabouts.”
His statement was bold. It also wasn’t a lie. That put me even further over the edge.
Sighing, I moved toward Daniel, gripping his jaw and forcing him to look me in the eye. His breathing was even more labored, his chest rising and falling rapidly. “Daniel, as you might imagine, I’m not a patient man, nor do I appreciate anyone trying to fuck with my family!” The last words stated with vehemence seemed to bounce in echoes off the thick walls. Hissing, I shook my head. “I don’t enjoy getting angry, but in this case, I will allow my rage to surface. Now, what do you know about Morales and his future plans?”
“Na… Nothing. I wouldn’t betray you. Please don’t,” Daniel moaned.
My God, the man was whimpering. There was nothing worse than a grown man begging for his life.
“Please don’t? Don’t punish you for your treachery? Don’t destroy your family as you attempted to do to mine? What?”
“My wife… She’s all I have.”
I closed my eyes briefly, another headache forming. “Then you should have thought about that before. Christ.” As I moved on to the third man, I could see actually detect a smile on the fucker’s face.
“He forced me. You don’t know how dangerous Morales is,” Daniel managed to say.
It was obvious Morales had intended on pushing our buttons as he continued his love of games. I ignored his comment, glaring at Martin, a brute of a man I’d never liked. “What do you have to say, Martin? An excuse? Perhaps you’d like to beg for your life as well?”
I had to admit that I was surprised by the man’s audacity. I glanced at the generator that had been used, the cables still dangling from the current shooting through them. And still, the assholes refused to talk. I threw a hard punch to Martin’s gut, flexing my fingers after doing so. “And now?”
His grin forced me to deliver several additional punches, the swinging sound the chains made forcing me to roll my eyes.
Daniel struggled, fighting with his bindings. I could tell the man was terrified.
I’d never considered myself anything close to the nature of my brothers, especially Cristiano and Lucian. They’d always been certain to ascend to the throne, using their keen leadership skills as well as their penchant for extracting information to their benefit. In fact, I’d never wanted to be a part of the family operation at all, condemning it after witnessing my father’s brutal torture of a man who owed the family money.
However, I’d learned through the years that family was the most important thing. Not money. Not power. This was no time to show any sign of weakness. The methods used here today would have an excellent trickledown effect amongst the ranks.
I approached Felipe, taking my time to study his face. “I’ll ask you one more time. Tell me what Morales is planning. If you do, I’ll show you that I can be fair and lenient.”
“I can’t do that,” Felipe huffed, spittle oozing from one side of his mouth. The electricity had hit him hard, his body still shaking.
“All right. You can’t say I didn’t try,” I huffed then pummeled my fist into him, ending with a hard strike across his face.
“You… are… just like… them.”
His answer was enough to send another wave of fury into my system.
“This is getting us nowhere,” I said to no one in particular. I shifted to Daniel, almost hating the need to convince him to cooperate. “Daniel. I know you’d like to get back to your family. What can you tell me?”
“I swear to God,” he blubbered. “I was forced to come along. They didn’t share anything with me other than they were going to fuck with the King family.”
I had a feeling the man was being honest. Too bad he hadn’t contacted me or another member of the family. I punched him several times in the face before taking several steps away. This shit was getting old. “I think that should teach you not to fuck with the family.” The generator remained running, allowing all three men to know just how serious I was.
A few seconds later, I moved toward Martin. How he managed to find enough saliva to spit across my face was interesting. He’d likely ingested some of the trickling water. He also made a terrible mistake. I didn’t bother asking him any questions. It would obviously be futile.
Mistake number four. Or maybe five. I’d lost count. I shook my head. What a damn shame. All three had been rising stars.
After Jarvis turned off the generator and the battery charger, I motioned to him to head closer to the passageway. “Finish the job with Felipe and Martin.”
“What about Daniel?” Jarvis shot a look over his shoulder.
I rubbed my jaw, glancing in the man’s direction. “He remains. Send him stateside and back to his family. Make certain they are well taken care of as well as protected in the short term. Then I’ll decide.”
“You got it, boss.”
“Feed them to the piranhas. I’ve heard they’re especially hungry this time of year.”
Jarvis grinned, giving me a nod of respect.
“Then get the product the hell out of here and close down the camp. We’ll make other provisions at a later date.”
I could tell Jarvis was questioning my decision. All I had to do was give him a stern look.
I wasted no time exiting the area, Paolo following. We hadn’t made it twenty feet when I heard gunshots. I took a breath. A vacation was definitely needed.
So much for hiring good help.
While the damn jungle air was humid, it was a welcome change to the frigid temperatures of the cave. We headed for the Jeep. It was time for a cold beer and a good night’s sleep followed by a return to New Orleans in the morning. Then the fun would really begin, plans required to end the disagreements we had with Morales.
I hopped into the Jeep, immediately starting the engine. As I drove through the jungle, I made a promise to myself that this was the last damn trip to South America. The King family owned enough other businesses to allow me to protect our options.
The trip back to the compound the family owned didn’t seem to take nearly as long. Then again, maybe I’d learned enough about the jungle to know how to avoid the pitfalls, which could be located everywhere. Morales enjoyed setting traps, pits containing snakes and other wild animals. In my mind, the man was one sick fuck.
Paolo said nothing during the trip. I’d known Daniel had been his friend, but there wasn’t any room for friends inside the operation.
We’d gained nothing more than to affirm the fact Morales was on the move. At least the party favors hadn’t been raided. That wasn’t worth much, but if the man continued with his plans, that would affect our operations in South America as well as the entire US Coastline. I loathed this portion of our business. Selling drugs was old school, the way my father had built the empire. To me, it was far too dangerous given other lucrative methods of operating. But I wasn’t running the show, merely considered a prince.
I couldn’t help but chuckle under my breath realizing just how much the family operated like royalty. A family people should bow down to. That continued to occur, the number of politicians, law enforcement, major business players, and diamond dealers wanting to show their loyalty still surprising the hell out of me.
I’d returned to New Orleans to find the entire King organization had increased in value by more than two times. It had been a bittersweet return.
By the time I drove past the secure gates of the surrounding grounds, I was exhausted. With my brothers finding lives outside of business operations, at least according to all four of them, I’d been tasked with more responsibility. While that suited me just fine, I couldn’t believe they’d bowed down to their carnal desires. Women were wonderful, beautiful creatures to be enjoyed, but over a short time frame. I couldn’t imagine bringing anyone into my world, forcing them into a life where they’d always have a target on their back. And children? Hell, no.
Cristiano’s first babies were anticipated to arrive any day. Twins, just like Michael’s first wife had birthed. The impending due date had prevented him from accompanying me on the trip. Sadly, his wife, Emily, had experienced complications during her pregnancy. I knew my brother was concerned. That had shoved Cristiano to a dangerous edge, his mood darkening. That’s another thing I couldn’t tolerate. Worry and guilt. That concept of wretched emotions added to my decision to remain alone.
After parking, I sighed before getting out, studying the two soldiers who’d remained on watch. While the house wasn’t connected to the King name, it was only a matter of time before someone discovered the location. If that already hadn’t happened, which I was beginning to believe was the case. While the soldiers nodded, indicating everything was clear, I kept the weapon in my hands, grabbing the duffle.
“That was real good of you to allow Daniel to live,” Paolo said quietly, remaining in his seat. He would stay in the secondary facility, one designed with soldiers in mind.
I stopped short then tipped my head until I was able to see him. “It was a business decision.”
“Sure, boss. I know what you mean. I just… Anyway. Have a good night.” He climbed out, starting to walk away.
I watched him for a few seconds, ready to head inside when he reached for his holster, immediately drawing his weapon. What the hell had he heard?
He motioned to the back of the Jeep, the thick, flexible cover hiding little more than basic equipment. However, the man was observant, almost never wrong. I shifted closer, nodding to Paolo to do the same. I could clearly see where someone had unfastened one of the snaps. I was meticulous in operations, which meant our equipment had been invaded. I held the Glock in one hand as I ripped the covering back, Paolo shining his flashlight inside.
While I would have expected a venomous snake in an effort to make an assassination attempt, what I didn’t expect to find was a stunning young woman hiding under the canvas, her hair spilling out from the cap she’d been wearing. What. The. Hell?
I wrapped my hand around her wrist, immediately yanking her onto the driveway. Then I snagged her around the throat, digging my fingers into her skin as I pointed the barrel of the gun to her forehead. “I’m only going to ask you this once, cherie. Who the fuck are you?”
Quivering, she held up her hands, the way her long dark hair covered a good portion of her face making it impossible to see what she looked like. While she was shaking, she certainly wasn’t as terrified as I would have expected.
Paolo moved around her, huffing then pulling a weapon from her back. He patted her down, finding a knife secured in her boot as well as an extra clip of ammunition in one of her pockets.
“Nice girls shouldn’t play with firearms,” he stated. Paolo inched closer, allowing me to see the gun she’d been carrying. The weapon was something a soldier would select. The fact she’d just shown up certainly wasn’t a coincidence.
She tried to stare me in the eyes, her lips pursing. I shifted the hair out of her face and even in the dim lighting, it was easy to tell just how gorgeous she was.
“One last time, sweetheart. Who are you and what are you doing here?”
Her look becoming defiant, she hissed before answering, the words stated with utter defiance. “My name is Julieta.”
“Julieta what? Who sent you?”
“No one sent me.” Her accent was Spanish, but definitely well educated.
“Then why are you here?”
“I just needed to get the hell away from there. You were an easy ride.”
“From where?” I demanded, adding enough pressure against her lovely throat that she coughed, fighting like a wildcat. The last thing I needed was baggage of any kind. She’d obviously climbed into the vehicle at the campsite. I wanted her to admit it, although I found that difficult to believe.
Hissing, the girl tried to claw me with her fingers. Did she honestly have no clue who owned the vehicle she’d stowed away in?
“You should kill her, boss,” Paolo said under his breath.
I shot him a look and that was all he needed in order to back down. I might be a killer, not just during my time in the military, but I refused to harm a woman or a kid. I did have some honor after all.
“Where?” I squeezed even harder, shaking my head when she continued to refuse to answer. “I’m losing my patience. You won’t like me when that happens.”
“Fine, asshole,” she managed, snarling even though I knew she had difficulty breathing. “I was at the damn camp.”
My God, the woman actually laughed. She had some balls on her.
“Collecting something that belonged to me.”
I gave her a look.
“What does it matter to you? I only wanted to get the hell out of the jungle and this godforsaken place. You seemed like an easy ride.” She spat out the words as if the entire situation sounded perfectly logical.
Even Paolo laughed.
This was getting me nowhere.
“Do you know who I am?” When she didn’t answer, I squeezed until there was no doubt she had difficulty breathing. “Do you know what I can do? Let me just say that you should be very afraid.”
Another laughed pushed past her voluptuous lips. “I could never be afraid of a man like you.”
After taking a deep breath, I lessened my hold. There was something about her that kicked up my level of curiosity. My hackles remained raised. She was hiding from someone.
“Then who are you afraid of?” I couldn’t wait to hear the answer.
She merely pursed her lips, glaring at me with utter hatred in her eyes.
I pulled my hand away, studying her intently. She was dressed in what appeared to be army fatigues, the kind I’d seen the Morales soldiers wearing. With her combat boots and heavy jacket, it became clear that she’d done everything she could to hide her identity.
“Answer me, princess.”
Huffing, she wrapped her hand around her neck, rubbing yet remaining exactly where she was. The feisty female was determined to piss me off. “A powerful man,” she finally said, the defiance from earlier all but nonexistent in her voice.
“Because he’s going to kill me.” She was becoming unhinged, darting looks from one side of the compound to the other.
“Who is going to kill you?” When she struggled in finding an answer, I pushed the barrel of my weapon against her forehead once again. “If you want to remain alive, you’re going to need to talk to me. Who is this man trying to kill you?”
She held her head high, venom in her eyes. “My father.”
“And who the hell is your father?”
The girl darted a look to Paolo before answering, “My father is Carlos Morales, the most powerful man in the world.”
Likely a psycho.
For certain a waste of oxygen.
Unfortunately, he was now my captor.
I’d been stupid enough to try to run away from my father’s hold, only to find myself in a predator’s lair. There’s been no other choice but to hide in the vehicle. My instincts had told me that possibly being found hitching a ride was less dangerous than the soldiers preparing cartons of cocaine and heroin.
I’d been wrong.
Just hearing the screams of the men echoing to the mouth of the cave had sent a wave of terror skating into my system. I’d also panicked until I’d heard footsteps and voices returning to the jungle. Just before I’d crawled until the covers of the man’s Jeep, I’d seen a glimpse of his face in the glowing torches.
My father had told me a long time ago that the most powerful men in the world came in all shapes and sizes, but the ones who were cunning in their methods of destruction were the most dangerous. He’d considered himself to be one of the most influential men in the world, a man almost everyone feared. He also had a huge ego and a short fuse, flying off the handle for no reason.
How many men had I watched crushed by his acts of vengeance? How many women had he taken as lovers? And how many illegitimate children did he have strewn across the world? And my mother had looked the other way, doting on him as if the man had been a god.
The great Carlos Morales. A true monster.
However, I’d taken a significant risk catching a ride from Dante King. Maybe I’d been a fool to try to get away, but there was no other choice. I certainly couldn’t hang around in case my father’s men came looking for me, let alone the few soldiers who hadn’t been killed by Mr. King. Maybe if I played the victim I could get him to help me. I was the enemy’s daughter after all.
The other alternative was no more pleasant than dealing with a monster like Dante. Then again, there was no doubt what my father would do the second I was found. He’d have me locked away in a cage until the beast he’d contracted with came and dragged me to the altar.
For an unholy, filthy marriage derived in blood.
I knew all about the King family and their hold on the southern portion of the United States, a place I’d never been to. I hadn’t been allowed out of my father’s great compounds, other than to attend school in Switzerland. That had been the only happy time in my life.
Then my father had ordained that I’d marry a disgusting asshole like Casillas Ricardo. I’d rather die than be tied to the brutal man who had no conscience. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about it to Dante, not that he would give a shit.
Keep your resolve. You can get out of this.
I stood my ground as the two men studied me like I was some kind of a research project. The one thing my father had taught me was to never show weakness.
“Then what do you want me to do, boss?” the second man asked. “You going to keep her?”
“I’m doing nothing permanent at this point. However, I need to spend some time with Ms. Morales.” Even in the darkness, I could see his dark eyes as they gazed down the length of me, a slight smile curling on his lip. I resisted punching the bastard.
When Dante took me by the arm, I jerked it away. “Let go of me.”
He took a deep breath, looking into the darkness for several seconds. “I’m going to make this very clear for you, Julieta. Not only were you spying on the activities at the camp, you were foolish enough to hitch a ride with the wrong man. That makes you my property and you are going to follow my rules. I won’t accept anything otherwise. If you do not follow my commands or answer my questions, you’re going to be punished. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Spying on you? I couldn’t care less that you’re distributing drugs. That’s the real way of life, isn’t it?” I knew I was pushing his buttons. At this point, I didn’t care. But I could feel his increasing rage.
“Do. You. Understand?” he repeated.
I’d been a fool to think I wouldn’t be found. Sadly, now there was no other recourse but to try to play along. My father would think it nothing more than a betrayal, which could mean my certain death if I tried to return. He’d feel dishonored, humiliated by his own daughter, especially if the marriage contract was pulled, of which there was a significant chance. “Yes. I understand.” A part of me wanted to beg Dante for help.
No. Hell, no. There had to be another way.
“Then come with me.” He remained extremely cautious as he jerked me toward the house, scanning the perimeter for any sign the location had been compromised. “Make certain there are no compromises, Paolo.”
“Will do, boss.”
Neither he nor his family had any real understanding of what my father was capable of. I’d overheard my father on more than one occasion discussing the King family’s extermination, biding his time for some unknown reason. That’s all I’d managed to catch. Women weren’t allowed to learn aspects of the business. We were allowed on this earth for two things.
I hated being dragged into the house like some common criminal. I’d been considered a princess to the common man, although I’d never worn a crown, let alone obtaining any level of authority. While I’d been pampered as a child, I’d become nothing more than a commodity the day I turned eighteen.
Dante closed the door, arming the security system before letting me go.
There was very little light, the various shadows giving me the jitters. There was no way of knowing what to expect. I backed away quickly, darting my eyes around the space.
When he switched on a light, I winced, taking another two long strides away from him. He continued to study me intently. At least now I was able to take a full look at the man I’d sought out. I’d seen pictures of his entire family on the internet, his older brothers the epitome of wealth and influence. There was something entirely different about Dante King. He was certainly just as gorgeous with his dark hair and midnight black eyes, long lashes framing a perfectly chiseled face. However, everything about him was much more primal, a man unafraid to wear his predatory nature like a beacon of honor.
“Take off your clothes.”
His command shocked the hell out of me. An immediate tremor skated down my spine. “Idiota,” I whispered under my breath, snarling after spouting off the single word. The bastard was exactly like all the rest.
“Fuckhead. I assure you that I’ve been called every name in the book, sweetheart.” He eased his hands in front of him, the weapon dangling in his fingers. There was no smile on his face, no expression of any kind. “I thought I made the objective of our conversation very easy for you to understand. I don’t like repeating myself. That’s something for you to keep in mind.”
I loathed the fact I continued to quiver, my heart racing. “Why?” My hiss was laced with as much defiance as I could gather together.
He issued another deeply rumbling exhale. “I’m no fool, Julieta. I spent years behind enemy lines, prepared for an attack of any kind. That included coming from beautiful women. They were often used as suicide bombers. Sadly, some of my military brethren fell for the bullshit. However, I was also trained by a ruthless and dangerous family never to trust anyone or anything at face value. Strip or I’ll be forced to terminate you.”
He used it word as if my death would simply be a matter of doing business. I had no choice, not if I wanted to see the light of day. I closed my eyes, unfastening my jacket, my fingers shaking as I tugged it off my shoulders, merely dropping it onto the floor. I turned in a full circle, allowing him to see there were no bombs strapped to my chest. I was only wearing a tank top and pants, for God’s sake.
Dante kept his hands on his weapon, his eyes narrowing as if he was already losing his patience.
I crouched down, untying the boots, my cold fingers having difficulty following his orders in a timely manner. After jerking them off and kicking them across the floor in a fit of frustration and anger, I turned away from him, hating the blush that had already swept across my cheeks.
“Nice try, sweetheart. Turn around. I need to see every move you’re making.”
My God, the man was a real bastard. I swallowed back a whimper and did as I was told, keeping a clear look of defiance on my face. I even managed to smirk, locking eyes with his as I unzipped my pants, yanking them over my hips, hissing as I jerked them off. Now I stood in white panties, a black tank top, and freaking socks. I couldn’t have been any more embarrassed than if I was standing in front of him completely naked.
Still, I folded my arms over my breasts in a moment of stupid protection.
As if the douchebag couldn’t do exactly what he wanted to me.
Dante cocked his head, studying me just as intently as before. When he walked closer, I fisted my hands, ready to provide some sort of protection. He shifted around me in a full circle then snagged my jacket before heading further into the house.
“Follow me,” he commanded.
I realized I’d been holding my breath. After exhaling, I cursed under my breath. I’d never been treated this way. I trailed behind him, surprised that the house was almost as lavish as one of the many estates my father owned.
He headed for the kitchen, taking his time to slide his hands into the pockets of the jacket I’d worn. I could tell when he’d found the single item that I’d brought with me, hesitating before pulling the velvet bag into the light. “What’s this?”
Think. Think. Tell him what he wants to hear.
“How about payment for my protection?” My father had never allowed me any access to cash and I certainly didn’t own a single credit card. The gems were my only method of trying to get the hell out of the country. Maybe they’d be enough to provide safe passage. Who was I kidding? I doubted there was an honorable bone in Dante’s body. While I’d taken some time in developing a plan of escape, once I’d heard about Dante’s sudden arrival, I should have put my crazy idea on hold, but I’d felt so desperate. My entire life as I’d known it had been about to cease to exist. The planned wedding had been two weeks away.
The gems meant nothing to my father, at least in this small of a quantity. It was likely he wouldn’t even notice they were missing from his collection. But to me, they would have brought a significant price, enough money to allow me to get the hell out of the country and start a new life.
His eyes shimmering from curiosity, Dante tugged open the bag, peering inside then pouring a portion of the contents into his hand. “Opals.”
“Not just opals. Black opals. They’re considered one of the finest gems in the world, mined in only two countries.”
Dante rolled several in his palm before slipping them back into the bag, saying nothing as he moved toward a bottle of liquor on the countertop. After chuckling, he placed the bag on the counter, shoving it aside. He didn’t ask me if I wanted a drink. He simply poured two glasses, every action methodical.
“Let me try and recap what is going on. Somehow, you make your way to the jungle, a dangerous place for anyone, let alone a woman and especially at night. After that, you hitch a ride with someone you don’t know. You don’t have any identification, carrying only a military grade weapon and black opals. You claim to be Carlos Morales’ daughter, which as you might imagine seems very odd to me, but you were determined to buy your way out of the country.” He rubbed his jaw, his damn gorgeous eyes twinkling. “I have to tell you that if you think I’m that much of a goddamn fool, you’re wrong.”
I had to fight to keep from flinching as his voice increased in decibels. “I’m not lying. The opals are mined here in Brazil. My father has bags of them, all uncut and ready to be sold to the highest bidder.”
“Not unless this massive quantity of gems he supposedly has was mined several decades ago, which I find ridiculous.” He moved closer, taking his time.
When he was standing over me, a series of tremors shifted down my legs from a jolt of electricity that was so unexpected, I almost whimpered. He was much taller than I realized, vivid tattoos covering a significant portion of his arms. I reached out without thinking and when our fingers touched, my body was instantly aroused from the incredible chemistry coursing through me. My reaction was ridiculous. I couldn’t be attracted to him.
I yanked the glass from him, purposely stepping away. His scent lingered, spilling into every cell, the intoxicating fragrance all male. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that there was a single vein found in Brazil, the Boi Morto vein over twenty years ago, which was sucked dry soon after it was found. Almost one hundred percent of the opals are now found outside of Lightning Ridge, Australia. I’m not certain what kind of scam you’re trying to run with me, but I won’t tolerate a single lie.” He took a sip of his drink, his gaze slowly falling to my breasts. There was no doubt he could see my hardened nipples poking through the thin shirt.
While I was embarrassed, I refused to allow him to even get a hint that he bothered me. I was shocked how much he knew about the precious gem, but that didn’t deter me from the reason I’d brought them in the first place.
“The vein you’re talking about was just the beginning and you’re correct. It mostly dried up. There are others, although it is one of the best kept secrets harbored by the Morales family. The stones are being mined using slaves, men and women forced to endure terrible conditions within the cave walls. As if my father would care. I assure you that he’s going to use them as another method of obtaining business within the United States. Doesn’t your family have interest in the jewelry business?” I offered a sly smile before lifting my glass, dragging my tongue around the rim.
I enjoyed the fact he instantly seemed out of sorts, as if a girl knowing such information about his family was difficult for him to believe. The man had no idea what I was made of.
He would soon learn.
He burst into laughter. “Let me get this straight. You’re from the wealthiest family in the entire freaking continent of South America and you felt it necessary to walk into the jungle on the slim chance my enemy soldiers wouldn’t notice you were hanging around waiting for a ride? That’s bullshit, sweetheart.”
“Not bullshit, you asshole. Since you had your own men murdered, you obviously figured out your men betrayed you. They were working for my father. Would just a nobody have that kind of knowledge?”
“And you were privy to his operation.” Dante snorted, shaking his head, his tone one of disbelief. He obviously didn’t buy a single word I’d told him. Not that I blamed him. The entire craziness I’d pushed myself into was more than just desperation. It rang of a big fat lie.
“My father certainly doesn’t tell his only daughter about his business activities, but I learned a long time ago that information was power. I discovered various ways of finding out what he was doing.”
“Uh-huh.” Dante held his gaze for a few seconds before chuckling as he leaned against the counter. “You’re offering me what I’m guessing you’d consider rare opals in exchange for exactly what?”
It was now or never. He could be my only ticket out of here. “Allowing me to leave the country with you.”
He said nothing for a few seconds. When he laughed again, I wanted to scratch out his eyes. “You actually want me to believe you’re Carlos Morales’ daughter?”
I hadn’t anticipated that he wouldn’t believe me, at least about my identity. While there were only a few pictures of the entire family posted anywhere, he had to know every detail about his enemy. I was momentarily stunned, trying to figure out what I could say or do to prove it. “My name is Julieta Margarite Morales. I am the only daughter of Carlos Morales, a man who is intent on killing the entire King family in order to expand into the United States where he will become what he calls the rightful king.”
He shifted his drink from one hand to the other. “An interesting story and one that’s easily accessible over the internet. It’s almost as colorful as the crap you told me about the mine. As I already told you, I don’t like liars. You’re going to have to do better than that.”
“Bestia miserable,” I hissed.
“I may be a wretched beast, Julieta, but I’m holding all the cards. Let’s just say I actually buy the story of your identity. Why in the hell should I believe that a beautiful, wealthy princesa of a billion dollar family would not only want to leave her pampered world for a life in a foreign country but with one of your father’s enemies? You must think I’m a fool to buy that bullshit. I admit the tactics your father is using are certainly different than his usual methods of torture and murder; however, I don’t buy it for one second. But I certainly don’t mind providing you with a message to give him. However, I don’t think you’re going to like what I have to say or the kind of punishment I will dole out for your lack of judgment.”
Oh, my God. I’d heard the King brothers were merciless assholes, but I could see by the glint in Dante’s dark eyes that he wanted nothing more than to exact some form of retaliation in the most brutal manner. I’d never been so angry in my entire life. My heartrate immediately skyrocketed, the Spanish blood flowing through my veins giving me the courage I needed.
“You’re such a bastard, Dante. Or should I call you Mr. King? I’ve heard you aren’t a Boss or even an Underboss. You’re just a lowly son trying to make his inroad into an existing empire. How does it feel knowing that you’re never going to be the top dog, always forced to scrape off the crumbs left by your more powerful brothers?” I could tell I’d gotten under his skin by questioning his lineage as well as his powers.
He simply stared at me, his black eyes piercing mine, his strong jaw clenched. My God, the man was sexy.
But I’d been such a fool.
I moved closer with purpose, slamming the glass down on the counter. He was lucky I didn’t smash it into his face. “I rescind the offer, which would have included vital information for you and your great family to be able to keep that kingdom of yours. Fuck off.” There was no doubt I was playing with fire. I swiveled, able to grab my jacket as well as the opals before heading for the door. I had no idea what I thought I was doing, but I refused to make a deal with a snake like Dante.
“Not so fast, sweetheart.”
“Vete al infierno!” I knew that telling him to go to hell would only toss gasoline onto the flames. I didn’t give a shit. I was my father’s daughter. I refused to be treated this way.
My father had always called me as hardheaded as I was hot-blooded, taking after my Portuguese mother. Perhaps I should have thought about that before crossing a man like Dante.
Within seconds, he snapped his hand around my wrist, dragging me backward with ease. The force he used as just enough to cause me to lose my grip on the opals. As they tumbled out of my hand, the coat shifting to the floor, I issued a bellowing hiss. I managed to turn around, raking my nails down the side of his face.
For one beautiful split second, he pulled back, almost long enough for me to jerk out of his hold. But the man was too strong. He threw me against the island, but I reacted quickly, smashing my fist just under his jaw, snapping his head back by several inches.
There was a change in his eyes, so dark they burned with fire, his chiseled features becoming harder. A guttural sound unlike anything I’d ever heard pushed up from his gut. He slipped his other hand around the back of my neck, taking deep breaths as he peered down at me.
“You shouldn’t have done that, little princess.”
I gritted my teeth, pushing my hands against his massive chest. The electricity surged through me like a violent jolt of current. When he squeezed his fingers around my neck, my throat closing had little to do with his savage actions. My body was humming from the electricity surging through me, the rush of desire making it almost impossible to focus. “I’m not your freaking princess or your sweetheart.”
There was no doubt he was trying to determine what he was going to do to me. When he shoved me over the edge of the island, pressing my face against the granite counter, I couldn’t stop a series of moans from escaping. What the hell did he think he was doing?
He pressed his hard body against mine, leaning over until his hot breath skated across my skin. “I don’t take kindly to anyone disobeying my rules or defying me on any level. You crossed a line. Now, you’re going to pay.”
“What the hell does that mean?” My voice was muffled, and I continued to struggle in his hold, doing everything I could to push up from the surface.
“That means, sweet little princesa, that you’re going to be punished.”
My heart was hammering to the point the sound was echoing in my ears. I tried to think of something to say, but I was terrified at what he was going to do. When I felt my panties being ripped down from my hips, yanked to my knees, I fought his actions with everything I had. I managed to swing my arm back, slapping him in the stomach. I knew instantly the only thing the stupid decision had done was piss him off even more.
“You’re a very bad girl, aren’t you, Julieta?”
“You have no idea, but you will find out one day.”
He chuckled, the sound entirely different than before. Huskier.
I was thrown into a fog as he brought his hand down against my bottom, moving from side to side. I couldn’t fathom what was happening. There hadn’t been a single person in my life who’d dared to touch me in this manner. As he peppered several smacks against me, I remained in a state of shock.
Until the stinging sensations roared into pain crisscrossing the length of my body. “Stop. Stop, now!”
The bastard actually ground his groin across my already heated skin, leaning over once again. “You don’t have a single right to tell me what to do. Now, I am a fair man, so I’m going to offer you a choice.”
What the hell was he talking about? “What? What kind of freaking choice could a monster like you have for me?”
“You can either stop fighting me and behave like a good little girl, accepting your punishment.”
He stopped, pushing the anticipation of what he was going to say to the edge. “Or what?”
“Or… I can deliver you back to your father personally, but if I do, I’ll be the one to hand off my thoughts on his daughter’s behavior as well as allow him to know what you’d offered me.”
“No, you wouldn’t dare.”
“Yes, I think I would. Which is it going to be?”
I closed my eyes. This was an impossible position. There was no other choice and he knew it. But I made a promise to myself that he would understand my wrath as soon as I found the correct way of providing it.
“What’s your choice, princesa?”
God, the man was infuriating. “Fine. Spank me. I don’t give a shit.”
“So be it.” Without hesitation, he resumed the spanking, rapidly striking me with a solid dozen smacks, each one harder than the one before.
Almost instantly, I was lightheaded, trying to control my breathing as he continued to hold me down. I’d never been so mortified in my life. I was being spanked by a man I didn’t know, someone I’d thought would help me. I hadn’t been just desperate.
I’d been fucking stupid.
I’d always been a fighter my entire life, maybe in some ridiculous effort to find favor in my father’s eyes. This man certainly wasn’t going to get to me. Fuck him. I could take almost anything.
However, as the spanking continued, the pain turning into anguish, I realized that I wasn’t just infuriated by the harsh round of punishment. I was furious with my body’s reaction. I was wet and hot. How in the hell could that happen? Dante King wasn’t anything but a user, a man who took what he wanted without concern for anyone’s choices.
Or their life.
Vile images of what I was going to do to him when I managed to secure my knife entered my mind. I’d carve him up into pieces, feeding him to the wild boar. That made me feel better. I was even able to laugh.
Exhaling, he stopped what he was doing, tapping his fingers across my bottom. “I can see I’m not managing to provide you with a firm understanding of why I’m disciplining you.”
“Because you’re an asshole.”
I wasn’t entirely certain what he was doing.
Then I heard a sound I’d recognize anywhere. The horrible man was unfastening his belt. Oh, hell, no.
“Get off me,” I snapped.
“We have a deal, princesa. However, I’ve changed the terms.” Dante wasted no time yanking the thick strap through his belt loops, the sound unmistakable. “But if you’ve changed your mind, I’m certain I can have you home within an hour or so.”
There really was no other choice. I closed my eyes, trying to keep my composure. Dozens of memories floated into my mind as well as the recent conversation I’d had with my father, if one could call it that.
He’d brought me into his office, holding a pen in his hand, telling me to sign some papers. A contract. My own father had sold me off to the Ricardo family, trying to force me to marry a man I considered a thug. I’d never seen my father so angry when I’d refused, even calling in one of his soldiers to ensure I remained in the room.
He hadn’t expected I’d rip the contract in half.
Then he’d locked me in my room, placing guards by my door.
When the first crack of the belt slapped across my backside, I jumped, my whimper almost like a whine. I hated myself for being forced to endure something like this.
I tried to find a happy place to go to, but in truth, I wasn’t certain where that would be. I’d never been allowed to do anything that I’d wanted in my life. I’d been treated like a doll or a possession since I could remember.
You can endure this. You can do anything you set your mind to.
The whooshing sound of the belt cutting through the air brought me back to reality. I’d made a bed of thorns. There was nothing to do but retain my perseverance and resolve. And one day I would become a queen.
The strap was brought down several additional times, including smacking across the tops of my thighs. Then he abruptly stopped. The second I felt the warm caress of his finger sliding down the small of my back, brushing along the crack of my ass, I bristled.
But my pussy clenched and released, the scent of my desire wafting between us. Nothing could be anymore humiliating that allowing the man to know how turned on I was. I was sick inside, hating myself and the entire world.
Suck it up.
You aren’t attracted to him.
Dante’s breathing was labored as he continued caressing me, gently pressing the tips of his fingers across my skin as heat continued to build. The second he slipped his hand between my lips, I tensed, taking shallow breaths.
“Are you wet, Julieta?” His voice was so husky, smooth velvet sliding across my naked skin.
I almost spiraled out of control, even daring to open my legs a few inches. I had to be losing my mind to find him so attractive, his darkness cold and calculating yet more desirable than I’d expected.
A moment of reality settled in. I had to think about saving myself, getting the hell out of South America. That was my single goal. There could be no others. I clamped my legs shut, fisting and pounding my hands against the counter.
Snarling, he pulled back, releasing his hold on my hair. “I think you’ve had enough. Now, we’re going to talk.” His tone was colder than before.
I heard his footsteps as he walked away and for some crazy reason, they echoed in my ears. My body quivering, I backed away from the counter, heat remaining on both cheeks as I attempted to yank my panties back into position.
“You’re going to tell me everything you know about your father’s plans, including when and how he’ll make his attempt on my family. If you do not, you will die. If you do, then your request will be granted, with certain terms.”
“I thought we had a deal,” I huffed, finally managing to face him.
He stood like he was guiltless, swirling his drink. Damn him.
“As I stated, the terms of the deals have changed. You have five seconds to make your choice. I suggest you make the right one.”