It was supposed to be a normal day.
Get up. Drink some coffee. Go to work and walk home. Then I’d planned to end the day by pouring myself a generous glass of cabernet, cracking open a book, and reading until I fell asleep, safe and snug in my own bed.
That’s how I’d pictured it and that’s how it went—up until the walk home from work.
When I emerged from the bar after a long shift of catcalling and pretending to be interested in all the sleazy drunk guys that hit on me in hopes I’d make them a stronger drink, I was dead tired. I don’t know what it was about Thursday nights, but it sure as hell brought out the worst in people. I’d take a Friday or Saturday over a Thursday any day.
Someone whistled at me from across the street and I ignored them, not even looking in their direction or giving them the time of day as I turned down the block. My apartment was only about a fifteen-minute walk from work, but tonight it felt like forever. I looked down the street. One of the headlights above me started to flicker and once again I asked myself if it was worth it. I hustled a bit faster.
I didn’t really need the money. If I ever needed anything at all, all I had to do was swallow my pride and ask my godfather for help.
I didn’t want to do that. He’d already given me so much.
My uncle David was my only family now. He wasn’t technically blood related, but that didn’t matter. Not really. He was the one who had looked after me after my parents died back when I was fifteen. It had been a shock. No one ever expects to get a call at three in the afternoon with the news that your parents were killed in a car crash with some drunk driver.
He’d taken care of me ever since. He’d paid for me to go to a ritzy boarding school in Connecticut. He’d insisted on paying for my apartment, which I needed to be honest because rent prices in New York were absolutely ridiculous. Without him, there was no way I could afford to live anywhere near the university and for that I was grateful.
I didn’t like accepting his handouts for everything though. I got a job as soon as I turned eighteen so that I could pay for some things myself. Balancing the hours on top of my college classes was hard, but I did it anyway because that’s what I wanted. It felt so much better to earn it rather than be given it.
Sometimes I wondered if that was a redeeming quality or if it just made me stupid.
Another dude catcalled me from around the corner. I scrunched my nose in disgust but kept going. The rank scent of body odor assaulted my nose and I picked up the pace of my stride. The city was beautiful from a distance at night, but it sure as hell was an eyesore up close.
The street was littered with trash. A bunch of shops were closed. Giant metal gates blocked their entrances. Thick bars covered any visible windows, protecting the merchandise inside from whatever criminals were walking the streets after bar closing hours.
I sighed, looking up into the night sky. The stars were a little brighter tonight than usual. I could see a tiny little sliver of the moon, which didn’t cast much light down on the pavement beneath. The darkness all around me seemed especially consuming.
I moved my feet a bit faster. Only two more blocks now and then I could crack open the cabernet I’d gotten and read until I passed out. My first class wasn’t until noon tomorrow, so I was going to sleep in as late as I could.
I sighed again, imagining the beautiful deep color of those delectable grapes in my glass.
A police siren echoed somewhere in the distance. Someone’s brakes squealed and the rancid smell of burned rubber wafted from behind me. I jumped and glanced over my shoulder, cursing softly at letting such a common thing startle me.
I was on edge tonight. I really needed to get it together.
“What’s up, hot stuff? Where are you heading this late at night?” a man called out from behind me a little way. His voice was gruff and dangerous, and I did my best to ignore it. Usually, they left you alone if you didn’t respond.
I had just one more block to go. I contemplated sprinting to the front door of my building, but that would just make me an even bigger target.
“Those are some nice tight leggings. Show off your legs and that pretty ass of yours,” the man continued.
Fuck. Right. Off.
I knew better than to respond. I reached into my bag and pulled out my phone. I pretended to dial a number and held it up to my ear while my other hand sought out the small pepper spray attached to my keyring. The metal dug into my palm, but I didn’t dare loosen my grip.
The purr of an engine rumbled, revving slightly a few blocks back. I strode a bit faster, but its gentle throttle started to grow louder. I turned my head just enough to see a big black SUV rolling along the street. Alarm bells rang in my head when I realized that it was driving way more slowly than it should have been. This wasn’t someone heading home from a night at a bar. They were looking for someone.
I lifted my gaze. My building wasn’t that much farther. I lowered my head, shrugging my jacket up on my shoulders. It was big on me, but I liked it. The soft fabric liner was luxurious against my skin. I reached back and lifted the hood, hiding the long thick waves of my hair beneath it.
Should have done that earlier.
The engine’s rumble grew louder and revved again. It was much closer now. It roared suddenly and my heart leapt into my throat. In a panic, I sprinted down the block as quickly as I could.
Which was stupid, really. Human legs weren’t even remotely equipped to outrun a goddamn car.
My heels pounded into the pavement as I raced ahead. When I glanced back, the SUV was hurtling toward me. One of the doors flew open and a man jumped out, followed by another from the front seat. Instinctually, I brought up the pepper spray in an attempt to protect myself, but there was no chance to aim. In my panic, I missed, and the two men closed in on me. They were massive, both well over six foot and built like linebackers.
I was just over five feet. I sucked at push-ups. I didn’t stand a chance against them. Their arms closed around me, and I screamed, but I knew no one would come. No one gave a damn about anyone here in the city. That was pretty much a part of the New Yorker guidelines.
A massive hand slapped over my mouth, and I tried to bite it, but I couldn’t get any leverage. One of the men grunted as he forced my arms behind my back. Metal rings clapped around each wrist, and I cried out, only realizing that they were handcuffs when it was too late. I screamed again, not caring that the sound was muffled. I kicked and twisted my body hard to break away, but it did nothing. They were massive, strong, and they shoved me into the backseat of the oversized SUV with terrifyingly overwhelming ease.
My back slammed against the leather seat, and I sucked in a cry as the metal pinched at the skin of my wrists. The cuffs were too tight, and I bit my lip, knowing that they were likely to leave marks; that is, if they ever came off. I struggled to breathe regularly, trying to keep my billowing trepidation at bay. I folded my fingers together, lifted my head, and attempted to hide the way my body was shaking.
Was this it? Was this how my life was going to end?
I used those brief moments to get a handle on my surroundings. The SUV was set up like the back of a limo. There was a driver, but I couldn’t quite make out his face through the tinted divider. Two of the brutes that had captured me sat across from me.
Someone slipped a blindfold over my face, cutting off my line of vision. He cleared his throat and I blinked back tears. I didn’t want to die. This wasn’t how my life was supposed to go.
“Is she really worth it, boss? This is your last chance to back out,” one of the men murmured. He sounded rational at least. Potentially kind as far as criminals that kidnap women off the street go anyway. Maybe I could use that. At this point, I would take anything.
“This bitch? Oh, she’s going to get what’s coming to her,” another answered, but his voice was distinctly different than the first. He sounded younger, entitled somehow, and I curled my shoulders forward as I retreated as far back into the seat as I could manage.
“Why her? You’ve got all the money in the world. You could buy any woman for a night, but you choose this one?” Mr. Rational asked softly. The seat creaked as he sat down. He’d sat next to me.
“No. It must be this one. I’m going to run the family differently than my cocky arrogant piece of shit father. I want everyone to know I’m in charge and when I give an order, they will obey,” the other voice continued. He leaned toward me. I didn’t need to see him to know that his face was inches from mine.
The whiskey on his breath told me everything I needed to know.
Fingertips slid along my jaw, up toward my brow. He grabbed the blindfold and ripped it away, scratching my cheek in the process.
The overhead lights were on. I could see his face. I knew him.
He didn’t move, but it was as if he’d reached across the car and slapped me. I opened and closed my mouth, wanting to say something but nothing came out.
To this day, I remembered the feeling of his harsh grasp on my arm like it was branded into my flesh. The thought of it made my skin crawl.
He and I had gone to the same boarding school. I hadn’t known who he was until my senior year. He’d always struck me as some sort of arrogant asshole, but I stayed out of his way and mostly under the radar, or so I thought I had anyway.
Our high school had been ritzy. All the students were ridiculously rich, the kind of trust fund rich that meant they’d probably never have to work a day in their lives. Everyone went out to lunch at fancy restaurants every day except for me. I hid behind the school and ate my bagged lunch, too embarrassed to let anyone see the sad state of my ham and cheese on wheat bread. He’d noticed though.
I remembered that day like it was yesterday. It was my senior year, about a week after my eighteenth birthday when he’d come for me.
I’d had my headphones in my ears, so I hadn’t heard him coming. Before I even knew what was happening, his fingers had wrapped around my wrist, and he’d thrown me back against a wall. Immediately, his body had surrounded mine, pressing me back against the brick and cutting off any avenue of escape.
He’d torn the headphones from my ears, his forearm practically shoved against my neck, while his other hand pawed at my breasts.
“Look at you, hiding back here like some common whore, waiting for a man like me to come and take you and give you exactly what you deserve,” he growled.
“Get off of me,” I seethed. “You’ve got no right.”
“I have every right. Do you even know who I am, Ava Richardson? Because I know everything about you,” he retorted. His fingers curled around the collar of my white shirt, and he ripped it right open, exposing the cheap cotton bra I was wearing beneath.
“Let go of me, Tony. I’ll scream,” I replied furiously. I knew he hated the name Tony. He’d always corrected every teacher who had the audacity to call him that nickname. It made him seem like one of the most pompous dickheads in the whole school.
“I’ll do more than make you scream,” he replied, and I snarled with anger. I twisted my body hard and brought my leg up, kneeing him in the balls with a ferocity that I was still proud of to this day. He’d crumpled with a high squealing cry, and I’d pushed him aside to the ground, making my escape as quickly as I could. I ran back to my dorm and didn’t come out again that day. The next morning, I rearranged my schedule to avoid any classes with him. I started hiding out in the library for lunch and after classes ended, I would make sure to tail groups of girls on their way back to the dorms.
It worked. Or at least I’d thought it had until now.
I stared into those cold brown eyes, seeing that he hadn’t lost any bit of the arrogant entitlement that I remembered. He still stared at me like I owed him something, like he was better than me just because he’d grown up in the embrace of his parents’ success.
“She’s just a girl, boss,” the logical one continued.
“No, she’s not, Jon,” Anthony replied, and I swallowed.
“What do you want?” I managed.
“All those years ago, you got it in your pretty head that you could say no to a man like me, but now everything has fallen into place for me, it’s well past due that I finally take what I deserve,” he spat.
“Are you going to kill me?” I asked softly.
“Maybe. I haven’t decided. Maybe after I fuck you raw and bloody, I’ll give you to Jon over there to enjoy my sloppy seconds,” he mused.
“People will notice that I’m missing. You can’t just kidnap me, rape me, and kill me while expecting to get away with it,” I scoffed.
“You still don’t know who I am, do you?” he smirked. My stomach pitched forward at the evil gleam in his gaze. I was out of my depth, and he knew it.
“You’re Anthony Montagna. You’re rich. I know,” I retorted, and he chuckled, the sound chilling me to the bone.
“I’m rich, sure, but that isn’t even a tenth of it. I am the most powerful man in the city. When I tell someone to jump, they jump. If I command them to run, they run, and if I decide someone needs killing, it’s simply a matter of time until they’re nothing more than a corpse,” he answered.
“What do you mean?” I asked, my voice shaking.
“You denied me, Ava, and that demands an answer. I am going to truly enjoy your screams for mercy when I finally teach you what happens when you say no to a kingpin,” he continued.
Jesus Christ. He was part of the mafia.
“I don’t know why my father protected you in the past. I would have come for you long ago if not for him, but he’s dead now. Pissed off some lower turf gangsters in Brooklyn and caught a bullet between the eyes for his trouble. Now it’s just me and I intend to rule the city differently than he did. I’m going to change the way things are done around here, and I’m going to start with you,” he declared, and a tiny, strangled cry flew from my mouth. I slapped my lips together to try to cover it up, but I knew he’d heard it from the look of deranged glee that passed over his face.
Anthony’s phone rang and he turned his head. A hand brushed against my thigh, and I jerked away. It was Jon and I glanced up at him with suspicion. His eyes were a deep mahogany but speckled with lighter flecks of green and hazel. They were hard, but there was a kindness in their depths that I hadn’t noticed before. His nose was angled like it had been broken once before. Several days of beard growth shadowed his chin, giving him a slightly more dangerous aura, but something told me that I would be safe with him.
He held up a single finger to his lips, flashing what looked like a small metal key in the other. He beckoned for me to turn around and it took me a moment to catch onto his meaning. I turned my body just a little and he reached behind my back. I don’t know how he did it, but he slid the key in the lock. Each cuff loosened, just enough to release the pinching ache of the metal. I shimmied my hands, realizing that if I wanted, I could be free of them.
His finger circled again. I glanced at him with distrust, but he didn’t say a word. He looked at me with a sort of sadness, and maybe a hint of regret. I searched his gaze and it softened substantially, enough for me to trust him the tiniest bit.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I turned my back to the seat once again. I caught Jon’s eyes again. I wasn’t exactly sure of his position in the mob, but I’d seen The Godfather a few times growing up. It was one of my dad’s favorite movies.
I knew the basic power structure of a mob family. There was a boss who was the final word on everything. He was typically advised by a consigliere, but in the end, he made the decisions he saw fit. Jon was either his consigliere or the underboss, but I wasn’t sure which yet.
It was clear to me that the men who grabbed me were nothing more than oversized brutes, soldiers in Anthony’s mafia army that obeyed his every order, no matter how ridiculous or violent it may be. They hadn’t said a word this whole time.
The SUV rolled to a stop at a red light. The engine idled, a soft rumbling that vibrated the seats beneath me. Jon reached over me, and I scooted away, watching as he grabbed something from the door. It was a cell phone. It pinged softly. He glanced down and the screen lit up his face.
“Is the penthouse ready for me?” Anthony asked in annoyance.
“Definitely. They just wanted to know whether you’d like the Rolls Royce or the Lamborghini during your stay,” Jon mumbled.
“The Rolls. Definitely. I’ll want to celebrate after I finish with this mess and nothing says old money and power like that one,” Anthony grinned, and he leveled his glare at me.
He stared at me like I was nothing more than the dirt beneath his shoes. His eyes dragged up and down my body, likely imagining me naked and I nearly gagged with disgust.
I wanted to gouge his eyes out.
I turned away, not wanting to see any more. The light changed to green, and I glanced in Jon’s direction. Over his shoulder was a pair of ridiculously bright headlights and I fearfully realized they were getting closer. They had a red light. They were supposed to be stopping.
But they didn’t.
Before I could yell and warn everyone, Jon threw his body over mine, pinning me against the seat. The headlights grew overwhelmingly bright. Brakes screeched and the hot squeal of rubber on asphalt screamed frightfully loud, searing into my memory. The entire SUV jolted hard. The front of the car spun, hurtling off in the direction of a telephone pole.
Time seemed to slow as I watched that single wooden pole come careening toward us. One of the men cried out in pain. Another with panic. Time froze at the moment of impact. Glass shattered noisily and lights spun. Anthony’s body jolted to the side and his head slammed into the doorframe. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he slumped forward, knocked clean out.
He hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt.
Jon’s body was heavy against mine and it was at that moment I realized that he’d gripped the interior of the car all around me. He’d used his body to hold me in place, almost like he’d known the crash was about to happen.
He grabbed the door and wrenched it open, grunting as he pulled back.
“There isn’t time. Run. Find somewhere safe to hide,” he commanded fiercely, and I paused for a fraction of a second before I took advantage of the situation. I wasted no time in slipping my hands free from the metal cuffs, tossing them on the ground outside as I stumbled out of the car. My ankle twisted, but I ignored the soreness as I lurched forward and took advantage of the chaos that reigned.
I took stock of my body as I sprinted down the street. I wasn’t hurt. Sure, I’d probably be sore in the morning, but Jon had taken the brunt of the impact. His arm had kept my head still. His chest had pinned me against the seat. He’d done that before the car had hit us. He’d known. There was no way he hadn’t.
I sprinted along the dark streets; veering left into Central Park. There were streetlamps still lighting the area, but it was easy to avoid their light.
Powered by fear and panicked adrenaline, I dashed through the night. I fought back tears. There wasn’t time for that. I just needed to get out of here before Anthony woke up and realized I was gone.
I wasn’t just running from him now though. I choked back a sob as I realized that I was now on the run from the mafia. I didn’t know how long I had, but they’d be looking for me. The crash had been bad, but not bad enough to kill anyone, at least not from what I’d seen.
Anthony hadn’t hit his head on the door hard enough to die.
He’d wake up. I didn’t know when or how long he’d be out for, but even I knew that the mafia had enough money and connections to find me wherever I went. I could go to my uncle, but that would put him in danger too. I couldn’t go home. They’d known where I worked. It wasn’t crazy to guess they’d know where I lived.
It was well after two in the morning now.
I had my cash tips in my pocket, but that wouldn’t be enough to get me into a hotel. There wasn’t a place in New York that would let a guest check in without a credit card and using one of my own would alert anyone who was already looking for me.
I might as well stand up at the top of a building and scream out my location.
A flickering neon light caught my attention. All the restaurants and shops on the street were closed, save for one.
I dashed toward it, not really caring what it was. I just needed a place to sit down, catch my breath, and figure out my next move.
I didn’t even realize it was a small Italian restaurant until I pushed open the door. From the outside, it looked a little sleazy and maybe a bit run down, but inside there was an understated elegance that spoke to an owner who cared about his business.
I slipped into a booth away from the front windows and sighed. I pressed my hands against my face, hiding from reality for a few blissful moments before I tried to figure out where I was.
I stared at the floor, losing myself in the swirling grains of stained hardwood. They were swept clean. Each of the tables was covered in pristinely white tablecloths. The booths were upholstered in an elegant burgundy leather. The walls were brick and the lighting was dim throughout the restaurant, but it gave it a more romantic candlelit touch. Overall, the homey atmosphere made me feel even more at ease.
My stomach rumbled when I relaxed and took in a deep breath. The aroma of sauce and bread and spices wrapped around me like a warm hug, and I jumped when a man approached the table. He slipped a menu in front of me, and I gazed back at him warily as he placed a glass of water on the table.
I glanced down and quickly ordered the first thing I saw.
“Can I have two slices of pizza?” I asked quickly.
“Any toppings?” he asked. He hadn’t taken out a pad of paper or anything.
“Whatever you have in the back. I’m not picky,” I smiled tightly.
“Got it. I’ll be right back with that,” he replied.
When he walked away, I bit my lip and pressed my fingers against the table to stop them from trembling. I needed to think and figure out my next move.
This wasn’t the movies. There was no one I could go to who would rescue me. I trusted my uncle, but there was no way to get in contact with him without revealing myself. From what I knew, he was conducting business somewhere in Europe and wasn’t due back for weeks.
I couldn’t go home. Going back to campus was out of the question too. I didn’t know if the police would help either. He hadn’t actually hurt me yet.
I was going to have to figure out something.
The waiter came back with two big slices of pizza and a glass of red wine. He slipped it in front of me and I peered back at him in confusion.
“I didn’t order the wine,” I protested, and he shook his head.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s on the house,” he said quickly.
I opened and closed my lips. I should say I didn’t want it. I should send it back, but the problem was that my nerves were frayed to pieces, and a glass of wine felt like something of a godsend.
“Really?” I asked quietly.
“Yeah. You look like you could use it tonight,” he smiled warmly, and I reached forward and took a sip. Hints of blackberry, plum, and black cherry burst across my tongue, and next came nuances of chocolate and black pepper, followed with a smoky finish.
It was a fine glass of Malbec. A very fine one.
From the taste alone, I knew it wasn’t a simple house wine, but an expensive bottle. I lifted my head to question the waiter, but he’d disappeared into the back somewhere.
I took another hesitant sip, trying to relax despite the panic unfurling inside of me. My stomach growled again, and I took a bite of one of the slices of pizza. Every ingredient came together in a delicious combination that spoke to impeccable sources. The sauce had a hint of sweetness, but the homemade taste of garlic, salt, and fresh tomatoes shone through. The spices seemed simple. The crust was crisp, but soft inside and the cheese was real mozzarella.
I chewed thoughtfully, sitting back as I tried to work through what kind of options I had.
Something flashed in the corner of the restaurant, and I cried out, startled. I slapped my hand over my mouth.
There was a man sitting in the corner. His watch had caught the light.
I took a breath and drew my hand away from my mouth, trying to act like I was totally normal and definitely not losing my shit.
He was kind of ominous, really. The kind of man that even mobsters would run away from. Even though he was sitting down, I could tell he was enormous. I couldn’t make out the details, but his arms were covered in tattoos. Each one seemed to accentuate the taut firmness of his muscles. His biceps flexed. I was found myself momentarily distracted by the stark blue of his gaze. It almost felt like it was unnatural for a second, but I looked away, thinking I was probably suffering from post-traumatic stress and had potentially just gone insane.
I took another bite of pizza and chewed in silence, feigning calmness and normalcy as best I could.
When I glanced back up, he was watching me. When my gaze caught his, he didn’t turn away.
His jawline was covered in a thick beard, but it was well groomed and trimmed around the shape of his face. His eyes were indeed blue, and they sparkled like gemstones, catching the dim light just right.
I chewed the inside of my cheek. His presence in the room felt overwhelmingly consuming and I swallowed hard, trying desperately not to let him get the best of me. I dropped my gaze, studying the way his black t-shirt hugged his torso. A pair of shined leather shoes peeked out from underneath the tablecloth. I wasn’t certain, but he appeared to have on a dark pair of blue jeans.
He was huge, the type of big that rich celebrities hired as bodyguards. In silence, he cocked his head to the side, studying me intently. I expected him to say something, to maybe harass me about being a single woman out on the streets in the middle of the night, but he said nothing.
Fuck. What if he was on Anthony’s payroll too?
I needed to get out of here and fast. I had enough money to buy a train ticket at least. I just had to move.
I pushed my palms against the table and got up, nearly tipping over the wine in the process. With a surprised gasp, I caught it before it spilled everywhere. I reached into my pocket and fished out a twenty, when the man in the corner cleared his throat.
“I’m not sure who you’re running from, but whoever is coming after you won’t bother you here. You can take your time and finish your meal before you sit down with me and tell me your story,” he said.
The gentle rumble of his voice made my heart pound in my chest. It was like a quiet soothing growl that reverberated deep inside my bones. The kind of voice that I’d always attributed to the swoon-worthy men in all the books I read, be it a swashbuckling pirate, sexy duke, or fearless obsessive mobster who would do anything for the women they love.
The kind of voice that made your panties melt almost instantaneously.
Fuck. I’d really lost it.
I stood there and lifted my chin just enough to catch his hard stare. I glanced from him to the door, trying to guess how long it would take me to sprint from my seat and make it all the way to the door.